Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke: a new translation

A new translation by Timothy Watson

Text

“Venice, St Mark’s Square and St. Mark’s Basilica”, by August van Siegen, late 19th century


Going blind

She sat like all the others taking tea;
It seemed at first she did not hold her cup
Quite in the way the others took theirs up.
And once she smiled. It almost hurt to see.

When later on they rose to go and talk
And slowly passed without design thereafter
Through stately rooms, in idle chat and laughter,
I saw her there. She followed them, her walk

Composed, like someone lately asked to sing
Who moves in measured step before their audience.
Upon her eyes now dazzling in their brilliance,
As on a pool, the daylight glanced a ring.

She followed slow, each step a slave to time,
As though some hindrance stalled her passing by;
And yet as if, once she had learned its rhyme,
She should no longer walk, but rather fly.

Late autumn in Venice

No longer drifts the city like a bait
To catch the mornings rising to its rings.
The glass palazzi clang with glittered light
Their brittle gaze. And from the gardens hangs

The summer in entangled puppets’ lines:
Heads drooping, weary, lifeless weight.
But from its bed of ancient forests’ bones
A will ascends: as if with passing night

The sea lord had redoubled in its power
The Arsenale’s watchful galleons’ spell
To tar this silver dawn wind’s paling air

With such a force that, launched with churning oar,
Now swells the spray with ensigns proud to fly
Before the wind with blazing deadly pall.

The Courtesan

Venetian suns shall fire my lustrous hair
To burnished gold. The glow of alchemy
In final glory. And my eyebrows, like
The archwork of the bridges, artlessly

Trace up above the silent danger where
My eyes conduct a secret intercourse
With the canals, and cause the sea to wake
Her tides to flood and ebb with playful force.

Who looks upon me, looks with envying eyes
Upon my dog; on him, when time may please,
My hand unscorched by flames of passion lies
Where none may spoil her ornamented ease.

And scions weighed by chains of noble line
Drink deep upon my lips the mortal wine.

San Marco

Within this inner shrine of hollowed space
That springs and curves in golden vaulting stone,
Round-fluted, smooth, of lustrous myrrh-like grace,
The darkness of the city had its throne,

Was hoarded secretly to counterweigh
The light which on its treasures had so played
And multiplied their wealth, they seemed to fade.
At once you doubt, might they not fade away?

And press along the splendent gallery,
A vein of gold suspended in a mine,
Beneath the glinting vault, to know once more

The brightening blaze of glass. But wistfully
Take in with backward look its languid shine,
Above where rise the quadriga’s proud four.

The Gazelle
Gazella dorcas

Enchanted one, how shall the harmony
Of two words chosen thus attain the rhyme
That moves the dance within by augury?
 From out your brow the leaf and lyre climb

And through your being breathes a simile
Of songs of love whose words may softly be,
Like petals of a rose, so gently laid
On eyes that cease to read, whose eyelids fade

To look upon you: swiftly borne away
As if your limbs were charged with leaps, but hold
Their fire while yet that neck is tensed to stay

Your still attentive head. As in a wood
A maiden bathing looks up in surprise;
The sylvan lake reflected in her eyes.

Song of love

How should I strive to keep my soul apart
For fear it touch thine own? How should I will
It past thee to some unfamiliar thing?
So gladly would I find by secret art
A place of darkness where by night to bring
This soul; a place of unknown stillness still
Unmoving when thine heart’s affections swing.
For all affecting us draws thee and me
As one: as when a bow by mastery
Will draw one voice that to both lyres belongs.
What instrument is this our lives have spanned?
And who the artist taking us in hand?
Sweetest of songs.

The Carousel
Jardin de Luxembourg

Beneath a roof and in its shadow veers
In fleeting moment round itself the band
Of dashing horses, each born of the land
That tarries long before it disappears
Though some are harnessed up to carts quite tight
They all have courage written in their mien
A lion, fierce and red, stalks in between

And now and then an elephant in white.
A stag, as if in woodland, stands proud too
But for the saddle which he wears to bear
A little girl all buckled up in blue

While on the lion rides a boy blenched pale
Whose small hot hand is clenched to stay his fright
At snarling teeth and tongue and savage tail

And now and then an elephant in white.
And swinging past upon the horses tear
Those laughing girls who, ripe to cast aside
Their childish mounts now hurtling round mid-ride
Look up, look out, stare here, gaze anywhere —
And now and then an elephant in white.
And on it goes and quickens lest it die,
And whirling turns to turn, its goal its day.
A red, a green, a grey goes flying by,
A profile small and scarcely formed in sway—
A blissful smile that blinds and squanders sight
To all the breathless caprice of this play.