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Susan McLean 11-28-2021 01:58 PM

Rilke, The Stylite
The Stylite
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Nations assailed each other over him,
about those he might choose and might condemn;
and guessing he was lost, he clambered up
with clammy hands, out of the stinking swarm,
climbing the shaft of a pillar to its top,

which rose still and raised nothing nowadays,
and he, alone upon its space, began
to measure, from the very start, his own
feebleness compared to the Lord’s praise;

there was no end to it: he weighed it all,
and the Other still grew greater. And the herders,
the ploughmen, and the raftsmen saw him, small
and quite beside himself, forever

talking with the boundless sky, whose space
was sometimes bright and sometimes full of rain;
on each of them his howls came crashing down
as if he howled right into every face.
And yet for years he had not seen

the way the press and progress of the throng
below kept multiplying ceaselessly,
and the luster of the potentates had long
ago ceased shining up so high.

But when he up above, almost destroyed
and torn to pieces by their opposition,
all alone, with cries of desperation
shook off the daily demons, there fell down
gradually, on those in the front rows,
huge maggots, heavy and clumsy, from his sores
into the open spaces of their crowns
and, in the velvet, multiplied.

Note: This is probably about the first of the pillar-dwelling saints, Simeon Stylites of Syria (c. 390-459 CE), who had an ulcer on his leg. “Stylites” in Greek means “standing or dwelling on a pillar.”

Der Stylit

Völker schlugen über ihm zusammen,
die er küren durfte und verdammen;
und erratend, dass er sich verlor,
klomm er aus dem Volksgeruch mit klammen
Händen einen Säulenschaft empor,

der noch immer stieg und nichts mehr hob,
und begann, allein auf seiner Fläche,
ganz von vorne seine eigne Schwäche
zu vergleichen mit des Herren Lob;

und da war kein Ende: er verglich;
und der Andre wurde immer größer.
Und die Hirten, Ackerbauer, Flößer
sahn ihn klein und außer sich

immer mit dem ganzen Himmel reden,
eingeregnet manchmal, manchmal licht;
und sein Heulen stürzte sich auf jeden,
so als heulte er ihm ins Gesicht.
Doch er sah seit Jahren nicht,

wie der Menge Drängen und Verlauf
unten unaufhörlich sich ergänzte,
und das Blanke an den Fürsten glänzte
lange nicht so hoch hinauf.

Aber wenn er oben, fast verdammt
und von ihrem Widerstand zerschunden,
einsam mit verzweifeltem Geschreie
schüttelte die täglichen Dämonen:
fielen langsam auf die erste Reihe
schwer und ungeschickt aus seinen Wunden
große Würmer in die offnen Kronen
und vermehrten sich im Samt.

Literal translation:
The Stylite

Nations clashed together over him,
whom he might choose and condemn;
and guessing that he was lost,
he climbed out of the people’s stench with clammy
hands up the shaft of a pillar,

which still rose and lifted nothing any longer,
and he began, alone upon his space,
from the very start, to compare
his own weakness to the Lord’s praise,

and there was no end to it; he compared,
and the Other became ever greater.
And the shepherds, ploughmen, raftsmen
saw him, small and beside himself,

always talking to the whole sky,
rainy sometimes, sometimes bright;
and his howls fell down on each,
as if he howled into his face.
But he did not see for years

how the crowd’s press and development
below incessantly increased itself,
and the glitter of the princes did not shine
for a long time so high up.

But when he, up above, almost destroyed
and shattered by their opposition,
all alone, with desperate cries
shook off the daily demons,
gradually there fell on the front rows
huge maggots, heavy and clumsy,
from his sores into the open crowns,
and propagated in the velvet.

Julie Steiner 12-03-2021 07:07 PM

Mmmm, maggoty sores and velvet.

Since the "opposition" in the final strophe is among themselves, rather than directed at the style-sitter, I wonder if "competition" would work better.

In light of that, I return to the beginning:

     Nations assailed each other over him,
     about those he might choose and might condemn;

Something like this might sound a bit smoother:

     Nations assailed each other over him--
     those he might endorse and might condemn;

Susan McLean 12-03-2021 09:32 PM

Thanks for the suggestions, Julie. Rilke likes to be cutting edge in his subject matter, so he often flirts with the disgusting/offensive, as he seems to do here by focusing on the holy man's maggots, sores, and howls. I think the people are flocking to him because he is seen as being God's spokesman, so if he says a nation is "chosen" or "condemned," then God must have told him so. I am not sure whether "endorse" carries quite the same overtones as "choose," but I will think about it more. I was puzzled by the ending. "Widerstand" means "resistance" or "opposition." I think it is referring not to the surrounding crowd, even though they may still be pestering him to get an opinion from him, but to the demons he is fighting with up on his pillar. At least, that interpretation makes the most sense to me.


Julie Steiner 12-05-2021 09:10 AM

Ohhhhh, I get it now--the antecedent of "their" comes afterwards, and is "demons."

I considered some tinkerings with parentheses and em dashes and even moving a few things around to try to make that clearer, but I don't think any of those attempts made it less confusing, so I'll keep those to myself.

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