The Duino Elegies at 100

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
of angels? Even if one should suddenly
take me to his heart, I would fade in the power of his
stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but an onset of terror that we can barely stand,
and that we admire because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Each angel is terrifying.
And so I restrain myself and swallow my dark, sobbing
call for help. Ah, whom then can we turn to,
when we are in need? Not angels, not people,
and the clever animals already know
we were never entirely at home here,
in the interpreted world. There remains for us, perhaps,
some tree on a hillside, that we might see it
every day; there remains a remembered street
and our twisted loyalty to an old habit
that likes it with us, and so stayed on and never left.
Oh, and the night, the night when the wind of the cosmos
wears on our faces -- with whom has it not lingered? Longed for,
gently disappointing night, and so hard for a single heart
to bear. Is it any easier for lovers?
Ah, each with the other only conceals their lot.
You still don't know? Cast the emptiness from your arms
into the spaces we breathe, and perhaps the birds
will feel the widening air in happier flight.

Yes, the spring times may have needed you. Many a star
was waiting for you to perceive it. There was
a wave that arose close to you long ago, or,
as you walked beneath an open window, a violin
offered itself up. That was the task assigned you.
How have you dealt with it? Did not anticipation
distract you, as if all this were announcing
the arrival of a lover? (Where would you keep her,
with all these thoughts, both great and strange, coming
and going, and often staying through the night.)
Still, when you are yearning, sing of the lovers;
the fame of their feeling is not yet immortal enough.
Those you almost envy, the deserted ones, seem
even more ardent than those whom love nurtured.
Begin, ever afresh, the praise that can never suffice;
consider that a hero lives on, so even a downfall
is only a pretext to be: his ultimate birth.
But Nature, exhausted, takes lovers back to herself,
as if she were powerless to create them again.
Have you thought enough about Gaspara Stampa
so that any young woman whose lover has gone,
with the lofty example of that great passion,
might recall her and feel: if only I were like her?
Should not these oldest sorrows of ours finally
bear some fruit? Is it not time that we lovingly free
ourselves from the ones we love, and, trembling, endure it:
as the arrow endures the bow, so that, poised for its leap,
it can be more than itself? For nowhere lets us abide.

Voices, voices. Listen, my heart, as only saints
have listened: until a mighty summons lifted them
above the ground; yet they kept kneeling,
those impossible ones, and paid the call no heed:
such was their listening. Not that you could withstand
the voice of God -- far from it. But listen to the rustling,
the uninterrupted message that shapes itself from silence.
It murmurs to you now from the youthful dead.
Whenever you went into churches in Rome
or Naples, did their fate not softly speak to you?
Or perhaps some solemn inscription gave you pause,
like the other day in Santa Maria Formosa.
What do they want of me? That I should quietly
dispel the sense of injustice that sometimes hinders,
a little, the free movement of their spirits.

Of course, it is strange to dwell on the Earth no more,
to practice no more the barely learned skills;
not to give to roses and other such promising things
the meanings that belong to a human future.
To be no more everything that one was,
in endlessly anxious hands, and even to put aside
one's own name like a broken plaything.
Strange to no longer wish one's wishes. Strange,
to see everything once connected fluttering
loosely in space. And to be dead is arduous
and full of catching up, till one gradually
senses a little eternity. -- But the living all make
the mistake of drawing distinctions too sharply.
Angels (they say) often cannot tell whether they move
among the living or the dead. The eternal tide
surges forever through both realms, bearing all ages
within it, and drowns out both in its flow.

In the end, they need us no more, those taken early:
one weans oneself gently from earthly things, as one was
tenderly weaned from a mother's breasts. But we, who need
such great mysteries and for whom blessed progress
so often springs from grief -- could we exist with them?
Is the story in vain how once, in the mourning for Linos,
the daring first music broke through the numb and barren air;
only then, in the startled space from which a nearly godlike  young man
had suddenly departed forever, did emptiness feel
the vibration that now enthralls us and consoles and helps.

Rainer Maria Rilke, 'Die Erste Elegie' from Duineser Elegien, 1912-1922; translation by Frank Beck.

A century on, this is a fresh attempt to render the first of Rilke's Duino Elegies in English, using the vocabulary and diction of the poet's contemporaries. To do so, I have consulted concordances of the works of E.M. Forster, Henry James, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf.

While German and English employ very different sentence structures, I have tried to echo Rilke's cadences wherever possible. And I have attempted to capture the subtle alterations in tone, as the poem moves effortlessly from the intimate to the oracular.

There is a long tradition of translating Rilke into English. From the many versions available, I found those of Jessie Lemont, Nora Wydenbruck (a native speaker of German), and Ruth Speirs especially helpful when the meaning of one of Rilke's constructions eluded me.

As the Duino Elegies enter their second century, it is easy to see why they are among the most cherished works of modern literature.

Above: 'Portrait of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke' (detail) by Leonid Osipovich Pasternak, 1928.

Cover of the first edition, published by Insel Verlag
 in October 1923

I am imagining with such fabulous clarity 
how you must look now: just as in those days long, long ago, when the brightness in your eyes and your cheerful stance would sometimes make one imagine a boy: and whichever hope moved you then, whatever it was 
that you were asking of life, absolutely and intensely, as your only need and necessity -- is now as if fulfilled.

Lou Andreas-Salomé, in a letter to Rilke on February 16, 1922, on receiving the last three Elegies by mail. (Translation by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler)

First page of the First Elegy in the original German edition

Welcome to The Magic Mountain!

If you hope to hold a listener's attention for 37 hours, you'd better capture it at once, and David Rintoul does that. His reading of Thomas Mann's classic novel, in John E. Wood's marvelously fluent translation, is alluring right from the start, but in such a matter-of-fact way that listeners may be enchanted before they know what's happening (click here to listen):

An ordinary young man was on his way
from his hometown of Hamburg
to Davos-Platz in the canton of Graübunden.
It was the height of summer,
and he planned to stay for three weeks.

Hans Castorp's journey to visit his cousin Joachim at the Berghof Sanatorium, high in the Swiss Alps, will turn into a stay that is measured in years, not weeks. Before he's through, every idea in his head that summer afternoon will be challenged -- and most of them found wanting. This is a classic German Bildungsroman: the story of a character's moral growth. Yet at times it seems a parody, ironically questioning whether such growth is even possible. Rintoul keeps both sides of that ambiguity alive.

But what makes this audiobook so extraordinary is Rintoul's richly imaginative portrayal of Mann's characters: not just Hans, an engineer-in-training with a curious mind, but the entire international company of patients who come and go at the sanatorium, culminating in Mynheer Peeperkorn, the large-than-life Dutchman whose charisma overwhelms everyone, although he often fails to complete a sentence. The fellow would not be out of place in Dickens. 

David Rintoul and Greg Haiste, preparing for Jessica Swales' 
Nell Gwynn at the Globe Theatre (Photo: Tristram Kenton)

Rintoul is just as successful with the narrator, whose cheerfully modest demeanor acts as a foil for Hans' strivings -- both to get well and to make sense of his life and the world around him. Rintoul's delivery is pitch-perfect, as when he addresses the gulf between the pre-war years at the Berghof and the readers of 1924. The narrator informs us that Hans' story "took place back then, long ago, in the old days of the world before the Great War, with whose beginnings so many things began; whose beginnings, it seems, have not yet ceased. But is not the pastness of a story that much more profound, more complete, more like a fairy tale, the tighter it fits up against the 'before'?"

The novel is certainly an enormous canvas, with room for evocative depictions of Alpine scenery alongside Mann's spirited dialogues and the expositions about physiology, which are as expansive as those about whales in Moby Dick. Rinoul has a prodigious ability to adjust his tone, tempo and dynamics for each of these, always keeping Mann's broader concept in view, just as a conductor must do with a Mahler symphony. Every variation is wisely judged.

The first German edition of Der Zauberberg in 1924
(Photo: H.-P. Haack, Leipzig)

Those who know the book will relish Rintoul's incarnations of Joachim Ziemßen, Hans' dutiful, soldier cousin; Clawdia Chauchat, the young woman Hans loves; Lodovico Settembrini, who guides his adventures in philosophy; Leo Naptha, who tries to make a Jesuit of him; and Director Behrens, the melancholy surgeon presiding over the Berghof's guests. Newcomers will find that the novel has lost none of its lustre, although readers have been enjoying and pondering Mann's story for nearly a century.

As for me, I'm already halfway through my second listen.

Christoph Eichhorn in the 1982 film adaptation by Hans W. Geißendörfer

My Hans is really a simple-minded hero, the young scion of good Hamburg society, and an indifferent engineer. But in the hermetic, feverish atmosphere of the enchanted mountain, the ordinary stuff of which he is made undergoes a heightening process that makes him capable of adventures in sensual, moral, intellectual spheres he would never have dreamed of in the “flatland.”

(From Thomas Mann's "The Making of The Magic Mountain", which appeared in The Atlantic in 1953: see the first link above.)

Photo: the author in New York in 1943 by Fred Stein.

October 4, 2022