A New Look at Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’

Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke, tr. Matthew Barton (Shoestring Press, 2019).

9781912524389Matthew Barton himself raises the question as to whether anything could “possibly justify yet another English version” of Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1922). As someone who has contributed his own translation of the work (published by Enitharmon Press in 2006), I know the feeling of throwing a pebble into a landslide. But – as Barton also argues – it is at least our own pebble and Rilke’s work both allows and demands further translation and discussion; it is without doubt complex, profound and obscure enough. Perhaps the question for the would-be translator is more about the time and energy spent on such a widely available text when other works by other poets languish untranslated. But for Barton – as I guess it was for me – it is a personal issue and we are assuredly thankful to those who consider the results worthy of publication because there remains a hunger for Rilke’s work.

Rainer-Maria-RilkeSo Barton has now produced a lively, English version which reads well (one of his aims). Apart from a brief Introduction and a few end notes on translation issues, the poems stand on their own here – there is no parallel German text, for instance. To see the German facing Barton’s text would be interesting for most readers, even without much facility in the source language, because he does make changes to the form of the poems. It’s true Rilke’s original plays pretty fast and loose with formal metre but the changes he rings are significant and Barton has a tendency to flatten out these differences by making firm (modern-looking) stanza breaks where Rilke often continues the flow of his argument. Rilke’s form is significantly much freer in the fifth Elegy, for example. This issue of the flow of the poems – and indeed through the whole sequence of 10 poems – is one of the difficulties in translating the work. It seems to me there is a clear progression across the poems and within each individual piece. To call this an ‘argument’ may seem too logical and abstract, of course, but any translator needs to try to follow it. To declare ‘it’s poetry’ and not try to see why one image or passage follows another is giving up too easily.

To be fair, Barton often does unfold the sequential argument. He’s well aware of the issue as he talks in the Introduction of coming across “knots” in the grain of the work which do not easily yield up there meaning. His solution was “not to translate them literally and hope for the best, but to live with them until I found a way through them that seemed, at least, to resonate with their larger context”. To translation purists this may sound a bit ‘version-y’ and Barton does indeed declare this book a series of “versions”, thanking Don Paterson for his thoughts on translation v versioning in his Orpheus (Faber, 2006). But, to my mind, Barton’s approach here is rather like Paterson’s in his version of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, in that the results mostly read as translation, but with the English granting itself the occasional liberty to paraphrase, extend or even substitute for the original. For me, a version would depart much further from the original than Barton does; so I’d call these translations because Barton is approaching the original with great respect – there is the sense of a service to the original being provided here and the point is that such a service must (without the need for too much arguing about it) include the re-ordering of syntax, an Englishing of rhythms, an aiming at contemporary accessibility without denaturing the flavour of Rilke’s original distinctiveness. 

Matthew Barton

And as I’ve said, Barton’s English poems are good. Rilke is really communing with himself through the course of these poems, so he does tends to use the impersonal ‘you’. Barton often converts this to ‘I’ which skews the impact of many lines to the lyric. This fits contemporary taste perhaps – it deflates the rhetorical feel of these poems – but can be risky. In the opening lines of the sequence, Rilke acknowledges that crying out to angels for help in our existential darkness is largely futile (they’d not listen) but also dangerous because if an angel did approach us we’d be fried by the intensity of their existence. The opening paragraph ends abruptly with, “Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich”. Stephen Mitchell rendered this as “Every angel is terrifying”. Barton has “I dread every angel”. This seems wrong, making a psychological point from an individual perspective when Rilke’s line is more about the different natures of humans and angels (if the latter existed, which they don’t).

The argument at the start of the fourth Elegy also gets a bit garbled here. The whole of this section argues that human self-consciousness divorces us from a primal sense of oneness with life which the natural world (in Rilke’s view) retains (named in the eighth Elegy as “das Offene”, the Open (tr. Mitchell)). Barton seems to read this as suggesting that we are not “in accord with ourselves”. So he loses the distinction between ourselves and lions (at the end of this opening stanza). Barton has the lions walking in “sheer potency while their glory lasts” (my italics). But Rilke’s contrast is with human consciousness of transience against the animal’s absence of that consciousness. Mitchell’s clearer version runs: “And somewhere lions still roam and never know, / in their majestic power, of any weakness” (my italics).

new-duino-elegies-coverThese are small points in some ways but – as I’ve said – I think Rilke is pursuing a close-grained argument in these poems (albeit via poetic utterance rather than rational discourse). Barton is also liable on occasions to shift into an overly contemporary register (Rilke tends not to 1920s speech patterns but rather a Classically influence idiolect of his own). He replaces Rilke’s “wehe” which really is ‘alas’ with phrases like “god help me” or “heaven help us” which again propel the tone towards the personal (a rather English, bourgeois personal). In the ninth Elegy, Rilke is disparaging about the thin gruel of conventional human happiness in the face of death: “dieser voreilige Vorteil eines nahen Verlusts”. Mitchell translates this as “that too-hasty profit snatched from impending loss”. Barton tries a bit too hard with, “[this] is merely / easy credit with a looming payback date”. The same happens in the tenth Elegy, where Rilke is describing contemporary society’s shallow distractions from the fact of death. He describes; “die Kirche begrenzt, ihre fertig gekaufte: / reinlich und zu und enttäuscht wie ein Postamt am Sonntag”. Mitchell again: “bounded by the church with its ready-made consolations: / clean and disenchanted and shut as a post-office on Sunday”. Barton changes, up-dates, Americanises and so loses some of the irony: “the flatpack church, all safe and clean and shut / and dreary as an empty parking lot”.

But Barton’s rendering of Rilke’s satirical portrait of the “City of Hurt” (“der Leid-Stadt”) is enjoyably lively. Another infamously tricky moment is presented in this final poem by its personification of a tribe of people who have a far closer relationship with death and grief than Rilke sees is the case in modern Western culture. The German word “Klage” is used here and needs to work as the name of a young woman, the name of her tribe and her ancestors and her country. The word has to reflect the harshness of the grief felt, while at the same time suggesting a dignity in the powerful emotion. For Rilke, the role of this personification and her whole tribe is a consistently heroic one. But Barton chooses not to translate the word consistently, using “Elegia” for the young woman’s name, then variously “grief”, “woe”, “heartache” and “Lament” elsewhere. These are all individually sufficient to the word, but – as on other occasions in these otherwise admirable translations – there is a risk that in leaning on the freedoms of a ‘version’, the critical linguistic consistencies which are essential aspects of the argument in Rilke’s original, can get a bit lost in translation.

Introduction to Laozi’s ‘Daodejing’ – Part 2

What follows is the second installment taken from the Introduction to my new versions of Laozi’s Daodejing, published by Enitharmon Press. More information and comments on the book can be found here. References to the traditional 81 chapters of this ancient text are accompanied here by the titles I have given them in my versions. The first section (to read it click here) concluded by indicating how the Dao becomes manifest in the individual objects, the actions and creatures of the world we are familiar with.


Proceeding to consider how such awareness (more commonly the absence of it) impacts on our personal (and hence political) lives is also a primary concern of the Daodejing. It comes as no surprise that our battle against the tyranny of the self, that intense, intoxicating selfishness that Coleridge calls “the alcohol of egotism” is the key (the phrase is from an unassigned lecture note, date unknown, on Milton’s Satan, specifically concerning his preference to reign in hell rather than serve in heaven. See S. T. Coleridge, Collected Works, ed. Foakes (Princeton UP, 1987), Volume 5, Part 1, p. 427). This is where the untranslatable idea of wu-wei arises. The phrase is intended to characterise actions performed in accordance with, in harmony with the Dao; hence they are driven not by the blinkered and shuttered individual self, but by a more open awareness of the expansive, interconnected reality of the Dao. This is the significance of the recurring idea that the follower of the way should attend not to ‘that’ but to ‘this’. The former implies a divided world (self and other – ‘that’ out there) whereas the latter is a gesture of encompassment of both self and other, the whole, the one. Hence, the narrow intentionality, the forcefulness of the self is withdrawn from actions performed in accordance with wu-wei.


In translating these ideas, I have used the phrase ‘indirect direction’ to suggest the methods of our dealings with others and the ‘unacted deed’ in an attempt to characterise the pursuit of our own intentions. Both phrases are woefully inadequate, but I hope to convey as plainly as possible the paradoxical nature of these ideas. How they are played out in real human behaviours can be glimpsed through the ‘Three treasures’ (Chapter 67). These treasures are: to be compassionate, to be frugal, to lack personal ambition. In each behaviour, egocentricity is diminished through empathy and there is an inclination towards wise passivity. There is a corresponding reduction in the individual’s personally directed desires (‘Wishes’ (Chapter 3)); we are to act ‘Like water’ (Chapter 8), flowing passively, dispassionately towards lower ground in both personal and political spheres (‘Influence’ (Chapter 66)). We are being urged (to switch the metaphor as the Daodejing deliberately does) to work with the grain of the Dao.

This is what the sage pre-eminently promulgates and performs. I have consistently translated this figure as ‘teacher’, often ‘my teacher’ and (though literary Chinese does not mark gender) there is something unmistakably feminine about her behaviours. This is a point the poems declare insistently. The Dao itself has female qualities (‘Valley’ Chapter 6)) and the teacher also reflects this in her quietness, passivity, sensitivity, lack of overt force (‘Raw material’ (Chapter 27)). Stephen Mitchell’s much praised and popular version of the poems carefully uses ‘she’ at least as often as ‘he’ to refer to the teacher figure. (See Stephen Mitchell, Tao Te Ching: a New English Version (Harper and Row, 1988), p. xi). But I wanted to go further and have consistently feminised, even personalised this figure. Early on in the translation process, I felt a need to make this shadowy figure more manifest, to ground her pedagogic statements for our more liberal, democratic age with its absence of deference. As I set about this, it was clear she had to be female and she soon took on a dual role, both as representative or personification of the Dao itself and as its incarnation in actual human form, a mother figure, a female teacher, a friend.


The ways in which these teachings translate into the world of politics are summed up in the terse, witty, metaphor of ‘Recipe’ (Chapter 60). The art of good governance is like the art of cooking a delicate fish: don’t interfere, don’t force it, be watchful, assist, adapt, proceed only with the lightest of touches. Laozi’s politics are impossible to translate to our modern age but given the proviso that he is determined to preserve the simplicity and frugality of people’s lives, many of his sentiments read as politically anarchic, primitivist, conservative, environmentalist. For those of us from a Western tradition, there is a Rousseauistic quality to his thinking, a belief in the goodness of mankind as noble savage who has for too long been corrupted by interference, too many codes of behaviour imposed from above. This is where the poems’ anti-Confucian elements are most obvious (‘Codes of kindness’ (Chapter 18)). Laozi is certainly vigorously anti-war, the pursuit of which he regards as the quintessence of the over-determined masculine self in action in utter disregard of the Dao.


Historically, translators have approached these poems in many ways. Benjamin Penny’s recent review of the field shows how many early versions were motivated by a Western cultural imperialism, searching out affirmations of its own monotheistic tradition (See Benjamin Penny, Introduction to Laozi: Daodejing, tr. Edmund Ryden (OUP, 2008)). Later attempts were spurred by a contrasting desire to find something different, to revitalise moribund Western values in search of exoticism, anti-rationalism, the non-Christian. Still others, keeping a firm hold on a wide variety of already settled spiritual/religious beliefs, plumbed the frequent ambiguities and lacunae of the Daodejing to re-affirm those beliefs. More recently, scholars and academics have brought an ever-growing understanding of Chinese history and culture to bear on these delicate texts and it is surely impossible to avoid accusations of Westernisation in any English version of the Daodejing. Even Stephen Mitchell – who had “a fourteen-years-long course of Zen training” to draw on – has since been accused of colonial mis-appropriation (See Mitchell, ibid., translator’s Forward. For the vigorous accusation, see Russell Kirkland and his book Taoism: The Enduring Tradition (Routledge, 2004)).


In my case, it was as a long-standing teacher, poet and recent translator of Rainer Maria Rilke that I first came to the text. I found myself in astonishing sympathy with many of the things it has to say about language and poetry and especially about the pedagogic process, both formally and in our everyday interactions. Laozi suggests the teacher’s role is to show, facilitate, enthuse, give space, watch and approve. We must be honest, be ourselves, give the tools, give opportunities, do our job well, but then let go, don’t dwell. We need to be someone to emulate, be quiet, still, attentive, be present, not absent, be mindful, be welcoming. Our role is to synthesise and connect (not disconnect or sever), shed light (but without dazzling, even inadvertently), use a delicate touch, be tangential. Laozi knows that our teacherly interventions – whether physical or verbal – must inevitably alter the material we hope to engage with; we set in motion a swinging pendulum. Our actions call forth responses to the fact we act, plan, demand. Students may re-act to this (against this) simply because we are seen to act. Better back off, do not intervene, don’t use imperatives, perhaps use no words at all. It is better to play the female part, be passive, give space, encourage desired behaviours, neglect all else. Laozi believes students come upon discoveries by themselves. So we must work via indirect direction and the unacted deed. Progress will be seen to happen of its own accord. The deed we desire will remain undone; this is the best way of getting it done.


Idealistic? Of course, as can be seen most vividly in ‘The commonwealth’ (Chapter 80) which is Laozi’s evocation of the contented society adhering to the ways of the Dao. For Western readers, this poem echoes Gonzalo’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, in its turn lifted from Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals’ (Montaigne, Essays (1580). Shakespeare read and paraphrased John Florio’s 1603 translation into English). Laozi’s original gift to the gatekeeper is not to be read as a handbook, not an instructional scripture, but as inspiration. Bearing that in mind, we ought correspondingly to resist the temptation to approach it with the dismissive cynicism of an Antonio or Sebastian, Shakespeare’s all-too-modern sounding cynical ‘evil men’. I think we ought to listen to these poems open-mindedly, mindfully. We ought to resist following the crowd so vividly portrayed in ‘Adrift’ (Chapter 20) who always say, “Prithee, no more; thou dost talk nothing to me” (The Tempest, Act 2, scene 1, l.169). When the true teacher stands in our house, no matter how detached, untidy, unimpressive, even muddled she may superficially appear, Laozi is reminding us “there are treasures beneath” (‘In your house’ (Chapter 70)).