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Unread 05-15-2020, 06:28 AM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
Join Date: May 2001
Location: Yorkshire, UK
Posts: 2,409
Default Rilke: Roman Sarcophagi

This started life in the early 1970s, which makes it one of the very first of my attempts on these poems. Since then, it has passed through repeated cycles of revision and abandonment, processes often concerned with the problem of establishing a plausible distance from the original, one that allowed an appropriate degree of fidelity but also of producing a poem that worked in English: the translator’s classic dilemma. This version is at some points rather freer than some others in my file – though I don’t think it counts as an “adaptation” within the rules of the Sphere.


Why is it, then, we cannot grasp – set here,
each one of us, in our allotted place –
how short a time blank hatred, and desire,
and this bewilderment will settle in us,

as once within the ornate sarcophagus,
in robes that self-consumed in a slow decay
among images of gods, gold rings and glass,
something slowly dissolved away

until at last those mouths that never speak
had supped their fill? (But how can the poor brain
conceive the service it will ask of them?)

And then, led down from the ancient aqueduct
through the stone troughs, the eternal water ran
in skeins of light, which ripple now and gleam.

Note: It was the practice in Rome to re-use early stone sarcophagi in the construction of aqueducts.


Was aber hindert uns zu glauben, daß
(so wie wir hingestellt sind und verteilt)
nicht eine kleine Zeit nur Drang und Haß
und dies Verwirrende in uns verweilt,

wie einst in dem verzierten Sarkophag
bei Ringen, Götterbildern, Gläsern, Bändern,
in langsam sich verzehrenden Gewändern
ein langsam Aufgelöstes lag -

bis es die unbekannten Munde schluckten,
die niemals reden. (Wo besteht und denkt
ein Hirn, um ihrer einst sich zu bedienen?)

Da wurde von den alten Aquädukten
ewiges Wasser in sie eingelenkt -:
das spiegelt jetzt und geht und glänzt in ihnen.

“Römische Sarkophage” (Neue Gedichte, 1907)


But what hinders us from believing that
(as we are put down here and set in our proper places)
only for a short time will longing/need/ and hatred
and this bewilderment dwell in us,

just as once in the ornate sarcophagus
among rings, images of gods, glasses, ribbons,
in slowly self-consuming robes
something lay being slowly dissolved –

till unknown mouths had swallowed it,
which never speak? (Where does there exist and think
a brain that at last will make use of them?)

Then from the ancient aqueducts
eternal water was let in,
which reflects now and moves and gleams within them.
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