by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926),
translated by Bruce Phenix

The falling leaves seem fallen from afar,
as though in heaven distant gardens faded;
they fall with gestures that deny, negate.
And, falling in the night, the earth’s sad weight
finds solitude apart from every star.

We all fall. See this hand; it falls no less.
And look at others: it is in them all.

Yet there is someone holding every fall
in hands unbounded in their gentleness.


Original German


Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.
Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.

Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.

Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.



The Art of Poetry

by Paul Verlaine (1844-96),
translated by Bruce Phenix

Most of all, make a musical phrase
Of each line, and, Uneven in length,
Not excessive in weight or in strength,
Let it melt in the air like a haze.

In your choice of words, heed my advice—
Ambiguity is never wrong:
No more precious thing than the grey song
Where the Indistinct meets the Precise.

It is beautiful eyes veils half-hide,
It’s the shimmering light of midday;
It’s the shining stars’ blue disarray
When a cool autumn sky opens wide.

For we want subtle Shade; I must warn
Against Colour and brightness of tone.
Subtle shade can betroth, shade alone,
Dream to dream and the flute to the horn!

Keep well clear of the cruel sharp Wit,
Of the murderous Quips, impure Jeers,
Which will draw from the Azure sad tears—
All that garlic makes dishes unfit!

Just take eloquence and wring its neck!
In your efforts you’ll do very well
if you temper your Rhyme—who can tell
The result if it’s not kept in check?

Who will tell of Rhyme’s wrongdoings, who?
What mad negro has forged, what deaf child,
This fake trinket for us, which, when filed,
Rings so hollow, this thing worth a sou?

Music always, I re-emphasise!
Let your line be a soul’s soaring thing
That we sense as it flees on the wing
When it seeks other loves, other skies.

Make your line the good fortune in store,
Scattered freely in morning’s fresh breeze,
Which the mint and thyme scent as they please…
And the rest is all writing, no more.


Original French

Art poétique

De la musique avant toute chose,
Et pour cela préfère l’Impair
Plus vague et plus soluble dans l’air,
Sans rien en lui qui pèse ou qui pose.

Il faut aussi que tu n’ailles point
Choisir tes mots sans quelque méprise:
Rien de plus cher que la chanson grise
Où l’Indécis au Précis se joint.

C’est des beaux yeux derrière des voiles,
C’est le grand jour tremblant de midi,
C’est, par un ciel d’automne attiédi,
Le bleu fouillis des claires étoiles!

Car nous voulons la Nuance encor,
Pas la Couleur, rien que la nuance!
Oh ! la nuance seule fiance
Le rêve au rêve et la flûte au cor!

Fuis du plus loin la Pointe assassine,
L’Esprit cruel et le Rire impur,
Qui font pleurer les yeux de l’Azur,
Et tout cet ail de basse cuisine!

Prends l’éloquence et tords-lui son cou!
Tu feras bien, en train d’énergie,
De rendre un peu la Rime assagie.
Si l’on n’y veille, elle ira jusqu’où?

Ô qui dira les torts de la Rime?
Quel enfant sourd ou quel nègre fou
Nous a forgé ce bijou d’un sou
Qui sonne creux et faux sous la lime?

De la musique encore et toujours!
Que ton vers soit la chose envolée
Qu’on sent qui fuit d’une âme en allée
Vers d’autres cieux à d’autres amours.

Que ton vers soit la bonne aventure
Éparse au vent crispé du matin
Qui va fleurant la menthe et le thym…
Et tout le reste est littérature.



Bruce Phenix worked as a civil servant in England from 1983 until his retirement in 2021, in various administrative roles in transport and environment. He has a longstanding interest in foreign languages and other cultures and his translations have been published in numerous, including in the Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. He also has extensive experience, over a period of 35 years, in giving English language support to students from Far Eastern backgrounds. He won the Yeats Club’s 1989 Catullus Award for the best translation from an ancient language.

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23 Responses

    • Bruce Phenix

      I really appreciate your kind comments, Mr Essmann (Jeffrey). It’s a lovely and haunting poem, and I’m delighted that you liked the translation.

      • Jeffrey Essmann

        Your timing couldn’t have been better. Lately I’ve been going through translations of Das Stundenbuch, specifically Edward Snow’s and the co-translation by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Both are wonderful, but I eventually went with the latter (where the approach and focus seem similar to yours). At any rate, you are in very good company. Thanks again for a beautiful read.

  1. Monika Cooper

    How beautiful.

    “Just take eloquence and wring its neck!” Poetry’s imperatives are not rhetoric’s rules.

    • Bruce Phenix

      Thank you for commenting so positively. I very much agree with you about the nature of true poetry. Douglas Parmée says in his anthology ‘Twelve French Poets 1820-1900’ that ‘eloquence’ here is ‘no doubt a reference to Hugo and certain other poets of his generation’ – not that I have anything against Hugo myself!

  2. C.B. Anderson

    Beautiful, yes! No one should fail to see that. And going by my slight familiarity with German and my even slighter grasp of French, these poems appear to follow the originals very closely — real translations, not just versions.

    • Bruce Phenix

      Thank you so much for your kind remarks. As a newcomer to the Society and its website, I find them very encouraging.

  3. Roy Eugene Peterson

    The German “Herbst” is beautifully and closely translated. I do not know French, but I enthusiastically endorse how you translated it while keeping rhyme and rhythm. Great translation on both that I sincerely enjoyed.

    • Bruce Phenix

      I’m so grateful for your generous comments on both poems. To have a translation described as both ‘beautiful’ and ‘close’ is, for me, the highest compliment.

  4. Joseph S. Salemi

    Both these translations are among the most beautiful ever to grace this website. The Verlaine, with perfect ABBA rhymes maintained through nine quatrains, is utterly dazzling.

    • Bruce Phenix

      The generosity of your comments touches and humbles me. Thank you so much for what you’ve said.

  5. Sally Cook

    These are fine translations. In both, you make reference to music as a quality in poetry. You see synesthesia as no stranger to verse, and I am glad to have had my musical training before any serious attempts at poetry.

    • Bruce Phenix

      Thank you very much for your positive response and for highlighting the close connection between music and poetry. I love music but regret that I’ve had no musical training – I envy you yours!

  6. Margaret Coats

    The German poem has its beauty in the concept, and by adhering to Rilke’s placements of the word “fall,” Bruce, you bring out its logical flow. It does pass very quickly from one connotation to another, and you present that smoothly in English.

    Verlaine’s “Art Poetique” is quite another challenge. Insofar as it represents the poet’s literary theory, you must do the opposite of what he directs for poetry itself. The English must be precise about what he approves and disapproves. Music and line (verse) and subtlety are good; anything pointed or sharp is bad. That even includes eloquence and literature itself–in relation to the musical line. You make this comes across, even causing readers to question what he means by those terms we usually view in a positive light. Not shady or nuanced enough, I imagine! I’m glad you noted the eloquence aversion could be a reference to Hugo. Hugo’s verse does sometimes aim at painfully sad effects. They’re apropos for the topic, but maybe too much so for Verlaine. Another possibility is that “eloquence” here refers especially to logic. And for “literature” in the final line, I have a recollection that the word in French has an archaic sense of “learning,” which your “writing” suggests. The poem offers seriously light-hearted thoughts on the topic. You do well in making Verlaine sound a bit more pointed than he claims to be!

    • Bruce Phenix

      Margaret, I want to thank you sincerely not only for your kind comments on the translations but for your detailed and perceptive comments on the original poems. I am no expert on French or German literature but can appreciate the value of your insights.

  7. Mia

    Thank you, I think The Art of Poetry has so many beautiful lines it is difficult to have favourites.
    (Take heart if you are reading this Mr Hollywood as we now have it on good authority that ambiguity is never wrong! In fact according to this poet, the poem, Unveiled they appear, ticks all the boxes.)
    It is a lesson for me. Musicality in poetry is key. I must remember,
    All that garlic makes dishes unfit!
    Thank you again for giving us the opportunity to read these beautiful poems

    • Bruce Phenix

      Mia, I really appreciate your kind and positive comments on the translations. And it’s lovely that a nineteenth-century poem like this one of Verlaine’s can still generate a lively literary discussion!

  8. Joshua C. Frank

    Bruce, these are both great! If I didn’t know better, I’d think these were originally written in English by one of our classic poets.

    I don’t speak German, but I do speak French. Verlaine used sound techniques in this poem that are familiar to many of us: alliteration, internal rhyme, etc. It would have been extremely difficult to render them in English and preserve the poem’s original meaning, so I think you made the right decision to focus only on preserving meter and end rhymes.

    I’m familiar with Verlaine myself, through Georges Brassens setting his poems to music. Here are some videos (all in French, of course):

    “Columbine:” https://youtu.be/TqSiZZ8mRiQ?si=sH-DXAp-yuFxr3HE

    “Verlaine:” https://youtu.be/kTpC4p1xAqw?si=hln4lqqFydXZSQ7p

    Also, he read the poem “L’Enterrement de Verlaine” by Paul Fort: https://youtu.be/j1vQNMeC4Bc?si=W5UanjKsvwAB3ITO

    • Bruce Phenix

      Joshua, Thank you so much for your kind and interesting remarks and also for your Hugo and Verlaine suggestions. These are all much appreciated, and I’ll certainly be looking especially at your own and the other Hugo translations.


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