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Rilke's Duino Elegies and Don Paterson's Orpheus: A version of Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus

Rilke's Duino Elegies and Don Paterson's Orpheus: A version of Rilke’s Die Sonette an Orpheus

By Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated by Martin Crucefix, Don Paterson

Faber, £12.99 and Enitharmon, £9.95
Series 3 No.8 - Getting it Across

If Rilke had written in English, he might have sounded a bit like Stevens, though more the Stevens of ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ than Harmonium.

Review by Charlie Louth

Probably no other twentieth-century collections of poetry have been translated into English more often than these two cycles; Amazon can currently find you at least twenty-one versions of the Duino Elegies and fifteen of the Sonnets to Orpheus.  

Something of their aura comes from the myth-like circumstances of their composition: the first elegies taken down from a voice in the wind at Castle Duino in 1912 and followed in the next few days by the first lines of the final poem. The long interim of the war followed and frustrated Rilke’s attempts to find a place and the composure to finish them. After moving to Switzerland in 1919, he spent years looking for the ‘elegy-place’. Helped by many friends, he found Muzot late in 1921; with a housekeeper who spoke only when spoken to and no dog to distract him, he stepped up to his specially built standing-desk and composed not the Elegies but twenty-six poems of the Sonnets, all but a handful written in four days. They were followed immediately by the missing Elegies, and then completed by the twenty-nine poems of the second part of the Sonnets, both works concluded, as Don Paterson notes, in the ‘preposterously brief’ period of about three weeks. Rilke later called the Sonnets the ‘most enigmatic dictation’ he had ever ‘withstood’ but added that ‘not one of them eludes the understanding in context’. 

At first he regarded the Sonnets as a short-circuiting of the current that bore the Elegies upon him; even late in 1925, he was referring to the ‘little rust-coloured sail of the Sonnets and the vast white sail-cloth of the Elegies’ that he had been allowed to fill ‘with one breath’. And despite their popularity, they have often been viewed as secondary to the Elegies, perhaps only lately considered Rilke’s best work. Certainly they struck out in a new direction. The labour of completing the Elegies was to get back to pre-war 1912, an act of salvage and recuperation, whereas the Sonnets were, as he said, totally ‘unexpected’, an unasked-for gift. Both cycles appeared in 1923 (the Sonnets a few months earlier), the same year as Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, hard on the heels of The Waste Land, Ulysses and, much more importantly for Rilke, Valéry’s Charmes ou poèmes, which he was translating.

If Rilke had written in English, he might have sounded a bit like Stevens, though more the Stevens of ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ than Harmonium. To bring him, or anyone, across into another tongue is to make him (almost) other. So the question of translation is how to negotiate the necessary gap, the shift that occurs as the original is transformed. Paterson’s answer is to emphasise this shift: ‘Morning Prayer’, from Nil Nil, is a version of Rimbaud’s ‘Oraison du soir’, while in Landing Light, Dante is put into quatrains, and the breast of Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ becomes a ‘double axe’ rather than just curving. In The Eyes, ‘a version of Antonio Machado’, Paterson felt free to mistranslate deliberately, conflating different poems, inserting ‘whole new lines’ and ‘on a few occasions’ writing ‘entirely new poems’ (so he says), in order to ‘make a musical and argumentative unity of the material at hand’.

Orpheus also does much to detach and distinguish itself from the original, beginning with the title and the relegation of Rilke’s authorship and continuing with the ‘barbarous’ (Paterson’s word) removal of the dedication to the dancer Wera Ouckama Knoop (though he gives it back to us in the Afterword), alongside the replacing of the original numbers by titles, and the omission of Rilke’s few notes. If The Eyes was a medley of bits and pieces of Machado arranged wilfully (alphabetically by title) and selectively, in Orpheus, Paterson takes on a whole collection, a commitment for any translator. There are bound to be poems he understands less well or has less sympathy with, but the overall architecture of the cycle requires that he find a way. (In his eccentric but fascinating Afterword – more for what it tells us of Paterson than of Rilke – Paterson risks the thought that there might be fifty-five sonnets for ‘numerological reasons’ to do with the golden section and the sonnet form, and he may be right.) Once we get beyond the more or less cosmetic alterations listed above (though the ‘small mnemonic handle’ each poem acquires with its title is a more profound change), we find ourselves recognizably in Rilke’s poetic domain: ‘Orpheus sings: O tall oak in the ear!’ The collection is still in two parts, for instance, and most of the sonnets keep as close to the lexical meaning of the originals as we can expect from a rhymed version.

Nevertheless, in his appendix, ‘Fourteen Notes on the Version’, Paterson insists on making a sharp distinction between a translation and a version. In an argument begun in The Eyes, he says we must be ‘prepared to make a choice between honouring the word or the spirit’, claiming a translation does the former while a version does the latter. This distinction seems to go against the reflections of the Afterword – all we can have of the spirit of a poem is in its words, as Paterson well knows and puts much better in one of his aphorisms from The Book of Shadows: ‘the poem’s incarnation in its tongue is all there is of it, as a painting is in its paint’. There is no alternative to attending to the word, whether translating or ‘versioning’, and even the most basic kind of crib (which is what Paterson reduces ‘translation’ to) will, in respecting the lexical, literal meaning of the words, inevitably open towards something more mysterious, to the relations between them, to the oddness of their diction, the movement of their syntax. In fact, as Paterson claims, there is often a lot of poetry in a literal version. In the happiest cases, there can be a kind of coincidence, or at least an illusion of it, so that such ‘mechanical’ poetry corresponds closely to what makes the poem a poem in the original. It is true that this is more likely to happen with odd lines than with whole poems, but that doesn’t mean we need to jettison the whole idea of translation in favour of the version. There is no sharp distinction between them, and good translation has always employed some of the strategies Paterson ascribes to versions, just as good versions have always concerned themselves with preoccupations he regards as proper to translation. If a translation does not work in its own tongue, as the original worked (but differently) in its, then it has failed; it has only conveyed a ghost or a corpse, a lifeless rather than a transmuted form, and the same is true of a version. Paterson’s insistence on the version amounts to a plea that we do not read his poems against the originals, and to an insurance policy if we disregard that plea. Nevertheless, what he says here is of interest, especially when it comes to Rilke. For example, Paterson notes that the original Sonette an Orpheus have ‘occasional imperfections’ due to the breakneck rapidity of their arrival (I wish he’d told us what they were), and that these cannot be ‘honestly versioned’ because such versions need ‘their own pattern of error and lyric felicity’. If a translation is to be more than a crib, it needs to be a poem in its own right, as has always been the case – and the main reason that most translations fail. But to insist that these versions are not translations is a bit like saying the Sonette aren’t sonnets (which has been done before).

How well does Paterson know Rilke’s tongue? He is rather coy about this. At one point he seems about to tell us, but slips into the general statement that he can read ‘a very little of a few languages’ without even saying whether he considers German to be one of them. In an interview in Magma (Winter 2004/05) he says he used ‘all’ translations of Rilke to work from, without mentioning the original. However, from the evidence of Orpheus itself, it seems clear that he has been looking at it closely, coming up with things it is hard to see emerging through another version or even from the multiple bearings the different translations allow. In this question too he tends towards extremes, suggesting that not knowing the language might be preferable to acquiring it (citing J. B. Leishman as an example of what knowledge can do for you), and pointing towards bilingual poets such as Michael Hofmann and George Szirtes as the only real alternative to ignorance.

Criticising Leishman’s version-like translation (as Paterson would have it) for inaccuracy is unfair since he corrected his mistakes in his second edition. And we must also question whether Paterson’s translation-like version of the same poem doesn’t get it differently wrong. In ‘The Sarcophagi in Rome’ he gives the tombs in the first quartet ‘heavy lids’. Yet Rilke’s sarcophagi here are open ones with water flowing through them (he had written about them before in the New Poems). Paterson makes the streams figurative, of dreams beneath eyelids, and so connects forward to the second quartet where, in Rilke too, unlidded tombs are imagined as open eyes. But in Rilke’s poem, as his note to it makes plain, these second tombs are different from the first, not in Rome but in Arles. It seems a pity to lose the image, obviously important to Rilke, of living waters running through mortuary stone, with its resonance in the rest of the cycle of Orpheus’s ‘double realm’ and as an emblem of animate form. It is an interesting case: Paterson’s poem is lovely and coherent in itself, but seems to have gone further than it needed to find its ‘own course’. In fact, ‘The Sarcophagi in Rome’, in its first half at least, is more of an imitation in Robert Lowell’s sense than practically any other poem in the book, taking the original more as a point of departure than as a ‘detailed ground plan and elevation’ for its ‘vernacular architecture’, as Paterson defines the work of the version.

But none of this matters much, because Paterson has written a beautiful book. Rilke’s poems have never been brought across as convincingly; next to Paterson’s, other versions lack a life of their own. Unlike Paterson’s, however, many are published with parallel text, so are perhaps not seeking the kind of self-sufficiency he wants. But it’s doubtful they thus serve Rilke better, particularly as Paterson manages to keep pretty close to the surface sense while letting his poems make their own coherence. Take the last line of the first sonnet, crucial because it opens up the Orphic space of the collection. Paterson has: ‘today the temple rises in their hearing’. The line literally means something like ‘there [or then] you created temples for them in the hearing’ (da schufst du ihnen Tempel im Gehör). Gehör is much more concrete than English ‘hearing’. Paterson’s line is wonderfully clean and clear compared to Leishman’s (‘you built them temples in their sense of sound’) or Stephen Cohn’s (‘you built them their own Temples of the Ear!’). Stephen Mitchell has ‘you built a temple deep inside their hearing’, and Edward Snow, whose versions Paterson acknowledges for their clarity, ‘you built temples for them in their hearing’. Paterson’s use of ‘rises’ in the middle of his line is a crucial improvement, capturing the active, becoming sense of schufst in a way ‘built’ cannot, as its energy pushes on into ‘in their hearing’, making a space of it by filling it. Here, the temple is built, and rebuilt at each reading.

An important aspect of the original Rilke is its provisional, on-the-wing feel. The poems grow out of one another, they have a tautness and sense of pace that is like a memory of their making, recycling motifs in different permutations and seemingly inventing themselves as they go along. Perhaps the best thing about Paterson’s version is the way he conveys this. Rilke’s rhymes, if sometimes risky (Banane / Ich ahne), are always full, whereas Paterson mostly uses varieties of half-rhyme. No doubt this is closer to his usual practice, helping to make a rhymed version that works, but it also suggests the improvised nature of the original, the tenuously delicate action of the Sonette. This is also achieved by a conversational tone, also present in Rilke. For instance, in ‘The Gods’ (I, 24), ‘we never set / our paths as sweet meanders; we lay them straight’, follows exactly the words though not the lineation of the German, but is altogether more familiar, off-hand, idly but aptly spoken where the German (schöne Mäander) sounds more formal. ‘Horseman’ (I, 11) ends ‘And maybe that’s enough’, more sceptical than the certainty of the German. Paterson’s great virtue, as in his own poetry, is plainness and clarity, a purity of diction. In ‘The Double Realm’ (I, 6) there is an odd shift out of the contemporary. Where Rilke simply talks of going to bed, Paterson has: ‘When you pinch the candles, never leave the bread / or milk out on the table; the famished shades / are drawn by them’. ‘Bed’ would have interfered with ‘bread’, whereas ‘pinch the candles’ not only fits the deft, quick, neat gesture it evokes but also picks out the ‘famished shades’ in the following line. This deftness and confidence, alongside Paterson’s subtle sense of contemporizing, illustrates what is good about this translation, the intimacy of knowledge and word it possesses.

Most of Paterson’s divergences are successful in this way. Only occasionally does he complicate in an unconvincing way, as in the last tercet of ‘The Real’ (II, 10):

Before the beyond-words, words scatter like straw.
And music still quarries its purposeless space
for the vibrant rock, to build its holy place.

Whereas Rilke’s music just ‘builds’ in a resonant unbroken line, here it is made to do two things (quarry and build), with a hiatus between them, which seems to prevent the last line from doing what it says. Sometimes it is the other way round, with a simplification of a complex thought, strikingly so in the last poem, as Rilke’s difficult injunction ‘if you find drinking bitter, become wine’ is reduced by being rendered ‘if the water’s sour, turn it into wine’, which feels like an evasion. But there is more of what is essential to Rilke in these versions than in any other: they open the poems out into a sharp-edged, attentive, precisely tuned English, which is a transmutation, not a betrayal, of the softer, more obscure music of the originals. 

Martyn Crucefix’s new versions of the Elegies do not stand out in the same way but they offer a mostly accurate reading. With a parallel German text, they ask less to be taken on their own terms. Instead of a general commentary on his translation, Crucefix instead supplies a paraphrasing commentary on each poem. Perhaps the main difficulty with translating the Elegies is accommodating the sustained grandness of their manner, especially nowadays, when the possibility of equivalence to it, as exploited in Leishman and Stephen Spender’s famous version, seems to have become unavailable. Crucefix tries to tone it down, then let moments of it slip through, which seems a sensible course. It sometimes works, as at the beginning of the Sixth:

Fig tree, how long has it been important to me
the way you almost wholly skip blossoming
and press pure mystery – quite unheralded –
into early-setting fruit.

More often though, he cannot avoid sounding irredeemably peculiar, as when the angels are said to be ‘occupied in the whirling / reinvigoration of themselves’ (Second Elegy) or when (in the Ninth) the Tun ohne Bild (‘action without form’) that characterizes modernity for Rilke is described as ‘Acts beneath encrustrations / that burst easily the moment the innards / seek out new boundaries for themselves’. There are also often inexplicable deviations or amplifications that, unlike in Paterson, hardly bring us closer to the German or do anything for the English. A translation is sometimes obliged to clarify, but whereas Paterson does this with a quick, sure touch, Crucefix tends to elucidate too much. But such problems beset most versions of the Elegies in English, and there are enough moments of successful transposition to make his translation useful if not indispensable.

In her introduction Karen Leeder speaks of the Elegies as ‘reiterating the uniqueness of the here and now despite – indeed precisely because of – its fragility’. At the end of his Afterword, Paterson declares ‘the word Earth’ – which he has already brought to our attention in his versions by giving it a capital letter and sometimes including it where the original doesn’t – ‘the Sonnets’ heartbeat’. Perhaps Rilke’s popularity today stems from the ecological anxiety in his work. Paterson has effectively turned the Orpheus myth, already made a ‘perfect alibi’ in ‘The Landing’ from Landing Light, into a myth of the Earth, as at the end of ‘The Trace’ (I, 26),where the word appears in place of ‘nature’:

O lost god, you eternal trace! Only through
your final scattering could we be true
and hear the Earth, to sing of what she sings.

Charlie Louth

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