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Susan McLean 06-07-2021 07:34 AM

Rilke, Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead
 
Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead (Revised)
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Three lords had scoured with hawks for game
and were looking forward to the feast.
But then the old man seized
and led them. The riders spread out and paused
before three coffin-tombs,

whose stench assailed their senses thrice:
in the mouth, the nose, and the eyes;
at once, they understood: there lay
three corpses long in the midst of decay,
who horribly rotted away.

Only their hunter’s ear was clean
behind their chinstraps still, but then
the old man hissed his say:
“They didn’t go through the needle’s eye
and never will go—within.”

Now just their sense of touch remained,
which from hunting was sharp and hot,
but a frost had seized it from behind
and driven ice through their sweat.


Revisions:
S1L4 was "and led them off. The riders paused," then added "out" after "spread"
S1L5 was "spread out before three tombs,"
S2L4 was "three men long dead in the midst of decay,"
S3L4 "go" was "get"
S4L4 "driven" was "chased"


Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Three lords had scoured with hawks for game
and were looking forward to the feast.
But then the ancient greybeard seized
and led them off. The riders paused,
spread out before a threefold tomb,

whose stench assailed their senses thrice:
in the mouth, in the nose, and in the eyes;
at once, they understood: there lay
three men long dead in the midst of decay,
who let themselves go in ghastly ways.

Only their hunter’s ear was clean
behind their chinstraps still, but then
the ancient graybeard hissed his say:
“They didn’t get through the needle’s eye
and never will they go—within.”

Now just their sense of touch remained,
which from the hunt was sharp and hot,
but a frost had seized it from behind
and drove sheer ice into their sweat.


Note: This poem refers to a medieval memento mori tale, recounted in poems and portrayed in art, of three young lords out hunting, who encounter a hermit who leads them to three dead bodies as a reminder that they, too, will die and need to change their way of life. In some versions of the story, the corpses themselves speak to the lords.


Legende von den drei Lebendigen und den drei Toten

Drei Herren hatten mit Falken gebeizt
und freuten sich auf das Gelag.
Da nahm sie der Greis in Beschlag
und führte. Die Reiter hielten gespreizt
vor dem dreifachen Sarkophag,

der ihnen dreimal entgegenstank,
in den Mund, in die Nase, ins Sehn:
und sie wussten es gleich: da lagen lang
drei Tote mitten im Untergang
und ließen sich grässlich gehn.

Und sie hatten nur noch ihr Jägergehör
reinlich hinter dem Sturmbandlör;
doch da zischte der Alte sein:
- Sie gingen nicht durch das Nadelöhr
und gehen niemals - hinein.

Nun blieb ihnen noch ihr klares Getast,
das stark war vom Jagen und heiß;
doch das hatte ein Frost von hinten gefasst
und trieb ihm Eis in den Schweiß.


Literal translation:
Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead

Three lords had scoured with hawks
and were looking forward to the feast.
Then the old man grabbed them
and led them. The riders halted, spread out
in front of the threefold sarcophagus,

which stank against them thrice—
in the mouth, in the nose, in sight:
and they understood it at once: there lay long
three dead in the midst of decay
and let themselves go hideously.

And they had left only their hunter’s ear
still clean behind their chinstraps:
but then the old man hissed his [message]:
“They did not go through the needle’s eye
and will never go—within.”

Now remained to them still their clear sense of touch,
which was strong from the hunt and hot,
but a frost had seized it from behind
and drove ice into their sweat.

Susan McLean 06-07-2021 08:11 AM

I posted a quick revision after I noticed that I had strayed too far from the metrical pattern of the original.

Susan

John Isbell 06-08-2021 02:19 AM

Hi Susan,

THere's very little I'd think of changing here. It's possible to imagine a more regular meter, which I might find more pleasing to the ear, but that's not where Rilke went. I don't like tombs much at all, but graves is imprecise. I'd like

The riders stayed
by three sarcophagi

but you lose gespreizt, which I'm sure you'd rather not. Nor do you want two extra beats.
You say there are three men in the tombs. The German doesn't specify. Folks isn't ideal (at all), but you may have other choices. Similarly, I'd like an equivalent to crone for Greis, instead of old man.

That's all - fine work as always IMO, which is hardly news.

Cheers,
John

Susan McLean 06-08-2021 12:38 PM

Thanks, John, I have taken your advice on several points. I think "coffin-tombs" gives a better idea of what the sarcophagi look like than "tombs" did. I was willing to remove the gender from the corpses, but I don't know any version of the story in which an old woman figures, so I think "old man" is implied, even though only age, not gender, is specified by the German.

Susan

John Isbell 06-08-2021 12:50 PM

Hi Susan,

Glad to be of help. I don't know any version of the story, and frankly I think I was pointing out a non-problem there. The three dudes are almost bound to be looking at three other guys' tombs, I think. For it to be otherwise would require a whole explanatory paragraph in the tale. But corpses resolves the non-issue splendidly, and I like coffin-tombs as well.

Do you have any thoughts on stayed instead of paused? I find paused a bit un-ballady, whereas stayed seems possible. And you can maybe stay a horse. If so, stayed and spread might work.

Cheers,
John

Susan McLean 06-10-2021 10:56 AM

John, I used "paused" for a slant rhyme with "feast" and "seized." To me, "stayed" does not sound as much like a rhyme with those two words. I was bothered that "spead" sounded too ambiguous, so I have added "out" after it. The loose iambic meter can take some anapests here and there. I also didn't like the rhythm of the last line, but hesitated to make a change to the verb tense to make the meter less awkward; I have now given that a try.

Susan

John Isbell 06-10-2021 01:38 PM

Hi Susan,

That all makes good sense, I think.

Cheers,
John


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