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  #1  
Unread 12-26-2021, 08:16 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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Default Rilke, Béguinage

Béguinage

Béguinage Sainte-Elisabeth, Bruges

I

The tall gate seems to hold back no one, and
the bridge goes just as gladly to and from,
yet in the ancient open court of elms,
all are secure, and they no longer walk
out of their homes, except upon that track
that leads to church, so as to understand
better why there was so much love in them.

They kneel, cloaked in pure linen, as alike
as if the image of just one recurred
a thousandfold in the chorale that, clear
and deep, turns mirrorlike among spaced columns;
their voices climb the ever steeper hymn
and throw themselves on out from there, from where
it goes no further, from the final word,
toward the angels, who don’t give them back.

That’s why when they arise and turn, below,
they all are silent. That’s why, with a bow,
gesturing to gesturing receivers,
they reach in silence toward the holy water,
which makes their mouths grow pale and cools their brows.

And then, subdued and veiled, they move along,
crossing on that track again—the young
composedly, the old ones wavering,
and one old woman, lingering, behind—
toward their houses, where they quickly hide
and where, between the elms, once in a while,
a sliver of pure loneliness reveals
itself in one small window, shimmering.


Revisions:
S3L4 "hand" was "pass"; then "they silently hand on the holy water,"
S3L5 was "which makes the mouths grow pale and cools the brows."
S4L2 "on" was "upon"


Note: A Beguinage was a residence for lay sisters of the Roman Catholic church, known as Beguines. They were single or widowed women who wanted to withdraw and live among a religious community, but without taking vows. They could leave at any time. Beguinages existed in some Dutch and Belgian communities. The Beguinage in Bruges was founded in 1245, and the last Beguine left in 1927.


Béguinage

Béguinage Sainte-Elisabeth, Brügge

I

Das hohe Tor scheint keine einzuhalten,
die Brücke geht gleich gerne hin und her,
und doch sind sicher alle in dem alten
offenen Ulmenhof und gehn nicht mehr
aus ihren Häusern, als auf jenem Streifen
zur Kirche hin, um besser zu begreifen
warum in ihnen so viel Liebe war.

Dort knieen sie, verdeckt mit reinem Leinen,
so gleich, als wäre nur das Bild der einen
tausendmal im Choral, der tief und klar
zu Spiegeln wird an den verteilten Pfeilern;
und ihre Stimmen gehn den immer steilern
Gesang hinan und werfen sich von dort,
wo es nicht weitergeht, vom letzten Wort,
den Engeln zu, die sie nicht wiedergeben.

Drum sind die unten, wenn sie sich erheben
und wenden, still. Drum reichen sie sich schweigend
mit einem Neigen, Zeigende zu zeigend
Empfangenden, geweihtes Wasser, das
die Stirnen kühl macht und die Munde blass.

Und gehen dann, verhangen und verhalten,
auf jenem Streifen wieder überquer -
die Jungen ruhig, ungewiss die Alten
und eine Greisin, weilend, hinterher -
zu ihren Häusern, die sie schnell verschweigen
und die sich durch die Ulmen hin von Zeit
zu Zeit ein wenig reine Einsamkeit,
in einer kleinen Scheibe schimmernd, zeigen.


Literal translation:
Beguinage

Béguinage Sainte-Elisabeth, Bruges

I.

The high gate seems to hold no one back,
the bridge goes just as gladly to and fro,
and yet all are secure in the old
open elm courtyard and don’t go anymore
from their houses except on that track
to church, so as to understand better
why so much love was in them.

There they kneel, covered with pure linen,
as alike as if the image of only one were
a thousandfold in the chorale, which, deep and clear,
becomes mirrorlike among the spaced-out pillars,
and their voices move up the ever steeper
hymn and throw themselves from there,
where it goes no further, from the last word,
toward the angels, who do not give them back.

That’s why the ones below are, when they rise
and turn, silent. That’s why they silently reach
with a bow, gesturing to gesturing
receivers, toward the holy water, which
makes the brows cool and the mouths pale.

And then they go, veiled and subdued,
across again upon that track—
the young ones tranquilly, the old ones uncertainly,
and one old woman, lingering, behind—
to their houses, where they quickly hide
and where, through the elms from time
to time, a bit of pure loneliness,
in a small window, shimmering, shows itself.

Last edited by Susan McLean; 12-28-2021 at 11:41 AM.
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  #2  
Unread 12-27-2021, 08:44 AM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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Beautiful, Susan.

The bit about the holy water is so complex that, while puzzling out what it meant, a possible connection with the expression "pass water" for urination briefly occurred to me.

Since the complexity has to stay, perhaps "present" rather than "pass on" would help to eliminate...oops, there it is again...that red herring.

The mouths' growing pale has negative connotations for me--blenching, turning wan--that I think Rilke didn't intend, even if that's literally what he said. Perhaps something like "that soothes the reddened mouths and cools the brows"? That's not quite right, but I think you see what I mean--the language of cures.

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 12-27-2021 at 09:15 AM.
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  #3  
Unread 12-27-2021, 02:34 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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Julie, I am not a Roman Catholic, so although I have often seen a stoup in Catholic churches and have witnessed people dipping a finger in the water and blessing themselves with it on entering or leaving a church, I do not know whether there are also situations in which some kind of vessel containing the water might be passed from one to another, which is what seems to be going on in this poem. The verb "reichen" can mean "reach, extend, pass, hand," so that is what I was picturing. I would welcome more information from anyone who knows more about the ritual.

I don't think the paleness of the mouths of those receiving the holy water is supposed to indicate sickness or anything negative. Just as the water cools the brow, so it would cool the mouth and the whole face; presumably if the face were hot or flushed, it would resume its calm and lack of high color. The beguines would thus be calmed and comforted by the holy water. There is a lot of emphasis on purity in connection with the beguines, so I think the idea of washing away emotions is supposed to come across as a positive thing.

Susan
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Unread 12-27-2021, 10:05 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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I agree that the associations of mouths growing pale are supposed to be positive here. I just didn't think the English verse translation and crib could avoid the negative connotations without more of a nudge away from those.

Other than the sign of the cross to bless oneself with holy water upon entering or leaving a church or chapel, I'm not aware of any Catholic ritual involving holy water that women might be able to participate in actively (not passively) in a church or chapel. And the women seemed to be doing something active here.

If these Beguines did hospital work, they might have brought refillable, portable containers for holy water with which to bless patients later, and perhaps they might even have passed these containers to someone else, to assist them with the filling. Something like that would probably have taken place after the final song and before leaving the church, as described here. But would that have been silent? Rilke was so struck by the silence after the final song that he repeats it.

Rilke also seems to make it clear that these women go nowhere, ever, except between the church/chapel and their living quarters. So that would seem to exclude hospital work. Then again, maybe Rilke didn't really know about their lives outside of those two places.

My best guess at the moment is that "gesturing to gesturing receivers" could refer to the reflections of the women in the holy water itself, as they sign themselves on leaving the church. Which would assume that the stoup is quite large, like a baptismal font. But if that's what Rilke meant, I think he would have been clearer about it. (Then again, he already said that the women were mirror images of each other.)

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 12-27-2021 at 10:08 PM.
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  #5  
Unread 12-28-2021, 07:19 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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Julie, I did not know whether some Catholic churches might have some container of holy water that could be lifted and handed, or whether the stoup is always a stationary fixture. If it is always immovable, then perhaps the beguines, after using the stoup, bow and gesture to the next person in line to indicate "your turn now." It sounds ceremonious and contributes to the overall impression of an elevated experience.

I think paleness and coolness are seen by Rilke as being natural attributes of these religious women. "Pale" sounds more neutral to me than "wan" would be, but I will keep thinking about whether I can indicate pallor without implying sickness. As someone who is pale myself, I have often been frustrated by the assumption that that means I am sick.

Susan
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Unread 12-28-2021, 09:52 AM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
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To me, "grow pale" implies that the mouths are red until the moment that the holy water is applied, and at that point there is a change. Something like "keeps pale" would avoid that implication.

But if it doesn't bother you--and since it apparently didn't bother Rilke, either--just leave it.

Rilke is definitely describing a vespers service rather than a Mass.

Since Rilke specifically mentions the chorale/choir (who would have been arrayed in the tier-raised stalls that face each other near the altar) the mirror image that Rilke mentions could suggest that symmetry, too. And "the ones below" could be beguines who are not singing in the choir. (Would these have been in the nave instead? I don't know. The wooden screen separating the choir from the nave might have kept all the beguines near the altar, regardless of whether they were actually singing.) "The ones below" could just be referring to human beings as opposed to angels, though. Or to non-beguines in the nave.

Speaking of angels, there are angels sculpted at the top of the main altar. The columns to which Rilke refers could be the Solomonic (spiraling) Baroque ones flanking the central painting, or the simpler structural columns in the nave.



Here's a link to a ginormous photo with more detail of the choir stalls. I presume that the altar with "LAUS DEO" ("Praise to God") on it would not have been there in Rilke's time. That's got to be a post-Vatican II addition. (It's also portable--in some photos, it's much nearer the main altar.)

The trees in modern photos of the court look too young to be the same ones Rilke saw, so I bet Dutch elm disease killed those off.

The French version of the béguinage's Wikipedia article contains much more text and many more images than the English version, including this lovely painting of a procession of the Blessed Sacrament around the court. Lots and lots of women here. Too many to all fit in the choir. I assume there's a difference between the women in habits and the ones all in white, who could be the equivalent of high school students. I don't know. Anyway, you might enjoy clicking through those. Here's a photo of the author of an 1890s novel set in Bruges, showing elms and beguines of that era.

Last edited by Julie Steiner; 12-28-2021 at 10:09 AM.
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  #7  
Unread 12-28-2021, 11:35 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
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Julie, I considered "which cools their brows and makes their mouths grow paler" for S3L5, but I like the rhymes better the way they are. I think we should imagine that singing has added some color to the mouths, but that the beguines are now turning from activity to contemplation again. I have tried a revision for S3L4. I assume that Rilke is looking down on the beguines from an organ loft or gallery, which is why he would refer to them as the ones below. But you may be right that they are also below the angels. There may have been enough of the beguines to fill the nave. Thanks for the photos, which was where I was able to see the organ loft. I think you are right about the trees and Dutch elm disease.

Susan
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