Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Rilke of Ruth Speirs: New Poems, Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus & Others

I fell in love with the poetry of Ranier Maria Rilke nearly forty years ago. We were living in Philadelphia and going camping in Maine. I brought along the Duino Elegies. I read the poems while sitting on Otter Cliffs in Acadia National Park, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and the trawlers checking their lobster traps. The endless sea, the summer sun and unclouded sky, the fresh salt breeze, the rugged cliffs, and the raucous cries of the gulls were the backdrop.

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the order 
of angels? and even if one of them took me
suddenly to his heart: I should fade in his stronger 
existence. For beauty is nothing but the beginning
of terror which we can scarcely bear,
and we marvel at it because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
The First Elegy, translated by Ruth Spiers

To this day, the remembrance of reading those opening lines in a place of such rare beauty sends a shudder down my spine.

I was thrilled to receive The Rilke of Ruth Speirs through NetGalley. Speir's translations of the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was considered "lucid and pure as water" by Lawrence Durrell in his 1943 review of her Selected Poems.

After his death, Rilke's German publisher authorized one translator, J. B. Leishman, limiting rival translators from publishing in book form. Now the translations by Speirs (1916-2000) have been collected  into one volume, edited by John Piling and Peter Robinson.

The introduction of this book explains quite nicely how Speir's translation compares to the original, and to other's translations. It makes an impression.

The poems are a delight to read, clear, sharp, and accessible. The forward notes that Speirs aimed at exactness and to make the poems 'a little less forbidding'. She wanted to make Rilke's poetry sound as if written in English.

My book was published in 1978 by Norton and translated by David Young.

Here are the last lines of the Eighth Elegy translated by Young:

Who has turned us around this way
         so that we're always
                       whatever we do
in the posture of someone
          who is leaving? 
                       Like a man
on the final hill
           that shows him
                       his whole valley
one last time
         who turns and stands there
that's how we live
                  saying goodbye.

And Speirs:

Who had thus turned us around that we,
whatever we may do, are in the attitude
of one who goes away? As he,
on the last hill which once more shows him
all his valley, turns and stops and lingers--
we live, for ever taking leave.

For someone like myself who flunked out of high school German it is wonderful to have another translation available, another avenue that just might bring me closer to Rilke's original voice.

from the publisher's website:

Here for the first time are all the surviving translations of his poetry made by Ruth Speirs, a Latvian exile who joined the British literary community in Cairo during WWII. Though described as 'excellent' and 'the best' by J. M. Cohen on the basis of magazine and anthology appearances, copyright restrictions meant that during her lifetime, with the exceptions of a Cairo-published Selected Poems (1942), Speirs was never to see her work gathered between covers in print.

Her much-revised and considered versions are a key document in the history of Rilke's Anglophone dissemination Rhythmically alive and carefully faithful, they give a uniquely mid-century English accent to the poet's extraordinary German, and continue to bear comparison with current efforts to render his tenderly taxing voice.

I received a free ebook from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
The Rilke of Ruth Speirs
John Piling, Peter Robinson
Inpress Books, Two Rivers Press
Publication October 5, 2015

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