Tuesday, July 31, 2012


I confess that the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke strikes me as being somewhat overwrought and histrionic.  Having said that, I am willing to admit that the fault is my own: I cannot match his romantic passion, and I am too dull to penetrate what seems to me to be his obscurity.  Moreover (and this is likely a crucial "moreover"), because I am bereft of German, I am dependent upon translations -- which no doubt means that I am missing the whole point.

Still, because I consider this to be a blog about enthusiasms, not strictures, I do not intend to warn anybody off Rilke's poetry.  Although my tastes tend to run to the likes of Larkin and Edward Thomas and Hardy, I am not interested in grinding axes.  Life is too short.

Well, after that little diversion, there are poems by Rilke that I like a great deal.  The following poem (which, as it happens, was translated by Randall Jarrell) came to mind after I posted Jarrell's "The Breath of Night." Twilight, stars in the trees, eternity, mortality, and so on . . .

                     James Bateman (1893-1959), "Woodland and Cattle"


The evening folds about itself the dark
Garments the old trees hold out to it.
You watch: and the lands are borne from you,
One soaring heavenward, one falling;

And leave you here, not wholly either's,
Not quite so darkened as the silent houses,
Not quite so surely summoning the eternal
As that which each night becomes star, and rises;

And leave you (inscrutably to unravel)
Your life: the fearful and ripening and enormous
Being that -- bounded by everything, or boundless --
For a moment becomes stone, for a moment stars.

Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Randall Jarrell), in Randall Jarrell, The Woman at the Washington Zoo (1960).

                               James Bateman, "Lullington Church" (1939)

For purposes of comparison, here is another translation of the same poem.


The sky puts on the darkening blue coat
held for it by a row of ancient trees;
you watch: and the lands grow distant in your sight,
one journeying to heaven, one that falls;

and leave you, not at home in either one,
not quite so still and dark as the darkened houses,
not calling to eternity with the passion
of what becomes a star each night, and rises;

and leave you (inexpressibly to unravel)
your life, with its immensity and fear,
so that, now bounded, now immeasurable,
it is alternately stone in you and star.

Stephen Mitchell (editor and translator), The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1982).

              James Bateman, "The Pool, Blockley, Gloucestershire" (1926)


Clarissa Aykroyd said...

I've adapted a line from this poem for the title of my own blog on poetry, The Stone and the Star (http://thestoneandthestar.blogspot.co.uk/). I am actually still relatively new to Rilke but it seemed like the right title.

To a certain extent I agree that he can seem overwrought...he's perhaps more of a Romantic than I'm naturally inclined to. But the truth in his poetry is so striking and I relate to so much of it that I knew I'd have to explore further when I started reading him.

WAS said...

Wow! Jarrell's is the better poem, Mitchell's is the more faithful translation, but neither quite gets the shock of the opening stanza that as one watches the evening change its clothes (literal meaning) one becomes separated (divorced) from nature. But Rilke is one of the most famously difficult of poets to translate. He usually comes off in English as spacey, obscure and abstract; I think that is in equal measure the nature of the German language and the concern in Rilke for the inexpressible - the sound sometimes conveys more than the literal meaning. Which brings me to my larger point: Rilke's German is as beautiful as any poetry in any language - he makes German do things it shouldn't be able to do, and conveys (even to those who can't understand German) something deep and singular in the uncanny way the words flow together.

This poem ("Abend") is not quite at the level of his later, more mature work, but it's worth listening to, I think, in German:


Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Aykroyd: thank you for visiting again, and for your thoughts. I cannot say that I know Rilke's poetry in depth, and perhaps my view is based on too little knowledge. And I do tend to be inclined toward a lower-key approach, I confess. But, as I suggested, there are things of his that I like.

I appreciate you taking the time to stop by.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Sigler: I defer to you on the merits of the respective translations -- I wondered about "garments" versus "blue coat," for instance, and "inscrutably" versus "inexpressibly" as well.

And thank you very much for the link to the audio: it is nice to hear it in German. And the Klee-like graphics are nice as well!

Thanks for visiting again.

littlemancat said...

Abend was always a favorite in my much younger days- still hits a chord on certain older days as well. I remember my German language professor sniffing and saying Rilke was a woman's poet. He didn't mean it kindly.
Thanks for the post and for two translations.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: thank you very much for visiting, and for your thoughts. I like the anecdote about your professor!

Thanks again.