Literary Psilocybin in Blank Verse

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Vita Sackville-West & Edward Sackville-West, Duino Elegies

Pushkin Press, 112pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781782277798

reviewed by Tim Murphy

The composition of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies began and ended with inspirational moments that became famous in the history of literature. The Prague-born Austrian poet noted down the first line of the poem, Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel / Ordnungen? (‘Who would give ear, among the angelic host / Were I to cry aloud?’), after hearing a voice in the wind speak these words while he was walking near Duino Castle in Italy in 1912. Rilke, who was then in his mid-30s and already established as an important European poet, was staying at the castle on the Adriatic while he recovered from a period of depression. In the days after hearing the first line, Rilke wrote the first two of the ten elegies that make up the full 859-line poem, and he also drafted other passages, including what would become the beginning of the tenth elegy. He finished the third elegy in 1913 and the fourth in 1915, but the war and his conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army triggered further depression. In 1922, however, while staying at Château Muzot in Switzerland, Rilke completed the unfinished elegies in one week, and shortly afterwards he completed his Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke wrote of how this period of creativity was like ‘a boundless storm, a hurricane of the spirit,’ in which his poetry relieved some of his own existential angst and despair.

Rilke is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever German-language poets in large part because of the Duino Elegies. It is the mature work in which he uses his unique lyrical style to address the grand themes that preoccupied him: childhood, love, transience, solitude, spirituality, and death. Most of the elegies are impossible to summarise, but, in very broad outline, the first two elegies address the human need for consolation given how little ‘at our ease we live and move / In this intelligible world.’ Consolation from angels is beyond humanity’s grasp, so the poet looks to other possible sources of consolation such as love, animals, and music. The third and fourth elegies are strongly autobiographical, laden with childhood memories, and the metaphor of an angelic puppeteer is invoked to suggest the possibility of mind and body working in harmony (‘Angel and puppet: there’s a show at last!’) The fifth elegy muses on Picasso’s 1905 painting of a group of acrobats, Famille de Saltimbanques, asking a series of questions about the acrobats’ restless existence and their roles vis-à-vis their audiences.

The sixth elegy contrasts humanity’s general creative inhibition to the ready blossoming of a fig tree; but this is called ‘the heroic’ elegy, and it celebrates Samson as a decisive hero without fear of death. The experience of living, even for those who die young, is celebrated in the seventh elegy; and the poet proudly addresses the angels, fully aware that they will not respond. The eighth elegy contrasts animal ignorance of mortality (‘Exempt from thought of death!’) with the human problems of self-spectatorship and the knowledge that death is to come, while the ninth elegy affirms the art of living in, and giving voice to, the present moment (‘Now is the time for what can be expressed. / And here its home.’) In the sublime tenth elegy, death is imagined; the poet is guided through the ‘alleys of the city of pain’ and ‘the fields / Where the flowers of sadness blow’, before ultimately presenting visions of spring that offer hope of regeneration and renewal.

This Pushkin Press volume is a re-publication of the translation of Rilke’s poem by the writers (and cousins), Vita and Edward Sackville-West. The translation was originally published in 1931 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press with the title, Duineser Elegien: elegies from the castle of Duino. The cousins dedicated the work ‘to one another’, but it is unclear to what extent, if any, they worked collaboratively — Vita signed the first, second, fourth, fifth and eighth elegies, Edward the third, sixth, seventh, ninth and tenth. The book was published in a small print run and fell out of print after the initial positive response was soon tempered with reservations and criticism. The Sackville-West translation was superseded by James Blair Leishman’s 1939 translation, in collaboration initially with Stephen Spender; since then, there have been several other English translations, and there is a vast hermeneutical discourse about how Rilke’s lyricism is best expressed in English.

This book includes an eloquent and insightful introduction by Lesley Chamberlain, who remarks, justifiably in this reviewer’s opinion, that the general unfamiliarity with the ‘evident quality on display’ in the translation shows its disappearance from currency to have been a mistake. In the original translators’ note from the 1931 edition (included here as an afterword), the Sackville-Wests describe their approach to the translation as ‘accuracy-at-any-price’, preferring adherence to the original, even if it caused ‘angularities’ or possible obscurity, over any ‘graceful paraphrasing’ of Rilke’s poetic vision. The Sackville-Wests rejected the hexameter of most of the original Elegies, but in seeking the metre best suited to carry the original balance of stress and meaning, they did not opt, like most subsequent English translators, for free verse. Instead, the cousins chose blank verse, which was used by Rilke in the eighth elegy. Here is the Sackville-West rendering of the famous opening lines of the Diuno Elegies:

Who would give ear, among the angelic host,
Were I to cry aloud? And even if one
Amongst them took me swiftly to his heart,
I should dissolve before his strength of being.
For beauty’s nothing but the birth of terror,
Which we endure but barely, and, enduring,
Must wonder at it, in that it disdains
To compass our destruction. Every angel
Is terrible, and thus in self-control
I crush the appeal that rises with my sobs.

The reader may compare the opening with the ‘authoritative’ version of Leishman and Spender (‘Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic / orders?’); the version of William Gass (‘Who, if I cried, would hear me among the Dominions / of Angels?’); of Alfred Corn (‘Who, if I cried out, would ever hear me among the angels / and archangels?’) ; and that of Stephen Mitchell (‘Who if I cried out, would hear me among the angels’ / hierarchies?’) As even these few examples indicate, there is little consensus around rendering the Elegies into English. This new publication will see the Sackville-West translation hotly (re-)debated by specialists in the field, but one has the strong sense that it brings out elements that are not found in other translations.

Chamberlain argues that the blank verse translation drives the narrative forward and captures the way in which Rilke aimed, in the intensely rhythmical original, ‘to create the feel of legends’. She notes that the Sackville-Wests were close to Rilke’s generation and still attuned to his ‘high artistic’ mission, including his ability to capture ‘hieratic feeling as an enchanted and mysterious echo in a secular world’. The poem is legendary perhaps principally in an explanatory sense: it offers a quasi-religious, philosophical account of existence, and in expressing a wide range of common human perspectives and feelings in a tender, poetically heroic way, it has the capacity to relieve the reader’s existential anguish in the same way it relieved the author’s depressiveness.

What does this translation say about Rilke’s supposed ‘difficulty’ as a poet? In terms of the ordinary reader, Chamberlain is surely over-confident in suggesting this translation is ‘immediately intelligible’, but the Sackville-Wests in their 1931 note seem to go too far in the other direction when they say the Duino Elegies is ‘exceedingly complex and arcane’. The truth lies between the two perspectives. Much is made of Rilke’s metaphysics as a source of obscurity, and this can be the case when he expressed embodied abstractions in grammatically quirky ways in the original German, but the Sackville-Wests make an excellent point when they say that part of Rilke’s genius lay in pushing abstraction, precisely and sincerely, to the extreme.

The Elegies are intricate and profound rather than difficult, although in any English translation some of the grace — and humour — of the original is inevitably lost. But the poem repays repeated readings in any language, and this partly explains Rilke’s enduring appeal in popular culture, a resonance that has seen him adopted in recent times as something of a New Age icon. A modern elegy is typically a sad poem, but it can also be a poem, like the Duino Elegies, of serious reflection. Rilke was a non-practising Roman Catholic, yet he retained many elements of that religion’s sensibility, and he approaches philosophical and quasi-religious themes from an essentially mystical perspective. While there are many dark moments here, they are balanced by the light, and the overall effect is to transmit positive energy and enthusiasm rather than despair. In the ninth elegy, for example, happiness is described as a ‘hasty / Profit which betokens a near loss’, and throughout the poem romantic love is anything but romanticised, but consider this from the seventh elegy:

How often did you overtake your love
Breathless after a happy, goalless race
In the open air. Magnificent is life.

The image of ‘literary psilocybin’ comes to mind as the poem’s evocation of a reflective or contemplative mood, ‘comforts us, and helps us’ (First Elegy). There is no doubt but that Rilke, during his inspirational 1912 stay in the castle at Duino, ‘suddenly found his mark’, as Chamberlain aptly puts it. Although the Elegies took another decade to complete, Rilke did not lose sight of his mark, and when he died of leukaemia at the age of 51 in 1926, he left behind in this work, as the Sackville-Wests say, ‘a monument, in [its] strange perfection, of absolutely first-class poetry’. In sum: this volume is likely to be well-received by English-language readers new to Rilke as well as those familiar with his work, but debate about the quality of the Sackville-West blank-verse translation is likely to preoccupy academic specialists for some time to come.

Tim Murphy is an Irish writer living in Spain. His first poetry collection is Mouth of Shadows (SurVision Books, 2022).