Four Poems

By von Rilke, Rainer Maria | New Criterion, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Four Poems


von Rilke, Rainer Maria, New Criterion


In trying to keep in the English to the rhymed metrical regularity of these four poems, I have had to supply words of my own on occasion, to fill out a line or make a rhyme. That is a dangerous business, putting your own words into the mouth of a great poet. The Mitgefuhl ("feeling-with") that can spring up between a poet and translator may mitigate such presumption. The splendid translations of Rilke by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebman aim right for his imaginative originality without interference from the requirements of rhyme and metrical regularity. The present translations may lose in that respect; I offer them as giving something of the overall feel and swing of Rilke's poems, of his voice playing off against the traditional voice of German poetry, which is close to that of English poetry. Matthew Arnold in his essay on Heine speaks of "the German paste" in the composition of English, with the result that German poetry sounds so much like, and French unlike. But Rilke is also light, subtle, intensely conscious in the French way.

Rilke's note, sounded early in "Autumn Day," is that of loneliness--Auden called him "the Santa Claus of loneliness." It isn't solitude. Solitude is ancient, has the feeling of communing with a higher world. Loneliness seems to be a modern invention, wanders the streets down here. There is loneliness in "The Panther" too, but touched with fear. The last lines seem to open a pit at your feet. …

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