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Rilke in English

Imagno/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Not the least interesting phenomenon of the last four years has been the growing influence of Rilke upon English poetry: indeed, Rilke is probably more read and more highly esteemed by English and Americans than by Germans, just as Byron and Poe had a greater influence upon their German and French contemporaries than upon their compatriots.

It is presumptuous to pretend that one can ever really judge poetry written in a foreign language: one can only define the impression it makes upon oneself. Witht the appearance of this translation of the “Duino Elegies,” which, with the Orpheus Sonnets, form the final flower of his work, the bulk of Rilke’s poetry is now available in English, and it is possible to attempt such a definition.Rilke’s most immediate and obvious influence has been upon diction and imagery. One of the constant problems of the poet is how to express abstract ideas in concrete terms. The Elizabethans solved it for their generation by an anthropormorphic idenitification:

That fell sergeant strait in his arrest

the Metaphysicals for theirs by an intellectual ingenuity of wit:

For in your beauty’s orient deepThese flowers, as in their causes, sleep

With the exception of Blake, the poets of the succeeding two centuries found no fitting solution: in consequence they are wekaest whenever they attempt to deal with abstractions. They were content to state the latter abstractly, with the result that their poetry too often denegrates into preaching.

Rilke is almost the first poet since the seventeenth century to find a fresh solution. His method is the direct opposite to that of the Elizabethans but, like them and unlike the Metaphysicals, he thinks in physical rather than intellectual symbols. While Shakespeare, for example, thought of the non-human world in terms of the human, Rilke thinks of the human in terms of the non-human, of what he calls Things (Dinge), a way of thought which, as he himself pointed out, is more characteristic of the child than of the adult. To the former, tables, dolls, houses, trees, dogs, etc., have a life which is just as real as their own or that of their parents. Indeed, as a rule children think of life in terms of things and animals rather than in terms of people: a conscious interest in people does not commonly begin until adolescence.

If you can manage it, return with a portion of your weaned and grown-up feeling to any one of the things of your childhood with which you were much occupied. Consider whether there was anything at all that was closer, more intimate and necessary to you than such a Thing. . . . Was it not with a Thing that you first shared your little heart, like a piece of bread that had to suffice for two?

Thus one of Rilke’s most characteristic devices is the expression of human life in terms of landscape:

O Mädchen,
dies: das wir liebten in uns, nicht Eines, ein
Künftiges, sondern
das zahllos Brauende; nicht ein einselnes Kind,
sondern die Väter, die wie Trümmer Gebirgs
uns im Grunde beruhn; sondern das trockene Flußbett
einstiger Mütter; sondern die ganze
lautlose Landschaft unter dem wolkingen oder
reinen Verhängnis; dies kam dir, Mädchen, zuvor.

Oh, maid,
this: that we’ve loved, within us, not one, still to come, but all
the innumerable fermentation; not just a single child,
but the fathers, resting like mountain-ruins
within our depths—but the dry river-bed
of former mother—yes, and the whole of that
soundless landscape under its cloudy or
cloudless destiny: this got the start of you, maid

It is this kind of imagery which is already beginning to appear in English poetry {e.g., in Stephen Spender’s “Napoleon in 1814”) and is likely, I think, to become commoner.

But Rilke’s influence is not confined to certain technical tricks. It is, I believe, no accident that as the international crisis becomes more and more acute, the poet to whom writers are becoming increasingly drawn should be one who felt that it was pride and presumption to interfere with the lives of others (for each is unique and the apparent misfortunes of each may be his very way of salvation); one who occupied himself consistently and exclusively with his own inner life; one who wrote:

Art cannot be helpful through our trying to keep and specially concerning ourselyes with the distresses of others, but in so far as we bear our own distresses more passionately, give now and then a perhaps dearer meaning to endurance, and develop for ourselves the means of expressing the suffering within us and its conquest more precisely and clearly than is possible to those who have to apply their powers to something else.

This tendency is not to be dismissed with the cheery cry “defeatism.” It implies not a denial of the importance of political action, but rather the realization that if the writer is not to harm both others and himself, he must consider, and very much more humbly and patiently than he has been doing, what kind of person he is, and what may his real function. When the ship catches fire, it seems only natural to rush importantly to the pumps, but perhaps one is only adding to the general confusion and panic: to sit still and pray seems selfish and unheroic, but it may be the wisest and most helpful course.

A review is not the place to discuss Rilke’s ideas in detail. There are curious similarities hetween them and those of D. H. Lawrence. Both envied the undivided consciousness of the animals, both were obsessed by the idea of Death (cf. Lawrence’s “Ship of Death’ with the “Tenth Elegy’), both, to use terms common to Lawrence and Rilke’s friend Kassner, looked back to the physical aristocratic world of the Father rather than forward to the spiritual democratic world of the Son, and were consequently hostile to Christianity, both even were excited by the same Etruscan tombs. But what is important for us and future writers is not the truth or falsehood of their conclusions, but their conception of the writer’s real task and the lifelong and humble devotion which they brought to it.

What a scholar’s opinion of these translations may be I do not know and do not very much care. There is no such thing as a perfect translation; it is a job that has to be redone for every generation. But I am confident that this translation by Mr. Leishman and Mr. Spender will remain definitive for our own.