Reflections on the Problems of Translation
By William H. Gass

Basic Books Copyright © 1999
William H. Gass
All right reserved.
ISBN: 0-465-02622-2

Chapter One


Poems Translated in the Text Other Than the Duino Elegies.....................xi
Ein Gott Vermags..............................................................56
Inhalation in a God...........................................................94
The Grace of Great Things.....................................................134
Erect No Memorial Stone.......................................................170
The Duino Elegies of Rainer Maria Rilke.......................................189



Open-eyed, Rainer Maria Rilke died in the arms of his doctor on December 29, 1926. The leukemia which killed him had been almost reluctantly diagnosed, and had struck like a storm, after a period of gathering clouds. Ulcerous sores appeared in his mouth, pain troubled his stomach and intestines, he slept a lot when his body let him, his spirit was weighed down by depression, while physically he became as thin and fluttery as a leaf. Since, according to the gloom that naturally descended on him, Rilke's creative life was over, he undertook translations during his last months: of Valéry in particular-"Eupalinos," "The Cemetery by the Sea"-and composed his epitaph, too, invoking the flower he so devotedly tended.




The myth concerning the onset of his illness was, even among his myths, the most remarkable. To honor a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well. According to the preferred story, this was the way Rilke's disease announced itself, although Ralph Freedman, his judicious and most recent biographer, puts that melancholy event more than a year earlier.

Roses climb his life as if he were their trellis. Turn the clock back twenty-four years to 1900. Rilke is a guest at Worpswede, an artists' colony near Bremen, and it is there he has made the acquaintance of the painter Paula Becker and his future wife, Clara Westhoff. One bright Sunday morning, in a romantic mood, Rilke brings his new friends a few flowers, and writes about the gesture in his diary:

I invented a new form of caress: placing a rose gently on a closed eye until its coolness can no longer be felt; only the gentle petal will continue to rest on the eyelid like sleep just before dawn.

The poet never forgets a metaphor. Nor do his friends forget the poet's passions. Move on to 1907 now, when, in Capri, Rilke composes "The Bowl of Roses," beginning this poem with an abrupt jumble of violent images:

You've seen their anger flare, seen two boys bunch themselves into a ball of animosity and roll across the ground like some dumb animal set upon by bees; you've seen those carny barkers, mile-high liars, the careening tangle of bolting horses, their upturned eyes and flashing teeth, as if the skull were peeled back from the mouth.

Bullyboys, actors, tellers of tall tales, runaway horses-fright, force, and falsification-losing composure, pretending, revealing pain and terror: these are compared to the bowl of roses. Rilke has come from Berlin, where his new publisher, Insel Verlag, has been distressed to discover that Rilke's former publisher plans to bring out The Book of Hours as well as a revised Cornet. This does not get the new alliance off to a smooth and trusting start. Moreover, Rilke is broke again. During 1906, the poet had been bankrolled by his friend Karl von der Heydt, who twice generously deposited funds in Rilke's Paris bank, but Rilke's habit of staying in deluxe hotels and eating (modestly) in expensive restaurants, his dependence upon porters and maids and trains, had left him holding nothing more than his ticket to Alice Faehndrich's Villa Discopoli on Capri. Von der Heydt sent him some supplementary funds eventually, but not before making a face. Perhaps these unpleasantries account for the poem's oddly violent and discordant opening.

But now you know how to forget such things, for now before you stands the bowl of roses, unforgettable and wholly filled with unattainable being and promise, a gift beyond anyone's giving, a presence that might be ours and our perfection.

More than a bowl was set before him. Though the New Year was approaching, the island was abloom with winter roses, and Rilke's cottage, on the grounds of the villa, was covered with them.

Living in silence, endlessly unfolding, using space without space being taken from a space even trinkets diminish; scarcely the hint there of outline or ground they are so utterly in, so strangely delicate and self-lit-to the very edge: is it possible we know anything like this? And then like this: that a feeling arises because now and then the petals kiss? And this: that one should open like an eye, to show more lids beneath, each closed in a sleep as deep as ten, to quench an inner fire of visionary power. And this above all: that through these petals light must make its way. Out of one thousand skies they slowly drain each drop of darkness so that this concentrated glow will bestir the stamens till they stand.

The rose is a distilling eye. It gathers light and filters it until the concentration is powerful and pure, until its stamens become erect. If the rose is not a poem, the poem is surely a rose.

And the movement in the roses, look: gestures which make such minute vibrations they'd remain invisible if their rays did not resolutely ripple out into the wide world. Look at that white one which has blissfully unfolded to stand amidst its splay of petals like Venus boldly balanced on her shell; look too at the bloom that blushes, bends toward the one with more composure, and see how the pale one aloofly withdraws; and how the cold one stands, closed upon itself, among those open roses, shedding all. And what they shed: how it can be light or heavy, a cloak, a burden, a wing, a mask-it just depends- and how they let it fall: as if disrobing for a lover.

E. M. Butler, whose Rilke of 1941 was the first biography of the poet to appear in English, writes:

There is no doubt that roses cast a spell upon Rilke. Monique Saint-Hélier recounts how he once sent her some fading flowers to die with her [sic-Butler means "to die in her company"], because he was going away. His description of a vase of falling roses in Late Poems represents him as keeping them in his room until they were really dead, when he embalmed their petals in books and used them for pot-pourri. Rilke's roses were always explicitly in enclosed spaces: in death-bed chambers, in his study at night, in rose-bowls, bringing summer into a room, bestrewing the chimney-piece as they shed their petals. And even in his garden at Muzot, they seemed to be clad in pink silk boudoir-gowns and red summer dresses, like carefully tended and cherished, fragrant and fragile hothouse blooms.

The poet collects the world inside himself as the rose gathers the light of the skies, and there he intensifies it until the phallic element of the flower dominates the symbol. Eventually the rose bestrews itself. Petals, like poems, leave their tree. The beautiful unity the rose once was now becomes a fall of discoloring shards; yet these petals can help us see to another part of the world as through a stained-glass window.

What can't they be? Was that yellow one, lying there hollow and open, not the rind of a fruit in which the very same yellow was its more intense and darkening juice? And was this other undone by its opening, since, so exposed, its ineffable pink has picked up lilac's bitter aftertaste? And the cambric, is it not a dress to which a chemise, light and warm as breath, still clings, though both were abandoned amid morning shadows near the old woodland pool? And this of opalescent porcelain is a shallow fragile china cup full of tiny shining butterflies- and there-that one's holding nothing but itself.

Later, in the August of an emptied Paris, Rilke will compose a poem about the interior of the rose: it is first an Inside awaiting its Outside, then a bandaged wound, at last a lake full of the sky's reflection. When the rose is blown and the petals part, they fill, as if fueling for the journey, with inner space, finally overflowing into the August days, until summer becomes ein Zimmer in einem Traum-a room in a dream. But it is "The Bowl of Roses" which remains Rilke's great rose-poem.

And aren't they all that way? just self-containing, if self-containing means: to transform the world with its wind and rain and springtime's patience and guilt and restlessness and obscure fate and the darkness of evening earth and even the changing clouds, coming and going, even the vague intercession of distant stars, into a handful of inner life. It now lies free of care in these open roses.

It would be tempting to organize Rilke's biography around such themes, because the themes are there: the significance of the rose, the mirror, the unicorn, the puppet, the fountain, or the pathos (as for Poe) of the death of a young woman; his increasing "belief" in animism (that all things, as well as the parts of all things, are filled with life); the notion that we grow our death inside us like a talent or a tumor; that we are here to realize the world, to raise it, like Lazarus, from its sullen numbness into consciousness; that differences are never absolute, but that everything (life and death, for instance) lies on a continuum, as colors do; that we are strangers in a world of strangers; that simple people have a deeper understanding of their existence than most, and an insight into the secret rhythms of nature. These themes are like tides that rise and fall inside him, as if he were just their bay and receptive shoreline.

Rilke's parents had lost a daughter the year before they begot René (as he was christened); hoping for another daughter to replace her, and until he was ready to enter school, his mother, Phia, got him up girlishly, combed his curls, encouraged him to call his good self Sophie, and handled him like a china doll, cooing and cuddling him until such time as he was abruptly put away in a drawer. Later, with a mournful understanding that resembled Gertrude Stein's, Rilke realized that someone else had had to die in order to provide him with a place in life.

There is a photograph of four-year-old "Sophie" standing by a table upon which, unaccountably, a black-and-white dog is crouching. Atop "her" long hair a hat in the shape we call pillbox has been rakishly placed, and her high-topped shoes rise from a strongly patterned rug as if they were part of its design. She is wearing a pleated white skirt, a white tunic with a big bow at the neck, and white socks which peek out of those shiny shoes.

His mother had aspired, when she married, to something grander than she got, though she poured cheap wine into bottles with better labels, and in other ways tried to keep up appearances. During his first year, Rilke's nurses came and went like hours of the day. His time as a toy continued. Affection, lit like a lamp, would be blown out by any sudden whim. As his parents drew away from one another like the trains his father oversaw, Rilke was more and more frequently farmed out by his mother, for whom a small boy was a social drag, to this or that relation or other carrier of concern. The child began to believe that love, like money, time, and food, was in limited supply, and that any love which went into one life would not be available to go into another.

My mother spread her presents at the feet of those poor saints hewn of heartwood. Mute, unmoving, and amazed, they stood behind the pews, so straight and complete. They neglected to thank her, too, for her fervently offered gift. The little dark her candles lift was all of her faith they knew. Still my mother gave, in a paper roll, these flowers with their fragile blooms, which she took from a bowl in our modest rooms, in the sight and longing of my soul.

His mother's religiosity was always on simmer, if not on boil, but its turbulence took place, Rilke increasingly felt, in a shallow pot. "I am horrified," he wrote his lover Lou Salomé, "by her scatterbrained piety, by her pigheaded faith, by all those twisted and disfiguring things to which she has fastened herself, she who is empty as a dress, ghostlike and terrible. And that I'm her child, that I came into the world through a scarcely perceptible hole in the paper of this faded wall...."

In his mother's life, Josef, Rilke's father, was the principal disappointment. He had had his hopes-to advance in the military -but even years of dedicated service proved unavailing. His upward march was slowed by frequent illnesses, so that he was eventually compelled to accept a minor bureaucratic post with a railroad, where he wore a uniform which bore no medals for valor, let alone persistence. He appeared to be surrounded by bad luck. Josef's brother Emil died of dysentery, his brother Hugo committed suicide because he had failed, at fifty-one, to advance past captain (suggesting, perhaps, to Josef what he should have done), while the eldest, Jaroslav, damned Josef with his own success, at least in Phia's envious eyes.

It was Josef who insisted that the former dollchild Sophie enter military school, where she was miserable but not nearly as miserable as Rilke would be in the myth he later made of it. It was Josef, too, who assumed that the poet the boy began to play at being was his mother's doing; yet he supported Rilke financially even after his marriage to Clara; then Josef decently died and was out of life's way, unlike Phia, the empty-garmented ghost, who remained to be encountered in foreign corners, outlasting the poet. Even at the age of forty, Rilke complains in a poem that, although he has carefully built himself up over the years, as if he were as secure as a small house of stone, his mother comes and thoroughly tears him down.

The church and the military became Rainer's north and south poles. His mother's sentimental religiosity provided him with saints and the relics of saints, while his father gave him weights to lift and lead soldiers to arrange. Both realms remained active aspects of Rilke's personality, providing his poetry with an abundant stock of malleable symbols able to enter and contribute to new contexts.

Rilke wrote harshly of his mother, but of his father's shortcomings he was far more forgiving, possibly because his mother hadn't been. In "A Youthful Portrait of My Father," Rilke, as he frequently did, winds the poem around a pair of hands.

Dream-inhabited eyes.


Excerpted from READING RILKE by William H. Gass Copyright © 1999 by William H. Gass. Excerpted by permission.
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