Rilke: The Apple Orchard

We are invited to share the experience of nightfall in an apple orchard: watch/ This deepening of green in the evening sward. This has a purpose.

A rhetorical question seeks to confirm that as ‘chosen-ones’ capable of more than superficial observation of nature outside ourselves we have garnered/ And stored within ourselves a something.  The creativesomething’ is born out of feeling and from feeling recollected,/ From new hope and half-forgotten joys/ And from an inner dark infused with these It takes on coherent shape in the inner recess of the ‘self’ and Issues in thoughts.

The choice of apple orchard is clarified: the liberated thoughts are abundant and ripe as windfalls/ Scattered here; they possess the intricacy and detail of trees in a Dürer woodcut.

In Heaney’s extended metaphor the orchard flourishes thanks to the harmonious interplay of Man and Nature, mind and body. Mens sana in corpore sano (healthy mind in healthy body): the trees are well looked after, and thus ‘pregnant’ with the healthiest crops: Pendent, pruned, the husbandry of years/ Gravid in them .

Notions that emerge from the subconscious in this way are well thought through: Ready to serve; they will wait to be adopted: replete with patience; akin to the orchard, no matter how above/ Measure or expectation they might be, a moment will come when they are harvested and yielded.

He who is blessed with long life develops the mute resolve to adhere to his fate: cleaves to what’s willed.

  • 4 quatrains; no rhyme scheme; lines based on 10 syllables; a feat of construction: a single complex sentence over 16 lines;
  • sound effects in (1): [ʌ] come/ just/ sun; [ɒ] gone/ watch/ not/ long; [i:] deepening/ green/ evening [ɔː] sward/ stored; [au] down/ ourselves; alliterative effects centre round sibilants: just/ sun/ sward/ stored/ ourselves/ something with touches of velar plosive [g] gone/ green/ garnered;
  • stanza (2) runs with extended vowel inflections [i:] feeling/ feeling/ these and [ɑː] half/ dark alongside the more percussive [ɪfeeling/ inner/ infused/ issues/ windfall and [u] new/ infused/ issues; a chain of alliterative fricative [f]: feeling/ from/ half-forgotten/ from/ infused alongside aspirate [h] of hope/ half;
  • in (3) variant sound of vowel (u) inter-react[ʌ]  with  [u]: under woodcut/ husbandry/ until; Dürer/ pruned/ fruit; then vowel (e) variants: [i:]  trees/ trees/ replete [ɪə] years/ appears; [e] pendent/ ready/ patience; alveolar [r] flickers through the text: here/ trees/ Dürer/ pruned/ husbandry/ years/ gravid/ fruit appears/ ready/ rooted;
  • assonant [e] is carried through into the final stanza: knowledge/ measure/ expectation; injection of [i:] yielded/ cleavesand[ɪwillingly/ willed/ in; alliterative alveolar [l] is dominant: knowledge/ all/ yielded/ long life willingly Cleaves/ willed/ resolve                       


  • The poem is best read and enjoyed in its own right. However, Heaney’s version of a second Rilke poem leaves readers with a double challenge: addressing the complex thinking process of the original poet; considering Heaney’s success as interpreter and translator. To that end an anonymous alternative is appended as a comparison.
  • A second poem in the collection with specific reference to the early twentieth century German-speaking lyric poet born in Prague. This poem contains a touch of mysticism and, as with the nature of much of Rilke’s poetry, requires some teasing out.
  • Heaney weaves the early stages in the poetic process into the text. He is conscious of a certain ‘something’ inside himself that he sets out to ‘excavate’. Subsequently he completes a process and produces the poem we are reading!
  • Dürer was a 15/16c engraver, principal German artist of the Renaissance who developed new techniques of engraving and wood-cut, much of it in outdoor scenes; see, for example, his picture Linden Tree on a Bastion;


  • offers an alternative translation: (translator unknown):

Come let us watch the sun go down /and walk in twilight through the orchard’s green./Does it not seem as if we had for long /collected, saved and harboured within us /old memories? To find releases and seek /new hopes, remembering half-forgotten joys, /mingled with darkness coming from within, /as we randomly voice our thoughts aloud /wandering beneath these harvest-laden trees /reminiscent of Durer woodcuts, branches /which, bent under the fully /ripened fruit, /wait patiently, trying to outlast, to /serve another season’s hundred days of toil,
straining, uncomplaining, by not breaking /but succeeding, even though the burden should / at times seem almost past endurance. /Not to falter! Not to be found wanting! /Thus must it be, when willingly you strive /throughout a long and uncomplaining life, /committed to one goal: to give yourself! /And silently to grow and to bear