A Great, Baggy Monster: Rilke's "Duino Elegies"
Simon, John, New Criterion
The long poem, if we rightly exclude the dramatic, comes in three varieties: narrative, including epic; philosophical, including existential; and metaphysical, including religious. And, of course, in any combination of the above. When we, here and now, think "long poem," we usually mean Homer, Virgil, Dante, Milton, maybe Blake, and probably Yeats and Eliot. What is perspicuous is how much most of these depend on plot: how many nonacademics push beyond the Inferno or plod on to Paradise Regained?
Yet the plot is not a basic constituent of the poetic, except perhaps as a hurdle. Prose can do its job, with some minor losses, much better. Homer resorted to verse as a mnemonic device in a largely preliterate age. Others followed because it was the tradition, and because the novel in prose had not yet caught on. Once it did, it was goodbye, epic poetry. As a nonheroic narrative, the long poem is even more cumbersome: think of those shipwrecked Robinsons, Edwin Arlington and Jeffers, whom no one now thinks of rescuing.
The philosophical poem, too, is easily outdone by prose; even Lucretius reads nicely in a good prose translation, and can you imagine anything worse than Heidegger in verse? The same for metaphysics. The great religious or quasi-religious poems--think Donne, Herbert, or Hopkins; Verlaine, Claudel, or Francis Jammes; Matthias Claudius, Holderlin, or Novalis--are short. The lyrical impulse refuses to be stretched thin. So it seems that Poke was right; there are no long poems. I for one have always preferred Eliot before he started playing quartets, and there are any number of Rilke's poems I'll take over The Duino Elegies, near-universally acclaimed as the poet's magnum opus.
Yet now, all at once, we have three new translations of The Duino Elegies: in a separate volume, as part of a selected works, or as the crowning conclusion to what concerns me here, William H. Gass's Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, which deals with a lot of things, but gravitates toward the Elegies.(1) There have been many English translations of this work of roughly thirty pages and in ten parts, but people still keep trying; poetry is hard to translate, and this late work of Rilke's especially so.
To what extent that work has preoccupied the poetry world can be learned from the three-volume study of it, the so-called Materialien, a kind of anthology edited by Ulrich Fulleborn and Manfred Engel, to which I will abundantly but tacitly refer. It reprints or excerpts just about everything conceivable up to 1964--and not only in German--in three volumes of three-to four-hundred pages each (inception, variants, publishing history, letters, utterances, reviews, interpretations, evaluations, re-evaluations, and bibliography--a trilogy of which Gass seems to be unaware.
More damaging is his not taking into account Rilke's Testament, first published in 1974. Rilke had been struggling with the unfinished Elegies for ten years, and put together this slender, handwritten volume in 1920, as he abandoned hope of termination. It was intended for his then major mistress (Rilke had a handful of major, and a legion of minor, ones), the painter Elisabeth Dorothee (Spiro) Klossowska, mother of the painter Balthus, and known as Mouky to her friends, Merline to Rilke, and Baladine to herself. She was, it seems, the chief inspirer of the Elegies, and the thirty-page plaquette was made up of poem fragments and unfinished letters to the beloved.
Of course, it was also a self-justification, eventually, to the world for Rilke's inability to finish the great work, the unchivalrous reason being proffered that loving deflects too much from working on one's poetry, the poet's ultimate purpose in life. This theme runs through much of Rilke's work, and Gass is, obviously, not unaware of it. Yet the poet never sums up this predicament as tersely as Pierre Costals, the novelist-hero of Montherlant's Les Jeunes Filles, in the passage about the two faucets, work and life, between whose respective turnings on and off the writer uneasily fluctuates. …