Eratosphere Forums - Metrical Poetry, Free Verse, Fiction, Art, Critique, Discussions Able Muse - a review of poetry, prose and art

Forum Left Top

Notices

Reply
Thread Tools Display Modes
  #1  
Unread 05-15-2020, 06:28 AM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
Member
 
Join Date: May 2001
Location: Yorkshire, UK
Posts: 2,398
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.


RAINER MARIA RILKE: ROMAN SARCOPHAGI

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.


ORIGINAL

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)

CRIB

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.
Reply With Quote
  #2  
Unread 05-15-2020, 01:28 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 8,459
Default

Clive, here are a few thoughts. I'm not sure what you gain by describing hatred as "blank." The meter might work more smoothly if "within" were "in" in S2L1 and if you removed the "a" before "slow decay" in S2L2. I notice that you suppressed the ribbons and added "gold" before "rings" in the list. Maybe something trivial and perishable like ribbons provides a contrast to the more permanent things in the list, pointing out the jumble of objects included in the sarcophagus. Your parenthetical comment in S3 seems to diverge pretty far from the German. This mysterious brain--is it supposed to be a person's or a god's? In the German, it sounds as though the water is led down from the aqueducts into the sarcophagi, not that the sarcophagi are now part of the aqueducts themselves. I had pictured the fancy sarcophagi being used as troughs to receive the water at the end of its course. Certainly, in his European travels Rilke was likely to have seen fancy estates in which sarcophagi were used as decorative fountain receptacles. If the water was rapidly moving, I don't see it as reflecting as much, though you also seem to have removed the reflecting from the last line.

Susan
Reply With Quote
  #3  
Unread 05-21-2020, 05:46 AM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
Member
 
Join Date: May 2001
Location: Yorkshire, UK
Posts: 2,398
Default

Dear Susan

Thanks for reading this and commenting.

It is true that the metre of the lines you point to could be revised in the way you suggest. Indeed, in earlier versions that is how they ran. But I came to feel that doing this flattened the arc of the rhythm in the context of the surrounding phrases and caused a loss of momentum. Anyway, the pattern appealed to my ear.

The parenthesis in lines 10 and 11 of the original means – as my literal version has it – “Where does there exist and think / a brain that at last will make use of them?”. Even in German this is awkwardly put and strikes me as partly driven by the rhyme with the later “eingelenkt”. In his compressed and laconic way, what Rilke is remarking on is how inconceivable it is to our living, conscious brains, the seat of all thought, that they should be consumed by worms. And this (or so it seems to me) is the point my English makes, albeit also in a laconic manner. It would have been possible to have reproduced the clumsiness of the German, but this did not attract me. – I am certain Rilke is not invoking any divine being here: the poem is entirely secular in its thrust.

You are right that in the last line I have not represented “spiegelt”. What I wanted to do was to catch in English the beauty of the images and the sense of glittering movement evident in the original. Literalness did not seem necessary here. Light and movement are important in contrasting with the dark enclosed spaces of the sarcophagus in its original use. I was pleased with “skeins” inasmuch as it echoes and adapts the textile imagery in the second quatrain – but maybe this kind of thing will seem illicit to you. For me, it seemed to help the poem function as a poem in English while still being in keeping with the original.

By the way, though I like Rilke’s poem a lot – for me, it is memorable both in its overall contours and in its details – it is not without its problems. I have mentioned the parenthesis. There is also the question of the logical relationship between the first quatrain and the second.

Anyway, thanks again for reading these lines.

Clive
Reply With Quote
  #4  
Unread 05-22-2020, 12:56 AM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 6,374
Default

Quote:
Note: It was the practice in Rome to re-use early stone sarcophagi in the construction of aqueducts.
Can you provide a citation for this? I couldn't find anything after a few minutes of Googling.

Although water from the aqueducts is mentioned in the poem, it seems more likely to me that Rilke is referring to sarcophagi that have been turned into trough-like fountains, such as the ones pictured on this webpage:
http://roma.andreapollett.com/S3/roma-ft21.htm

[Edited to say: I had not read Susan's comments when I posted the above, so I guess I've provided independent confirmation of her basin/fountain idea.

I came back to express befuddlement at "glass." I was pondering what glass might have to do with sarcophagi. Since the crib indicates that it's plural, this could be a reference to hourglasses, which are certainly a common motif on non-ancient gravestones. What is hailed as the earliest such depiction is apparently from 350 AD, but I couldn't find any other sarcophagi with hourglasses on them, from any period, so it seems unlikely that that's what Rilke meant, unless he was conflating other funerary imagery in his memory. There are certainly a lot of chalices depicted in scenes on sarcophagi, but I don't think they're supposed to be glass. I imagine that the "ribbons" that Rilke mentions are actually strigils, which were symbolic of purification and/or sloughing off one's mortal form. Strigilated sarcophagi were a very common sarcophagus motif for centuries, well into the Christian period--probably because en masse they create an abstract, simple, more easily-executed design than representational carvings. The "rings" might be circular-bordered plaques, as seen in the previous link.

I hope some of these musings are helpful, or at least interesting.]

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 05-22-2020 at 06:09 AM.
Reply With Quote
  #5  
Unread 05-22-2020, 06:35 AM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
Member
 
Join Date: May 2001
Location: Yorkshire, UK
Posts: 2,398
Default

Thanks for your interesting question, Julie. The short answer is that, regrettably, I cannot provide you with the citation you rightly request. As I mentioned at the top of the thread, my playing about with this poem began a very long time ago, decades before the internet arrived. I referred above to the early 1970s, but this morning, I took down my notebooks for that period to see what I could find. What I found was that the earliest appearance of “Roman Sarcophagi” was in fact in 1968 (I was twenty-three! On adjacent pages were my first attempts on “The Panther”.) There is no mention there of the reuse of sarcophagi. The notebook is not fully dated. At that time, I sometimes had more than one notebook on the go. In my later twenties I began being much more systematic, dating most things. This particular notebook spans a period of several months from early 1968 to late November of that year and overlaps with its successor slightly. I have looked through that one too, but “Roman Sarcophagi” does not figure there, nor does it in the next one. It reappears in 1971, where I had evidently picked up the version from 1968 and reworked it further. (Those early versions were much more literal – and plodding.) In none of these notebooks had I recorded an explanatory note of the kind included above. I could go on searching, but as I have fifty-one such notebooks I am not inclined to do so. When desktop computers reached me in the mid-1980s (first, an Amstrad, then various PCs, finally an iMac), my procedures began to change. These days, I work more or less directly on-screen, and my notebook has a subsidiary purpose – mostly, for quick thoughts noted down “on the fly”.

So, as I say, I cannot answer your question. It would certainly be interesting to be able to so, and I am grateful for your links. Unfortunately, the note I posted above seems to have been carried forward from I know not where.

I am not sure how far knowing what Rilke had been looking at would affect my approach, however. Rilke tells us in the last three lines what he felt was important for the economy of his poem. The water was directed down from the ancient aqueducts (“von den alten Aquäduckten … eingelenkt”). Now (that is, in the present time of the observer) it shines and moves and gleams within the lidless stone boxes (“spiegelt jetzt und geht und glänzt in ihnen”). Poetically what matters are the light and the movement: the sarcophagi are open to the air, and the water is not static. These are images of a non-human and impersonal vitality that supersedes both the inner emotional conflict or debate indicated by the first quatrain (“aber” is important) and the horrifying dissolution of the next seven lines. The dissolution of the body, its liquefaction and consumption as signalled by “verzehrenden”, “Aufgelöstes” and – most horrifying of all – by “schluckten”, are picked up and revised in the liquid images of the conclusion. (The etymology of "sarcophagus" is not irrelevant, of course.) Over all, the original is a most compelling poem, I feel.

Rilke, of course, has another poem in this collection concerned with water, “Römische Fontäne”, and tells us it is set in the Borghese gardens. It is a confection of pools and of shell-shaped basins.

Thanks for your interest.

Clive

I think we just cross-posted, Julie. More anon, perhaps.

Last edited by Clive Watkins; 05-22-2020 at 07:58 AM.
Reply With Quote
  #6  
Unread 05-22-2020, 08:43 AM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Member
 
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 6,374
Default

Quote:
Originally Posted by Clive Watkins View Post
I think we just cross-posted, Julie. More anon, perhaps.
No worries--I just noticed the word "in," which changes everything. He's talking about items included in sarcophagi, not depicted on them. Oops. Oh, well, I had fun looking all that stuff up.
Reply With Quote
  #7  
Unread 05-22-2020, 09:45 AM
Clive Watkins Clive Watkins is offline
Member
 
Join Date: May 2001
Location: Yorkshire, UK
Posts: 2,398
Default

Dear Julie

What follows I posted not long after you, but for some reason it did not upload, though I thought it had. It should have appeared before your immediately previous post. So, although the point has partly gone by, here we are again.

These musings certainly are interesting, Julie!

About “glass”, it is true that what Rilke wrote was “Gläsern”, which I turned into the collective noun “glass”. What is mainly lost by this, is, I think, the sense the original gives of the sheer multiplicity of the objects Rilke supposes were in the sarcophagus: all the nouns in line 6 are plural. (Translation as the art of compromise…) As elsewhere, however, I have no idea what Rilke thought he had seen. I doubt he was thinking of hour-glasses, however. To my mind, the simplest solution is the most likely – namely, that he had glass drinking-vessels in mind, objects which are well attested in other archaeological contexts.

As to the “Bändern”, Susan’s suggestion is interesting: “Maybe something trivial and perishable like ribbons provides a contrast to the more permanent things in the list, pointing out the jumble of objects included in the sarcophagus.” There may be something in this, though I am not certain that the semantic range of “Band” and “ribbon” are entirely congruent, though on this point they may well be. Anyway, my dropping the word was yet another instance of translation as the art of compromise. What is clear, or so it seems to me, is that the poem places the “Bändern” inside the sarcophagus, not on its external surface. I have no idea what the German for “strigil” would be, though etymologically the German word for a curry-comb (“Striegel”) derives from the Latin “strigilis”. (I should add that, as is the case with “curry-comb” in English, “Striegel” is not part of my usual German vocabulary!) Rilke may have seen strigilated sarcophagi, but I am pretty certain that by “Bändern” he meant some kind of tape or webbing or binding or (indeed) band or ribbon.

Thanks again for your thoughts, Julie!

Clive
Reply With Quote
Reply

Bookmarks

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is On
HTML code is Off
Forum Jump



Forum Right Top
Forum Left Bottom Forum Right Bottom
 
Right Left
Member Login
Forgot password?
Forum LeftForum Right


Forum Statistics:
Forum Members: 8,072
Total Threads: 20,077
Total Posts: 255,402
There are 86 users
currently browsing forums.
Forum LeftForum Right


Forum Sponsor:
Donate & Support Able Muse / Eratosphere
Forum LeftForum Right
Right Right
Right Bottom Left Right Bottom Right

Hosted by ApplauZ Online