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READING GASS READING RILKE (Originally published in Parnassus)

William H. Gass. Reading Rilke : Reflections on the Problems of Translation. Alfred A. Knopf 1999 xvi + 233pp. $25.00 $15.00 (paper).1

"What lover of poetry," asks William Gass, as he embarks on his own labor of love, the translation and interpretation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies, "has not read the story?" And he gives this dramatic account:

[Rilke] has been lent the off-season use of the Castle Duino by the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe. The place [near Trieste] is huge and stern, alternatively menacing and boring, too austere even for a soul sold on austerity. Rilke, as sensitive to weather as a vane, also found the climate trying. Yet it was economical. It spoke to him only of work. Nevertheless, the poet would have preferred Capri. Duino it was.

Pent up there by a bitter Adriatic winter and, more willingly, by the stones of the place itself, he continues to be deserted by his Muse so that he feels barren, arid of spirit, yet driven deeply into himself like a stake meant for his own heart. Sterile as a wooden cuckoo, then, and surrounded by the sea below him by a loneliness which has for months embarrassed his much prized solitude with occult visitations and handmade sex, shaming and humiliating him, the Poet has had–this fateful morning–to deal with an annoying business letter he feels asks too loudly for its answer. Preoccupied, he walks along the precipitous edge of the Duino Castle cliffs, his head bent into a bright wind which buries his breath. Then . . . then, like the rattle in a hollow gourd, he hears in his head what will one day be the celebrated question with which the Elegies are at last to announce themselves: Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?

Was the Myth of the Poet ever more gloriously Romantic than this? Consider its appeal: The thirty-seven year old poet is already the author of such classics as The Book of Images (1906), New Poems (1907-08), and the autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), but, true to the myth, he lives in genteel poverty, dependent on the largesse of various patronesses, in what seems to be permanent exile from his native Prague. The poet’s love life is the stuff of opera: If his most durable attachment is to the brilliant Lou Andreas-Salomé, ten years his senior and herself incapable of constancy, he repeatedly finds himself in love with some new enticing woman, only to find that the liaison has become stifling and must be dissolved. In the midst of this (we are in the autumn of 1911), Rilke is trying to finalize his divorce from his long estranged wife Clara and make arrangements for their neglected young daughter Ruth. It is at this moment that the call comes from the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, preparing the ground for what was to be, together with the Sonnets to Orpheus (1923), Rilke’s poetic triumph. Indeed, as the Princess herself tells it, the voice that dictated to the poet the opening line of the Elegies came directly from the "violent north wind."

Gass is not the first to be drawn to this myth of Rilke as Pure Poet, transforming the suffering of daily life into immortal works of art. Rilke himself contributed to this legend, representing himself as living, not for any worldly pleasures, but solely for his art. One of Rilke’s most popular books in the U.S. is the 1903 Letters to a Young Poet, in which he tells young Franz Xaver Kappus:

There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all–ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write?"

This passion for Art has obvious appeal at the turn of the twenty-first century when "art" is increasingly commodified and judged to be largely inseparable from popular culture. No wonder that English and American poets from Stephen Spender (who, together with J. B. Leishman, produced the first important translation of the Duino Elegies in 1939) and W. H. Auden, to Robert Bly, Mark Strand, Louise Gluck, and Galway Kinnell, who has just published, with the aid of Hannah Liebmann, his own version of Rilke’s poems, including the Duino Elegies, have made such a cult of Rilke. Indeed, so enthusiastic have our poets been that they have often ignored the downside of Rilke’s studied aestheticism: the social climbing and sponging that allied the poet to his aristocratic hostesses; the callous treatment of his daughter, whose trust fund, donated by Eva Cassirer, he shamelessly raided to pay his hotel bills; the betrayal of friends and adoring mistresses like Magda von Hattenberg ("Benvenuta") in the name of a self-abnegation that made "work" his first priority; and especially (to my mind) a political disengagement so total that the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 seemed primarily a disruption of his own literary plans. Gass himself, in all fairness, acknowledges his hero’s weaknesses. In the passage cited above, he notes wryly that Rilke would have preferred Capri (on the Mediterranean coast) to Duino on the Adriatic, but that the poet was practical enough to understand that he better accept the Princess Marie’s offer, even if his lonely stay at the castle meant resorting to what Gass coyly refers to as "hand-made sex."

If, as Eliot Weinberger has recently noted 2, the publication of poetry in translation in the US has undergone a steady decline in the past few decades, Rilke seems to be the grand exception. There are now more than twenty translations of the Duino Elegies, three (Gass, Galway Kinnell, Edward Snow) from the past year alone. What makes this phenomenon especially odd is that, so far as I can judge, none of the translators are themselves bilingual, and only a few–A. J. Poulin, David Young, Kinnell–are themselves poets. J. B. Leishman and Edward Snow, in what seems an odd coincidence, were both trained as English Renaissance scholars. As for Gass himself, one assumes that as a student of philosophy he must have learned German at college, but nothing in his book suggests that he is in any way at home in the language. Indeed, in the preface, Gass warmly acknowledges the help of the German scholar-critic Heide Ziegler to whom the book is dedicated. "This book," he declares "is half hers." If so, why doesn’t her name appear on the title page? If not, what does this declaration really mean?

Reflections on the Problems of Translation (Gass’s subtitle) thus represents what is to my mind an astonishing phenomenon: the cult-like worship of a poet by later poets who can barely read the poetry in question! It is very much a symptom of our present culture: James Joyce, let’s recall, taught himself Norwegian just so that he could read Ibsen; today, by contrast, an acclaimed translation of Dante’s Inferno has been produced by the poet Robert Pinsky, who admits to struggling with the Italian original. Indeed, the alliance between poet and native informant, as in the case of Kinnell and Liebmann, or, say, Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith in their Aimé Césaire translations, or more informally, Gass and Ziegler, is based on the curious premise that the poet-translator (usually male) takes the trot generated by his informant (usually, in the current economy, female) and endows those words with something called "poetry."

The problem in Rilke’s case is exacerbated by the high degree of untranslatability that characterizes his poems, vis-à-vis other German modernists. Compare, for example, the opening of Georg Trakl’s "Geburt" ("Birth"), as translated by the poet Christopher Middleton:

Gebirge: Schwärze, Schweigen und Schnee

Rot vom Wald niedersteigt die Jagd;

O, die moosigen Blicke des Wilds.

Mountains: blackness, silence and snow,

Red from the forest the hunt comes down;

O the mossy gaze of the wild deer3


Trakl’s stark, highly concrete visual images, aligned in short noun phrases or simple sentences, translate nicely into English; Middleton even manages to keep the alliteration of the first line and the exact syntax of the third.

Or again, take a lyric from Paul Celan’s hermetic and condensed Atemwende, as translated by Pierre Joris:

KEINE SANDKUNST MEHR, kein Sandbuch, keine Meister.

Nichts erwürfelt. Wieviel



Deine Frage–deine Antwort.

Dein Gesang, was weiß er?





NO SANDART ANYMORE, no sandbook, no masters.

Nothing in the dice. How

many mutes?


Your question–your answer.

Your chant, what does it know?




Here the language becomes increasingly fragmentary, as "Tief im schnee" loses its initial consonants and finally all but its central vowels, a situation rendered precisely in Joris’s translation. However hermetic Celan’s lyric, the translation can and does duplicate the original mystery of the short phrasal utterances. Indeed, Joris didn’t have all that many choices: "Nichts erwüfelt" literally means "No dice thrown" rather than "Nothing in the dice," and "Gesang" might have been translated "song" rather than "chant," but otherwise the German words don’t allow for much license on the translator’s part.

By contrast, Rilke’s long Latinate sentences, whose hypotactic structure and predominantly abstract language make possible a range of conflicting interpretations, must be a translator’s nightmare. Consider the opening sentence of "The First Elegy" (Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?), whose translation Gass discusses at length in his third chapter, citing fifteen translations. Let me list seven:

J. B. Leishman (1930) Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?

Harry Behn (1957) Who, if I cried out, would heed me amid the host of the Angels?

A. J. Poulin (1977) And if I cried, who’d listen to me in those angelic orders?

Stephen Cohn (1989) WHO, if I cried out, might hear me–among the ranked Angels.

David Oswald (1992) Who, if I cried out, would hear me then, out of the orders of angels? (see pp. 57-58)

Edward Snow (2000) Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?

Galway Kinnell (2000) Who, if I screamed out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?

And here is Gass’s own:

Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions of Angels?

Assessing, his own translation vis-à-vis the others, Gass puts himself in the poet’s situation on the "fateful morning" that prompts the original question. What would happen, he wonders, "if I were to entreat the higher powers, cry out from my soul, pray to the so-called gods for my poetry to be returned to me, for a little rain after this long drought, whom would my words reach?" And he is forced to realize that the answer is "No one. The mountains of the heart entertain no echo. The Abyss does not respond." At the same time, "the voice . . . is not heard as the poet’s own. It comes from the clean wind, the bora, burning his face like the sun, and it has the same elemental force. Thus it is not the fastidious, fussy little person of the petitioner who wonders these words (it is everybody’s elemental outcry)." So basic and "true" is the poet’s confrontation with "the fundamental mystery" of existence, as embodied in the angel metaphor, that, in Gass’s words, "These are not poems, then. These are miracles."

A surprising conclusion, this, for a postmodern philosopher, critic, and novelist, known for his insistence that the language of poetry (or fiction), far from representing any social or moral reality outside itself, creates its own universe. Surprising too that a critic who has written so brilliantly on Gertrude Stein’s language, with its minute permutations of prepositions and pronouns, would have such empathy for all this High Poetic talk of Engel Ordnungen. But somehow the "inward cry, a cry to heaven as empty as the air" is deeply moving to Gass. And he now explains his own word choices. For schriee, he uses "cried" rather than "cried out" or "shouted" because the poet’s "cry" will not, after all, be heard. Ordnungen is translated as "Dominions" so as to refer to "the traditional conception of angels, namely their division into seraphim, cherubim, thrones– dominations, virtues, powers–principalities, archangels, angels." "Orders" (Leishman, Poulin) is thus insufficient. As for "hierarchies" (Kinnell, and see Albert Fleming, cited by Gass), the word falsely implies that the angels themselves have arranged their orders, even as "Cohn’s expression ‘ranked Angels’ sounds ludicrous in English (Angel A, Angel B . . . )."

Most translations, Gass further complains, get Rilke’s tone wrong. Poulin, for example, is "far too colloquial." And with respect to metrics, Gass takes the conservative line. "The Elegies are dominated by Angels of an icy sky above and the gravitating dactyls of a declining ground below, with the dactyls by far the more powerful presence." When the meter is "easy to maintain," counsels Gass, it should be maintained, as should, insofar as possible, the word order. Given these principles, "Leishman’s must be accounted as the most adequate, and perhaps even the only acceptable, version." Indeed, Gass’s own is almost identical except that "angelic orders" becomes "Dominions of Angels."

I find this entire discussion, and the subsequent ones that perform similar dissections of the second and third elegies, as frustrating as they are fascinating. Fascinating in that Gass’s meticulous account of his mental processes makes clear that translation is always a form of interpretation–in Rilke’s case, a particularly difficult form of interpretation because the language of the Duino Elegies is not only highly connotative but abstract enough to allow for multiple denotations as well, as in the case of the verb schreien or the noun Ordnungen. At the same time, at least for a native German speaker like myself, Gass’s explanations are primarily frustrating, in that none of the above translations, Gass’s included, give the reader who knows no German any real sense of Rilke’s peculiar power. How, after all, can the English translator reproduce the syntactic suspension, heightened by the explosive sound repetition of "r, nn ich schríee. . . "? Whether the translator chooses "Who, if I cried. . ." or "Who, if I cried out. . .," or even Kinnell’s "Who, if I screamed out. . .", the phrase sounds stilted–almost Victorian. The fact is that in English we don’t speak this way (we would say, "If I cried out, who’d hear me?"), whereas in German, Rilke’s locution is really quite natural–in fact, pace Gass’s critique of Poulin, quite colloquial. Indeed, the key to Rilke’s particular tone, so far as the first sentence of the elegy is concerned, is hidden in a small adverb that all but one of the fourteen translators on Gass’s list (as well as Snow and Kinnell) ignore–namely the word denn ("hörte mich denn")5. Gass thinks it’s a good thing that "No one has tried to mimic the wenn-denn division," although he doesn’t say why. Denn literally means "then," but as used here, it has the force of "Well, then" or "And then" or "So," as in "So, who, if I cried out, would hear me. . . ?", as if to say that we are overhearing an anguished dialogue of self and soul already underway. Denn, in other words, gives the lines an immediate context otherwise missing from the translations above, suggesting as these do that, contrary to the denn, the question posed is abstract and timeless. Indeed, Gass goes so far as to say that "nothing, surely, is prior to the poet’s profound recognition of his isolation."

What about those "dominions of angels"? Rilke’s words are Engel / Ordnungen–"angel orders," with stress on Engel and the line break between the two nouns accentuating the subordinate status of Ordnungen. The relation of possessive to noun is rather like the construction "my New York friends," where the emphasis is on New York. It is important to note this because all talk of angels, appearing as it does in the poem of a modern disbeliever, is initially quite shocking, as in Wallace Stevens. Accordingly, reference to "Dominions," "hierarchies," "host of angels," or even Snow’s "angelic orders" strike me as a case of misplaced emphasis. As for schriee, "cried" is much too weak a verb, especially since the harsh, guttural, heavily stressed, and all but onomatopoeic sound of the two-syllable schríée is wholly lost.

A similar tonal failure and consequent dampening of intensity occurs in Gass’s translation of lines 2-4, again read against the fourteen others. Here is Rilke’s text:

und gesetzt selbst, es nähme

Einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem

Stärkeren Dasein.

Unforgivably, Gass’s citation of these lines (p. 61) has two misprints:

seibts for selbts ("even," "still") and plützlich for plötzlich ("suddenly")?
Again, after lodging a number of objections to the various translations of ich verginge (e.g., I would fade, vanish, perish, dissolve, shrivel, die), Gass gives us:

And even if one of them suddenly held me /

against his heart, I would fade in the grip of

that completer existence.

If one didn’t know one was reading Rilke, this talk of being held "against" someone’s heart (it should be, as Edward Snow renders it, "to his heart") and of "fad[ing] in the grip of the completer existence," one would think these lines were by Trumbull Stickney or William Vaughan Moody. What Rilke is saying is that poet is overwhelmed by the angel’s more powerful being, a being that all but annihilates him. Angel, in other words, becomes vampire. "Das Schöne," as the next line puts it, "ist nichts / als des Schrecklichen Anfang"; the beautiful is nothing but the onset of terror." Dasein, a word made familiar by Heidegger (translations of Being and Time often use the German word throughout even as Freud translations refer to daß Unheimliche) is surely more accurately rendered as Being rather than "existence" or Snow’s "stronger existence." And the "grip" in the preceding line conjures up the inappropriate image of an animal or bird–a gorilla? a vulture?–holding the expiring poet in its clutches.

Perhaps Gass is straining too hard to invent individual novelties at the expense of the larger picture. The anapestic rhythm of "I would fade in the grip of / that completer existence." for instance, has a Tennysonian air at odds with Rilke’s fluid gravity. As a literal translation, in any case, Gass’s suffers by comparison to Snow’s careful gloss of the original, designed for bilingual use. Compare, for example, the opening of Snow’s translation of "The Second Elegy"--

Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas,

I sing to you, almost fatal birds of the soul,

Knowing what you are

to Gass’s:

Every Angel is awesome. And yet, alas,

Knowing that I still sing my welcome to you,

Almost deadly birds of the soul–

where the original reads:

Jeder Engel ist schrecklich. Und dennoch, weh mir,

ansing ich euch, fast tödliche Vögel der Seele,

wissend um euch.

Was Gass aware, one wonders, that in our current argot, "awesome" is equivalent to "fabulous" or "out of this world,’ as in "That dress is awesome!"? Even if not, the adjective seems an inappropriate rendition of schrecklich, and wissend am euch, translated by Snow literally as "knowing what you are," is awkwardly translated by Gass as "knowing that." Which is not to say that Snow’s is an exciting Duino Elegies any more than is Kinnell’s very careful one. In the latter, for instance, a magnificent line such as this one from the "First Elegy":

Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf

Dunkelen Schluchzens–


And so I hold back and swallow the lure-call

of dark sobbing--

a line that gives the reader no idea of the choking effect of Rilke’s last five words where the act of swallowing seems to be literally blocked by the repetition of fricatives and sibilants: verschluckte, Lockruf, Dunkelen, Schluchzens.

But the real question I want to address here is not whether Gass is or is not a good translator of Rilke (he emphatically isn’t, although his versions of earlier poems like "Buddha" and "Carousel" are better than his Duino Elegies), but how and why someone as frequently insensitive as is Gass to Rilkean nuances–whether of meaning or of sound and rhythm--can manage to write what is against all odds a remarkable book on the poet.

No doubt, the answer is that, clunky as his translations may be, Gass has always been a superb critic. Consider the dramatic opening chapter called "Lifeleading," in which, drawing on Ralph Freedman’s carefully documented and scholarly (if somewhat labored) biography of Rilke6, Gass teases out the meaning of Rilke’s rose poems. It seems, as Freedman tells it, that a few months before his death of leukemia in 1926, Rilke met, on the terrace of the Hotel Savoy at Lausanne, a young Egyptian beauty named Nimet Eloui Bey. The daughter of the First Chamberlain to Sultan Hussein of Egypt, she was, at the time, living apart from her ailing, wealthy husband Aziz. Nimet had recently read Malte Laurids Brigge and asked to be introduced to its author. A close relationship quickly developed, and, as Freedman tells it:

One week after Rilke’s return to Muzot, Nimet Eloui arrived in her fast car with a woman friend. In his pleasure he cut roses for her and was pricked on his left hand by a large thorn. The wound became rapidly and painfully infected. The next day, a finger on the other hand was bandaged as well, this time with an infected nail. . . . For ten days both hands were unusable, after which he caught an intestinal flu and high fever. It is unlikely that the thorn itself caused Rilke’s death, as is romantically assumed, but it may well have triggered attacks from which, in the end, he did not recover.

(p. 546).

End of story–at least for Freedman (as for Rilke’s earlier biographers). But for Gass, the pricked finger becomes the occasion of an elaborate meditation on the place of the rose in the poet’s life. "Roses" he declares, "climb [Rilke’s] life as if he were their trellis." And he recalls an incident in 1900 (again drawing on Freedman) when the poet had just met Paula Becker and his future wife Clara Westhoff and brought his new friends some flowers. In his diary, Rilke wrote, "I invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt: only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn."

"The poet," Gass comments, "never forgets a metaphor. Nor do his friends forget the poet’s passions. Move on to 1907 now, when in Capri, Rilke composes ‘The Bowl of Roses’ [Die Rosenschale], beginning this poem with an abrupt jumble of violent images." And he cites the poem’s first stanza:

You’ve seen their anger flare, seen two boys

bunch themselves into a ball of animosity

and roll across the ground

like some dumb animal set upon by bees;

you’re seen those carny barkers, mile-high liars,

the careening tangle of bolting horses,

their upturned eyes and flashing teeth,

as if the skull were peeled back from the mouth. (p. 4)

This comes from New Poems [1907], and here, incidentally, Gass’s translation is better than Snow’s, especially his rendition of the last line, als schälte sich der Schädel aus dem Maule, which Snow translates as "as if their mouths were peeling from their skulls" (p. 193). "Bullyboys, actors, tellers of tall tales, runaway horses--," remarks Gass, "fright, force, and falsification–losing composure, pretending, revealing pain and terror: these are compared to the bowl of roses." It is, by anyone’s count, a prodigious series of metaphors, for who would normally link a bowl of roses to such violence? In Rilke’s case, as Gass shows, this opening stanza sets the stage for a curious development: A single rose gradually comes to life, a "distilling eye" that "gathers light and filters it until the concentration is powerful and pure, until its stamens become erect." Thus the conventionally female rose gathers the light of the skies "until the phallic element of the flower dominates the symbol. Eventually the rose bestrews itself."

By now Gass has piqued our curiosity, especially when he notes that the falling petals, "discoloring shards" "can help us see to another part of the world as through a stained-glass window." And he relates "The Bowl of Roses" to a poem of the same year [The Rose-Interior], written "in the August of an emptied Paris," in which the rose becomes "first an Inside awaiting its Outside, then a bandaged wound, at last a lake full of the sky’s reflection." Such metamorphoses are acknowledged most fully in the final stanza of "The Bowl of Roses," where "self-containing" (Sich-enthalten) means

to transform the world

with its wind and rain and springtime’s patience

and guilt and restlessness and obscure fate

and the darkness of evening earth and even

the changing clouds, coming and going,

even the vague intercession of distant stars,

into a handful of inner life.

It now lies free of care in these open roses.

For Gass, such an "opening" to the "inner life" provides the key to Rilkean poetics, whose elements he now proceeds to catalogue in the following bravura passage,

. . . [Rilke’s] increasing "belief" in animism (that all things as well as the parts of all things, are filled with life); the notion that we grow our death inside us like a talent or a tumor; that we are here to realize the world, to raise it, like Lazarus, from its sullen numbness into consciousness; that differences are never absolute, but that everything (life and death, for instance) lies on a continuum, as colors do; that we are strangers in a world of strangers; that simple people have a deeper understanding of their existence than most, and an insight into the secret rhythms of nature. These themes are like tides that rise and fall inside him, as if he were just their bay and receptive shoreline.

Here Gass puts his finger on Rilke’s particular power. Many of the poet’s themes–isolation, alienation, the problem of meaning in a world without God–are familiar enough in the annals of Modernism. It is Rilke’s elaborate animism, his tenet "that we are here to realize the world, to raise it into consciousness," that has made him such an appealing figure to later poets, providing, as it does, a poetic purpose. And, although Gass himself makes no overt comparisons, he clearly takes Rilke’s bowl of roses to be a much more subtle image complex than, say, Yeats’s Irish, occultist "Red Rose, proud Rose, sad Rose of all my days" or Eliot’s "Rose of memory / Rose of forgetfulness . Exhausted and life-giving" in "Ash Wednesday" or even the rose garden of the Four Quartets.

Indeed, in a bold move, Gass relates Rilke, not to Yeats or Eliot or, for that matter, to the American poet Rilke most resembles –Wallace Stevens-- but to Gertrude Stein, who shared, Gass suggests, Rilke’s "mournful understanding . . . that someone else had had to die in order to provide him with a place in life." The reference is to the infant that Rilke’s parents lost the year before they begot René (as the poet was christened) and to the similar loss suffered by Stein’s parents–this time of two young children–before they had Leo and Gertrude. The parallel is strained, for unlike Rilke, Stein never claims to have suffered from this situation, although it created a close alliance between the two younger siblings Gertrude and Leo. But however tenuous the link to Stein, Gass uses it to reframe the Rilke story, making the poet’s drama more intimate and immediate.

And high drama it is, at least in Gass’s telling. Rilke hated his self-absorbed, pseudo-religious, social-climbing mother–a mother who, in Gass’s extrapolation of the poet’s innermost thoughts, "picks us up and puts us down as she would a bit of knitting." "I am horrified," Rilke was to write to Lou Anreas-Salomé, "that I’m her child, that I came into the world through a scarcely perceptible hole in the paper of this faded wall." But Lou herself is described by Gass as "the only lover who left [Rilke] before he could leave her"; "she only slept with men she wasn’t married to, avoiding, in her sex life, all forms of habit and routine except that one." And Gass gives a vivid picture of the difficult relationship between the poet and his lover/mother/muse. It was their common purpose, Gass suggests "to give meaning to a world that has lost its deity, and thus its purpose and meaning." But whereas Lou’s "solution" was the practice of psychoanalysis, Rilke’s was a poetry that would soon supplant God altogether.

The death of God left a vacuum to be filled by the ideal sexual love–a fulfillment always beyond the poet’s reach. Gass cites the following "cruel yet courageous passage" from "The Second Elegy," in which Rilke addresses his fellow lovers:

You, though, who from one another’s passion,

grow until, quite overcome, you plead: "No more . . ."

you, who, beneath one another’s groping, swell

with juice like the grapes of the vintage year;

you, who may go like a bud into another’s blossoming:

I am asking you about us. I know

you touch so blissfully because your touch survives such bliss,

because just below your finger’s end you feel the tip of pure duration.

So you expect eternity to entwine itself in your embrace.

And yet, when you have dealt with your fear of that first look,

the longing, later, at the window, and your first turn

about the garden together: lovers, are you any longer what you were?

When you lift yourselves up to one another’s lips–chalice to chalice–

and slip wine into wine like an added flavor: oh, how strangely

soon is each drinker’s disappearance from the ceremony.

This sardonic assessment of the fleetingness of even the most passionate of loves is even more powerful in the original: "lovers, are you any longer what you were?", for example, fails to render (as does Snow’s "lovers, are you still the same?) the force of Liebende, seid ihrs dann noch?, which implies, not just that the lovers have changed and not even that the lovers are no longer lovers, but that they no longer are, that they have ceased to exist. Again, in the penultimate line above, the German says nothing about "added flavor"; rather, the image is that, in the very act of drinking from each others lips, the lovers are also in the process of losing interest in one another.

Here the mood is less Romantic than Decadent–a view of sexual consummation as death. Gass clearly identifies with this mood, identifies with the strength of a desire that is repeatedly doomed to failure, especially since, like Rilke, he seems to believe that there is no art without the spark of love and that it is art that matters. But–and this is what makes his treatment of Rilke so arresting–he also understands (and perhaps identifies with) the pitfalls and absurdities of the poet’s idealizing, his futile search for the perfect love that will feed into the perfect art work. Here is Gass’s summarizing assessment of Rilke:

He is passion’s spokesman. He’s a cold and calculating egotist, covering his selfishness with the royal robes of art. He’s a poseur, a courtier, a migrant, a loner. He hates the United States for reactionary reasons: because he hates machines and commerce, and equality too. He is charming and sensitive and given to shows of concern that melt the heart. His soul is a knot of childhood resentments. He is a trifler. He is too continuously serious–he thinks of himself as a creature of myth. He has all the moth-eaten arrogance of the self-taught, and sports a learning both quirky and full of holes, which he is as proud of as a pup just trained to paper. Put on airs? An Eskimo has not so many layers of fuss and show. A priest of the poet’s art, he takes the European lyric to new levels of achievement.

Or take the following passage, this time less about character than about forms of life:

It is a life of packing and unpacking, of smiling at new friends, looking out of different windows, sitting in trains, trying to write at odd and irregular hours, signing books and behaving like a literary lion, having ideas, getting used to strange dark halls, guest beds, always cadging and scrounging, eating poorly, keeping your pants pressed, and most of all falling ill, the flu a favorite, sneezing into a pillow, dozing while wrapped up in a chair: life time which gets little report, for what is there to say about a sore throat or a coughing fit? The fumble to find a chamber pot beneath strangely squeaking springs? A scheme to put one’s ear out of range of the sleep-inducing bore who’se been seated at your left?

With the exception, perhaps, of that squeaking chamber pot, there is nothing in these passages that Gass has invented, nothing that can’t be documented from, say, Ralph Freedman’s biography. But Gass’s precision and condensation, his wit and immediacy, the appositeness of his epithets, as in "moth-eaten arrogance"–all these entice us to participate in the poet’s agon. And accordingly Gass convinces us that it is Art that makes the mess of living worthwhile. "Rilke," he concludes in his final chapter, "understood his shortcomings so thoroughly that his knowing was a shortcoming. But on the page, in a poem, the contradictions which were his chief affliction, could be reconciled" (my emphasis).

But–wait a minute!–isn’t this a throwback to the most regressive form of Modernist aestheticism? Of bourgeois elitism? Can anyone living at the turn of the twenty-first century really believe that Art somehow redeems life, that it has no political or ethical obligations? And what about the avant-garde, which a writer like Gass has so steadfastly supported, as witness his important writing on Stein, Flann O’Brien, and others? Hasn’t Postmodernism, moreover, been all about breaking down the boundaries between High and Low, between "art" genres and more populist forms, between self-consciously "poetic" language and everyday discourse?

In the year 2,000, these are big questions. I must confess that, before reading Gass, Friedman, and the various translations discussed here, I myself had not thought much about Rilke since my graduate school days. My allegiance has largely been to the avant garde and I am therefore more likely to be reading Kurt Schwitters or Ernst Jandl than Rilke. And yet, flawed as are Gass’s "Reflections on the Problems of Translation," and even more flawed as are those translations themselves, Reading Rilke has rekindled my interest in the poet, has reminded me that "Archaic Torso of Apollo," "The Panther," "Carousel"–indeed, the astonishingly large corpus of poems culminating in the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus-- are among the great and memorable works of the century.

In contemplating the poet’s development from the formal rhyming stanzas of the 1902 Book of Images to the "prose" of Malte Laurids Brigge. to the free rhythms of the Duino Elegies, it is Rilke’s ambition that seems so startling--an ambition for which we cannot help but be nostalgic. I recently received a letter from the MacArthur Foundation asking me to comment on the work of a "young" poet, whose nominator had enthused about his progress, declaring that said poet had already won a prize for one (quite slim) book and had another on the way. The "young poet" in question turns out to be thirty-eight. In 1913, when Rilke was thirty-eight, he had published most of his best poems and had completed the first phase of the Duino Elegies. That famous first line (Wer, wenn ich schriee . . .) that Gass dissects so painstakingly as emblematic of Rilke’s mature understanding of the mystery of life/death embodied by the Angel, had been composed a year earlier.

It is the poetic ambition of Modernism, if not always the effect of that ambition, that continues to provide us with a model of what art can be. Joyce had such ambition as did Stein or Brecht or Pound, as did Woolf or Akhmatova. William Gass, himself an ambitious and wide-ranging novelist, short story writer, philosopher, and literary critic, has managed to tap into that ambition, embodied in the question to the Young Poet which I cited earlier: "Would [you] have to die if it were denied you to write?"

Accordingly, despite the impoverishment of its translations, Reading Rilke is a tantalizing book and one that goes a long way in explaining why so many American poets who know no German find solace in the Rilke myth. Ironically, however, that myth functions as a two-edged sword. For if our own poets–and here I include Gass–were themselves as ambitious as are the poet they revere, they would try to read Rilke’s poetry in German. At a recent poetry festival where she was asked about her influences, a highly respected American poet spoke movingly about her special attachment to Rilke. Afterwards, I asked her if she could read Rilke in German. She said no. I then asked her what translation she was using. She couldn’t quite remember. "Have you ever wanted to take time off to learn a little German so that you might have a sense of Rilke’s sound and rhythm?", I asked. She merely shrugged, as if to say that such study would be too much of a chore for a successful mid-career poet like herself.

Perhaps, then, the current Rilke cult has to do with our nostalgia for a time of poetic commitment–a time when the poet seemed to live for his or her poetry, when every line or syntactic unit was crafted with the ultimate care. But there is something else, something that haunts the reader of the Duino Elegies, even as seen through the lens of Gass’s messy translations. It is Rilke’s invention of a language, abstract, detached, meditative —and also profoundly erotic. No English or American contemporary of Rilke’s has produced anything quite like it. Our own long poems are more culturally motivated: Eros, when it exists, is part of the larger political and social landscape; it is subject to the "march of events," to historical and geographic definition. But in Rilke, as I remarked earlier, the realities of everyday life, even the life of the war years, take a back seat to what can only be described as the ontology of sexual love.

In the "First Elegy," for example, where the poet’s cry to the Angel can never be heard, much less answered, the human condition is portrayed as one in which sexual desire is the motivating force, leaving us empty, unfulfilled–and craving for more.

Consider the following passage from the "First Elegy":

O und die Nacht, die Nacht, wenn der Wind voller Weltraum

uns am Angesicht zehrt--, wem bliebe sie nicht, die ersehnte,

sanft enttäuschende, welche dem einzelnen Herzen

mühsam bevorsteht. Ist sie den Liebenden lechter?

Ach, sie verdecken sich nur mit einander ihr Los.

Here is a literal translation:

[Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind that blows through the wide world tears at our faces--, for whom would it not be there, the longed for, softly disappointing night, which makes such trials for the single heart. Is it easier on lovers? Ah, they only take cover in one another so as to hide their fate.]

The meanings of this seemingly lucid passage are hard to unpack. The anticipated night of love itself is at once desired (ersehnte) and softly disappointing (sanft enttäuschende). Why sanft, given the harshness of the night wind that tears (zehrt) away at faces? The adjective "soft" (sanft), functioning here as a transferred epithet, suggests that it is the beloved’s soft body itself that cannot satisfy. Not only, as the cliché would have it, is the love night a threat to the lonely heart (dem einzelnen Herzen), but lovers cover themselves (sich bedecken) with each other’s bodies only to delay the inevitable. The image is one of paper silhouettes, one on top of the other, just barely managing to keep at bay their fated dissolution.

And that, for Rilke, is the mystery of touch. Fulfillment? Plenitude? No, for again and again "love" leaves the lover feeling empty, isolated–indeed, absent. In the "Fifth Elegy," we read:

Wo, o wo ist der Ort–ich trag ihn im Herzen--,

wo sie noch lange nicht konnten, noch von einander

abfieln, wie sich bespringende, nicht recht

paarige Tiere;--

wo die Gewichte noch schwer sind;

wo noch von ihren vergeblich

wirbeldnen Stäben die Teller torkeln . . . . .

[Where, oh where is that place–I carry it in my heart-- where for so long they still could not, still fell way from one another, like mismatched animals, jumping at one another;--

where the weights are still heavy; where, on their hopelessly twisting rods, the plates twirl. . . . .]

What a terrifying memory of that moment and place when "they" ("we"?) could not! The image of the lovers as ungainly mismatched animals jumping all over each other to no avail, is heightened by the surreal reference to heavy weights and plates twirling hopelessly on what seem to be their phallic "rods." Here as throughout the poem, Rilke merely suggests; he never spells out precisely what those bodies are doing and why satisfaction is so elusive. As readers we merely watch the plates go round and feel the heavy weight of unsatisfied, comically mismatched desire.

Unlike such poets as Frank O’Hara or Allen Ginsberg, Rilke never describes the mechanics of sexual coupling. On the contrary, it is the distance and obliquity of Rilke’s language, its enormous power of suggestion, that continues to challenge the reader. And this seems fitting given the poet’s own recognition that language can never fully render physical sensation. As the conclusion of the final elegy puts it:

Und wir, die an steigendes Glück

Denken, empfänden die Rührung

Die uns beinah bestürzt,

Wenn ein Glückliches fällt.

Gass does quite well by this:

And we, who have always thought

of happiness as ascending

would feel the emotion

that almost undoes us

when a happy thing falls.

It seems so simple. But why should happiness rise to begin with rather than fall? And what happens when it hits the ground? These are the kind of question that have long preoccupied Gass, in his role as philosopher, and in this sense, Rilke is nothing if not Gass’s own Necessary Angel–the one that responds long after those Engel Ordnungen have withdrawn from the scene.


1 This essay also refers to the following translations of Rilke:

Duino Elegies. Bilingual Edition, translated by Edward Snow (New York: North Point Press/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2000).

The Book of Images. A Bilingual Edition, translated by Edward Snow (San Francisco: North Point 1991).

New Poems [1907]. A Bilingual Edition, trans. Edward Snow (San Francisco: North Point 1984; New Poems [1908]: The Other Part. A Bilingual Edition, trans. Edward Snow (San Francisco: North Point, 1987).

The Essential Rilke, selected and translated by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann. (New York: Ecco Press 2000).

Letters to a Young Poet, translated by M.D. Herter Norton (New York: Norton, 1954).

2 See Eliot Weinberger, "The State of Poetry Translation" unpublished lecture, courtesy of the author. Between April 1999 and April 2000, Weinberger reports, the large presses combined published only ten poetry translations, the medium houses, nine, and university presses,eight. In each category, there was a Rilke translation.

3 Georg Trakl, Selected Poems, ed. Christopher Middleton; trans. Robert Grenier, Michael Hamburger, David Luke and Christopher Middleton (London: Jonathan Cape, 1968), pp. 66-67.

4 Paul Celan, Breathturn, trans. Pierre Joris (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1995), pp. 106-07.

5 The exception is Oswald, but his translation is, in turn, spoiled by the odd rendering of aus den Engel Ordnungen as "out of the orders of angels."

6 Ralph Freedman. The Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996).

7 Gass does not cite the name or location of this poem, leaving it to the reader to find it in New Poems. Such practice—and it occurs throughout the book, which confusingly places the full translations of the elegies at the back (but without the originals), followed by the scantiest of notes so that one must comb the Bibliography to find the German sources as well as the competing translations—makes it difficult to check on Gass’s narrative, especially since there is no Index! | Back to Marjorie Perloff's Homepage | Back to the EPC Homepage