The long poem, if we rightly exclude the dramatic, comes in three varieties: narrative, including epic; philosophical, including existential; and metaphysical, including religious. And, of course, in any combination of the above. When we, here and now, think “long poem,” we usually mean Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, maybe Blake, and probably Yeats and Eliot. What is perspicuous is how much most of these depend on plot: how many nonacademics push beyond the Inferno or plod on to Paradise Regained?
Yet the plot is not a basic constituent of the poetic, except perhaps as a hurdle. Prose can do its job, with some minor losses, much better. Homer resorted to verse as a mnemonic device in a largely preliterate age. Others followed because it was the tradition, and because the novel in prose had not yet caught on. Once it did, it was goodbye, epic poetry. As a nonheroic narrative, the long poem is even more cumbersome: think of those shipwrecked Robinsons, Edwin Arlington and Jeffers, whom no one now thinks of rescuing.
The philosophical poem, too, is easily outdone by prose.
The philosophical poem, too, is easily outdone by prose; even Lucretius reads nicely in a good prose translation, and can you imagine anything worse than Heidegger in verse? The same for metaphysics. The great religious or quasi-religious poems—think Donne, Herbert, or Hopkins; Verlaine, Claudel, or Francis Jammes; Matthias Claudius, Hölderlin, or Novalis—are short. The lyrical impulse refuses to be stretched thin. So it seems that Poe was right; there are no long poems. I for one have always preferred Eliot before he started playing quartets, and there are any number of Rilke’s poems I’ll take over The Duino Elegies, near-universally acclaimed as the poet’s magnum opus.
Yet now, all at once, we have three new translations of The Duino Elegies: in a separate volume, as part of a selected works, or as the crowning conclusion to what concerns me here, William H. Gass’s Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, which deals with a lot of things, but gravitates toward the Elegies.1 There have been many English translations of this work of roughly thirty pages and in ten parts, but people still keep trying; poetry is hard to translate, and this late work of Rilke’s especially so.
To what extent that work has preoccupied the poetry world can be learned from the three-volume study of it, the so-called Materialien, a kind of anthology edited by Ulrich Fülleborn and Manfred Engel, to which I will abundantly but tacitly refer. It reprints or excerpts just about everything conceivable up to 1964—and not only in German—in three volumes of three- to four-hundred pages each (inception, variants, publishing history, letters, utterances, reviews, interpretations, evaluations, reevaluations, and bibliography—a trilogy of which Gass seems to be unaware.
More damaging is his not taking into account Rilke’s Testament, first published in 1974. Rilke had been struggling with the unfinished Elegies for ten years, and put together this slender, handwritten volume in 1920, as he abandoned hope of termination. It was intended for his then major mistress (Rilke had a handful of major, and a legion of minor, ones), the painter Elisabeth Dorothee (Spiro) Klossowska, mother of the painter Balthus, and known as Mouky to her friends, Merline to Rilke, and Baladine to herself. She was, it seems, the chief inspirer of the Elegies, and the thirty-page plaquette was made up of poem fragments and unfinished letters to the beloved.
Of course, it was also a self-justification, eventually, to the world for Rilke’s inability to finish the great work, the unchivalrous reason being proffered that loving deflects too much from working on one’s poetry, the poet’s ultimate purpose in life. This theme runs through much of Rilke’s work, and Gass is, obviously, not unaware of it. Yet the poet never sums up this predicament as tersely as Pierre Costals, the novelist-hero of Montherlant’s Les Jeunes Filles, in the passage about the two faucets, work and life, between whose respective turnings on and off the writer uneasily fluctuates.
Reading Rilke elicits from me an intense love-hate: it is often dazzling and, almost as often, infuriating. The book is, first, a concise psychobiography of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), and offers a fine sense of this complex, devious, vain, mock-humble, surpassingly sensitive, and frequently insensitive man. We get the biographical data not in chronological order, but subsumed by a free-floating meditation on Rilke’s work, of which this is a compelling critical study. Gass mixes biography and criticism, specific analyses and speculative generalizations, with considerable dexterity.
But this is also an essay on the problems of translation, of Rilke’s poems and poetry in general, not lacking in astute observations. Two of them I find most interesting: that translations need not make a poem sound as if it were written yesterday, and that “one is generally wise to render the poem as the poet wrote it, and let the poet’s poem explain itself.” Unfortunately, Gass the translator often ignores Gass the critic’s wise precepts. For yes, Reading Rilke is also a selection from Rilke’s poetry translated by Gass, sometimes reproducing Rilke’s rhyme scheme, sometimes more freely. Gass has some genuine successes here, as well as resounding failures.
The book is, further, a kind of omnium gatherum, with many an excursus on what fascinates Gass, such as a lengthy parallel between the modus operandi of Rilke with that of the mathematician Henri Poincaré, which does little for me. These digressions can be highly stimulating as well as annoyingly self-indulgent. More disturbingly, Gass yields at times to the urge to equal Rilke’s poetry with Gassian, not to say gassy, prose. Most valuable, however, are extended line-by-line comparisons of numerous English translations of the Elegies, with usually judicious assessments of their achievements and shortfalls, incidentally providing a close reading of the text, with many a welcome insight for readers who have no German. Alas, Gass’s own translations of these passages, sometimes even in several versions, often fall below those of previous translators. The culmination of Reading Rilke is Gass’s complete Englishing of the Elegies, imperfect and not even quite honest: it fails to provide the original on facing pages (or anywhere else), making it much harder to detect the translator’s traducings. But at least Gass does not attempt to boil down the Elegies to some limp formula: the traducer is not a reducer.
Let me proceed to some of my observations while reading Reading Rilke. Gass nicely evokes the bad luck and unhappiness that dogged the marriage of Rilke’s parents, and Rilke’s mother dressing the boy as a girl (a not all that uncommon practice then— think Wilde), with the possible bad effect this had on the grown man. But promptly Gass becomes outré describing the household: “Kid, Kitchen, Kirk, Koffee in which to dip a Kookie: they add up to Komfort.” This is soon redressed by an elegant trope: “Contradiction paves every avenue of feeling, and we grow up in bewilderment like a bird in a ballroom, with all that space and none meant for flying, a wide shining floor and nowhere to light [sic for alight].” Nicely put, as is this about Rilke’s involvement with the formidable Lou Andreas Salome, as formative as it was unsettling: “Meeting your match may make for a doubled flame, but it will certainly result, quite soon, in two burnt ends.” In this case, it was only René Maria Rilke, who at Lou’s urging became Rainer Maria, who got burned.
Gass aptly evokes Rilke,
the lover and letter writer, a man drawn to women like a bee who, heavy with their honey, soon returns to his hive; or one might remark Rilke’s career as a social climber, as the accomplished cultivator of those who may prove of some assistance to Art—occasionally artists, critics, editors, and poets, but generally people of wealth, position, and comfortable estates; or take note of the “inspired one,” who is attacked by the Muse from time to time the way storms lash rocky coasts . . . with sudden stiff onslaughts of both poetry and prose . . . Rilke is the traveler who passes through places the way others pass their years.
This is often censured in Rilke: his pretensions to nobility and his playing up to aristocratic ladies and, more rarely, gentlemen, who could provide him with the odd palazzo, castle, or tower—and requisite servants—in which to live in heroic isolation in the fawning company of women falling on their faces (or, too often, over backward) before such incomparable sensitivity and insight. Irritating is not so much the parasitism of all this as its influence on the work, which doubtless found being wistful, ethereal, and unremittingly elevated conducive to steady patronage. Rilke had to sing and swing high for his supper, “a professional melancholic and castle-dweller” as that fine poet Wilhelm Lehmann called him. Or, as Gass drolly puts it, Rilke “had realms” in which he “dwelt.”
Even better is this:
The course of life was . . . marked and marred by weakness, by giving in, by disappointment, as he ate, loved, schemed for advancement, groveled for money or employment, worried about a roof over his head, while trying to keep that head in the good clouds where it belonged.
And again: “Rilke liked to display his allegiance to the simple life by eating greens and taking barefoot walks.” Many passages evoke Rilke’s existential shenanigans with wry humor—but also often with show-offy, cluttered imagery. Particularly effective are the descriptions of Rilke as Rodin’s amanuensis, and of the dying poet “refusing narcotics in order to keep a clear head, the better to confront his illness.”
Sadly, though, Gass mistranslates part of one of Hölderlin’s finest poems: “With yellow pears hangs/ And full with wild roses/ The land in the lake.” This should be “into the lake.” The poem is “Hälfte des Lebens” (“Half [or mid-point] of Life”), where what was hangs toward the lake and is reflected by what is to come: the same, only in reverse—a great, tragic image for what the future holds. With “in the lake,” which bypasses the confluence of inverse doubles, all is lost. No less annoying are hyperkinetic Gassian tropes such as “The sonnet shape is as powerful as a right-wing religious group . . . conservative to the core, and snooty to boot,” by way of discussing the difficulties of translating formal verse. But need there be such mistakes as when Gass translates “und ohne Füsse kann ich zu dir gehn” as “walk without feet to where you were,” which flubs the needed point of “where you are,” to say nothing of producing the jingle where-were.
Next comes the book’s invaluable part: the minute, line-by-line comparison of selected passages from the Elegies as rendered by a dozen or more translators, with sound assessments of what they got right or wrong. The only trouble is that, as noted, we get Gass’s own versions, quite often as faulty as any, sometimes even in bad English, e.g., “that completer existence.”
Gass’s interpretation of the much-debated Rilkean Angels is as good as any:
The Angels are what the poet would be if he could free himself from human distraction, if he could be indifferent to the point of divinity, absorbed in himself like [sic] all noumena are, and at one with the work and the world of the work, its radiant perfections.
If the sentence stopped here, all would be well, but our author seldom leaves well enough alone, and embellishes with trifling tropes and mannered minutiae—smidgens in the Gass, alas—so the sentence staggers on: “like those twice luminous worms which [preferably that] glow with the added glory of their own phosphorescence: the lower light flouncing outward like a shout—that rare instreaming Rilkean light— swirling toward its source like water softly down a drain.”
An admirable caveat, regrettably overlooked by Gass the translator.
Gass’s version of “Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich,” “Every Angel is awesome,” is awful. We read: “‘Awesome’ is also a word being given the teenage treatment, but I think it’s still possible to say ‘awesome’ and not mean the noise from an electrolouded band.” Think again, Gass; awesome is as co-opted as gay. But he is right to remark, “Many translations do not bother to understand their texts. That would interfere with their own creativity and with their perception of what the poet ought to have said.” An admirable caveat, regrettably overlooked by Gass the translator. Before you buy this book, check out Gass at his most verbose on pages 70–71. If that is too much for you, as it almost is for me, you had better desist.
Gass, indeed, can be pretty opaque, as when he glosses “ich . . . verschlucke den Lockruf dunkelen Schluchzens” with “the cry is held back because the fear itself is a fear we worship out of frightened gratitude,” which I defy an Angel to explicate. Although he is funny about the failings of other translators (“As we advanced into the elegy as into some movie Africa, the weaknesses of our company became increasingly manifest: the heat is getting to them, the rotten gin, the drums, the flies”), he is not funny when he allows himself five shots at translating one short passage: that is translating with a spray gun, and even so he manages to miss the target.
Gass is often overfancy, as when he imputes to the German gelösten (loosened) “its twin suggestions of ‘listen’ and ‘loosen,’” the first of which is utter nonsense. His writing can also be slatternly: “Language of incredible musicality.” But Gass is again provocative in his disquisition of what a translator must preserve at all costs, and what he can sacrifice if he must, something different for every poet. In Rilke, he says,
the poetry of idea must come first, the metaphors he makes out of the very edge and absence of meaning, the intense metaphysical quality of his vision . . . while [sic] tone and overall effect would be next.
Well, yes, if you have those, you have just about everything, but Gass himself usually fails on both counts.
He correctly asserts of the Elegies that “Their Being was to be beyond the poem,” but is that a virtue? I think it’s better for the essence to remain inside the poem. Again, Gass goes cryptic: “Rilke’s Elegies will end when happiness falls.” What? “Mouth them . . . for these poems are the most oral I know . . . they must be spoken—not merely by but for yourself.” This strikes me as pure cant, and it continues, “the voice-making quality of these lines goes beyond their music. They are an utterance.” Of what good poetry could you not say all the above? Beyond the poem, beyond the music—this surely is metacriticism.
But Gass is good at conjuring up Rilke’s frustration from writer’s block, and cogently lists all the things bothering the poet, including “those migraines that troubled one end of him and the hemorrhoids that pained the other.” Yet he has to spoil it:
Rilke was as restless as one who hoped to leave his pain in the parlor when he enters the dining room, and his worries in the bedroom when he comes down for breakfast, only to find them spread over his toast and clouding every view.
That metaphor is not just mixed; it’s as scrambled as the eggs that go with the worry-buttered toast.
Eloquence possesses Gass on the subject of the death of young women, which so excited Rilke, as it did Poe. Gass writes:
Certainly such a death . . . had obsessed Rilke during nearly his entire life. Not only did it seem that a girl had to die to make room for him [a reference to his parents’ first child, dead in infancy], but it also seemed that this sad prematurity preserved the child’s possibilities along with her innocence.
lovers who loved and lost but who continued more devotedly to love, like Gaspara Stampa . . . were his sort of saint [sic]. . . . Rilke’s jilted ladies (and all were left in some sort of lurch) ought to love him the more for his resistance. And they did.
Gass gives all kinds of reasons, but neither he nor anyone else to my knowledge, has raised the possibility of some sort of Rilkean sadism. Thus the reveling in the death of the young women, thus the jiltings, thus one very curious passage in Malte Laurids Brigge, which this is not the place to examine.
Sloppy syntax again: “Laws . . . exist in the realm of number, where the pioneer, like a verdant valley, finds them.” This passage is about mathematics, but even mathematical pioneers tend not to resemble verdant valleys. We get a very unconvincing passage trying to explain why Rilke was unable to finish the Elegies during their first onrush at Duino in 1912, and why completion had to wait until 1922 at Muzot. Another terrible Gass trope concerns the breakup of Rilke’s marriage, which the poet claimed to have “reached a higher plane.” “Actually,” Gass goes on, “the couple’s plane had crashed, and they were scattered about like baggage on incongenial ground.” We have here, all at once, a poor pun, a nonexistent word (for uncongenial), and a ghastly simile. This from the jacket copy’s “admired essayist, novelist, and philosopher”?
Gass is good at communicating Rilke’s betrayal of his friend, the fine painter and human being Paula Modersohn-Becker, to whose tragic death he indirectly contributed. In that way, however, he could produce what he was so good at: a moving requiem on the death of a youngish woman. Gass quotes an affecting entry from Paula’s diary that is almost as poetic, and certainly more humane, than most of Rilke’s prose. He notes that the “Requiem for a Friend,” one of Rilke’s best poems, begins “I’ve had my dead, and I let them go, and was surprised to see them so consoled, so soon at home in being dead.”
This brings up death as a main theme of the Elegies, as well as in much of Rilke’s other work. The poet renounced Christianity, and stipulated that there be no priest at his deathbed. But, as Gass correctly observes, there are more saints, Christs, and Virgin Marys in Rilke’s poetry than you could squeeze into a major cathedral. And, of course, Angels. To me, this smells both of fear of death and of hedging your bets. Rilke’s chief way of dealing with that fear was to incorporate the dead as variously participating in life. About the above quotation, Gass wryly comments, “The Elegies will argue otherwise, deciding that ‘it’s difficult to be dead.’”
It seems to me allowable for the dead to have as conflicting feelings about death as the living have about life.
It seems to me allowable for the dead to have as conflicting feelings about death as the living have about life. But only if you assume that the dead have any feelings at all, which looks to me like cheating in the poet’s fundamentally nonreligious scheme of things. Yet there are more participatory stiffs in Rilke’s poetry than there are in ghost stories and horror movies. I find them even more inappropriate than the Angels—always, of course, with a capital A, although in German all nouns are capitalized. The meaning and existence of Angels can be argued about; the dead are palpably just plain dead.
It would be different if this afterlife of the dead were conceived figuratively, as some kind of symbol. But no, these dead are all over the place, disporting themselves more energetically than many of the quick. Which can ultimately have only one explanation: the attempt to allay timor mortis by denying rigor mortis. This strikes me as more bizarre than another debatable Rilkean trait, frequent in the Elegies and elsewhere: interpreting the feelings of animals in anthropomorphic terms, while also stressing the animals’ differentness from, indeed superiority to, human beings.
There is, then, overassertiveness to combat doubt. Or, as Gass aptly puts it, “Whenever a poem of Rilke’s seems to admonish the reader, openly with ‘You must change your life,’ or tacitly, through the poem’s example, we can be certain that Rilke has failed the charge,” just as he failed Paula Modersohn-Becker by not supporting her well-earned disinclination to rejoin her unworthy husband, with fatal consequences for her—a death unjustified by whatever great poetry it occasioned.
On the other important subject in the Elegies, love, Gass has this curious statement: “We kiss with our eyes closed because there isn’t much to see. And if there were, we wouldn’t want to see it.” Are there no better explanations for this by no means universal phenomenon, such as Rilke’s relentlessly advocated need for interiorization?
Yet there is redemption in Gass’s excellent disquisition—no mere digression—on the objet trouvé as art, specifically on the urinal (Fontaine) of Marcel Duchamp—alas, mis- spelled as “Duchamps” throughout, copy editors being even more extinct than the dodo. Gass then proceeds to dispute Rilke about animals being more instinctively at one with the world than we are, although Gass’s arguments based on animals’ alertness to danger signals or becoming habituated to human beings surely cut both ways.
On the subject of Rilke’s beloved Weltinnenraum, clumsily translated as “innerworldspace,” Gass is reasonable when he explains that the invisible signal emitted by objects lands “in an inner space, not the space between our ears, but the space between where our ears hear.” The Ninth Elegy asks, “What, if not this deep translation, is your ardent aim?,” whereupon Gass makes two of his best observations. First,
Contemplation was possible for Rilke—but it was more likely to occur in front of a Cézanne. Most of the revolutionary “new” poems [i.e., Neue Gedichte], supposed to demonstrate this saintly openness to objects, are about animals in zoos and flower beds in parks, photographs in books, works of art in the shelter of their museums, figures in myth, icons of the church.
In other words, second-hand contemplation. And good, too, Gass’s telling conclusion: “I feel obliged to say, when we perceive fully, we do ourselves a favor, not the world.” So all this gathering of messages from animals and objects is really a matter of, however enlightened, self-interest, and not the selfless fulfillment of a sacred obligation.
While expatiating on the Rilkean doctrine that, by using them, time inscribes on things and people their history, Gass again lapses into cuteness: “Rust destroys, but it creates character more surely than most playwrights. Aging delights in lines,” with a desperate pun on lines. And further: “For Rilke, the world has an expressive surface, and its ‘look’ should not be ignored.” True enough, but of how many scrupulous writers is this not equally true? Then, more pirouettes: “According to the Elegies, we are here just to utter. To sew concept to referent like a button on a coat . . . a button meant not to button but to be.” Well, if that isn’t cute as a button!
Gass does, however, get at what makes many impatient with Rilke, his
emphasis on Being rather than Doing, on relinquishment rather than retention, on acceptance rather than on revision; it smacks more of moral indolence than saintliness to them; and its radical subjectivity is offensively antisocial and indifferent to the collective.
This view was splendidly expressed in 1946 by Franz Blei in a generally favorable appraisal, wherein, however, he remarked cannily, that “the ship Rilke steers by a compass that points toward the iron of the ship,” and, perhaps more disputably, that “there is not a single true love poem by Rilke—so lonely in the soul was he.” Lonely or self-absorbed? The critic Friedrich Sieburg noted in 1949 that “an immeasurable religious need has seized people—with the greatest ineptitude for religiosity. In this tension, the message of . . . The Duino Elegies ensconces itself.”
In 1975, the distinguished journalist-critic Joachim Kaiser wrote that “it is not only from the all-too-sifted words of this most carefully selective poet that the impression of a taste-monger derives. Alienating was and is the thoughtless deliberateness of his God-fixation, his tendency toward the aristocratic, his lyrical-prophetic Gefunden-Haben,” which sounds terrible when Englished as “having-foundness.” In 1979, the essayist-biographer Peter Wapnewski spoke aptly of Rilke’s “mythical code devised for him who contrived it.”
Now, it is equally true that, as early as 1926, the good lyric poet Peter Gan praised Rilke’s “arduously wrested, incomparable ability to voice finenesses, uniquenesses, nuances of feelings and thoughts that hitherto were lost in the ocean of the ineffable,” a perception echoed in 1975 by Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Germany’s leading critic, as Rilke’s “triumph in the struggle with the unsayable.” Something similar was expressed even better back in 1925 by the eminent poet-critic Oskar Loerke, for whom Rilke “increased with all his words the treasure of silence.” Loerke also averred that philosophy could express itself better through associations than through ratiocination, which quickly exhausts itself.
Contrariwise, in 1929, Baron Börries von Münchhausen, Germany’s most popular poet and specialist in ballads (and yes, of the same clan as the Great Liar), though variously appreciative of Rilke, berated him for his rather close imitation of late Hölderlin, for his “substantivitis, a festering of the living verb into the desiccated noun,” and for the Elegies being, as Rilke himself states at their outset, a self-portrait, far removed from the concerns of the common man. Wilhelm Lehmann took Rilke to task in 1966 for “not taking sensory phenomena very seriously,” and seeing them “with a preconception about whether a way from them led ‘inward.’” Thus Lehmann: “So he opined that the fig tree bore fruit without first having to bloom, and promptly became a symbol. His work was full of speculativeness, of which the lyric sicklies.” Read- ing Rilke compelled Lehmann “to defend things against this interiorization: trees are so fulfilled in their creatureliness that apprehending them requires none of this heavily talked-about ‘innerworldspace.’”
The most succinct screed against the Elegies comes from a letter by the distinguished poet and prose writer Albrecht Schaeffer in 1924, who read them
almost with a shudder. This now is the most hapless blather; an endless, dulcet rustling of the rarest words and phrases, all of them babbling away as sweetly as children’s questioning. For this pious, this sanctimonious man, who converses only with God and Angels, nothing is sacred, and he now rips to shreds . . . hexameters . . . the noblest creation of the noblest folk . . . into his free rhythms. . . . It is impotence turned lyrical drivel, all sucked out of nihilism. . . . All is nothingness, only the Angels exist, a little, as if by mistake. . . . For he is unstable, everything slips through his fingers, it is all mere associative prattle . . . rags.
Something comparable was stated by Hofmannsthal, Rilke’s friendly rival (the only other one, Stefan George, was less friendly) in a letter of 1927: “The Elegies, I believe, are simply not good—they lack that rarest rhythmical inspiration, which alone can legitimize this highest poetic mode.”
But back to Gass, who describes Rilke’s psychological pattern as follows:
First, he expects of ordinary life far more than it can possibly produce. . . . Second, he consequently enters a state of dismay and disappointment. Third, he requires of the poet . . . an elevated life anyway. Fourth, the poet, in order to lead that elevated life, is forced to accept and praise the same ordinary world he began by disdaining.
And Gass proceeds to illustrate this practice with wit and insight. In short, “Rilke takes away with one hand, and gives with another . . . what he gives is always a task.”
And then the women: “Orpheus did not fare well at their hands, hands which tore him to pieces. So unless the women are both young and dead, the poet will not praise—he’ll blame.” Again: “Irony might save some of these poems, but Rilke is rarely ironic.” Then another grammatical whopper in Gass’s rendering of the Eighth Elegy: “one of those Etruscan souls who has [sic] flown from the corpse.” Indeed, by way of putative interpretation, Gass writes his own poem:
Show the Angel a billfold that has ridden in the rear pocket on someone’s rump, the creases it now contains, where money and credit cards once slid in and out, as oiled and stained as a fielder’s glove . . . or a mohair sofa, shiny where the man wearing that billfold sat, or the cat curled, or love was made.
Elsewhere in overlong sentences on pages 181–182, Gass explicates away fulsomely, sometimes in Kantian terms, and is hard to follow.
Yet his final apotheosis of poetry, Rilke’s and others’, is eloquent enough for extensive quoting.
The poem is thus a paradox. It is made of air. It vanishes as the things it speaks about vanish. It is made of music, like us, “the most fleeting of all” yet it is also made of meaning that’s as immortal as immortal gets on our mortal earth; because the poem will return, will begin again, as spring returns: it can be said again, sung again, is our only answered prayer; the poem can be carried about more easily than a purse, and I don’t have to wait, when I want it, for a violinist to get in key, it can come immediately to mind—to my mind because it is my poem as much as it is yours—because, like a song, it can be sung in many places at once—and danced as well, because the poem becomes a condition of the body, it enlivens our bones, and they dance the Hardy, the Hopkins, the Valéry, the Yeats; because the poem is a state of the soul, too (the soul we once had), and these states change as all else does, and these states mingle and conflict and grow weak or strong, and even if these verbalized moments of consciousness suggest things which are unjust or untrue when mistaken for statements, when rightly written they are real; they themselves are as absolutely as we achieve the Real in this unrealized life—are—are with a vengeance; because, oddly enough, though what has been celebrated is over, and one’s own life, the life of the celebrant, may be over, the celebration is not over, the celebration goes on.
So what hath Gass wrought? Not a biography or a work of criticism. He has written an extended freeform essay circling around his subject, bringing in biography and criticism wherever it suited him. Quite aside from how one feels about specifics, his book, qua genre, is commendable down to its agreeable length: not counting the complete Duino Elegies at the end, 180-odd pages.
But what about the Elegies themselves?
But what about the Elegies themselves? Ten longish poems about so many diverse things: the poet, fear, the Angel, the Saint, the Hero, Death, women (early deceased or jilted), the dead in their afterlife, not according to any known religion. Can the center hold when there is no center? Despite some fine passages, there is no whole here. There could have been more or less of it with much the same effect. A great, baggy monster.
Yet Rilke was a real poet, and I’ll adduce one of my favorite quatrains of his from an uncollected poem, one of two written for Marthe Hennebert, a wretched working-class girl he picked up in the summer of 1911 on a Paris street.
Befriedigungen ungezählter Jahre
sind in der Luft, voll Blumen liegt dein Hut
und der Geruch aus deinem reinen Haare
mischt sich mit Welt als wäre alles gut.
Appeasements of innumerable years
are in the air, your hat lies full of flowers
and the scent from your pure hair
mingles with world as if all were well.
Thus speaks the poet to his momentary girl in a Grande Jatte setting.
No one in German handled sound and rhyme better than Rilke. We should note the u’s in lines two and three, the i’s in line four, the alternation of well-chosen feminine and masculine rhymes, the inner rhyme of deinem reinen. Also the progression from peace, through idyllicism, to the quietly devastating as if: as if all were well. Four simple German words exude the impermanence of joy, the sense of human transience, the skull that lurks in Arcadia.
Let me conclude by comparing Gass’s and two other recent translations of the Duino Elegies.2 I pick, almost at random, this from the “Seventh Elegy”: “Hiersein ist herrlich. Ihr wusstet es, Mädchen, ihr auch,/ die ihr scheinbar entbehrtet, versankt—, ihr, in den ärgsten/ Gassen der Städte, Schwärende, oder dem Abfall/ Offene.” I translate: “Being here is resplendent. You knew it, girls, you too,/ who seemed to do without, who sank—, you, in the most wretched/ streets of the cities, festering, or rife for the refuse heap.” In Edward Snow’s new, properly bilingual and annotated edition, this reads: “Life here is magic. Even you knew that, you girls/ who seemed deprived of it, who were trapped in the city’s vilest streets, festering there, or cast aside/ for rubbish.” In Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann’s attractive The Essential Rilke, this becomes: “Being here is glorious. You knew it, you girls, you, also/ who seemed left out, who sank—you, into the most squalid streets of the city, festering, open to/ garbage.” And finally Gass: “It is breathtaking simply to be here. Girls, even you/ knew, who seemed so deprived, so reduced, who became/ sewers yourselves, festering in the awful alleys of the city.”
Obviously, the original is best. Hiersein ist herrlich is untranslatable in its simplicity, directness, cadence, and music. Equally clearly, Gass’s chatty, prolix way with it is too prosaic, and “who became sewers yourselves” is offensive. But Snow’s version is either too grandiose or too colloquial. Kinnell’s glorious is correct but a bit flat; his into for in is plain wrong. Garbage, though correct, has taken on other, unwanted English meanings. Rubbish is better. Gass’s “awful alleys” suggests back streets of crime rather than mere squalor. Snow’s trapped is less imaginative than sank.
Even in this short fragment Gass comes off worst, and he can also be downright incorrect, as when, in the “Fifth Elegy,” he renders the selten zärtliche Mutter, (which Kinnell rightly translates as “seldom tender mother”) as “one seldom allowed to be your mother,” though here Snow’s “your remote mother” is rather too weak as well. A trying business, translation; but, all the same, it must be tried.
- Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, by William Gass; Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pages, $25. Go back to the text.
- The Duino Elegies, translated by Edward Snow (North Point Press, 112 pages, $20) will be published in February 2000. The Essential Rilke, translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann; Ecco Press, 128 pages, $22.95. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 5, on page 17
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