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Unread 05-01-2019, 07:45 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 7,945
Default Rilke, Portrait

by Rainer Maria Rilke

That from her face of utter abnegation
not one of her great griefs might drop away,
she carries slowly through each tragedy
her features’ lovely withering bouquet,
hastily tied and nearly come undone,
and like a tuberose, a smile, forlorn,
falls out at times and settles wearily.

And she walks past it, calm, dispassionate,
exhausted, with her beautiful blind hands
that understand that it could not be found—

and she says made-up speeches in which fate
wavers (fictitious, fit for anyone)
and fills them with the meaning of her soul,
so they emerge like something radical,
like the screaming of a stone—

and she, with chin uplifted high, lets fall
all of these utterances once again,
leaving her none: for none out of them all
accords with her reality of woe,
the only thing that’s hers alone,
that, like a footless jar, she must bear on,
holding it high above her own renown
and how the evenings slip away and go.


Dass von dem verzichtenden Gesichte
keiner ihrer großen Schmerzen fiele,
trägt sie langsam durch die Trauerspiele
ihrer Züge schönen welken Strauß,
wild gebunden und schon beinah lose;
manchmal fällt, wie eine Tuberose,
ein verlornes Lächeln müd heraus.

Und sie geht gelassen drüber hin,
müde, mit den schönen blinden Händen,
welche wissen, dass sie es nicht fänden, -

und sie sagt Erdichtetes, darin
Schicksal schwankt, gewolltes, irgendeines,
und sie giebt ihm ihrer Seele Sinn,
dass es ausbricht wie ein Ungemeines:
wie das Schreien eines Steines -

und sie lässt, mit hochgehobnem Kinn,
alle diese Worte wieder fallen,
ohne bleibend; denn nicht eins von allen
ist der wehen Wirklichkeit gemäß,
ihrem einzigen Eigentum,
das sie, wie ein fußloses Gefäß,
halten muss, hoch über ihren Ruhm
und den Gang der Abende hinaus.

Literal translation:

That from the renouncing face
none of her great sorrows might fall,
she carries slowly through the tragedies
her features’ beautiful withered bouquet,
wildly tied and already nearly loose;
sometimes, like a tuberose,
a forlorn smile falls wearily out of it.

And she goes over it calmly there,
weary, with the beautiful blind hands
that know that they would not find it—

and she says made-up things, in which
fate wavers, artificial, fit for anyone,
and she gives it the meaning of her soul,
so that it bursts out like something uncanny:
like the screaming of a stone—

and, with chin uplifted high, she lets
all these words fall again,
remaining without; for not one of them all
accords with the sad reality,
her only possession,
that she, like a footless vessel,
must carry, high above her own fame
and the way the evenings pass onward.

Note: Thought to be about the Italian actress Eleonora Duse
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Unread 05-01-2019, 08:14 AM
John Isbell John Isbell is online now
Join Date: Mar 2017
Location: TX
Posts: 4,281

Hi Susan,

Hmm. The lovely language of Rainer Maria Rilke. I'm on my phone with limited internet, but let me just say for now that your English is lovely and Rilkean. I've not yet closely compared the two.

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Unread 05-06-2019, 12:14 PM
Julie Steiner's Avatar
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 5,843

This one is mostly eluding me. I'm struggling to understand what Rilke means.

I do think that "utter abnegation" suggests that active defiance can be seen in her face, while an overall vibe of passive resignation might be more accurate. Maybe. Again, I'm struggling to understand what Rilke is getting at.

I also can't quite figure out why Rilke seems to feel it's important to specify that the jar or vessel near the end is footless. Aren't most jars or vessels footless? Isn't that just the default? Why is Rilke going out of his way to specify that this one doesn't have feet? The whole simile eludes me. Is he saying that her emotional burden is "like a footless vessel" that she's carrying on her head, and that's why she must walk tall, in order that it not fall off? I guess that would explain why the bottom of it must be flat. Even so, I think in English we'd be more likely to say "flat-bottomed" than "footless." Then again, the bouquet metaphor at the beginning of the poem makes it seem as though the vessel in question might be a flower vase, which are sometimes footed, but I haven't seen many people walking around with flower vases on their heads. Is the comparison to the footless vessel not describing her burden at all, but herself, as she presents her face like a bouquet? I'm not sure how to diagram that sentence.

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 05-06-2019 at 12:20 PM.
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Unread 05-06-2019, 02:30 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 7,945

Julie, in the first line "verzichtenden" has to do with renouncing or denying something to oneself, so not defiance. I assume that she is renouncing the possibility of happiness, and that is why there is so much emphasis on her sadness and weariness. I think for the footless jar, you should picture not a flat-bottomed vessel, but one with a rounded bottom. If she set it down, it would spill out its contents. I assume we are supposed to picture her lifting it up with both hands. If it is on her head, she would need to use both hands, probably, to hold it steady. The meaning of the metaphor, I think, it that her woe is her burden, one that she is carrying with dignity, but does not allow herself ever to set down. I picture her carrying her woe like an offering. As an actress, she is offering her genuine personal tragedy to embody tragedy for the audience.

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Unread 05-06-2019, 03:12 PM
Julie Steiner's Avatar
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 5,843

Thanks--the idea of a round-based vessel that she can't set down makes much more sense to me!

[Edited to add: A long perusal of the dictionary entry for "abnegation" has revealed that the word doesn't really mean what I thought it did. I hate it when that happens.]

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 05-06-2019 at 08:44 PM.
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