In one of the many polls that have marked the year 1999, the Folio Society, a fairly staid British book club, asked respondents to name the five Poems of the Century. Four of the titles that came up were—not surprisingly—by English-language poets: Yeats, Eliot, Auden, Plath. The fifth was Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies.
The fact that Rilke, a foreigner and a considerable Anglophobe, could make it onto the Folio Society’s list with a poem as difficult as the Elegies suggests that even in England the grand poetic manner and the trappings of German metaphysics are not fatal drawbacks so long as the poetry itself speaks with passion and urgency to the great questions of human existence.
William Gass, whose achievements as fiction writer and philosopher-aesthetician are already considerable, has now come forth with Reading Rilke, a book that manages to be several things at once: a Rilke anthology, an essay on the craft of translation, and an account of Rilke’s growth as a poet, into which an outline of Rilke’s life is woven. It includes translations of all ten Duino Elegies and of some forty other poems, among them well-known pieces like “The Panther,” “Torso of an Archaic Apollo,” and “Requiem for a Friend,” as well as of ten of the Sonnets to Orpheus. It concludes with a handy bibliography of translations into English of this much-translated poet, from which we learn that Gass’s Duino Elegies have been preceded by eighteen other full versions—nineteen if we add in the collaborative translation by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann that appeared earlier this year.
Born in 1875 in Prague, third city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Rilke loathed Austria and all it stood for, and escaped as soon as he could. In part this was a reaction to the miserable childhood years he spent in military schools. But there were wider reasons too for his sense of alienation. Like much of the German-speaking minority in the imperial province of Bohemia, the Rilkes—who liked to think they were descended from an ancient noble family, the Rülkes—lived on hostile terms with the native population; yet they were estranged from their cultural fatherland. Rilke himself was brought up to look down on Czechs.
His feelings toward Germany, where he spent intermittent spells as a young man, were no warmer. After his marriage in 1901 he moved to France and, aside from the war years, when he was trapped in the territories of the Central Powers by the fact of his nationality, he never returned.
The attractions of a non-German identity were strong. After visits to Russia in 1899 and 1900 he tried earnestly to learn and even to write in Russian. Back home he acted the Russophile for a while, affecting a Russian peasant blouse and pretending to speak only broken German. Then, after the World War and his move to Switzerland, he tried to …