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Unread 02-13-2022, 02:19 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 9,569
Default Rilke, Béguinage, II

Béguinage, II
by Rainer Maria Rilke

But what do the church window’s thousand panes
reflect into the courtyard space within,
where semblances and silence and reflection
mingle, absorb, exaggerate, and darken,
aging fantastically like vintage wines.

There—nobody can fathom from which side—
the outer lies on the inner, what is timeless
on what is passing, vastness upon vastness,
becoming blind, dark, idle, made of lead.

There stays, beneath the varying décor
of the summer day, the gray of aged winter:
as if a man, long-suffering and tender,
stood long, unmoving, waiting in the rear,
and a woman—waiting, weeping—stood before.

S1L5 "like vintage wines" was "like an old wine"
S2L1 dashes substituted for commas
S3L1-3 was "There, under the summer day’s diverse décor, / the gray of aged winter still remains: / as if a patient, tender-hearted man"


Was aber spiegelt mit den tausend Scheiben
das Kirchenfenster in den Hof hinein,
darin sich Schweigen, Schein und Widerschein
vermischen, trinken, trüben, übertreiben,
phantastisch alternd wie ein alter Wein.

Dort legt sich, keiner weiß von welcher Seite,
Außen auf Inneres und Ewigkeit
auf Immer-Hingehn, Weite über Weite,
erblindend, finster, unbenutzt, verbleit.

Dort bleibt, unter dem schwankenden Dekor
des Sommertags, das Graue alter Winter:
als stünde regungslos ein sanftgesinnter
langmütig lange Wartender dahinter
und eine weinend Wartende davor.

Literal translation:


But what does the church window
with its thousand panes reflect into the courtyard within,
in which silence, appearance, and reflection
mingle, drink, grow murky, exaggerate,
aging fantastically like an old wine.

There lie down, no one can tell from which side,
outer on inner and eternal
on ever-departing, vastness upon vastness,
becoming blind, dark, unused, leaden.

There remains, under the varying décor
of the summer day, the gray of old winter:
as if there stood motionless a gentle-minded,
long-suffering, long-waiting man behind
and a weeping, waiting woman in front.

Last edited by Susan McLean; 02-22-2022 at 08:02 AM.
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Unread 02-19-2022, 02:59 PM
Julie Steiner Julie Steiner is offline
Join Date: Feb 2003
Location: San Diego, CA, USA
Posts: 7,669

Hi, Susan!

I like the layered dualities here: inner and outer, real and reflected, ephemeral and eternal, male and female, front and rear, peace and emotional turmoil, etc.

I wondered if moving the words around in L1 might result in a smoother intro, but after hitting on several laughably bad options, I'm content with your double iamb here:

     But what do the church window’s thousand panes

A few punctuational suggestions:

Rilke doesn't use a question mark, but I really think it would be helpful to have one at the end of that first strophe.

I also think that em dashes to break up the components of the second strophe would help those layered parallels to look before they merge into "vastness upon vastness." What about this?

     There—nobody can fathom from which side—
     the outer lies on the inner, what is timeless
     on what is passing, vastness upon vastness,
     becoming blind, dark, idle, made of lead.
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Unread 02-19-2022, 10:23 PM
Alexander Givental Alexander Givental is offline
Join Date: Feb 2022
Location: California
Posts: 98

What do indeed these hundreds of fragmented
panes shine in the Cathedral's inner court,
where presence, luminescence, and accord
get mingled, savored, tinged, over-presented,
fantastically aged like tawny port?

Last edited by Alexander Givental; 02-20-2022 at 01:46 AM.
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Unread 02-20-2022, 06:52 AM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 9,569

Julie, I have taken your suggestion about the dashes, but when Rilke writes such long sentences, endlessly elaborated, as in S1, I think it is better to leave off the question mark at the end, as he does. The sentence starts with a question implied, but turns into commentary along the way.

Alexander, rewriting someone's lines (without comment) is not particularly helpful. Explaining what you think your version does better might be more useful. I take it that you object to slant rhymes, though you use one yourself. I am trying to stick very close to the meaning of the original, which your version strays further from. My priorities are not going to change just because yours are different.

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Unread 02-20-2022, 04:12 PM
Alexander Givental Alexander Givental is offline
Join Date: Feb 2022
Location: California
Posts: 98

Hi Susan, sorry - I thought my point was self-explanatory, but let me spell it out.

Yes, I criticize your (and not only your) approach, and I don't really expect that you change it, but in principle I don't see why you couldn't.

You translate the original as if it were written in prose, in which case it would not be unreasonable to assume that the author chose the words which best fit the intended meaning. However, Rilke writes in verse, putting on himself very tight constraints of meter and rhyme. This doesn't mean that the words' meaning is random, but the reader should be ready to interpret them not in the most common, but in their peripheral sense. It might be even reasonable to assume that some words are not selected by the author, but self-select themselves, even if against the authors will, based on their sound. (Brodsky elaborates on this in his Nobel lecture and elsewhere.) This is even before taking into account the impressionistic nature of Rilke's writing (which could add another layer of blurriness).

The meaning in this particular 5-line stanza seems blurry indeed. E.g. I don't even understand - neither from your literal not from your ultimate translation - whether the 3 nouns of L3 are attributes of light emanating from the window, or of the courtyard (you'd say "both", but I suspect that the issue could be decided by grammar). Likewise, the verbs of L4-L5 - mix, drink, tarnish, exaggerate, age - taken together don't describe in any literal sense how the 3 attributes of L3 behave, whatever their interpretation. What is clear though is that Rilke builds a metaphor where the 3 attributes behave (in a vague sense) the way aging wine behaves (in a more direct sense).

Let's see now how the nouns in L3 and the verbs in L4 are selected.

L3: Schweigen, Schein und Widerschein

It contains a triple alliteration sch, and the inner rhyme "Shein-Widershein" which also half-rhymes with "Schweigen" because of the same accented vowel. In their meaning, "appearance" and "reflection" don't really go together, but do so in sound. Were Rilke writing in English, could he choose my "presence" (as a characteristic of appearance of a court surrounded by tall stone walls) and "luminescence" (as a characteristic of light)? I suspect he might go further: "essence - effervescence" (which in their emotional aspects can, vaguely, characterize light from a stained glass in a courtyard, but can much more literally characterize wine).

L4: trinken, trüben, übertreiben

The verbs make little sense together, but "trinken - truben - treiben" make a (slant) triple rhyme, and "truben - uber" add another.
(So, my attempt is actually rather weak comparing to what Rilke was doing here.)

Thus, in this stanza, Rilke shares with the reader his vague emotional experience (from observing light in the courtyard), whose intellectual significance seems rather modest, but the poetic (to say "phonetic") form quite spectacular. Note that the specific rhyming scheme AbbAb (where capital A stands for feminine and lowercase b for masculine rhyme) is also a part of this form; altering it would be equivalent to singing the same lyrics to another tune (which is not prohibited, but needs to be motivated). Note, however, one more feature (which is poorly represented in my attempted translation): all the five lines half-rhyme to each other. Namely, their last accented vowel sound is the same

Scheiben - hinein - Widerschein - übertreiben - Wein

By the way, in the next stanza all the 4 lines rhyme with each other and half-rhyme with this "ei"

So, I do think that translations discarding all structural and acoustic qualities simply miss 95% of what made the original poetry. In any case, the result doesn't sound resembling the original in any sense.

P.S. Speaking of slant rhymes: No, I don't mind them (at least when my ear discerns them). However, I don't view "court - accord - port" as actually slant, because "t" and "d" (similarly to "p" and "b", or "s" and "z") are parallel sounds, one 'dim' the other 'bright'. But you are right that the classical English rhyming tradition does not recognize this.

On the other hand, I didn't even suspect until you mentioned it that there are any rhymes in your translation. Are you referring to "panes - wine"? Is it supposed to offer any consolation to my ear?

Last edited by Alexander Givental; 02-20-2022 at 04:50 PM.
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Unread 02-20-2022, 10:28 PM
Susan McLean Susan McLean is offline
Join Date: Jul 2001
Location: Iowa City, IA, USA
Posts: 9,569

Alexander, translation of poetry is never perfect, but different approaches have different pros and cons. You choose to privilege the sound patterns over the meaning. I find that your version does not make much sense or sound like normal English. I choose to try to convey what I think Rilke is saying, in language as clear and natural sounding as I can make it, while also writing in meter and with slant rhymes. Though people can find things to like in either approach, I think that most non-German-speaking readers appreciate Rilke best when they can understand what he is saying (and that is quite challenging, given his indirect, metaphorical language). My version tries to suggest some of the rhythms and rhyme patterns that Rilke uses, but it cannot begin to replicate his intricate patterns of assonance and alliteration or the overall sonic effects of the original. If you want to help me, you need to recognize what I am trying to do and then suggest ways that I can do that better. To suggest that I take a totally different approach is unlikely to convince me.

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