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.1 A twentieth, by Edward Snow, is due shortly.2

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 remake himself as a French writer, keeping up-to-date with developments in Paris, cultivating contacts with French writers, particularly Paul Valéry, courting the French literary press, even switching to French in his speech and correspondence. In his last years, between the completion of the Duino Elegies in 1922 and his death from leukemia in 1926, he wrote more in French than in German.

This shift of allegiance did not pass unnoticed in Germany. In the nationalistic German press he was attacked as a cultural renegade. His defense was that he was merely being “a good European.” In fact Rilke had no developed idea of what it meant to be a European. He did not wish to be an Austrian or a German or, for that matter, a Czech in the postwar state of Czechoslovakia (though for a while he was forced to travel on a Czech passport). As a young man he liked to say he was heimatlos, homeless, without a country. He even asserted a right to decide his own origin. “We are born, so to speak, provisionally, it doesn’t matter where; it is only gradually that we compose, within ourselves, our true place of origin, so that we may be born there retrospectively.” There is no reason to think that being a good European meant much more to Rilke than being heimatlos, except that it had a more positive spin to it.

In Rilke’s Europe, England had no place. One of his affectations was to pretend to have no English. Even hearing the language spoken, he said, got on his nerves. The truth is that at the commercial college he briefly attended at the age of sixteen he took English as a subject (grade: Satisfactory). He even produced, with the aid of a friend, a translation into German of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnets from the Portuguese.” He had a gift for languages: besides his near- perfect French, he had a good command of Russian, Danish, and Italian, and more than a little Swedish and Spanish.


If England was not part of Europe, America was beyond the pale. America stood for the mechanization of life and the flood of mass-produced objects that Rilke came to loathe. This emerges most explicitly in a 1925 letter to his Polish translator, one of many letters in which he expounded to correspondents the message of the Duino Elegies (the critic Erich Heller called these letters “the bad prose side of the good poetry”).

“We are the bees of the invisible,” writes Rilke. “Tremulously we gather in the honey of the visible to store up in the great golden hive of the Invisible.” In the old days, the days before mass production,

hardly a thing was not a vessel in which our grandparents found human sentiment inhering, or in which they did not, in their turn, store up an additional hoard of human sentiment. But now empty, indifferent things come surging down upon us, across from America, mere semblances of things, mere dummies of life…. A house in the American sense, an American apple or one of their vines, have nothing whatsoever in common with the house, the fruit, the grapes, into which the hopes and pensiveness of our forefathers have been transfused…. We are perhaps the last who have known such things. On us rests the responsibility to preserve not only their memory…but also their human and laral value (“laral” in the sense of household deities).

Here Rilke has his Seventh and Ninth Elegies particularly in mind. I quote, in the Kinnell/Liebmann translation—Gass’s version understresses Rilke’s historical argument—a key passage:

Nowhere, Beloved, will there be world but within. Our
lives pass in transforming. Into less and less,
the external dwindles. Where once an enduring house was,
a contrived structure proposes itself, at odds with everything,
completely conceptual, as if it still stood in the brain.
The modern age builds enormous reservoirs of power, formless
as the tensing stress it extracts from everything.
It doesn’t know temples anymore. These heart’s squanderings
we hoard up more secretly. Yes, where a thing survives,
something once venerated, served, knelt before—,
it bears itself, unchanged, into the unseen.

As a critique of the capitalist industrial dynamic and the mental habits that go with it, this is, by the time of the 1920s, neither novel nor particularly interesting. It comes out of the reading of Carlyle, Nietzsche, Ruskin, Pater, and Jacob Burckhardt that Rilke did when, as a young man, he was most deeply under the influence of Lou Andreas-Salomé; it is of a piece with his youthful enthusiasms for Russia as the home of true spirituality and for quattrocento Florence. As a program for preserving old Europe from the simulacra (the “dummies of life”) that come surging in from America, it offers nothing practical. It is only when the Rilkean project of rescuing the world by the act of absorbing and transforming it (Verwandlung or, in Gass’s coinage, “withinwarding”) is dramatized in the speaking voice that it begins to come alive. Here is a passage from “Elegy Nine,” whose urgency Gass’s translation captures well:

Are we, perhaps, here just to utter: house,
bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit tree, window—
at most: column, tower…but to utter them, remember,
to speak in a way which the named never dreamed
they could be?…

These things whose life
is a constant leaving, they know when you praise them.
Transient, they trust us, the most transient, to come
to their rescue; they wish us to alter them utterly,
within our invisible hearts, into—so endlessly—us!
Whoever we may finally be.

You earthly things—is this not what you want,
to arise invisible in us? Is not your dream
to be one day invisible? Earth!—things!—invisible!
What, if not this deep translation, is your ardent aim?
Earth, my loved one, I will.

Through a sacred or sacramental form of speech, the elemental things that share our earthly journey—house, bridge,…—cease to be distinguishable from their names, are brought into the heart, transformed (translated) into ourselves, and given a transient salvation. (The transience of that promised salvation is what turns even this ecstatic poem into an elegy.)

When he writes as a biographer, Gass treats his subject with a breeziness of style that aims at the epigrammatic and continually runs the risk of oversimplification. Gass has a gift for the snappy phrase; his insights into Rilke are often mordantly accurate; but a side effect is to convey an attitude toward Rilke that is perhaps unintended: that, compared with William Gass, Rilke was a bit of a fool, a bit of a booby.


“With a romantic naiveté for which we may feel some nostalgia now,” Gass writes,

…Rilke struggled his entire life to be a poet—not a pure poet, but purely a poet—because he felt, against good advice and much experience to the contrary, that poetry could only be written by one who was already a poet: and a poet was above ordinary life…; the true poet dwelt in a realm devoted entirely to the spirit (yes, Rilke had “realms” in which he “dwelt”); the true poet was always “on the job”; the true poet never hankered for a flagon of wine or a leg of mutton or a leg of lady either (women were “the Muse,” to be courted through the post); nor did the true poet mop floors or dandle babies or masturbate or follow the horses or use the john; the true poet was an agent of transfiguration whose sole function was the almost magical movement of matter into mind.

The rhetorical effect of a paragraph like this is so skillfully achieved, the barbs so artfully chosen, that to protest against its unfairness, its exaggerations and half-truths, is futile. Gass has little respect for Rilke the daemon-driven Poet, whom he finds juvenile, pretentious, and hypocritically self-serving. He is impatient with the Romantic cult of genius to which Rilke so unquestioningly subscribed. Rilke’s snobbery, his dandyism (“Mr. Fastidious,” he calls him), and what one can only call a certain oiliness of manner are further black marks against him.

There have been artists before Rilke who neglected their families, courted wealthy patrons, seduced and abandoned women. What makes Rilke so vulnerable to attack is that he not only adhered to a doctrine that excused all sins except those against art, but took this doctrine seriously. If there is one thing above all about Rilke that invites Gass the satirist’s ridicule, it is his humorlessness, his lack of a saving sense of irony.

Yet even if we share Gass’s feelings, uneasy questions remain. How was it possible for such a poseur to write poetry that still—clearly—touches us and moves us? The Duino Elegies were, for the most part, written in two brief creative bursts, in 1912 and 1922. “A nameless storm, a hurricane in the spirit,” Rilke called the second spell. Are the Elegies—which, if we include the story or myth of their composition, are surely the great poem of our age about being called as a poet—imaginable in the absence of the notion of an artistic destiny? Could the vatic poetry of the Elegies have come into existence without the theory and (imperfect) practice of the vatic life that preceded them?

Gass treats Rilke’s recurrent pattern of wooing women, arousing their interest, then withdrawing, as evidence of timorousness, a quest for a mother rather than a lover, a failure to grow up. It was a syndrome Rilke was thoroughly aware of. In the years (roughly 1902-1910) when he was most deeply under the influence first of Rodin (for whom he worked as secretary-apprentice), then of Cézanne, he justified his refusal of commitments as a renunciation demanded by his art: emptying himself, breaking all ties, even ties of love, was a necessary purification before he could see the world with fresh eyes. Later he would look back with nostalgia on the year of acute isolation, 1907, during which he composed his New Poems. “I expected nothing and nobody and the whole world streamed towards me as an ever greater task which I answered clearly and surely.” He quoted Beethoven: “I have no friend. I must live by myself alone. But I am aware that in my art God is closer to me than to all others.”

In his poetry he developed a theory of essential gestures, archetypal movements of the body-soul, among which the gesture of withdrawal had a central place and a complex meaning, simultaneously blessing and denying. “There is nothing I understand better in the life of the gods than the moment when they withdraw themselves,” he wrote in a letter; he described himself as “a place where giving and taking back have often been almost one and the same thing.”

The withdrawal of the gods from our modern world is one of the great themes of Hölderlin, whom Rilke began to read seriously in 1915 and whose example made the later Duino Elegies possible. Withdrawal in all its aspects is thus close to the heart of Rilke as man and poet. We are well advised not to psychologize his emphasis on withdrawal too hastily, treating it as a mere manifestation of some deeper cause.

In a passage important enough to quote in full Gass effectively responds to the concerns I raise, and to the overriding question of what he actually thinks of Rilke when he is not occupied in making jibes at his expense. Here Gass drops the satirical manner, trying to judge Rilke evenhandedly, according full weight to the mystery of the relation between Rilke the poet and Rilke the man, namely, that out of an insecurity and coldness of heart which, in anyone else, might have spelled a stunted emotional life, there could grow a body of work that included, if not great love poetry, great poetry about love.

He hid inside The Poet he eventually became, both secure there and scared, empty and fulfilled; the inspired author of the Duino Elegies, sensitive, insightful, gifted nearly beyond compare; a man with many devoted and distant friends, many extraordinary though frequently fatuous enthusiasms, but still a lonely unloving homeless boy as well,…enjoying a self-pity there were rarely buckets enough to contain; yet with a persistence in the pursuit of his goals, a courage, which overcame weakness and worry and made them into poems…no…into lyrics that love, however pure or passionate or sacrificial, could never have achieved by itself…lines only frailty, terror, emotional duplicity even, could accomplish—the consequence of an honesty bitter about the weaknesses from which it took its strength.

Aside from the cliché of the lonely boy, this is well and generously said, facing up to the issues that the passage quoted earlier found it convenient to evade, and at the end—“an honesty bitter about the weaknesses from which it took its strength”—getting very nearly to the heart of the Rilkean labyrinth.

One of the secondary aims of Reading Rilke is to rescue some of the women who crossed Rilke’s path from going down in history as just that—women in a famous man’s life, minor characters. Lou Salomé does not really need Gass’s intercession, since her stature as an intellectual in her own right is now widely recognized. But the excursus on the painter Paula Modersohn Becker (1876-1907) with which Gass prefaces his translation of “Requiem for a Friend,” the poem Rilke wrote after Becker’s death, is welcome.

Paula Becker, whom Rilke had met at the artists’ colony of Worpswede in 1900, died in the aftermath of childbirth. Gass suggests that the “Requiem” originates in feelings of guilt in Rilke, partly for failing to support Becker in her effort to strike out and make a life for herself as an artist, partly because his own attitudes toward women, the family, and marriage (he was married to her one-time close friend Clara Westhoff) would not bear close scrutiny, partly for what women in general have to suffer at the hands of men.

Doubtless Gass is right about Rilke. Doubtless, when put to the test, Rilke and Becker’s artist husband, Otto Modersohn, were not as enlightened, as far ahead of the times, as they pretended to be. But it is a pity that the case for Becker has to be made at the expense of Rilke (who, when all is said and done, played no great part in her life), and has to depend on such wild generalizations as the following:

Most women in Rilke’s day, unless they were barren or rich, were married off early and sent into a life of loveless broodmaring that led, after an interval that demonstrated their decency, to the bearing, the nursing, the raising, and the burying of children—six, eight, ten—losing their health and figure in the bargain, as well as any chance at achievement.

At a deeper level, Gass asks why Rilke was so often moved to write by the death of young women (the creative burst in 1922 that brought forth the later Duino Elegies was sparked by the reading of the diary of a girl who had died at the age of nineteen). He suggests that Rilke was working out guilt over the death of the sister who died before he was born: “A girl had to die to make room in the world for him.” This piece of speculation is of less interest than what Rilke himself has to say on the subject of his dead sister: that he had a sense of her alive within him. Reaching the sister within him seems to have become part of his maturation, an attempt to face and accept his own narcissism and turn it into a positive force.


At the center of Gass’s book is a chapter devoted to close scrutiny of the various English versions of the Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus. Here his aim is less to produce a ranking of Rilke’s translators than to explain and illustrate the rationale behind his own versions. His commentary on the rival translations is acute yet fair. However, given that his rivals must be mute while he alone gets to state his case, the outcome is predictable. Gass, “a jackal who comes along after the kill,” as he calls himself, wins every time, though three of his rivals get respectful mention: J.B. Leishman, whose translations, going back to the 1930s, have proved surprisingly durable, André Poulin Jr., and Stephen Mitchell.3

Sensibly, Gass treats literary translation as a craft rather than an art, with nothing so grand as a general theory behind it. To translate a poem, says Gass, is to resign oneself to the loss of a certain quantum of meaning. The question, with each poem, is what must be held on to at all costs, what may be allowed to go. Using a short poem by Hölderlin as a specimen, Gass, careful as a watchmaker, takes apart versions by two of the finest translators of German poetry today, Christopher Middleton and Michael Hamburger, approving or questioning each word choice, weighing the movement of each line. Being no coward, he offers a competing version of his own, which, though very good, is not, to my ear, and for all Gass’s persuasiveness, better than Hamburger’s.

What the translator of Hölderlin is trying to achieve, Gass suggests, is “the poem Hölderlin would have written had he been English.” As the formulation of an ideal, this simply will not do. A human language is not a neutral code like a computer language. To “be English” is to be embedded in the English language and the English language’s way of seeing the world. If Hölderlin had “been English” in any sense, he would have written a different poem. What Middleton and Hamburger and Gass himself give us, in their various ways, is something less ambitious than the poem a hypothetical English Hölderlin might have written: three poems in English based on a common source, poems as good as their authors can make them but—to a reader with access to both German and English—not, finally, as rich as Hölderlin’s.

To be able to translate a literary text, says Gass, it is not enough just to know the source language, however well; it is not even enough to be able to transpose the text sentence by sentence. You have to understand it. “Many translators do not bother to understand their texts. That would interfere with their own creativity and with their perception of what the poet ought to have said…. They would rather be original than right.”

Gass’s point is less obvious, and more contentious, than might at first sight appear. “Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich,” writes Rilke at the beginning of “Elegy One”: every angel is terrible. Am I failing as a translator if, despite poring over the Elegies, over Rilke’s numerous explanations, over the best that literary criticism has to offer, I am still not sure what an angel—one of Rilke’s angels—looks like? Is it not good enough for the translator simply to call ein Engel an angel and be done with it?

Yes and no. Ein Engel is an angel is ein Engel, but until I know what sort of angel Rilke has in mind I am not sure what schrecklich means: terrible (Leishman) or terrifying (Poulin, Mitchell) or awesome (Gass).

So again Gass’s point needs refining. The translator does not first need to understand the text before he translates it. Rather, translating the text becomes part of the process of finding—and making—its meaning; translating turns out to be only a more intense and more demanding form of what we do whenever we read.

How well does the translator need to know the source language? One extreme is represented by Ezra Pound. Pound’s knowledge of written Chinese was amateurish. In translating classic Chinese poetry he used cribs, and for the rest he guessed, falling back on the highly questionable theory that Chinese characters are stylized pictographs which any trained eye can “read.” The other extreme is represented by Vladimir Nabokov, who demanded that the translator be fully at home in the source language in all its nuances and ephemeral connotations.

Gass’s position is somewhere in the middle. A native command of the source language, he says, is less important than a “native-like” command of the language into which one is translating (in translators’ jargon, the target language). He might have added that a nonnative translator who does not have native informants to call on—in the case of poetry, sensitive, well-read informants—is in a parlous position. Gass himself worked closely with Heide Ziegler of the University of Stuttgart, whose help he handsomely acknowledges though he does not list her as co-translator.

Finally, in setting out the rules of his craft, Gass warns against “construing” the poem, by which he seems to mean stitching into the translation, at difficult points, an explanation of what you think it means. “Render the poem as the poet wrote it and let the poet’s poem explain itself,” he writes.

Once more the common-sensical formulation evades a substantial question: What might “the poet’s poem” be as distinct from my understanding of the poem? Gass’s own practice involves a fair amount of construal, as we see in his rendering of “Elegy Eight.” The Eighth Elegy is one of the most compact of the sequence. Its subject is the sundering of man from the natural world; its project, a paradoxical one, is to find words that will take us back to before words and allow us to glimpse the world as seen by creatures who do not have words, or, if that glimpse is barred to us, then to allow us the sad experience of standing at the rim of an unknowable mode of being. Although one of the more abstract of the Elegies, it is accessible on its own terms, not least because such earlier poems of Rilke’s as “The Panther” have prepared us for it.

Gass the professor of philosophy is in his element in this elegy. He understands what Rilke is up to, understands so well that more than once he succumbs to the temptation to clarify—to us his readers but in a sense to Rilke as well—thoughts that Rilke is still struggling to articulate.

For instance, Rilke writes (I transpose into English word for word): “What is out there, we know it from the animal’s face alone; for even the young child we turn around and compel to look back, seeing form/formation [Gestaltung], not the open [das Offne], that in animal vision is so deep.”

Rilke’s main point—that for an unmediated experience of the world we have to fall back on empathy with animals—is clear enough, but the details are less easy to decode. (In retrospect, Rilke would admit that one reason why the Elegies were so difficult to understand was that in places he had, so to speak, written down the total without revealing what was being added up.) Gass translates the lines as follows:

What is outside, we read solely from the animal’s gaze,
for we compel even the young child to turn and look back at
preconceived things,never to know the acceptance so deeply set inside
the animal’s face.

Though the English here is clearer than the German, Gass’s decision to interpret or construe the problematic terms Gestaltung (as “preconceived things”) and das Offne (as “acceptance”), rather than giving their closest semantic equivalents, even at the risk of producing a version as opaque as the original, is open to question. Gass’s English breathes an assurance—the assurance of the speaker who knows his subject—not present in the German, with its general effect of a speaker pushing at the limits of language, striving to find his own meaning. Furthermore, offen (open) and öffnen (to open) are key words in Rilke, revisited again and again, each time with a different nuance. By hiding Rilke’s das Offne behind the unrelated word “acceptance,” Gass is false to a characteristic movement of Rilke’s poetic thinking.

At a philosophical level, “Elegy Eight” is concerned with relations between thought and language and with the problem of other minds. If we wanted to find out something about these topics in general, Gass’s “Eighth Elegy” would probably be a better guide than Rilke’s hesitating effort. What we lose, as Gass tightens up Rilke’s terminology and oils the joints of his syntax, is the drama of a poet at the height of his powers striving to find words for intuitions at the limit of his grasp.

Gass justly denies Rilke the status of a philosophical poet: what present themselves as ideas in Rilke, he says, are for the most part emotions, moods, attitudes. The chapter in which he picks apart Rilke’s characteristic paradoxes constitutes the best brief exposition of Rilke’s thought I know of.

He gets the quality of Rilke’s verse exactly right: the typical poem is, as he says, “obdurate, complex, and compacted,…made of plucked tough sounds, yet as rapid and light and fragile as fountain water.” On the wide appeal of the Duino Elegies he is equally illuminating: “These poems are the most oral I know;…they must be spoken—not merely by but for yourself, as if you were the one who wondered whether you had anyone you could call to.”

As for his treatment of Rilke the man, the problem here is not that Gass is uncharitably inclined toward his subject but that he is out of sympathy with the milieu that formed him. Reading Rilke is an ambitious book, but one of the things it does not attempt is to situate Rilke historically. We could do with more on Rilke and Nietzsche (at whom Gass takes a few disparaging swipes), and on the cult of the lonely genius in late Romantic times. It would also help to learn more about the back-to-nature movement that was so strong in German-speaking countries at the turn of the century, divorced from which Rilke’s nude sunbathing, vegetarianism, etc., look like mere personal fads.

Gass’s Rilke translations will not satisfy readers who prefer to stay as close to the original as possible, even if at the risk of finding themselves in a no man’s land between German and English. Nor, on the other hand, will they please readers who want to be swept away by grand verbal music. What Gass provides are versions which, if not inspired verse-making in their own right, reflect a lucid appreciation of the original based on years of close reading, realized with verbal resourcefulness of the highest order.

This Issue

December 2, 1999