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Unread 12-29-2019, 10:26 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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Default Rilke, The Old Woman

The Old Woman
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Girlfriends in white, in the midst of today,
laugh and listen and plan for tomorrow;
off on the sides, the sedate people weigh
slowly their own individual sorrows,

the why and the when and the how,
and one hears them declaring “I guess—";
but she, in her mobcap of lace,
is quite certain, as if she knew

they’re mistaken, these and them all.
And settling lower, her chin
becomes propped on the white coral pin
that matches her forehead and shawl.

But once, when they’re laughing, she pulls
from behind springing eyelids two looks,
and reveals this hard thing, wide awake,
as one, from a secret drawer, takes
some lovely inherited jewels.


Revisions:
S3L3 "becomes propped" was "props itself"
S4L2 was "from behind springing lids two sharp looks,"


Die Greisin

Weiße Freundinnen mitten im Heute
lachen und horchen und planen für morgen;
abseits erwägen gelassene Leute
langsam ihre besonderen Sorgen,

das Warum und das Wann und das Wie,
und man hört sie sagen: Ich glaube—;
aber in ihrer Spitzenhaube
ist sie sicher, als wüßte sie,

daß sie sich irren, diese und alle.
Und das Kinn, im Niederfalle,
lehnt sich an die weiße Koralle,
die den Schal zur Stirne stimmt.

Einmal aber, bei einem Gelache,
holt sie aus springenden Lidern zwei wache
Blicke und zeigt diese harte Sache,
wie man aus einem geheimen Fache
schöne ererbte Steine nimmt.


Literal translation:
The Old Woman

Girlfriends in white, in the midst of today,
laugh and listen and plan for tomorrow;
on the sides, sedate people ponder
slowly their particular worries,

the why and the when and the how,
and one hears them say, “I believe—";
but in her lace mobcap
she is certain, as if she knew,

that they are mistaken, these and everyone.
And her chin, in falling lower,
props itself on the white coral
that matches the shawl and brow.

But once, during a laugh,
she fetches from springing eyelids two watchful
looks and reveals this hard thing,
as one from a hidden compartment
takes beautiful inherited gemstones.

Last edited by Susan McLean; 01-01-2020 at 08:47 AM.
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  #2  
Unread 12-31-2019, 10:16 AM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Hey, Susan! Sorry I've been unavailable lately. I enjoyed this.

In the last stanza, I think the combination of "lids" and "looks" is not enough to communicate what I think (perhaps wrongly) Rilke is talking about: i.e., the older woman's eyelids suddenly opening at the younger women's laughter (which she doesn't join in herself), to reveal some strong, hard emotion or alarm, similar to the opening the box of a jewel to reveal it.

And Rilke may also be comparing the sudden revelation of that hard emotion, in eyes whose whites are showing in alarm, to the way in which the coral pin is revealed beneath her formerly-sunken chin. There's a lot of hard/soft contrast going on in all this whiteness. Her sudden attention to the younger women's laughter makes her raise the white softness of her sunken chin from the white softness of her shawl, and also raise the white softness of her bowed-down, lace-framed and mob-cap-covered brow, to reveal the white hardness of the coral pin, and the white hardness of her startled eyes....

"Wide awake" suggests that it's only the sound of the young women's laughter that has caught her attention, rather than the content of their conversation triggering emotion or even PTSD. Personally I think that the latter is what has caught the old woman's attention, not just the noise. The other reading is legit, too, but it seems to add something that is missing from Rilke's more ambiguous language.

I realize that the singular/plural business ("two looks" rather than one, to describe either her two eyes, or maybe her gaze and the suddenly-more-visible coral pin below her chin) is difficult. I have no advice on that. Rilke does seem to do that a lot, though, doesn't he?

Thanks for bringing this poem to my attention. I hope my thoughts are helpful.
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Unread 12-31-2019, 01:49 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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Julie, thanks for commenting, I have revised the line about eyelids to take out the "sharp" that isn't there in the German and to expand "lids" to "eyelids." I think what is happening is that the old woman, as she listens to the laughing young girls, looks as though she is dozing, but her eyes fly open in scorn at something they have said. Rilke has already told us that she thinks she knows better than anyone there. I think the lovely inherited jewels are probably not the whites of her eyes, but bright blue eyes. I definitely think we are not supposed to assume that she is shocked or afraid. The "two looks" is probably meant to make us see each eye as an individual bright gem instead of picturing the more abstract "gaze." Rilke is fascinated by old women and often writes about them, though his portraits are not particularly complimentary. I think his mentioning the white coral pin is mainly to emphasize the old woman's pale skin (no roses in these cheeks!), though the hardness of coral goes with the hardness in her eyes.

Susan
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Unread 01-01-2020, 09:02 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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I changed "props itself" to "becomes propped" in S3L3 because I noticed the meter was ambiguous in that line and could be read as four beats. I should acknowledge that I am not exactly mirroring the meter of Rilke's poem in the last three stanzas, in some of whose lines I hear three beats and in others four. The loose anapestic meter I have chosen adapted better to three beats than to four with the content.

Susan
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Unread 01-01-2020, 10:11 AM
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Spindleshanks Spindleshanks is offline
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Susan, I do like what your translation has achieved here in its close identity with the original in rhyme pattern, scansion and sense. One of your better ones, I think. However, there are a couple of issues that I'll mention for your consideration:

S3, according to the literal translation, there is no mention of "pin." It seems to me that you have introduced a third element here that doesn't exist in the original. As I read the description, the white coral likely refers to the shawl, the coral being the colour that matches the shawl to the forehead. This is indicated by "die den Schal zur Stirne stimmt": "that which shawl to forehead matches," which is, I think, a more accurate rendition for your crib. "Lehnt" could then become the more suitable "leans."

S4, would you consider "bursting" or "popping" for "springing," which, without the accompaniment of "open" is a little awkward, imparting an image of eyelids in up and down motion.

Just a further thought, on your choice of "individual," S1. Given the regional variation in syllabic length, perhaps "particular," which would remove the ambiguity and settle the scansion.

Best,
Peter

* Cross-posted

Last edited by Spindleshanks; 01-01-2020 at 10:24 AM.
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Unread 01-01-2020, 10:12 AM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Well argued, Susan, you've won me over to the scorn interpretation, which I really like.

I wonder if "hard thing" was rhyme-driven on Rilke's part. Would the more general "hardness" be a possibility there? It would certainly be less cryptic.
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Unread 01-02-2020, 08:32 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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Peter, thanks for commenting. I think "white coral" has to be referring to something made of white coral, since the color it suggests is just white. From my knowledge of how an old woman of middle or upper class would dress in the period this poem was written (or earlier), I feel confident that the white coral would be a brooch of some kind, most likely a cameo, and that it would be worn just below the neck with the fichu or shawl that the old woman would be wearing. All of these fashions would be from an earlier era, but old women kept wearing mobcaps and such long after they had gone out of style among the young. For me, "bursting" and "popping" are less attractive images than "springing" for eyelids. I chose "individual" rather than "particular" because it helped bring two anapests into the line. So most of my changes from the literal were to accommodate the meter and rhymes I was using, but I thought of the changes as just expanding on what is implied by what Rilke states. His description of costume, for example, is a kind of shorthand to suggest what his original audience could have filled in from their experience.

Julie, I am glad to hear that the suggestion of scorn in the old woman worked for you. "Hard thing" probably was dictated by Rilke's need to rhyme, though he did refer to all of his poems in New Poems as "thing poems," so looking for the way in which the old woman's scorn becomes a physical thing made sense to me.

Susan
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