No-one does Advent better than the Germans. The Leo German dictionary usually has an excellent online advent calendar (in German, with poems and pictures for every day). So who better, I thought, to start Advent, than the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke? He was born and died in Advent (4.12.1875-29.12.1926), and published a whole poetry collection entitled Advent (1898). Stephen Mitchell, who also translated the book of Genesis, the Tao and the Bhagavad Gita, has won particular praise for translating Rilke afresh.
Yet I couldn’t find a decent English translation of this much-loved Advent poem of Rilke’s:
Es treibt der Wind im Winterwalde
Die Flockenherde wie ein Hirt,
Und manche Tanne ahnt, wie balde
Sie fromm und lichterheilig wird,
und lauscht hinaus. Den weißen Wegen
streckt sie die Zweige hin – bereit
und wehrt dem Wind und wächst entgegen
Der einen Nacht der Herrlichkeit.
There are attempts out there, including a whole forum thread on the Rilke website, but none of them feel finished.
Here’s my fairly literal translation, to give non-German speakers an idea of the poem. I’d be interested to argue about word choices and see other people’s versions… we’ve got 24 days of Advent to come up with a decent one.
In the winter forest the wind drives
the flock of snowflakes like a shepherd,
And a fir tree senses how soon
she will be blessed with candle-light,
and strains to hear. She shelters
the white ways with her branches – ready
to resist the wind, reaching towards
the one Holy Night.