Firstly, of course, there are the ethereal, eye-catching, and intensely colorful effects that light creates on both our physical senses and our emotional cognition. Shadows and softness falling all around alter not just how the physical world appears to us, but also our corresponding emotional responses to it.
Then, there’s the signaling of a day ending, of a change in rhythms as almost everywhere the world over, we set aside one part of our lives to turn to another. The setting sun can be a glorious climax to a fruitful day or it can be a welcome respite to a tiring, difficult one.
Finally, and, perhaps, most importantly, there is the strong religious belief in sunlight as a life-force. Consider that, according to the Bible, the process of creation began with light: “And God said, let there be light, and there was light. And, God saw the light, and it was good, and God divided the light from the darkness.” Many ancient cultures not only worshiped the sun but created entire mythologies around it. These have endured and, in turn, have given a mystical aspect to the in-between times when the sun rises or sets — between day and night, between light and dark, between being awake and being asleep — that make it almost magical. In fact, in ancient cultures, both sunrise and sunset were considered times when magic was at its most potent because the membranes between the earthly and other worlds were more permeable then and visitors could travel between worlds at such times with greater ease.
Given this popularity, only artists with more superior skills are able to find new and interesting ways to present the setting sun. Even then, they often attempt to do so many times as they are not easily satisfied with their own works. Monet, for example, painted many sunsets in different ways and in different places.
In prose and verse, sunsets are pictures painted with words such that they engage the reader’s senses while communicating specific moods and themes. Today’s poem by Rilke is one such. It first appeared in his second book of poems titled ‘Das Buch der Bilder’ or ‘The Book of Pictures’ (as translated by Robert Bly). It can be found in the ‘Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke‘ — a must-have collection for all Rilke fans.
Rilke, born in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, is considered one of Germany’s finest poets (although, more than 400 of his poems were in French). Despite a difficult life (unhappy childhood, forced military service, poor health), he was a prolific writer of poetry, prose, letters, and essays. His ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ is still an inspiration to writers across the world today. His works are quoted so extensively in popular culture — songs, movies, books, etc. — that many don’t even know the original source anymore.
Rilke’s poems were ground-breaking as they were part of the early modern poetry movement, although he wasn’t considered a traditionalist or a modernist — rather, somewhere in between. I imagine he preferred this undefinable style, given how he viewed life, as you will see from this poem. In terms of themes, he was a deep existentialist, which, again, the poem shows. Influenced both by his extensive travels across Europe and his early introduction to other art forms like sculpture, through Rodin, and painting, through Cézanne, he honed his skills of observation carefully. One popular story is that, when he was living in Paris in his mid-twenties, working sometimes as Rodin’s secretary, he was encouraged by the sculptor to observe animals at the zoo, to learn how to pay closer attention to the physical external world and trust his physical senses, must as a visual artist needs to. He readily took the advice and it stood him in good stead, making him, eventually, a master of poetic imagery.
Onto the poem, then. Rilke starts with a visually-alive image of the Western sky slowly changing color. And, rather than describe the many, intense colors as some poets might have done, he simply begins with how the sky “reaches for clothes of new colors”. An unexpected action descriptor rather than a passive one with florid prose, so it catches our attention immediately. He continues the action sequence by describing how it then passes these colorful clothes to a row of trees. Low sunlight from a setting sun filtering through trees — another common image seen almost daily is given a fresh perspective. This first verse captures both our visual imagination and, with the unexpected, our intellectual one.
Next, instead of continuing with painting the image in more visually descriptive or even action-oriented words, he uses it as the foundation on which to build the rest of the poem. He now calls our attention to the horizon by describing it as the separation of heaven and earth. This separation takes on two meanings — a separation of the two worlds from each other, but also from us — so that we belong to neither one of those worlds entirely. We are not of the dark, silent earth, standing alone, or of the eternal and faithfully unswerving. We are somewhere in between, especially at this particular hour. So, we see how Rilke has used the sunset as a clever image and symbol to bring us to the theme of separation and the question of where we, as human beings actually belong.
His last verse continues with that question of belonging. He refuses to define our human being-ness by either of the two polarities. “Impossible to untangle the threads”, he says, suggesting that the two worlds are, of course, intertwined and connected throughout our lives. This, then, is the paradox of living: “timid and standing high”. We are both frail and strong, of the earth and of the heavens. We live in both worlds by existing in an intermediate one that sometimes blocks us in and sometimes lets us reach out. So that the experience of life can be, in the same moment, like a stone inside us, weighing us down to earth, or like a star, raising us to the heavens. With the last two lines, we finally get to what the poet wants to convey: what it is to be truly human. How it is not about being one thing versus another but about being both light and dark, heaven and earth, strength and weakness, reaching and being held back — all at the same time. Yes, let those thoughts breathe for a few moments.
Slowly the west reaches for clothes of new colors
which it passes to a row of ancient trees.
You look, and soon these two worlds both leave you
one part climbs toward heaven, one sinks to earth.
leaving you, not really belonging to either,
not so hopelessly dark as that house that is silent,
not so unswervingly given to the eternal as that thing
that turns to a star each night and climbs–
leaving you (it is impossible to untangle the threads)
your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
so that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
one moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.
– Rainer Maria Rilke, from Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke