Thursday, June 27, 2019

Rilke & Unicorns (2nd instalment)

Here is another Rilke unicorn poem, following on from yesterday's. Traditional sonnet rhyme scheme has been dropped (much as I used a completely different rhyme scheme for yesterday's translation) in the interest of minimising distortion.

Rainer Maria Rilke 
The Sonnets to Orpheus, Book Two (IV)

This is the creature that does not exist.
Unaware of that, in any case, they loved
its every trait – its posture, how it moved,
its neck, the light of each mute glance it cast.
No such thing. That through their love became
a pure creature. Always allowed space.
And in the space left blank, clear and precise,
it gently raised its head, needed hardly
to exist. It was nourished on no grain,
only upon the chance that it should be.
And this gave such substance to the creature
it put forth a horn that was a unique-horn
from inside. To a maiden whitely came
and was in the silvered mirror and in her.

                                                       [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Don Paterson has a fabulous version (pun semi-intended) in his Orpheus: a version of Rilke's Die Sonette an Orpheus (Faber & Faber, 2006), better than any other version I've read. The notes he's provided on his version in the appendix are also worth a read.

Josias Murer II (Swiss, 1564 - 1630), Orpheus Charming the Animals

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Rilke, Ladies and Unicorns: La Dame à la licorne

I've said it before: Rilke in translation is often misrepresented. And with the advent of the so-called "inescapable unicorn trend", he might become as misunderstood for his unicorns as for his angels.

However, that is no reason not to go on translating him (as Gass suggests, "Great poems are like granaries: they are always ready to enlarge their store.").

Despite Clive James's assertion that

"[p]oets in English continue to line up for the inevitable failure of translating his short lyrics" and "everyone falls short", 

I don't find Rilke as precious as people sometimes say -- though perhaps that's because I'm reading German not as a native speaker, so for me it has a toughness to it. The English translations sometimes do veer into being precious.

His unicorns are nothing like a high-sugar "frappuccino", or like the bizarre cake (non-vegan, not recommended!) I saw as I walked past a Miss Maud's yesterday...

He revisits unicorns in more than one poetic context: the most interesting to me is his response to the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries at the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. (They also appear in his one novel.)

As a young woman I had a print of one panel from the tapestries on the wall of my flat; later in the '90s I first got to see the real thing on a visit to Paris with John and our then-small daughter.

There are six of these tapestries. The one shown here is for me the most mysterious: the tent bears the words, "À mon seul désir", which can mean more than one thing ("by my desire alone"; "to my only desire", etc).

Here is a very simple English-language, deliberately colloquial, approximation of Rilke's poem. He keeps the French name for the tapestries.

More unicorns will follow.


Rainer Maria Rilke

La Dame à la licorne
(Tapestries in the Hôtel de Cluny)

for Stina Frisell

Woman and Worthiest: we’re always sure
to wound women’s destiny we just don’t get.
We are for you the still-not-matured-yet
for your life, that if we even graze against it
turns to unicorn, a shy white creature,

who flees... and has enormous fear that you
yourself / how slight it passes out of view /
after much unhappy living only
just find it again, warm, breathless, easily

startled. Then you stay with it, far from us
and softly your hands move over the keys
of the day’s work; things are meek in your service,
yet this is the sole desire you wish to fulfil:
that the unicorn find this once a forceful
mirror for its lulled image in your soul.

                                             [trans. Tracy Ryan]

Gass, W. H. (1999) Reading Rilke: reflections on the problems of translation. NY, Basic Books, p. 49