By RANIER MARIA RILKE.
Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke von Langenau1
Translated by Harry Guest.
“…den 24. November 1663 wurde Otto von Rilke / auf Langenau / Gränitz und Ziegra / zu Linda mit seines in Ungarn gefallenen Bruders Christoph hinterlassenem Anteile am Gute Linda beliehen; doch mußte er einen Revers ausstellen / nach welchem die Lehensreichung null und nichtig sein sollte / im Falle sein Bruder Christoph (der nach beigebrachtem Totenschein als Cornet in der Kompagnie des Freiherrn von Pirovano des kaiserl. österr. Heysterschen Regiments zu Roß. . . . verstorben war) zurückkehrt…”
THE LAY OF LOVE AND DEATH OF CORNET CHRISTOPH RILKE VON LANGENAU
Riding, riding, riding, through the day, through the night, through the day.
Riding, riding, riding.
And courage is so exhausted while longing remains so strong. There are no hills now, hardly even a tree. Nothing risks standing up. Strange huts squat thirstily near a marsh for water. There’s not a tower to be seen anywhere. Always the view’s the same. We have two eyes, too many. Only at night sometimes can anyone know where we’re going. Do we perhaps ride back in the dark to the same bit of land we fought so hard to win under a strange sun? That could be true. The sun’s strong here, the way it is at home in the depth of summer. It was summertime when we left. The clothes women wore shone in green fields. We’ve been riding for so long. It must be autumn. At least there the women know about us and are sad.
Von Langenau turned in his saddle and said “Herr Marquis. . .”
For three days now the slim little Frenchman beside him has never stopped chattering and laughing. Now he doesn’t know what to say. He’s like a child who’d like to sleep. There’s dust on his white lace collar. He doesn’t notice it. He’d only like to sink down slowly in his velvet saddle.
But Von Langenau smiles and says “You don’t seem to see very well, Herr Marquis. Surely for your mother you’d be looking more like ̶ “
That makes the little Frenchman bloom once more. He shakes the dust from his lace collar and looks like new and ready for anything.
Each soldier talks about his mother. One of the Germans isn’t at all shy about it. He brings his words out slowly, clearly. Like a girl arranging a bouquet, testing flower by flower so thoughtfully, not really knowing what they’ll look like as a whole. He’s fitting his words together like that. In pleasure? In sorrow? They all keep listening. Even the spitting stops. Because, like him, they enjoy hearing themselves talk. And anyone in the crowd who can’t speak German still can still catch the odd phrase: “One evening . . .” “When I was little . . .”
They’re all near each other now, soldiers coming from France and Burgundy, from the Netherlands, from out of the valleys of Carinthia, from Bohemian castles, from the Emperor Leopold himself. They all know what he’s talking about. It’s almost as though there’s only one mother. . .
So they ride away into the evening, into any evening. They say nothing but then they’ve brought lucid words with them. Then the Marquis takes off his helmet. His dark hair is soft and, as he lowers his head, it falls on to his neck the way a girl’s would. Now Von Langenau understands something: a long way away, standing out, a radiance, something slender, something shadowy. A lonely statue, half decayed. And long after, much later, it occurs to him that it was a Madonna.
Watchfire. They all sit around and wait. Wait, hoping someone will sing. But they’re all so tired. The reddish light is harsh. It reaches the dusty shoes. Creeps to the knees, peers into folded hands. However it doesn’t have wings. Faces stay dark. Even so, the eyes of the little Frenchman light up for a moment with a same kind of glow. He’s kissed a small rose then put it back to wither against his chest. Von Langenau saw him do that because he can’t seem to fall asleep. He thinks: I don’t have a rose, not one.
Then he begins to sing. And it’s an old sad song that girls back at home sing in the fields, in autumn, when the harvest is almost over.
The little Marquis says “You are very young aren’t you, sir?”
And Von Langenau, half sorrowful half defiant, answers. “Eighteen.” Then they fall silent.
Later on the Frenchman asks “Have you got a fiancée?”
“How about yourself?” Von Langenau throws back at him.
“She’s blonde. Like you, Herr Junker.”
And they are silent once again until the German cries out “But then why the devil d’you just sit in a saddle, ride at the Turkish dogs, gallop all over this land of poison?”
The Marquis smiles. “To go back home again.”
And Van Langenau’s face goes sad. He thinks about the blonde girl he used to play with. Wild games. And he’d like to go home, just for a moment, only long enough to say “Magdalena — I know I was always like that. Forgive me.”
Like — was? thinks the young Junker. — They’re far away from each other now.
One day, during the morning, a man on horseback turned up, then another, then four more, ten. All of them big and tall. In armour. And then a thousand coming up behind: the army.
They’ll have to part.
“Go home safely, Herr Marquis —”
“May Our Lady protect you, Herr Junker.”
And they can’t leave each other. They’re friends for life, brothers. They’ve trusted one another, learnt so much about each other. Hesitate. All around about them there’s hurrying and the clatter of hooves. The Marquis slips his right glove off. Brings the tiny rose out, chooses a petal for him. The way a priest would place a wafer on the palm.
“It’ll look after you. Farewell. For now.” Von Langenau doesn’t know what to do. He looks longingly at the Frenchman, then puts this foreign petal inside his greatcoat where it will drift up and down on the tides of his heart. A horn’s blown. The Junker rides up to his regiment and smiles sadly. He’s protected by a woman he’s never met.
One day all the camp-followers turn up. Cursing, colours, laughter. They dazzle the countryside. Lively boys running around. Scuffling. Yelling. Harlots arrive with purple hats on their floating hair. Becks and calls. Mercenaries come wearing iron, black like wandering nightfall. They grab the whores violently, tear their clothes, push them where the drums are kept. And from the eager hands of soldiers the drums awake, rumble as if inside a dream, go on rumbling. ̶ And in the twilight lanterns are held out. Makeshift ones, strange-looking. And wine, glinting on the helmets.
Wine? Or blood? — Who can tell the difference?
Before Count Spork at last. He’s standing by his white horse, towering. His long hair’s the colour of iron.
Von Langenau hasn’t had to ask. He knows the General and leaps from his steed to give a salute out of a cloud of dust. He’s brought a message commending himself but the Count simply gives an order “Read me what’s on that scrap of paper.” His lips didn’t move. They don’t need to. They’re good enough to curse with. For anything further he just gestures with his right hand. That’s it. And anybody’ll see what he means. The young man is not quite there. He’s unsure where he stands. The General’s in front of them all. Even the sky is. And then the great general speaks:
“You’ll carry the flag, Cornet.”
That’s all. But a lot.
The Company lies beyond the River Raab. Von Langenau rides away, alone. Over a flat piece of land. In twilight. Metalwork on the saddle glints through the dust. And then the moon rises. He sees the shine on his hands.
He has a dream.
Someone yells out to him.
Screams, screams, rips his dream apart.
That’s not an owl. It’s a yell for help:
the only tree there is calls out: “You there!”
And he can see a shape leaning against it,
a woman, bloody, naked. He hears what she’s saying: “Get me free!”
And he springs into the green darkness,
cuts through the cords
sees her eyes glowing
her teeth grinding.
Is she laughing?
gets on his horse
and gallops into night. The cords gripped in his fist are wet with blood.
Von Langenau’s writing a letter, in gratitude. He makes the letters large, upright, serious:
My dear Mother,
“Be proud: I carry the flag,
“Don’t worry: I carry the flag,
“Love me: I carry the flag ̶ “
Then he sticks the letter inside his greatcoat, on a secret place. Near the rose-petal. And he thinks: it’ll soon smell sweet. And he thinks: maybe someone else will find it . . .
And he thinks again . . . For the enemy is close.
They are riding over a slain farmer. His eyes stay wide open and something is mirrored in them, but not the sky. Later they hear dogs howling. There’s a village. At last. And above the huts a castle like a rocky hill. They come up to the drawbridge. There’s a huge gate. A welcome blow on a horn. Listen: rumbling, rattling, hounds barking. Neighing in the courtyard, horses kicking, summons.
Repose! To be a guest for once. Not just to get for yourself what you can afford. Not always having to grab things frenziedly. Just for once letting it all come and know that what you’re getting is bound to be good. Forget about bravery for a while and tumble between silk sheets. Not always just being a soldier. Letting your hair go loose for once, sprawling on an easy chair with a white collar on, feeling all’s well all over, right to the fingertips. After a bath. To learn again what women look like. How they cope with colour like whites and blues; what hands they have and how they sing and laugh when blond boys bring beautiful dishes in, laden with juicy fruits.
It all started over dinner. Turned into a festival, no-one really understanding why. Torches flaring, voices bawling, weird songs clinking from glass and glitter and then, as soon as all’s fallen in rhythm: dance. Everyone swept away like waves breaking in the solar ̶ losing each other and finding each other ̶ glare of enjoyment and light that’s blinding ̶ swaying of summer winds into the clothes of women so warm.
From the darkness of wine and a thousand roses the hour runs rustling into the dream of nightfall.
There’s one who stands and stares into this splendour. And he’s so well-disposed that he waits to make sure he’s awake. Because only in sleep can anyone observe such finery, such a celebration with women like that: their slightest gesture makes a pleat recurring in brocade. They create hours from silver conversations and often lift their hands somehow ̶ and you have to fancy they go somewhere you don’t know to fold soft roses you’ll never see. And then you dream ̶ to be decked out like them, pleased in a different way and to deserve a crown for your vacant forehead.
One who is wearing white silk knows he can’t wake up because he is awake and bewildered far from reality. So he flees scared into the dream to stand unmoving in the park, alone in the black park. And the festivities are a long way away. And the light tells lies. And the night is all around him and so cool. And he asks a woman who’s nodding her head at him:
“Are you the night?”
And he feels ashamed about his white clothes.
And wants to be far off and alone and armed.
“Have you forgotten you are my page for to-day? Why have you abandoned me? Where are you off to? Your clothes tell me you’re —”
“Do you wish you were wearing your ordinary coat?”
“Are you cold? ̶ Are you perhaps homesick?”
The Countess smiles.
No. That’s only because childhood, that soft dark cloak, has fallen from his shoulders. Who has taken it off? “You?” he asks in a voice he’s never heard before.” You!” And now there’s nothing on him. He’s naked like a penitent. Luminous and slender.
The castle loses its light slowly. A heaviness now: being weary or in love or drunk. After so many long empty nights in the open: beds. Wide, oak beds. Where you don’t say your prayers as you did on your way here, lying in a damp furrow like a grave, trying to fall asleep.
“Lord God. As Thou wilt.”
Prayers are shorter in bed.
More heartfelt though.
The tower chamber is dark.
But they lighten faces by smiling. They fumble on their way as if they are blind and find each other like a doorway. Almost like children who, frightened by the night, keep close to each other. And yet they aren’t afraid. Nothing is against them ̶ neither yesterday, nor to-morrow; because time has collapsed. And they are coming out like blossom from the rubble.
He does not ask “Your husband?”
She does not ask “Your name?”
They’ve discovered each other so they can take a new identity.
They will give each other a hundred new names and then take them away again, lightly, as someone would lift off an ear-ring.
In the entrance-hall the armour, a shoulder-belt and the greatcoat belonging to Von Langenau hang over a chair. His gloves are lying on the floor. His flag, dark and long, droops on its staff leaning against the crossbars of a window. Outside, a storm is racing across the sky, breaking the night into pieces, white pieces, black ones. The moonlight goes past like a drawn-out lightning flash and the flag which doesn’t move has restless shadows. It is dreaming.
Was a window open? Has the storm got inside the castle? Who’s slamming the doors? Who’s just passing through the room? ̶ Leave it alone. Doesn’t matter who it is. He won’t find anything in the tower chamber. Behind a hundred doors lies an ample sleep that two have in common ̶ like one mother or one death.
Can it be morning? What’s that sun rising? How big it is. Are those birds? You can hear them all over the place.
Everything’s bright but it’s not daybreak.
Everything’s loud but it’s not birds we’re hearing.
It’s the rafters that are lit. It’s the windows that scream. And everyone’s screaming, scarlet in the face, screaming to the enemy standing outside in the flickering landscape, screaming: Fire.
And with sleep torn from them they all force their way, half of them in iron, half of them in nothing, rushing from room to room, all over the place, trying to find the staircase.
And with forced breath horns stammer in the courtyard:
Gather round! Gather round!
But the flag is not there.
Maddened horses, prayers, screams,
Iron on iron, commands, signals.
Silence. Then: Cornet!
And again: Cornet!
And away with the thundering cavalry.
But the flag is not with them.
Running as fast possible he pushes through doors that are on fire, gets scorched descending the stairs, breaks out of the raging building, carrying the flag on his arms as though he was holding a pale unconscious woman. He finds a horse like a hoofed scream and gallops ahead, past all once gone by, to be again with his own. The flag is coming where it belongs, never looking so regal and now they all recognise far in the distance the shining man with no helmet who’s bearing the flag . . .
But it starts to gleam, twists about, turns larger, goes red.
Then their flag is burning in the midst of the enemy and they’re rushing towards it.
Von Langenau is in the thick of the enemy but not alone. Terror has made a circle around him and he checks his steed in the centre under his slowly blazing flag.
He looks around slowly, almost wistfully. So much that is strange, so many bright colours in front of him. Gardens ̶ he thinks for a moment then smiles. But he can feel that eyes are holding him, recognises them and knows who they are, heathen dogs ̶ and he urges his horse among them.
But when it got knocked down under him he found gardens again, also the sixteen curved sabres springing at him, catching the light, ray by ray, like a fête.
A laughing fountain.
The greatcoat got burnt in the castle, along with the letter and the rose-petal that once belonged to a woman from a foreign land.
Next spring (it came sadly and cold) a messenger from the Baron of Pirovano rode slowly into Langenau. He has seen an old woman weeping there.
Harry Guest’s latest publication (from Impress) is A Square in East Berlin, a translation of Torsten Schulz’s acclaimed novel Boxhagener Platz (which has been successfully filmed). He reviewed ‘Anthony Rudolf’s literary Wunderkammer’, silent conversations, for the Fortnightly here and Peter Dent’s latest work here. Harry Guest was born in Penarth in 1932. He read Modern languages at Cambridge before beginning a career as a teacher in schools and universities in France, Japan, and England. With his wife, Lynn Guest, the historical novelist, he now lives in Exeter. His collected poems, A Puzzling Harvest, was published by Anvil in 2002. A subsequent collection, Some Times, appeared in 2010. An archive of his work appearing in the Fortnightly is here.
Ed. Notes: Harry Guest, 6 October 1932-20 March 2021. He was a good friend to this publication (and to others), to his students, and to literature.
An alternate translation by Stephen Mitchell originally published by Grey Wolf Press with a helpful afterword, appears here.
See also: Catherine: A war story a poem, by Lucian Staiano-Daniels in the Fortnightly.
- Published by the Insel-Verlag in Leipzig as Insel-Bücherei Nr. 1 ↩