Monday, November 14, 2005

Rilke in French

I have been reading through The Complete French Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Definitely an exhibit for the question I raised earlier in the year, Rilke's poems in French are a serious part of his work, although of a different atmosphere than his German works (sample some here.) His verses are still insightful and elegant, but charming. There is a sense that he needed an escape from the intensity of his German poems, where he explored the interiority of faith, love and art to its fullest. The subject matter is simpler and effortless. As WD Snodgrass wrote in the foreward,
I cannot help wondering how much this coloring [light, deftness and playfulness] may be influenced by the different language; but perhaps it is merely that the fearful confrontation of the abyss had receded further into the past.
Snodgrass may think that they can be dismissed, but the poems exhibit the qualities of other Rilkean poems, but without urgency -- miniatures after masterpieces.

A bigger question might be what Rilke wanted to say to a French reading audience. Many of the poems describe the Valais in Switzerland. In some poems, it seems that he wants to transcend national differences, to say that no one nation possesses the spirit of right at all times.
Haughty wind tormenting the flag
in the blue neutrality of the sky,
even changing its color
as if offering it to other nations
over rooftops. Impartial wind,
wind of the whole world, uniting wind,
evoking worthy gestures,
O you, provoking interchangeable movements!
The unfurled flag reveals its full escutcheon--
but in its folds, what tacit universal!

And yet, how proud the moment
when the wind instantly declares itself
for a given country: consents to France
or is suddenly infatuated
with the legendary Harps of green Ireland.
Showing the whole picture like a card player
who plays his trump
and who, with a gesture and anonymous smile,
recalls ... I don't know what image
of the changing G-ddess.


At 12:49 AM, Blogger Justine said...

my impression is that he wrote in french because he could. why settle for wooden translations of your poetry into another language, when one has his level of ability?

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Nathanael said...

I believe that Rilke could not have decided to write in French without great deliberation or frustration. In his own lifetime he was the most celebrated and widely read German poet, the embodiment of the Dichter (as Stefan Zweig eulogized him.) His critics felt that he expanded the power of the German language, and his poems inspired a nationalistic, mystical, even fanatical, devotion. He must have been aware that writing in French might affect his reception at home.


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