A couple of years ago I found myself with a strong and persistent urge to get to know Rilke's Duino Elegies, one of the landmarks of German poetry and of modern poetry in general. I suppose the impulse had been there in a mild way for many years, but I don't know of anything in particular that made it grow strong enough to make me act on it. I had bought my copy of the once-standard Spender-Leishman translation many years ago, I think not later than the mid-'70s, and I had read a little of it, drawn in by the famous opening lines of the First Elegy (there are ten of them):
Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic
orders? And even if one of them suddenly
pressed me against his heart, I should fade in the strength of his
stronger existence. For Beauty's nothing
but beginning of Terror we're still just able to bear....
But I had always gotten bogged down after a few pages. Rilke is often obscure, but that's not necessarily a big obstacle to me. I had loved on first reading many parts of "The Waste Land" (just to pick one example) without understanding them. The fact that I didn't entirely grasp the prose sense of the poem, or even feel sure that there was a prose sense, as there is in, for instance, Tennyson's "In Memoriam," didn't prevent me from being moved by the imagery and the music. I did not, for instance, understand the significance of these lines, but they were clear enough in themselves, and affecting:
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
I'm not leaving out any useful context there. Who is Marie? We don't know. Is she the same person who, a few lines earlier (before an apparently random line of German, which may or may not have been spoken by the same person), stopped in the colonnade and drank coffee? Why are we hearing this reminiscence? Is this the same voice that complained about April in the famous opening line? How many speakers are there in the first eighteen lines of the poem? One? Or perhaps as many as three or four? We get no help from Eliot, either in the poem or in his notes. There is obscurity here, but the immediate literal sense is clear enough. More to my point, the words have a wistful charm while seeming entirely natural as talk, perhaps having come to Eliot as a bit of "found poetry."* (He was often attentive and fortunate in that, probably more the former than the latter; probably we all miss a good deal.)
But Rilke gave me things like this, at the end of the Second Elegy:
...For our heart transcends us
just as it did those others. And we can no longer
gaze after it into figures that sooth it, or godlike
bodies, wherein it achieves a grander restraint.
I cannot tell you with confidence in plain English what those lines say, much less what they mean. That in itself is not necessarily a major barrier to enjoyment. But neither do they speak to me in a mystical-intuitive sort of way, as "The Waste Land" did (and as much modern poetry does): Yes, I feel the import of that, even though I can't articulate it. Nor, to my ear, is there much beauty in the words themselves.
I'm pretty sure I never got past the Second in those earlier ventures into the work. Yet for some reason which I can't explain I kept having the feeling that there was something there for me. That was the way the impulse presented itself to me: There is something there for you. When I discovered that Fr. Romano Guardini, whose work I admire, had written a book about the Elegies, I decided the time had come to act on that vague sensation, bought the book, and went at the project in earnest, reading each elegy a couple of times in conjunction with Guardini's associated chapter.
Perhaps a different translation would help? I bought Alfred Corn's recent translation, and got Stephen Mitchell's from the library. So I've now read the Duino Elegies at least three times through, and several of them more than that, in three different translations. And I'm not much more enthusiastic about them than when I started.
I was reluctant to admit that Guardini was not really helping much. His lengthy glosses were sometimes themselves obscure, in a different way: not just close readings but extremely close, to the point of extracting ideas which I was sometimes not convinced are really there, or which at any rate seemed far more important to Guardini than to Rilke. Or to me. For Guardini, who is obviously enchanted and fascinated by the poems, is also, as a Catholic, distressed by their non- and even anti-Christian spirituality. Sometimes he argues with the poet, as in his commentary on lines 17 and 18 of the Fourth Elegy:
...we that don't know our feeling's shape
but only that which forms it from outside.
"Shape" means the contour of a thing. It can be regarded as having two aspects, one facing inwards and the other out. Here "shape" in its first aspect is meant--the form or contour which expresses a thing's inner character. According to Rilke it is impossible to form any picture of such a shape. Our experience only reaches our consciousness from without, namely through our proximity to whatever is alien or hostile to us.
Again the same phenomenon often noted before: the weakness attaching to the human personality. In fact it is simply not true that we are only conditioned from outside....
The Elegies are abstract and philosophical or theological, though stuffed with concrete images. They are often obscure in a deep way; "cryptic" is a fair description. And the obscurity does not obtain my indulgence by the appeal of the language when rendered into English; in none of the three translations I read is there much charm, much that gives the elemental thrill of great poetry. And that is the fundamental problem for me.
Poetry, good poetry anyway, and great poetry always, has a sensual appeal which comes from the actual, specific, individual words. "Sensual" is a puzzling term, because none of the five senses is being touched, unless you're hearing the lines read aloud, but that isn't necessary, and hearing them alone would do nothing much for you if you couldn't understand them. Puzzling, but I think most people who are very sensitive to poetry would agree that the word is apt.
It's a peculiar and paradoxical mental sensuality, and it requires a word-by-word combination of sound and sense. "To be or not to be" can be very easily stated in very many different ways. But the power even of that phrase can be half-destroyed by the change of one word: "To live or not to live." That's not terrible, and the sense is pretty close to the same (not exactly, and a little weaker, but close). And it even preserves the rhythm. But the sound is changed for the worse.
For many years I've been leaning toward the conclusion that poetry simply cannot be translated. I'm no longer leaning. I'm willing to make it a declaration: it is not just difficult, but intrinsically impossible, to translate poetry, in the sense that a translator can provide the reader with something close to the same artifact that a reader of the original knows. Perhaps it's impossible to translate anything at all except for purely functional work, all denotation and no connotation, such as the safety warnings for a lawn mower. For anything greater, anything composed with care and skill, the translation can never be anything but a paraphrase; this is intrinsically so. And in poetry this is fatal; a good poem is composed of these words in this order, and when you substitute other words you no longer have the poem. (I think good translators know this and are not offended by seeing it stated.) You may have something good in its own right, and certainly it can and should carry pretty much the same prose sense. You could, in principle, even have something better. But it is not the poem. You can't substitute scotch for bourbon and say that it's good bourbon. You could even say that the scotch is better by some semi-objective measure; you could certainly say that you prefer it. But it is not the same thing.
I had gotten through half of the Guardini book when my Rilke project was halted last year by a move to a new house. The books were packed away and remained in boxes for months. The books are out of their boxes now, but that halt, expected to be temporary, looks to be permanent. At any rate I have not resumed it and don't have any plans to. I've come to the very unwelcome conclusion that the Duino Elegies in English are not a great poem. That is a bold thing to say, perhaps offensive to those who love Rilke in English.
There are three (at least) essential levels or aspects of good and great poetry. There is the quasi-sensual word-by-word appeal I've described, which is not translatable. Then there are simile, metaphor, description, and all the species of analogy, illustration, and decoration, all more or less translatable: "my love is like a red, red rose" can be put into the language of any culture that knows deep red flowers, though it might not sound as prettily. And there's the sense of the whole, or of distinct parts of the whole, built of the other two: an idea or set of ideas, a meditation, a narrative, an observation. In a very short poem maybe not much more than a remark ("This is just to say..."), in an epic a long and complex story, possibly with deep philosophical import. This, too, is translatable, in fact may be almost independent of the language in which it is put forth, and worth reading for that alone.
A serious deficiency of the first is fatal to poetry as such; the work may still be a great one, but it will not be a great poem. To my taste, Rilke in English has little of it, and what I have understood of the third aspect does not appeal to me much. There, I suppose, is where Guardini failed to persuade me: Rilke is a thinker, and, whatever the merits of his thought may be, it seems that my notion that there was something in it for me was mistaken. There remain a number of instances of the second aspect which are remarkable and memorable, passages which are thrilling to read, like the opening I quoted.
I wonder if some of the first-aspect defects of Rilke have to do with the German language itself. Some poets in some languages seem to survive the translation journey in better shape than others. Baudelaire, for instance, is to my taste, in the translations I've read, better English poetry than most of the Rilke I've read in English. That's an almost-ridiculous statement, because the poets are so vastly different, and that difference is probably more important than the difference in languages. But it makes me wonder.
Consider the German word "dasein," which is translated as "existence" in the Spender-Leishman Rilke quote above, and as "being" in Corn's. I only have a smattering of German, but I think the word combines "there" ("da") and "being" ("sein"), and I think it implies a very concrete sense of existence, something stronger than the abstract "existence" or "being." It even sounds more forceful. But we don't have an English word for "there-being" or "being-there-ness." And something is lost.
Another instance: on my first reading of the Spender-Leishman translation I was struck by the awkwardness of a sentence from the Seventh Elegy: "Life here's glorious!" Ugh. Corn has "just being here is glorious." Better. But the German is "Hiersein ist herrlich": roughly, "here-zein ist herrlish": catchy, you might say. And as with "dasein," "hiersein" combines "being" with a sort of placement, and, again, with no English equivalent.
Well, I have gone on well past my usual limit for a blog post. In my own experience as a reader of online stuff, impatience sets in at around a thousand words. And this is about to top two thousand. So, one last thing: I will probably read Rilke again, but mainly for those second-aspect passages, those rhapsodic figures:
But because being here amounts to so much, because all
this Here and Now, so fleeting, seems to require us and strangely
concerns us. Us, the most fleeting of all.
(Ninth Elegy, Spender-Leishman translation)
* If you want to know who "Marie" was, see this excellent annotated version of "The Waste Land" at The Poetry Foundation.