If you can read German, you are very fortunate because you can then read and recite Rilke in the original (see comment below on the problem of translation). Though no longer fashionable, he was a highly gifted poet of deep spirituality and sophistication---a poet’s poet.
The titles of Rilke’s poems are found in the first lines.
Immediately, the poem has a striking effect.
Rilke Poems from The Book of Hours (translated by J.B. Leishman):
- “I find you, Lord, in all things”
- “Look. God, a novice comes to work at you”
- “You darkness, whence my lineage came.”
- “I am, you worrier. Can’t you hear me now?”
- “What will you do, God, if death takes me?”
- “We’re workmen, all the millions of us.”
- “Just an hour from the edge of the day.”
- “I’m here just when the Century is passing by.”
I am, O Anxious One. Don't you hear my voice
surging forth with all my earthly feelings?
They yearn so high, that they have sprouted wings
and whitely fly in circles round your face.
My soul, dressed in silence, rises up
and stands alone before you: can't you see?
don't you know that my prayer is growing ripe
upon your vision as upon a tree?
If you are the dreamer, I am what you dream.
But when you want to wake, I am your wish,
and I grow strong with all magnificence
and turn myself into a star's vast silence
above the strange and distant city, Time.
As once the winged energy of delight
carried you over childhood's dark abysses,
now beyond your own life build the great
arch of unimagined bridges.
Wonders happen if we can succeed
in passing through the harshest danger;
but only in a bright and purely granted
achievement can we realize the wonder.
To work with Things in the indescribable
relationship is not too hard for us;
the pattern grows more intricate and subtle,
and being swept along is not enough.
Take your practiced powers and stretch them out
until they span the chasm between two
contradictions...For the god
wants to know himself in you.
How can I keep my soul in me,
so that it doesn't touch your soul?
How can I raise it high enough, past you, to other things?
I would like to shelter it, among remote
lost objects, in some dark and silent place
that doesn't resonate when your depths resound.
Yet everything that touches us, me and you,
takes us together like a violin's bow,
which draws one voice out of two separate strings.
Upon what instrument are we two spanned?
And what musician holds us in his hand?
Oh sweetest song.
She sat just like the others at the table.
But on second glance, she seemed to hold her cup
a little differently as she picked it up.
She smiled once. It was almost painful.
And when they finished and it was time to stand
and slowly, as chance selected them, they left
and moved through many rooms (they talked and laughed),
I saw her. She was moving far behind
the others, absorbed, like someone who will soon
have to sing before a large assembly;
upon her eyes, which were radiant with joy,
light played as on the surface of a pool.
She followed slowly, taking a long time,
as though there were some obstacle in the way;
and yet: as though, once it was overcome,
she would be beyond all walking, and would fly.
The Duino Elegies (Commentary)
This is where Rilke really begins to inflict deep wounds, almost to the point of despair, yet he keeps coming back; the dance is still intact.
For Rilke, happiness doesn't exist, but joy does. Joy, then, is quite different. This distinction is made in the Duino Elegies, but to understand joy, happiness must fall. The pursuit of happiness is an empty thing, full of frustration, but it can be pursued. Joy, on the other hand, cannot. People who ardently pursue happiness or pleasure may never understand what joy is. Perhaps that is one reason these poems are very difficult. The elegies are about pain and grief, but there is something at the end of pain; the sure knowledge that God exists and therefore joy exists.
From The Duino Elegies (translated by J.B. Leishman)
The First Elegy
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'
hierarchies? and even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I would perish
in the embrace of his stronger existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror
which we are barely able to endure and are awed
because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Each single angel is terrifying.
And so I force myself, swallow and hold back
the surging call of my dark sobbing.
Oh, to whom can we turn for help?
Not angels, not humans;
and even the knowing animals are aware that we feel
little secure and at home in our interpreted world.
There remains perhaps some tree on a hillside
daily for us to see; yesterday's street remains for us
stayed, moved in with us and showed no signs of leaving.
Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind
full of cosmic space invades our frightened faces.
Whom would it not remain for -that longed-after,
gently disenchanting night, painfully there for the
solitary heart to achieve? Is it easier for lovers?
Don't you know yet ? Fling out of your arms the
emptiness into the spaces we breath -perhaps the birds
will feel the expanded air in their more ferven flight.
This exerpt is from the Tenth Elegy:
Children are playing, and lovers are holding hand, to the side,
Suddenly in the meager grass, and dogs are doing what is natural,
The young man is drawn on, farther; perhaps he is in love with a young Lament. . . . He comes out behind her, into the meadows. She says----It's a long walk. We live way out there. . . .
Only those who died young, in their first condition
of timeless equanimity, while they are being weaned,
follow her lovingly. She waits
for girls and befriends them. Shows them, gently,
what she is wearing. Pearls of grief and the fine-spun'
veils of patience.----With young men she walks
And gently she guides him through the vast landscape of Lament,
Shows him the pillars of the temples, and the ruined wall of those castles from which, long ago, the princes of Lament wildly ruled the land. Shows him the tall
trees of tears and the fields of blossoming grief
(the living know it just as a mild green shrub);
shows him the herds of sorrow, grazing,----and sometimes a startled bird, flying low through their upward gaze, far away traces the image of its solitary cry----
In the twilight she leads him out to the graves of the elders who gave warning to the race of Laments, the sibyls and prophets.
But as night approaches, they move more softly, and soon the sepulchre rises up like a moon, watching over everything.....
Still dizzy from recent death, his sight
cannot grasp it. But her gaze frightens an owl from behind the rim of the crown. And the bird, with slow downstrokes, brushes along the cheek, the one with the fuller curve, and faintly, in the dead youth's new
sense of hearing, as upon a double unfolded page, it sketches the indescribable outline....
But the dead youth must go on by himself, and silently the elder Lament takes him as far as the ravine,
where shimmering in the moonlight is the fountainhead of joy. With reverence she names it and says:----Among men it is a mighty stream----
They stand at the foot of the mountain-range.
And she embraces him, weeping. Alone, he climbs on, up the mountains of primal grief. And not once do his footsteps echo from the soundless path.
But if the endlessly dead awakened a symbol in us,
perhaps they would point to the catkins hanging from the bare branches of the hazel-tree, or woud evoke the raindrops that fall onto the dark earth in springtime.---
And we, who have always thought of happiness as rising, would feel the emotion that almost overwhelms us whenever a happy thing falls.
RILKE’S INTERPRETATION OF THE PRODIGAL SON SCRIPTURE
During those years great transformations were taking place inside him. . .
He returned home. We don’t know whether he stayed there, we only know that he came back.
Those who have told the story try at this point to remind us of the house as it was then; there, only a short time has passed, a short period of counted time, everyone in the house knows exactly how much. The dogs have grown old, but they are still alive. It is reported that one of them let out a howl. All the daily tasks stop. Faces appear in the window, faces that have aged or grown up and touchingly resemble how they used to look. And in one old face, grown suddenly pale, recognition breaks through. Recognition? Is it really just recognition?—Forgiveness. Forgiveness of what?--- Love, My God: it is love.
He, the one who was recognized, had no longer thought, preoccupied as he was, that love could still exist. It is easy to understand how, of everything that happened then, only this has been handed down to us: his gesture, the incredible gesture which had never been seen before, the gesture of supplication with which he threw himself at their feet, imploring them not to love. Dizzy with fright, they made him stand up, embraced him. They interpreted his outburst in their own way, forgiving him. It must have been an indescribable relief for him that, in spite of the desperate clarity of his posture, they all misunderstood him. He was probably able to stay. For every day he rcognized more clearly that their love, of which they were so vain and to which they secretly encouraged one another, had nothing to do with him. He almost had to smile at their exertions, and it was obvious how little they could have him in mind.
How could they know who he was? He was now terribly difficult to love, and he felt that only One would be capable of it. But He was not yet willing.
- Translated by Stephen Mitchell
from Rilke's "Letters To A Young Poet"
SONNET TO ORPHEUS
There rose a tree. O pure transcendency!
O Orpheus singing! O tall tree in the ear!
And all was silent. Yet even in the silence
New beginning, beckoning, change went on.
Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear
Released wood from lair and nesting-place;
And it turned out that not from cunning and not
From fear were they so hushed within themselves,
But from harkening. Bellow and cry and roar
Seemed little in their hearts. And where before
Hardly a hut had been to take this in,
A covert out of darkest longing
With an entrance way whose timbers tremble,---
You built temples for them in their hearing.
- Translated by M. D. Herter Norton
THE POET SPEAKS OF PRAISING
Oh speak, poet, what do you do?
But the monstrosities and the murderous days,
How do you endure them, how do you take them?
But the anonymous, the nameless grays,
How poet, do you still invoke them?
What right have you, in all displays,
in very mask, to be genuine?
And that the stillness and the turbulent sprays
know you like star and storm?
---since I praise
- Translated by John J. L. Mood
THE PROBLEM OF TRANSLATION:
It is always better to read a poem in its original language if possible. In translation there is always an issue. Yet to leave a poet such as Rilke out of a highlight of BEST POETS would be a mistake. So we proceed with translations as cautiously as possible.
"No theory of translation will ever solve
the immediate, practical dilemma of deciding
on the right word at the right moment. . . .
Rilke stands among the supreme poets of the
modern tradition in western literature and the
labor of finding adequate English versions will
continue indefinitely. That labor must be
regarded as a tribute to the poet as well as a
service to his readers in the English speaking
- - Cyrus Hamlin
To illustrate this problem of translation, consider three versions of Rilke’s poem, “The Panther”, with tough criticism by Walter Arndt*
*The Best of Rilke, translated by Walter Arndt, University Press of
New England, 1989.
THE PANTHER (Translated by C. F. Macintire)
His sight from ever gazing through the bars
Has grown so blunt that it sees nothing more.
It seems to him that thousands of bars are
before him, and behind him nothing merely.
The easy motion of his supple stride,
Which turns about the very smallest circle,
Is like a dance of strength about a center
In which a mighty will stands stupefied.
Only sometimes when the pupil’s film
Soundlessly opens . . . then one image fills
And glides through the quiet tension of the limbs
into the heart and ceases and is still.
Line 2: the usual American error of ‘nothing more’ for ‘nothing any more.’
Line 3: the painful collision, phonetic and metric, of ‘bars are should not have been allowed to stand.
Line 4: There is a hole at the end of the line, or does ‘merely’ stand for an iambic rhyme with ‘more’?
Stanza 3: Aside from the helpless impression made by the half and quarter rhymes, ‘one image’ for ‘an image’, ‘fills’ without object, the spoiler ‘and’ starting line 3, and the extra ‘and is still’ at the end mark the translation a failed draft.
THE PANTHER (Translated by M. D. Herter Norton)
His vision from the passing of the bars
is grown so weary that it hold no more.
To him it seems there are a thousand bars
And Behind A thouSAND bars, uh, no world.
The padding gait of flexible strong strides,
That in the very smallest circle turns,
is like a dance of strength around a center
in which stuPEfied a great will, uh, stands.
OnLY some TIMes the curtain of the pupil
soundlessly parts---then an iMAge enTERS,
goes through the “tensioned” stillnes of the limbs---
and in the heart ceaSES to be.
This sample is not so much a failed achievement as a failure to try. A Rilke translation with neither rhyme scheme nor even iambics preserved is simply hors de concours. The farcical effect of capitalizing misstressed syllables above is to emphasize that when dealing with Rilke, modernist ‘relaxed metrics’ are no refuge to translators who haven’t the gift of being accurate semantically as well as prosodically.
THE PANTHER (Translated by Jessie Lamont)
His weary glance, from passing by the bars,
Has grown into a dazed and vacant stare;
It seems to him there are a thousand bars
And out beyond those bars the empty air.
The pad of his strong feet, that ceaseless sound
Of supple tread behind the iron bands,
Is like a dance of strength circling around,
While in the circle, stunned, a great will stands.
But there at times the pupils of his eyes
Dilate, the strong limbs stand alert, apart,
Tense with the flood of visions that arise,
Only to sink and die within his heart.
Jessie Lemont’s is the only version so far that honors the esthetic necessity of the steady binary (usually iambic) pulse without which any imitation is at a hopeless remove from the classic Rilke of the advancing century. Unfortunately she has bought this acconance at a heavy cost in dilution and departure—losing not only the fine closing image but the vital impact of lines 7 and 8 by a gratuitous syntactic weakness. The third stanza dissolves into fantasy.
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