Angel: if there were a place we know nothing of…

Paula Modersohn-Becker

Rainer Marie Rilke (by: Paula Modersohn-Becker)

Learning a new language is a funny thing. In our native language we tend to swallow words whole; giving little or no thought to their etymological source. But when you learn a foreign language – syllable by syllable – you savour each vowel, each consonant, as though it were the seed of a fruit from some exotic tree.

Maybe I made an unpopular choice when I decided to learn German. So many people I knew opted for either French (the classic choice) or Spanish (the practical choice), while I followed my heart and my familial leanings. A close family friend – a sort of ‘play-son’ for my grandparents – was married to a German woman, and when his wife and children came to the States I quickly found myself learning rudimentary German right along with the kids. It was something that made perfect sense to me, just as much as – later – taking German as a foreign language in school.

As it turns out, my mouth and tongue were much more comfortable making German vowel and consonant sounds than they were with their French counterparts. Where my tongue feels as though it were maneuvering itself into a self-imposed guillotine whenever I try to speak French (and I lived in France for a year, so I know), with a little practice German sounds rolled out of my mouth as though I had been born speaking them. Even the dreaded “-ch” was no problem once I had actually traveled to Germany and realized most people (esp. in the South) don’t pronounce it like that anyway.

Still, where poetry or lyrics were concerned, for a long time I found German to be a boxy and unwieldy language. It just seemed to take so long to say something you could express in half the time – and with half the words – in English. It wasn’t just the abundance of letters and sounds in comparison to English that made the language seem so bulky. English-language songs and poems seemed full of witty, succinct double entendre, while German seemed to just plod along – clumsy, overt and plain.

Don’t get me wrong, I quickly came to appreciate the content of songs by the likes of Hannes Wader or Klaus Hoffmann, but the meaning behind their lyrics went to my gut by way of my brain, not the other way around.

As far as poetry was concerned, there was a memorable exception, however.

Rainer Maria Rilke has – from the beginning – been someone who broke through all my stereotypes of German as a stiff and unmalleable language. If anything, his use of the language seems to weave a rich, almost brocade-like texture of sound that – to this day – still fascinates and intoxicates me.

Anecdote: While I was studying literary criticism at the Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, I took a poetry course. One day, the lecturer wrote a poem on the board, and gave us the first part of the  hour to research who had written this poem. I read it over a few times, raised my hand, and said: It’s Rainer Maria Rilke and he must have written it between 1916 and 1918.

Remember now, I am not only the only foreigner, but also the only non-white person in the class. To say the lecturer was at a loss for words would be an understatement. She asked me where I had seen the poem before. I answered her honestly: I had never seen that particular poem before. But – as part of my habit of reading German literature out loud, I had developed an uncanny knack for identifying certain authors solely based on their cadence and use of the language. As far as I was concerned, that could only be Rilke.

I have many ‘favorite’ Rilke poems, but there is one that goes back to the time before I came back to Europe. Somewhere I bought, among other things, a copy of his famous “Duino Elegies” in both German and English. This wis how it went – After school I would make my almost daily pilgrimage to our local Wawa market. There I would buy Jarlsberg cheese, rye bread and blueberry joghurt. Once I’d finish my German-style evening meal (“Abendbrot), I would take out one of my German books. As was my habit – I proceeded to read out loud.

At that time my grasp of the German language was comparatively meager. I was certainly not up to the task of reading – and comprehending – someone with as much linguistic finesse and gusto as Rilke! Still…the power of his words – of his syntax and cadence – pierced through my learner’s shell and resonates deep within me. And still does!


(…)Engel!: Es wäre ein Platz, den wir nicht wissen, und dorten
auf unsäglichem Teppich, zeigten die Liebenden, die’s hier
bis zum Können nie bringen, ihre kühnen
hohen Figuren des Herzschwungs,
ihre Türme aus Lust, ihre
längst, wo Boden nie war, nur an einander
lehnenden Leitern, bebend, – und könntens,
vor den Zuschauern rings, unzähligen lautlosen Toten:
Würfen die dann ihre letzten, immer ersparten,
immer verborgenen, die wir nicht kennen, ewig
gültigen Münzen des Glücks vor das endlich
wahrhaft lächelnde Paar auf gestilltem


(…)Angel: if there were a place we know nothing of, and there,
on some unsayable carpet, lovers revealed
what here they could never master, their high daring
figures of heart’s flight,
their towers of desire, their ladders,
long since standing where there was no ground, leaning,
trembling, on each other – and mastered them,
in front of the circle of watchers, the countless, soundless dead:
Would these not fling their last, ever-saved,
ever-hidden, unknown to us, eternally
valid coins of happiness in front of the finally
truly smiling pair on the silent



  1. Dina said,

    July 19, 2009 at 2:19 am

    WOW, that’s impressive!! I hope that I can develop a knack for German in that manner…I still have a hard time understanding sentence structure, to be honest. I can understand sentence structure in French, no problem! But in German, I’m at a loss when it comes to that and I have yet to find any good sources on sentence structure in German. So my German is reduced to a lot of grunting, pointing, and words strewn together in an order that makes sense in English, but not in German. :ol

    These days, I’d argue that German and even French are more practical, depending on your field, in the US. I worked on the business side of finance and also worked in law for some time and for those industries, (my limited) German and fluent French were an asset to my resume. I studied Spanish for eight years, but just left it off of my resume once I entered finance and law.

    Spanish was not, as most of our business was done with partners in France, Germany, and even Russia (as well as India, China, Japan, and England). I do however believe that Spanish, in the US, is beneficial for positions in which you will interface with residents who are unlikely to speak English…particularly in customer service oriented positions (and that includes physicians, retail bank tellers, and the like).

    Also, if you’re in an industry in which you’re likely to do a lot of business in South/Central America.

    Strangely enough, the business we did in South America was usually in Brazil (mergers and acquisitions), so Portuguese was necessary for those deals.

    I’m so impressed that you’re so fluent in German that you can even identify poets just by cadence and style! It gives me hope that it is possible to develop fluency in German as an English speaker.

    • caratime2 said,

      July 20, 2009 at 10:30 am

      I always thought German sentence structure was easy: Usually you just need to slam the verb at the very end. My problem is – when I am talking – I sometimes forget where I am going with the sentence and don’t remember what verb I need to use! 🙂

      I have trouble with French ‘phantom pronunciation’. In German WYSIWYG as far as pronunciation is concerned. In French you simply don’t know what they’re going for. It was difficult for me to remember how to spell things for that reason, too. Let’s not even get into all the diacritical marks….

  2. Alice Hayle said,

    November 28, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I stumbled upon this article by complete chance. I read this and could not help but admire you! As a fourteen year old English girl dreaming of studying English Literature at university, I too, would one day like to be able to be so familiar with literary greats that I can identify the poet just by the flow of his pen to the paper and the words he places there.

    • Trina said,

      November 28, 2011 at 10:36 pm


      It’s been such a long time since I kept up this blog that your comment came as quite a surprise. Thank you for reminding me of this post, which portrays such a poignant memory. I still read Rilke from time to time, and was just this week listening to a podcast about his writing.

      All the best to you!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: