In trying to keep in the English to the rhymed metrical regularity of these four poems, I have had to supply words of my own on occasion, to fill out a line or make a rhyme. That is a dangerous business, putting your own words into the mouth of a great poet. The Mitgefühl (“feeling-with”) that can spring up between a poet and translator may mitigate such presumption. The splendid translations of Rilke by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebman aim right for his imaginative originality without interference from the requirements of rhyme and metrical regularity. The present translations may lose in that respect; I offer them as giving something of the overall feel and swing of Rilke’s poems, of his voice playing off against the traditional voice of German poetry, which is close to that of English poetry. Matthew Arnold in his essay on Heine speaks of “the German paste” in the composition of English, with the result that German poetry sounds so much like, and French unlike. But Rilke is also light, subtle, intensely conscious in the French way.

Rilke’s note, sounded early in “Autumn Day,” is that of loneliness—Auden called him “the Santa Claus of loneliness.” It isn’t solitude. Solitude is ancient, has the feeling of communing with a higher world. Loneliness seems to be a modern invention, wanders the streets down here. There is loneliness in “The Panther” too, but touched with fear. The last lines seem to open a pit at your feet. The poem belongs among the best evocations of animalness: with the horse “who saith among the trumpets ‘Ha, Ha!’ and smelleth the battle afar off”; with Christopher Smart’s cat Jeoffrey: “For there is nothing sweeter than his peace when at rest. For there is nothing brisker than his life when in motion.”

“Leda” is a brilliant, amusing take on the old story. Of course you think at once of Yeats. His “Leda” is grand, with quattrocento painting, Aeschylus, Homer behind it. Feathered Jove is “glorious.” Troy falls, Agamemnon dies. Was Leda raised up to god-like knowledge, the poem asks. But Rilke’s god appears from nowhere. He is needy. The beauty of the swan flusters him. He doesn’t master Leda, she masters him. He doesn’t raise her up, she draws him down. Changed into an earthly swan, he delights in his feathers. He touches you.

Rilke in these poems is strictly of this world. Art is his religion. The marble torso of the Apollo poem, turning its searchlight on you in the last two lines, discovers your untruth to yourself: you’ve got to change your life. After a century of psychology, this has a canting sound. Until its conclusion, the “Apollo,” like the “Panther,” is one of Rilke’s exact, prayerful observations of die Dinge (“things”) in which object and observer become one. To give the full Auden quotation:

And Rilke whom die Dinge bless,
The Santa Claus of loneliness.

 

 

Herbsttag

Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.

Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,

und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los.

 

Befiehl den letzten Früchten voll zu sein;

gib ihnen noch zwei südlichere Tage,

dränge sie zur Vollendung hin und jage

die letzte Süsse in den schweren Wein.

 

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.

Wer jetzt allein ist, wird es lange bleiben,

wird wachen, lesen, lange Briefe schreiben

und wird in den Alleen hin und her

unruhig wandern, wenn die Blätter treiben.

 

Autumn day

Lord, it was much, the summer: but it's time now.

Lay down your shadow on the stone sun dial

and let the winds run loose upon the meadow.

 

Command the last fruits to be round and ripe;

allow them two days' more meridional warmness,

hurry them along into their fullness,

and with last sweetness load the heavy grape.

 

Who's got no house now, houseless he'll remain.

Who's all alone, he'll be alone still longer,

sit up late, read awhile, write a long letter,

and growing restless, walk out in the rain

and blowing leaves, down this street, that street, or another.

 

Archaïscher Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,

darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber

sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,

in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

 

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug

der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen

der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen

zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

 

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstelt und kurz

unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz

und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

 

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern

aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,

die dich nicht sieht. Du musst dein Leben ändern.

 

Archaic torso of Apollo

We never knew his extraordinary head,

with swelling stone eyeballs. Yet even broken,

his torso still glows like a lighted lantern

in which his gaze, damped down, not out, not dead,

 

keeps burning on. Or else the breast's bent bow

could never dazzle you, nor yet a smile run

ruffling through the loins' slight subtle flexion

to that midpoint from which ourselves we sow.

 

Or else the stone would be a stump, cut off

beneath the shoulders' clear transparent drop,

and wouldn't glisten like a wild beast's coat;

 

and wouldn't, breaking through the outlines of itself,

glitter like a star: for in it no least part

but finds you out. You've got to change your life.

 

Leda

Als ihn der Gott in seiner Not betrat,

erschrak er fast, den Scwan so schön zu finden;

er liess sich ganz verwirrt in ihm verschwinden.

Schon aber trug ihn sein Betrug zur Tat,

 

bevor er noch des unerprobten Seins

Gefühle prüfte. Und die Aufgetane

erkannte schon den Kommenden im Schwane

und wusste schon: er bat um Eins,

 

das sie, verwirrt in ihrem Widerstand,

nicht mehr verbergen konnte. Er kam nieder,

und halsend durch die immer schwächre Hand

 

liess sich der Gott in die Geliebte los.

Dann erst empfand er glücklich sein Gefieder

und wurde wirklich Schwan in ihrem Schoss.

 

Leda

When in his need the god surprised the swan,

its beauty almost scared him, he found, ravished—

a good deal flustered, into it he vanished.

His shamming had already led him on

 

to doing before he'd had time even to test

the feelings of his new, all untried state.

And she, all openness, already guessed

who it was coming in the swan, knew that

 

the thing he asked of her her dazed resistance

could no longer hide from him. A swoop,

and his neck butting through her hands' weak hindrance,

 

the god unloosed himself into love's grip.

Then feeling in his feathers for the first time gladness,

the god became a real swan in her lap.

 

Der Panther

Im Jardin des Plantes, Paris

Sein Blick ist vom Vorübergehn der Stäbe

so müd geworden, dass er nichts mehr hält.

Ihm ist, als ob es tausend Stäbe gäbe

und hinter tausend Stäben keine Welt.

 

Der weiche Gang geschmeidig starker Schritte,

der sich im allerkleinsten Kreise dreht,

ist wie ein Tanz von Kraft um eine Mitte,

in der betäubt ein grosser Wille steht.

 

Nur manchmal schiebt der Vorhang der Pupille

sicht lautlos auf—.Dann geht ein Bild hinein,

geht durch der Glieder angespannte Stille—

und hört im Herzen auf zu sein.

 

The panther

Jardin des Plantes, Paris

From bars forever going past, his gaze

so jaded's grown there's no more it can hold.

To him a thousand bars are what there is,

bars only, and behind the bars no world.

 

The paws' soft fall and heavy limbs' loose swing

as in the tightest circles he turns round,

is like strength dancing round some central thing

inside of which a great will sits benumbed.

 

Except that now and then you see the curtain

of the pupils in dead silence rise—

an image enters, passes through the shoulders' tight-drawn

stillness to the heart, and dies.

 

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 19 Number 7, on page 33
Copyright © 2019 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com
newcriterion.com/issues/2001/3/four-poems-by-rainer-maria-von-rilke