Rilke: After the Fire

Heaney show-cases a version of a Rilke poem from 1908. The theme is of a man whose past has been destroyed overnight and is suddenly alienated from his environment.
Early lyricism introduces personification: startled Early autumn morning hesitated,/ Shying at newness. Nature is conscious of a profound overnight change, an emptiness behind scorched linden trees (the phrase introduces both the fire element and a Germanic context using ‘linden’ for ‘lime’). Whether out of curiosity or concern or for concealment the trees are still crowding in around a home reduced to a shell, now just one more wallstead.

Despite its remote location, there are children present: a rabble gathered up from god knows where; uncivilised and wild in a pack. Their presence is not explained. Are we invited to associate them with arson or simple curiosity? They are reduced to silence by the arrival of the son of the place, come to search the smouldering ruin for personal effects From under hot, half burnt-away house-beams.

The scene is set for a reaction that pushes the man like one with a doubtful tale to tell to share his deeply personal responses to catastrophe with those he finds on the site yet conscious that it all seemed/ Stranger: more fantastical than Pharaoh to boys incapable of understanding his personal hurt or loss. For him the event represents total alienation he was changed: a foreigner among them.

  • the poem is full of allegorical possibilities: firstly the ‘poet’ as a stranger in society, condemned to solitude, ‘different’ from ordinary mortals and a suspicious outsider; the people are depicted as a rabble dismissive or incapable of finer feelings or understanding; alternatively the person feeling politically exiled by catastrophe not of his making, the displaced person, thirdly picking up the pieces, say, after brush/forest fires caused by global warming;
  • Rilke, deemed Austrian, in fact born in the German-speaking district of then Czechoslovak Prague so, perhaps, of insecure national identity; he was at his most prolific between 1900 –1925. His main watch-words are: ‘alienation’, ‘lyricism, ‘mysticism’, ‘spirituality’;
  • .the identity issue can easily be associated with the poet-figure trying to build bridges but unable to transmit his feelings, like a Heaney caught up in the Northern-Irish conflagration; finally, even, the Christ figure amongst those ‘who knew him not’.


  • Heaney may have other reasons for highlighting Rilke who, for example, exhausted by his efforts to finish works, went through periods of ‘blockage’ and turned to translation to see him through.  The later poem attributed to Rilke will contain a different but equally mystical message.

Alternative version by Alan Tucker -The Scene of the Fire

At first light the chequered autumn dawn

hesitates, a change, an unexpected void;

the leaves of the lime tree hang like rags,

walls still smoking, a homestead destroyed.

Kids arrive shouting from God knows where

clambering all over, looting, running wild.

But they fall quiet when the son appears,

equips himself with a long forked stick to wield

and poking among the still glowing timbers

fishes out a blackened and battered kettle

that, turning to them, he holds high in the air

as though to prove all existence is brittle

and to bring to their mind the loss of things,

how overnight the everyday, familiar to hand

becomes more fantastic than the death of kings.

And he was else. As if from a distant land.

  • 4 quatrains based on lines of 10 syllables;  no rhyme scheme;
  • 4 successive enjambed lines in the 1st sentence; 2 more before the semi-colon; 3 sentences of diminishing length at the end, the last summing up the feelings that the man is left with;
  • The 1st quatrain is a recipe of assonant flavours: [ɔː autumn morning/ Scorched/moorland/ more/ wallstead; [e] hesitated/ emptiness; [au]  crowding/ around/ house now; [ɪ] morning/ hesitated/ emptiness/ linden/ still/ in;      
  • St.2 introduces [ʌ] youngsters/ up/ Hunted; [y] youngsters/ yelled/ Yet [ai] wild/ silent; [k] pack/ forked stick carried into the next stanza: cab/ kettle/ like; examples of nasal [n];
  • St. 3 offers [au] out-/ house-/ doubtful resonant [t] and [z]  others present/ pains
  • The final stanza combines[əʊso/ Pharoah; [ei] stranger/ changed; [æ] fantastical than; voiceless labio-dental fricative [f]: fantastical/ Pharoah/ foreigner; 


  • In dialogue with Denis O’Driscoll (Stepping Stones, Faber, p387) Heaney reveals his interest in  Rilke as a ‘ chance… re-immersion’.