I sigh every time I see the common but sadly truncated quote from Rilke “And now we welcome the new year, full of things that have never been.” It leaves so much unsaid.

(Rene Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef) Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)  is one of my favorite poets.  Here is the oft-quoted excerpt its original German:

 “Und nun wollen wir glauben an ein langes Jahr, das uns gegeben ist, neu, unberührt, voll nie gewesener Dinge…” 

As excerpted, it is simply a Hallmark sentiment, telling us that the New Year will, indeed, be new. But there is so much more. The excerpt comes near the end of a letter to his wife Clara, written on the first day of 1907. He was traveling in Italy and wrote her to describe the chaotic enchantment of the streets of Capri on New Year’s Eve. The full letter is worth reading if you enjoy lyric German prose, of which Rilke was a master. He closes with a prayer-like exhortation to make the most of the coming new year. 

Brief an seine Frau Clara vom 1. Januar 1907

Und nun wollen wir glauben an ein langes Jahr, das uns
gegeben ist, neu, unberührt, voll nie gewesener Dinge, voll 
nie getaner Arbeit, voll Aufgabe, Anspruch und Zumutung;
und wollen sehen, daß wirs nehmen lernen, ohne allzuviel
fallen zu lassen von dem, was es zu vergeben hat, an die,
die Notwendiges, Ernstes und Großes von ihm verlangen.


I would translate this as follows:

Now, let us believe in a long year, 
New, untouched, and full of things that have never been, 
Full of work not yet done, 
Full of tasks, claims, and demands;
May we learn to live it without letting fall 
Too much of what it has to offer those
Who demand of life 
Necessary, serious, and great things.

I remember discussing the poem in German class at Dartmouth and arguing about whether “…let us believe…” referred narrowly to the poet and his wife, or more broadly to humanity. I don’t remember what I thought then, or what (if anything) we decided, but having read more Rilke (and about his fascinating life) during the intervening years, I think he would have been surprised by the question. I like to think he would have told us that it was a personal exhortation written with the durable belief that if the sentiment was pursued by all, society would be a better place. I like to think it, because it rings true to me.

My New Year commitment is to anticipate a thrilling but uncharted and emergent year during which I will try to learn and do new things, seeking out challenges and needs, in order that I might look back at a journey well traveled.

I hope many of you will join me on my journey.



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