Friday, July 2, 2010

Reading Rilke (again)

I've decided to spend the summer with Rilke. It's complicated. I have his new collected poems translated by the superb Edward Snow, The Poetry of Rilke, the biography, Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke  by Ralph Freedman, and some of the letters. It's been ten years since I've spent much time with him. I am curious to see how my sense of what he can teach me has changed. One thing that hasn't changed: how much I love this poem. Of course I know that I'm not alone.


Slowly the evening puts on the clothes
held for it by a ridge of ancient trees;
you watch: and the land divides from you,
one going heavenward, one sinking down;

and leave you, not quite belonging to either,
not quite so dark as the house cloaked in silence,
not quite so surely pledging the eternal
as that which becomes the star each night and climbs --

and leave you (inexpressibly to untangle)
your life, immense and ripening and fearful,
so that now closed in, now reaching everywhere,
it grows alternately stone and star in you.

Rilke (trans. E. Snow)


  1. Thank you for reminding us of Rilke’s poetry and directing us to the indeed superb translation by Snow of Rilke’s “Evening.”
    It made me think once again about the tortuous task of translating poetry: it needs its own complete outfit of an Alchemist’s kitchen!
    For instance, I am thinking of the line fragment “the house cloaked in silence.” In the original, it is “das Haus, das schweigt”. The verb “schweigen” in German can have an active connotation, meaning to actively refrain from saying something, to hide something – so the problem becomes how to convey this tension, this sense of withholding something, into English. Most translations which I have seen use the adjective “silent.” However, “silent” is expressing a more passive state of the house and conveys less of the tension. In this translation, though, Snow manages to render it beautifully with the positioning, in the same line, of the “not quite so dark as”.
    Feeling inspired, I am going to re-open my own favorite book of Rilke’s poetry, his “Sonnets to Orpheus,” which was also superbly translated by Edward Snow.

  2. Stella, Thank you so much for this comment. I am also very intrigued by translation. The Duino Elegies, included in Snow's new The Poetry of Rilke are new translations -- Snow is revising the translations he published ten years ago. I find that fascinating and of the few I've read so far, I must tell you that his original translations seem more musical, fresher. I cannot speak to how close they are to the original elegies. But to re-translate and re-publish --- that I am fascinated by.