Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower: Rilke’s Timeless Spell for Living Through Difficult Times
“What is it like, such intensity of pain?”
By Maria Popova
There are times in life when the firmament of our being seems to collapse, taking all the light with it, swallowing all color and sound into a silent scream of darkness. It rarely looks that way from the inside, but these are always times of profound transformation and recalibration — the darkness is not terminal but primordial; in it, a new self is being born, not with a Big Bang but with a whisper. Our task, then, is only to listen. What we hear becomes new light.
A century ago, Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) extended a timeless invitation to listening for the light in his poem “Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower,” translated by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows in their altogether indispensable book In Praise of Mortality: Selections from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus (public library).
I read it here accompanied by another patron saint of turning darkness into light — Bach, and his Cello Suite No. 5 in C Minor, performed by Colin Carr:
LET THIS DARKNESS BE A BELL TOWER
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Complement with the great Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön on transformation through dark times, Emily Dickinson’s darkness-inspired ode to resilience, and Rebecca Solnit on hope in the dark, then revisit Rilke on the relationship between solitude, love, and creativity, the lonely patience of creative work, and the difficult art of giving space in love.
Published January 11, 2023