Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke; drawing by David Levine

Many years ago, at a time when I was obsessed by Rilke’s poetry, I happened to cut myself shaving, and (looking in the mirror) I thought: “If Rilke cut himself shaving, he would bleed poetry.” Robert Hass, in his long, wide-ranging introduction to Stephen Mitchell’s translations, quotes the young Russian poet Marina Tsvetayeva writing to Rilke, when he was dying, in 1926: “You are not the poet I love most. ‘Most’ already implies comparison. You are poetry itself.” Mr. Hass comments: “This is not hyperbole.” He writes:

The Duino Elegies are an argument against our lived, ordinary lives. And it is not surprising that they are. Rilke’s special gift as a poet is that he does not seem to speak from the middle of life, that he is always calling us away from it. His poems have the feeling of being written from a great depth in himself. What makes them so seductive is that they also speak to the reader so intimately. They seem whispered or crooned into our inmost ear, insinuating us toward the same depth in ourselves. The effect can be hypnotic.

“Seductive,” “whispered,” “crooned,” Rilke “insinuating” some “great depth in himself” toward the “same depth in ourselves”—the vocabulary seems suspect, and possibly Mr. Hass half intends it as a warning. This is certainly one aspect of Rilke, the poet speaking out of his own isolation to the reader who is made, through the poetry, to realize a similar isolation in himself. The poetry is essentially the religious utterance of the poet who, although he has absorbed into himself the experience of many religions, considers that the religion in which he was brought up—Roman Catholicism—is, except perhaps in certain remote villages, spiritually bankrupt, its symbolism outworn. Rilke also objected to the idea of Original Sin, and, above all, he abhorred the claim of the Church to stand as mediator, through its priesthood, between the isolated individual and God. He wanted no institution, creed, or dogma to stand between him and that outsideness.

The difficulty of the religious poetry of a poet whose religion is unique to him in his isolation, though present in his poetry, is that poetry itself tends to become religion, while the poem becomes a kind of incarnation of the poet. Poetry is not a Church, and has no communions—whatever people who go to poetry readings may think. It is always a form of communication between one poet and one reader, though this situation may be reproduced a great many times. It is this to which Mr. Hass is referring when he writes of the great depths of Rilke’s self impelling “us” (the reader) toward a corresponding great depth in ourselves. The poet exists in the poem and the poem stimulates in the reader a responding existence, of the poet through the medium of the poem. This situation is extremely attractive to some readers, but may seem repellent to others, who would probably prefer even “ordinary life” to what they perhaps feel is the cult of the poet writing poems that are open doors through which the poet invites the reader to enter his poetic-religious existence.

Mr. Hass’s approach to Rilke is auto-biographical, confessional almost, coming out of what seems to be a near-identification with Rilke through his poetry. An extreme example of this is his highly subjective and emotive account of the angels in the Duino Elegies:

The angels embody the sense of absence which had been at the center of Rilke’s willed and difficult life. They are absolute fulfillment. Or rather, absolute fulfillment if it existed, without any diminishment of intensity, completely outside us.

So far so good, perhaps, but what follows seems to me less acceptable:

You feel a sunset open up an emptiness inside you which keeps growing and growing and you want to hold on to that feeling forever; only, you want it to be a feeling of power, of completeness and repose: that is longing for the angel. You feel a passion for someone so intense that the memory of their smell makes you dizzy and you would gladly throw yourself down the well of that other person, if the long hurtle in the darkness would then be perfect inside you: that is the same longing. The angel is desire, if it were not desire, if it were pure being.

In all this, Mr. Hass seems to me to be directing the reader back into his most intensely subjective existence, where Rilke would direct him beyond and outside this to what he called “this world, no longer regarded from the human point of view,” which is that of the angel. 1

I shall return to the Elegies, but before doing so I should emphasize that Mr. Hass’s autobiographical approach to Rilke can sometimes be fruitful. He knows better much of the time than simply to describe the effects on him of Rilke He understands his subject. He is very good on the interconnection between Rilke’s journeyings to Russia and Spain, his life in Paris, where he was secretary to Rodin, his marriage, and his relations with other people—and his writing at particular phases of his life. The following could nor be put better:


It was not that [Rilke] was not involved, intensely and intimately, with other people. He was, all his life. But he always drew back from these relationships because, for him, the final confrontation was always with himself….

Discussing Rilke’s early poems in The Book of Pictures, Hass comments:

The poems—just slightly—tend to congratulate the poet and his reader for having feelings and experiencing beauty. Partly this was a matter of Rilke’s temperament, but it is also partly a matter of symbolist aesthetics.

The objection to some of Rilke’s early poems could be stated more strongly. It is that in them Rilke sometimes seems to regard the external world simply as the provider of images and symbols which he can (or cannot) put in his poetry. Rilke’s novel The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge contains passages that are prose poems about various places in Paris. In these the poet is looking at anonymous faces and crowds—simply as material out of which he can fabricate poetry: material which sometimes resists the poet’s effort to transform it into the imagery of his inside world. For example, here is a scene at a street corner, from a section called “Faces”:

But the woman, the woman she had completely fallen into herself, forward into her hands. It was on the corner of rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. I began to walk quietly as soon as I saw her. When poor people are thinking, they shouldn’t be disturbed. Perhaps their idea will still occur to them.

…The woman sat up, frightened, she pulled out of herself, too quickly, too violently, so that her face was left in her two hands. I could see it lying there, its hollow form. It cost me an indescribable effort to stay with those two hands, not to look at what had been torn omut of them. I shuddered to see a face from the inside, but I was much more afraid of that bare flayed head waiting there, faceless.

The sense of horror here is not caused by the miserable condition of the woman or even of Rilke himself. It lies in the threat to the poet, whose sensibility inside the poetry cannot tolerate too much hideous reality coming in from the outside for fear that it might explode that inside world: just as, many years after this, during the First World War, Rilke was so assailed by the terrible outside realities that he was unable to write poetry altogether.

In Paris, acting as Rodin’s secretary, and looking at the master’s sculpture—watching his unceasing work—Rilke sought to free himself from his own excessive subjectivity. Looking around Rodin’s studio, he wrote: “Only things talk to me, Rodin’s things, the things on the gothic cathedrals, classical things.” He deliberately set out to write poems that had thingishness. He absorbed himself in experiences of art galleries and churches and gardens, above all in the animals of the Jardin des Plantes. He looked and looked and looked, and wrote the wonderful poems that appear in the volume Neue Gedichte (1908).

These poems are certainly influenced by the French Symbolists, but Rilke could not—and would not have wanted to—write poems that have that absolute separation of the poet from the poem—the verbal artifact—which we find with the Symbolists. Even when deliberately absorbing himself in things outside him, they become metaphors for himself, as Hass shows in a brilliant discussion of “The Panther.”

Rilke was consciously setting about to objectify his sensibility. J.B. Leishman, in Requiem and Other Poems (The Hogarth Press, 1949) translated a poem (unfortunately not in the present selection), “Requiem for Wolf Graf von Kalckreuth,” in which some lines seem to urge a program:

O ancient curse of poets!
Being sorry for themselves instead of saying,
for ever passing judgment on their feeling
instead of shaping it; for ever thinking
that what is sad or joyful in themselves
is what they know and what in poems may fitly
be mourned or celebrated. Invalids,
using a language full of woefulness
to tell us where it hurts, instead of sternly
transforming into words those selves of theirs,
as imperturbable cathedral carvers
transposed themselves into the constant stone.

But Rilke was too religious and too much “the man who suffers” in his poetry to be able to spend the rest of his life making verbal objects. The state of Europe, which for many years during and after the First World War made it impossible for him to write poetry, was paradoxically that very force which ultimately compelled him to write the Duino Elegies. In them he extended the grasp of his imagination to include the suffering of Europe. At last he was able to achieve the task of transformation of tragic experience into (to borrow the phrase of E.M. Forster) “invisible values.”


The poet of the last century whose development is parallel to Rilke’s in ours is, I think, Keats. Almost up to the end of his life Keats wrote poems in which he created imaginary worlds where the poet (and the reader, identifying through the poetry with him) could live (perhaps even die), shutting out the world of “our lived, ordinary lives”—or, when the ordinary world proved too overpowering to be shut out, could try to absorb it into the world of the poem (as with his brother Tom’s illness in “Ode to a Nightingale”). At the end of his life, when he himself was dying, he came to the conclusion that these attempts were weak and futile dreaming where he should be having visions.

The life of the imagination was vain self-delusion, in comparison with the lives, say, of scientists and healers (one begins to understand the threat that Rilke felt to his identity when he lived near hospitals in Paris), or else the poet must imagine a system of ideas and images so powerful that it could transform the most terrible sufferings of “our lived, ordinary lives” (in which one has to include many hideous extraordinary deaths) into a poetry entirely different from that which he (or Byron or Shelley) had written.

During his last illness Keats came to despise his poetry (“Here lies one whose name is writ on water”). He attempted to rewrite his epic Hyperion, which he regarded as a failure, and to make of it an Apollonian, visionary poem, which confronted and transformed modern reality. Doing so, he invented the character of a priestess called Moneta, who instructs Keats on the task of the poet in the modern world. Moneta stands on the top of marble steps; in order to climb them, the poet has to pass through his own physical death; if he fails to climb them, he will never achieve poetic immortality, his life’s work will be annihilated. Moneta says:

   If thou canst not ascend
These steps, die on that marble where thou art.
Thy flesh, near cousin to the com- mon dust,
Will parch for lack of nutriment, thy bones
Will wither in a few years, and vanish so
That not the quickest eye could find a grain
Of what thou now art on that pavement cold.

The angels in the Duino Elegies are analogous to Keats’s Moneta. They are terrifying and destroying because they are symbols of the poet’s task of having to imagine the entirety of the negating, destructive forces in order to transform them into the positive energies of the invisible. I do not want to deny that for some readers these forces may seem to embody their strongest subjective feelings about love, sunsets, etc. Doubtless they do, but their task is far from being subjective; they are for Rilke the means of overcoming his own subjectivity. They are not “way out” instances of emotional self-indulgence. In them the poet becomes visionary and ceases to be dreamer.

With Keats the angels were called Apollo. Rilke’s own view of the angels is contained in a note extracted from a letter to his Polish translator, Witold Hulewicz (November 13, 1925), and printed at the end of this volume:

The angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we are accomplishing, already appears in its completion…; that being who guarantees the recognition of a higher level of reality in the invisible.—Therefore “terrifying” for us, because we, its lovers and transformers, still cling to the visible.

It does not help us to understand forces engaged in this immense objective task by comparing the angels to extremes of personal emotion.

When I first read Stephen Mitchell’s translations I resisted my inclination to compare them with the German and read only the English on the right-hand pages of the book. I found they make extremely clear reading in the fairly colloquial English of Mitchell’s translation. His translation of the Duino Elegies—Rilke’s masterpiece—is the best that has been made; and it is praise rather than denigration to say that Mitchell has absorbed and improved on work done by previous translators. His version seems to me clearer and more readable than the others. Another reason for its excellence is that he remains in this version close to the varied and complex rhythms of the German.

Since Mitchell’s primary aim in translating Rilke seems to be to convey as clearly as possible in the English the meaning of the German, he gives the greatest attention to the ideas that Rilke is attempting to express in poems which are essentially concerned with the role of the poetic imagination in the modern world—especially Requiem and the Duino Elegies. Compared with other translations of the Duino Elegies Mitchell’s is intensely readable—yet he has not simplified the ideas. Where he is most successful is in conveying the continuity of themes and narrative in the Elegies, as in the passage about the pursuit of the Laments through an allegorical landscape by the young lover in the Tenth Elegy:

And gently she guides him through the vast landscape of Lament
shows him the pillars of the temples, and the ruined walls
of those castles from which, long ago, the princes of Lament
wisely ruled the land. Shows him the tall
trees of tears and the fields of blossoming grief
(the living know it just as a mild green shrub);
shows him the herds of sorrow, grazing,—and sometimes
a startled bird, flying low through their upward gaze,
far away traces the image of its solitary cry.—

Compared with J. B. Leishman’s translation of “Requiem for a Friend,” Stephen Mitchell’s rhythm in his version seems to me rather slack: but he obviously has a horror of falling into any regular pattern of iambic pentameters. In translations of other poems he has the advantage over Leishman in that Leishman becomes extremely contorted nearly always when he attempts to reproduce the exact rhyme patterns of Rilke in the English. (The reader should be told however that Leishman’s introductions and notes to the various volumes of Rilke’s translations he made are invaluable and not at all superseded by this collection.)

Sometimes Mitchell fails to reproduce the starkness of Rilke’s imagery. An example of this failure is his version of the famous “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” which opens in the German with the lines:

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurück- geschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt…

Stephen Mitchell translates this:

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power…

Here “with eyes like ripening fruit” seems feeble and very un-Rilkean. The poem begins with the bold assertion “We cannot know his legendary head/in which the eyeballs ripened.” Making the second line a simile with the word “like” weakens the effect still further. In lines three to six to lose the tremendously forceful and daring image of “Kandelaber” and change it into “lamp” seems again to weaken the original. The image of the candelabrum suggests the torso with the form branching out above the base and shining.

Leishman (who has “chandelier” for candelabrum, in order to make one of his very forced rhymes) makes more sense than Mitchell of the difficult-to-visualize line “in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt” with “in which his gaze only turned down, not dead.” Here Mitchell’s line to me at all events, for once makes little sense, for usually his versions make very good sense. M.D. Herter Norton’s translation comes best out of this:

We did not know his legendary head,
in which the eyeballs ripened. But
his torso still glows like a candela- brum
in which his gaze, only turned low,

holds and gleams…2

The poem is, in fact, one of the least translatable, and the fact that Stephen Mitchell does not succeed here is only one among a few slight scratches on what he has achieved in his well-chosen selection of Rilke’s poems.

This Issue

March 17, 1983