The knight rides forth in sable mail
into the stirring world.
Out there is all:
the friend, the foe, the valley, the day,
the meal in the hall,
the maid and the wood and the month of May,
and the Holy Grail,
and God himself many thousand times
is shown in the streets.
Yet, in the armor of the knight,
behind the sinister rings,
Death squats, brooding and brooding:
When will the sword spring
over the hedge of iron,
that strange and freeing blade,
to fetch me from this place
that has cramped me many a day,
so that at last I can stretch myself
(translation by C. F. MacIntyre)
I read this poem a couple times, and for me, I see the knight as a symbol for a young and idealistic individual, riding out to explore the world. Everything seems possible, and it is just a matter of going out and seeking one’s goal. It is essentially being on the archetypal quest.
But then the tone of the second stanza changes abruptly. It is the voice of the mature person, likely someone who having spent youth pursuing some lofty goal, has settled into the mundane reality of existence. The mature person feels trapped, stifled, and very aware of mortality. There is a sense of longing for the freedom of youth, the excitement of heading out into the world, and the simple pleasures that one associates with early years.
It is also worth considering the knight’s armor and what it represents. As we mature, we are prone to wrap ourselves in a protective cloak. But this security is an illusion. It is really a slow form of death that steadily smothers our lives.
As we near the end of our lives, we imagine that there is a better world waiting for us beyond the veil, where we can “sing and play” with the same joy and abandon as we did when young. But it is a sad and sobering thought that death would seem a welcome escape from the doldrums of life.
So how does one avoid this dread fate? I feel that by maintaining a sense of wonder and adventure that we can stave off the dreariness and monotony of life in later years. Stay on the quest. Always actively engage in life, for there is always something else out there to experience.
11 responses to “Thoughts on “The Knight” by Rainer Maria Rilke”
The original German is relatively easy and the poem is here on YouTube:-
It also brings to mind a favourite Shakespeare character- Hotspur
Ah yes, Henry IV. My German is weak at best, but thanks for the link. Cheers!
Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
Rilke- always fascinating!!
Thank you for the reblog!
Awesome summary in your final paragraph Jeff.
When I retire in 2 years thats what I’m going to do.
Stay on the quest. Great advice
Glad you enjoyed it 🙂
Having retired one year ago, I am on that quest. It’s a whole new world!
This does not surprise me, considering the depth of your posts. Hope you enjoy the journey 🙂
Aw, thank you, Jeff!
I know the name of the poet but I don’t really know her work. Having said that I am intrigued by your thoughts on the poem. I did notice the change in tone in the second stanza. Thank you for another thought provoking post.
He was a hugely influential German poet. If you are interested, here is a link to a Wikipedia page about him: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainer_Maria_Rilke
As always, thanks for your comments. — Jeff