Day in Autumn
By Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Mary Kinzie
After the summer's yield, Lord, it is time
to let your shadow lengthen on the sundials
and in the pastures let the rough winds fly.
As for the final fruits, coax them to roundness.
Direct on them two days of warmer light
to hale them golden toward their term, and harry
the last few drops of sweetness through the wine.
Whoever's homeless now, will build no shelter;
who lives alone will live indefinitely so,
waking up to read a little, draft long letters,
and, along the city's avenues,
fitfully wander, when the wild leaves loosen.
So many poems are written about the change in seasons. You’d think we’d be used to these transitions by now—that we’d have adapted to barely register summer turning into fall. But somehow, when the cold tinge undercuts the air in early fall, the leaves surrender their green to red and then brown, and then all together, I find myself as awed as I was last year and the year before. And I am glad of this.
I thank God that in this season of gathering darkness, that there’s still enough spring innocence & summer ignorance remaining me that autumn’s changes feel fresh and provocative.
My neighbor and I remark upon the neon-tinted maple tree across the street as we leave for work in my morning. I think of my mother’s dogs scattering piles of raked-up leaves. I notice my mood changing as the nights gain precedence over day. Like Rilke, I ask God for another “two days of warmer light”—for more time to prepare for the long stretch of dark I’d almost forgot was coming.
Interesting in this poem is the play on the word “yield” that occurs in the first line: the poet simultaneously commemorates “the summer’s yield”—its fruitful harvest—and asks (even demands) that the Lord “yield”—give way, “let your shadows lengthen on the sundials.”
I’d like to read this double-meaning as an acknowledgement of our human participation in God’s activity. Just as the seasons remind us of time’s passage, the poet must remind God of time: “it is time,” he says, for us to feel you in “your shadow”; “let the rough winds fly.” Likewise, we will love the “roundness” of the “final fruits” as we never could back when they were not scarce. Our perceptions of nature, of God, of ourselves, change as the seasons do. Autumn requires surrender or “yielding”—and Rilke asks that God, too, surrender to the change.
Autumn is not the time for building new things—even shelter—but reminds us of who we are, and often, what we lack. “Whoever’s homeless now, will build no shelter”: these are desolate words, and we should not take them lightly, either as metaphor for desolation, or as the literal lived-truth for all those who do not have shelter in the winter months. My faith tells me, though, that God is present even in absence—the “shadow” cast because God is present between the light and me.
This autumn, we will “draft long letters” in the hope of easing our loneliness, and “fitfully wander” when we wake during the long night. We will turn inward, rather than grabbing the fruits of the land to build with. What we took for granted in summer—life blooming all around us—nature no longer shows as flowers. Instead, we look within, “read a little” and find small ways of being content in our restlessness as we wait out the colder seasons. Trusting that winter will yield to spring. The long letters we write may even be to God.