Rilke’s ‘God in the Middle Ages’

For me, Rilke’s poetry contains the perfect measures of the mystical, the melancholy, and the lyrical – some are frustrating and elusive, filled with grotesque and bizarre images, and others are beautiful and joyful and not out of place in a wedding service (I hope).

They are all arresting, but this sonnet forced me to stop, re-read the last five lines, and then read the whole thing again from the beginning. There is something fresh and fascinating about the strangeness of God, and the idea of binding Him to the earth with our conceptions – of needing to first control Him before submitting to His control – and the inevitable outcome of that process. It’s weird, absurd, and brilliant. (And not the wedding poem in question).


‘God in the Middle Ages’

And they had saved Him up inside themselves,
wanting Him to be, to regulate,
then (to slow His ascent) hung on Him
as hindrances of last resort, like weights,

the massed loading of their great cathedrals’
stone burden. And it was for Him,
above His boundless numbers, just to circle
and point and provide signs for them, to guide

clock-like the doings of their working days.
But without warning He was in His stride,
and the people of the shocked city,

fearful at His voice, let Him pass
and saw His heavy clockwork hang free
and fled before the dial of His face.


(translated by Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland) Rilke: Selected Poems (Oxford Classics) is the best collection I’ve read.

Image of Rilke courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Image of Rilke courtesy of Wiki Commons.