GOD IS DEAD, said Nietzsche. Abandoned by God,philosophers and poets turned to expressing their psyches. Freud invented psychoanalysis, and Rainer Maria Rilke wrote poems about the Inner Life.
Literary history makes for these scenarios; authors are seen as embodying ideas and setting out to express their times. But biography suggests that it happens the other way round: the life we have determines the ideas by which we live. Rilke is a case in point. He was born into one of those socially aspiring and ineffectual bourgeois families that have provided the substance of a hundred plays and novels. Prague, where he grew up, Rilke described as a "miserable city of subordinate existences." His father had declined from an army officer to a petty clerk for the railroad. Rilke's mother was by turns religious and ambitious to get on in society. Her infant daughter died, so that when Rilke was a small child she dressed him as a girl and called him "Miss." Like Proust, Rilke never knew that domestic happiness toward which the middle class directed its energy and by which it justified the punishments inflicted on its members. Rilke's early sorrows forced him into a premature retirement -- he may be said to have never truly lived. His life went into his poetry, where it vibrated with energy.
Much of his life was spent waiting for visitations of the power that enabled him to write. He paid little attention to the world, had none of the fascination with men and women that one finds in Homer and Chaucer, even in Baudelaire. Rilke thought about "things" -- the "Santa Claus of loneliness," Auden calls him. To Rilke things were masks through which another world was striving to be seen and heard. Baudelaire said it long ago: we walk through a forest of symbols that watch us with knowing eyes. Our part is to enter into things and meet the other world half way. Rilke wrote, "Perhaps we are here, in order to say: house/bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window."
Our deprivations, the powers we do not have, are seen as existing in the anti-world -- absences here become presences there. Rilke calls them angels, and calls upon them to listen to his poems, the voice that expresses things of this world. But he does not know if they are listening: "Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?" And if an angel did respond, would the poet be able to withstand contact with the angel's stronger existence? The end to which the poet strives is annihilation of the poet. And so he holds back, repressing the "call-note." For years Rilke held back until at Duino the angel came flooding in.
"Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?" This trumpet call launches the Duino Elegies. The Elegies, together with Sonnets to Orpheus, which were written directly afterwards, are Rilke's most astonishing poetry -- it makes other poetry seem earthbound in comparison. I have quoted the line in the 1939 translation by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender, the only translation available at the time. One's first reading of a poem, like first love, leaves an ineffaceable impression, and though I have been told by people expert in German that the Leishman-Spender version is too smooth, even soft, I still keep hearing it.
Rilke wrote: "Wer, wenn ich schriee, horte mich denn aus der Engel/Ordnungen?" Stephen Mitchell has given us the German text on facing pages, as every translator of poetry should. He translates the lines as follows: "Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'/ hierarchies?" The Leishman-Spender "orders" is surely closer than "hierarchies" to the sound of "ordnungen"? I do not find anything particularly attractive about "hierarchies" -- on the contrary, it seems professorial. Perhaps translators do not always use the most suitable words -- they put aside the most suitable words because they have been used by other translators, and choose other words.
I own three previous translations of the Duino Elegies: the Leishman-Spender translation; a translation by Stephen Garmey and Jay Wilson, published in 1972; and a translation by A. Poulin Jr., published in 1977. In order to compare Mitchell's translation with these other, older versions, I chose his translation of a passage by Rilke that is, for me, the best thing he ever said:
Perhaps we are 2 10 here in order to say: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window -- at most; column, tower. . . . But to say them, you must understand, oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of existing. There is trouble here with the understanding. One has to search to find the connection between "dreamed of existing" and "to say . . . more intensely." And when one has found it, the syntax is slightly askew -- certainly one has to force it into sense. A second fault is the sound of the lines. They are prosaic. The German is as follows:
aber zu 2 10 sagen, verstehs, oh zu sagen so, wie selber die Dinge niemals innig meinten zu sein. As I have said, my German exists in a Rilkean anti-world; still, I can make this out, and it is far more poetic than the translation. The German words are short and resonant. The translator's "ever dreamed of existing" makes the passage topple over heavily at the end.
Leishman and Spender translated these lines:
but for saying, remember, oh, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be. The meaning here is clearer than in the Mitchell version, but not much, and "to be . . . such saying" is not idiomatic. As for style, it is breathless, a bit gushy.
Stephen Garmey and Jay Wilson wrote:
but to say them, understand me, so to say them as the things within themselves never thought to be. This pushes the fault of the Leishman-Spender translation one step further, so that the passage doesn't make sense: "to be" requires an object, and "to say them" is not it.
Turning to A. Poulin Jr.:
but to say them, remember, oh, to say them in a way that the things themselves never dreamed of existing so intensely. For clarity I would give this first place. We can see what it is that things never dreamed of: "a way," and that they never dreamed it could exist so intensely. The lines, however, are no closer to the poetic sounds of the original than Mitchell's version.
Taking one thing with another, I prefer the translations by Mitchell and Poulin. The lines I chose to compare are difficult -- in other places Mitchell conveys Rilke's meaning clearly. As for the sound of his translations, it would be ill-natured to find fault with him for failing to sound as interesting in English as Rilke does in German. I would rather have his accurate translations than the kind in which the translator writes his own poetry at the expense of the author.
Mitchell has selected from the entire range of Rilke's poetry: from The Book of Hours, The Book of Pictures, New Poems, Requiem, Uncollected Poems, and The Sonnets to Orpheus, as well as the Duino Elegies. There is a selection from the prose Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. I don't know of any other selection of Rilke's writing that is so representative, and it is portable, convenient to take with you. The Cornet is not represented, nor Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet, but I suppose you can't have everything in one easy volume.
Robert Hass has a fairly long introduction to Mitchell's selection of Rilke's poetry. I rather dislike Hass' chatty touches: telling us how, in Paris, he went looking for a caf,e where Rilke had breakfast, and about a friend named Fred who was hungry "and could not have cared less where Rilke ate breakfast." Fred showed good sense: information about such matters may have some bearing on the life of a hip poet, the kind who hangs out, but it can tell us nothing about Rilke, whose life, in his own eyes, was of no importance, the poetry everything. Hass is much better when he explains that poetry, and very good indeed when he tells us how the Elegies were put together, and describes their effect on the readers: "The author of these poems is everywhere. Really, they are the nearest thing in the writing of the twentieth century to the flight of birds. They dive, soar, swoop, belly up, loop over. . . . The subject is the volatility of emotion."
Between February 1922 when he completed the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus and December 1926 when he died, Rilke wrote nearly 400 poems in French. In a poem titled "Verger" he says that he wrote in French in order to use the word "verger" (orchard). This is the kind of witticism Oscar Wilde might have made, but though it is witty it may be true: Rilke may have written in French because he liked the sound of the words.
His French poems sound like Verlaine. They are lighter in tone than his poems in German. The content also seems lighter, perhaps because it is familiar: we have known these angels, loaves of bread, and windows. But Rilke is always capable of astonishing, as in these lines from The Astonishment of Origins. The translation is again by Poulin, who translated the Duino Elegies and has also translated The Sonnets to Orpheus. Look at a child's index and thumb -- so gentle a vise, even bread is astonished. And these lines from Orchards: "None of us advances/ but towards a silent god." Had anyone thought of this before? Or said it so memorably?
These poems, however, must have seemed old-fashioned in Paris of the '20s. Symbolist poetry was old hat. The Futurists had heaped ridicule upon Symbolism-- the poetry of the future would speak of racing cars, airplanes, and battleships. Dadaists turned all writing into a joke, and Surrealists were inventing images, not exploring an inner world. A German poet, Walter Mehring, who read poems in cabarets, told me that one day, strolling with Rilke in Paris, he told Rilke that his poems in French were awful. But everything passes, and Rilke's poems are no more old-fashioned now than the writings of the Futurists, Dadaists, and Surrealists. They do strike me, however, as delicate. I miss the ruggedness of Rilke's poems in German, the cragginess of his style and his formidable subjects. In German Rilke may write about a drunkard, a blind man, or a panther. In French he writes a great deal about roses.
Poulin has translated the French poems in four volumes, and there is another still to come. He is a deft translator, with sympathy for Rilke's ideas and a nice sense of the rhythm of lines. I doubt that anyone could have done the job better, and until now, it appears, no one thought of doing it.
The books, by the Graywolf Press, are attractively bound and printed. They fit in the pocket -- just the thing to read at a play or concert during the intermissions.