I have read only the first elegy of ten from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies, but already I’m glad I picked up this book; the first elegy is quite beautiful. Rilke begins by asking this question: “If I cried out, who could hear me up there, among the angelic orders?” The poem goes on to describe the speaker’s sense of isolation; since he does not believe that angels will hear him, he asks, “Oh who can we turn to, in this need? Not angels / not people, and the cunning animals realize at once / that we aren’t especially at home in the deciphered world / What’s left?”
To this question, the only answer the poem gives is this: “But listen / to that soft blowing … that endless report that grows out of silence. / It rustles toward you from those who died young. When you went into churches / in Naples and Rome didn’t their fates touch you gently?” The speaker is thinking about death and finds himself completely alone except for the “soft blowing,” the “report,” that seems to come from those who died young. He thinks about how strange death is: “Of course it is odd to live no more on the earth / to abandon customs you’ve just begun to get used to / not to give meaning to roses and other such / promising things.”
I think all of this is beautiful, but especially the very end of the poem when the speaker thinks about the purpose of suffering. He ends the poem with this question:
Is the old tale pointless
that tells how music began in the midst of the mourning for Linos
piercing the arid numbness and, in that stunned space
where an almost godlike youth
had suddenly stopped existing, made emptiness vibrate in ways
that thrill us, comfort us, help us now?
My book’s notes tell me that Linos was “a vegetation god similar to Adonis” and that the one mourning Linos was likely Orpheus, “the legendary first poet and musician.” So music and, by extension, art, comes from grief, suffering, and death. Music has made the “emptiness vibrate.” There is no angelic order to comfort us, and there is nothing but silence and the voices of the dead to help us face death, but there is, in consolation, the beauty of music. All this is a question, though — the speaker wonders if the old tale of Linos and Orpheus is pointless after all.
I’m not doing justice to David Young’s translation, however; he’s decided to break each of Rilke’s lines up into three shorter ones, the second and third sections of the line below the first, and each one indented (I can’t reproduce this on WordPress, or at least I can’t without driving myself crazy trying). Young says he was inspired by William Carlos Williams’s triadic line. Here is his reasoning:
As I began to work on the Elegies I found that the long lines of the original were difficult to reproduce in English (or, more strictly speaking, American). Read aloud, they sounded fine; the listener could follow in the reader’s voice the emphases, hesitations, and variations in speed. On the page, however, the long line did not readily suggest the “living” quality, and was one of the features most likely, I came to feel, to make the poem seem like a museum piece.
Williams’s triadic line worked for him because “a long line made up of three shorter, overlapping units makes an extremely flexible instrument of expression. The more I have worked with it, the deeper my respect for it has grown.” I feel that perhaps I shouldn’t like this because it’s messing so much with the original, but, then, translating a poem necessarily means messing with it, and I do like reading the poem in short lines; it’s got a flow to it that’s a pleasure to follow. Two other translators of Rilke, Edward and Vita Sackville-West, wrote this about Rilke’s lines, that they are like “an immense road, admitting many thoughts and images abreast of one another, and seeming to suggest movement in more directions than one,” and I think Young’s translation captures this well.