(No.66 of my favourite short poems)
This labouring of ours with all that remains undone,
as if still bound to it,
is like the lumbering gait of the swan.
And then our dying—releasing ourselves
from the very ground on which we stood—
is like the way he hesitantly lowers himself
into the water. It gently receives him,
and, gladly yielding, flows back beneath him,
as wave follows wave,
while he, now wholly serene and sure,
with regal composure,
allows himself to glide.
By RAINER MARIA RILKE
… Translation from the German by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows
I have previously commented on one of Rilke’s poem ‘The Panther’ (q.v.). In this poem, The Swan’, Rilke connects the awkward way the swan has of moving on land with its smooth, gliding motions as soon as it enters the water. It is then, with forthright simile, he references the move for the swan, as for we human beings, from the uncertainties and incomplete nature of our lives to a calm acceptance of death. This seems to me to present a positive view of what death can bring, with the release from earthly tensions into the calm and sure serenity of the after life.