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Old 09-16-2018, 10:50 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 7,635
Default Rilke, God in the Middle Ages

God in the Middle Ages

They'd saved Him up inside themselves, intent
on having him exist and arbitrate,
and (to prevent his heavenward ascent)
eventually they hung on him, like weights,

the heft and vastness of their great cathedrals.
And he was just to circle, pointing, through
the cycle of his endless numerals
and, like a clock, to furnish signals to

direct their conduct and their daily work.
But suddenly he fully hit his stride,
and the people of the city, horror-struck,

left him going, fearful of his voice,
his inner clockworks hanging open wide,
and fled away before his dial’s face.

S1L1 was "They had preserved Him in themselves, intent"
S3L1 "conduct" was "doings"

Gott im Mittelalter

Und sie hatten Ihn in sich erspart
und sie wollten, daß er sei und richte,
und sie hängten schließlich wie Gewichte
(zu verhindern seine Himmelfahrt)

an ihn ihrer großen Kathedralen
Last und Masse. Und er sollte nur
über seine grenzenlosen Zahlen
zeigend kreisen und wie eine Uhr

Zeichen geben ihrem Tun und Tagwerk.
Aber plötzlich kam er ganz in Gang,
und die Leute der entsetzten Stadt

ließen ihn, vor seiner Stimme bang,
weitergehn mit ausgehängtem Schlagwerk
und entflohn vor seinem Zifferblatt.

Literal translation:
God in the Middle Ages

And they had saved Him up within themselves,
and they wanted him to be and to judge,
and eventually they hung as weights on him
(to prevent his going to heaven)

the weight and bulk of their great cathedrals.
And he was only to circle, pointing,
across his limitless numbers
and like a clock to give

signals for their doings and daily work.
But suddenly he fully got going,
and the people of the horrified city,

frightened of his voice, left him
to carry on with his striking mechanism hanging open,
and fled before his dial’s face.

Last edited by Susan McLean; 09-18-2018 at 05:47 PM.
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Old 09-18-2018, 03:53 PM
Michael F's Avatar
Michael F Michael F is offline
Join Date: Jan 2010
Location: a foothill of the Catskills
Posts: 898

Hi Susan,

What a poem. Characteristic elements of wonderful images, R’s disdain for organized religion, and a mystic's intuition at the core. I can read this as R taking special aim at the Thomist synthesis -- TBH, though I understand his criticisms, he could be a little ungenerous / arrogant in his attitude. Shades of Nietzsche. But it’s his vision, and I am so happy to have it.

A couple of thoughts and comments on the poem and translation. Again, I toss them out only to joust at what R is getting at, which is for me almost indecent fun. I hope they are somehow helpful, or at least contribute to a conversation.

I wonder about 'amassed' for 'erspart'. Seems to me something like the sense.

I wonder about ‘duties’ for ‘Tun’, though it’s perhaps to take a small liberty.

‘richte’ for me carries a connotation of ‘judge’ that seems a little lost in ‘arbitrate’. I’m guessing R heard it, too. I know this screws up the rhyme scheme…

I love the image of the great Gothic cathedrals as weights. It’s just brilliant.

‘Und er sollte nur /über seine grenzenlosen Zahlen /zeigend kreisen’ is a mouthful and I think you do a good job with it. IIRC, I can read in the German, ‘was supposed to circle’ (sollte kreisen) over his digits. I like that ‘was supposed to’ in English with its several meanings. 'Grenzenlosen' literally means 'boundless', or endless or infinite. R’s intuition (I think) is that it is impossible to cage or contain the Infinite in human concepts; thus it busts the clock’s decorous machinery, as it were. A favorite theme, the mystical note. (Thomas said as much about his own work, which is why I think R was a little unfair, but I digress.)

I commend you on the final line with its play on the biblical injunction against seeing God's face. It works wonderfully in the poem and is IMO an inspired touch.

I really enjoyed the selection and the translation, again.


Last edited by Michael F; 09-18-2018 at 03:59 PM. Reason: clean up
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Old 09-18-2018, 06:00 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 7,635

Michael, I have made a couple of changes in response to your suggestions. I didn't think "amassed" had quite the overtones of cherishing that I wanted, so I tried "saved Him up inside themselves." In S3L1 I tried "conduct" in place of "doings." I agree that "judge" is the meaning of "richte," but "to arbitrate" does involve playing the judge. If I could find a good rhyme for "judge," I would use it. My reading of the exposed clockworks is not that the infinite has broken the machinery, but that perhaps God is a machine created by humans. I think of the machine as having got out of the control of the people who created it, and they are now terrified by what it can do, even though anyone who looks at it can see that it is a machine.

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Old 09-18-2018, 06:27 PM
Michael F's Avatar
Michael F Michael F is offline
Join Date: Jan 2010
Location: a foothill of the Catskills
Posts: 898

I love your reading. I agree with it. And I think part of what's so fascinating about R is, you can't get him in a box -- you see what I mean?

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Old 09-19-2018, 04:09 PM
Jim Moonan Jim Moonan is offline
Join Date: Aug 2016
Location: Boston, MA
Posts: 1,696

Thanks (again and again) for these Rilke translations. I'm not reading them with a critic's eye nor do I have an understanding of Rilke or the language as you do, but your translations sure do ring true for me.
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