Sometimes, reading a chance remark that asserts a surprising claim persuades us to reread a text to see if we’d missed something important. This happened to me when, in his ‘Introduction’ to Twentieth-Century German Poetry: An Anthology, I read Michael Hofmann make a parenthetical reference to the famous Russian poet Joseph Brodsky’s nominating the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes’ “as possibly the greatest poem of the century.”
Condemned by Soviet Russia for not writing poems that the communist regime approved, Brodsky left the Soviet Union and settled in the United States and, from what we read of his earliest poems published in his Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (translated by Nicholas Bethell) when he was in his 20s, it was clear Brodsky was a gifted poet. Six years later, Penguin honoured his status as a world poet by publishing his Selected Poems. Brodsky would go on to write a lot more poems, and even take up writing in English, publishing two substantial volumes, Collected Poems in English and a volume of essays, On Grief and Reason, after he had won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1987. It was in one of his essays that he made the remark about Rilke’s poem that, given his own undeniable genius, makes one pause.
The greatest poem of the century? Have we forgotten William Butler Yeats’s late poems, T.S. Eliot’s ‘Four Quartets’ and one could give a long list of poems by Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens and on to John Ashbery among the 20th century Americans. Then there are the Spanish-language poets (César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda), the Italians (Eugenio Montale, Andrea Zanzotto), the French, the Greek... and languages such as Hebrew, Farsi and Urdu that produced breathtaking voices for those of us who heard them.
And pausing there, I was drawn to look again at Rilke’s and Brodsky’s work in English translation — perhaps a frustrating exercise since there’s little debate that poetry cannot be translated. Every language has the potential of having a selected quantity of its words put together in a complex verse form that, while they convey a perfectly understood literal meaning, they simultaneously release glimpses of other meanings of varying complexity which only readers of that language can grasp. Such a projection of language releases, too, another dimension of understanding, which is an ecstatic sensation within the brain that the human mind experiences as a spiritual comprehension of a thought that cannot be expressed as a linguistic proposition. That is poetry. And that is what cannot be translated.
And yet there are great poetical works that most readers know only in translation. I, for one, would know no Homer or Virgil, nor many others across the centuries and nations right down to the present, were it not for translation, including Brodsky of whose original Russian I know not a word, but whose seriousness as a poet comes across even in his early work. So, nagged by his remark about Rilke, I looked up two translations from its original German of the poem Brodsky said was the greatest of the 20th century, ‘Orpheus, Eurydice, Hermes’.
The first was done in the 1940s by the Oxford scholar J.B. Leishman; the second, some 40 years later by the American Stephen Mitchell. What the poem is about is clear enough, since most readers come to it knowing the story of Orpheus’s descent to the underworld to bring back his beloved Eurydice, who follows him out of Hades accompanied by the god Hermes, and at whom Orpheus is forbidden to look by turning back his head, and if he does he would again lose her.
Rilke begins his poem in the underground mine where souls dwell. Leishman translates the first line as “That was the so unfathomed mine of souls”; Mitchell as “That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.” Already I’m puzzled by a mine that is “so unfathomed” or “deep uncanny” — phrases that give me a general idea, but no precise image: language that requires the reader transform a general expression into a particular reality is going to transmit only a vague idea of the image. Next, “And they, like silent veins of silver ore/ were winding through its darkness” (Leishman); “Like veins of silver ore, they silently/ moved through its massive darkness” (Mitchell). How veins of silver ore can be silent I’ve no idea, nor what “massive” darkness looks like.
And thus the two translations proceed to the end, each filled with its own incongruous rendering of what might have been a brilliant image in the original. For example, Orpheus’s hurried steps are described as “large, greedy, unchewed bites” with which he is devouring the path; Eurydice is “no longer the broad couch’s scent” and she is “dealt out like a manifold supply” — phrases that convert the original’s seriousness to what in English sounds absurd. Leishman goes for old-fashioned poetical phrasing and Mitchell goes out of his way to keep to common speech, but the English reader remains ignorant of Rilke’s poem.
Brodsky made his statement in his 1994 essay titled ‘Ninety Years Later’, referring to the year in which Rilke composed his poem. The essay is an impressively detailed analysis of Rilke’s metrical technique and Leishman’s attempt to convert it to its English equivalent and it is worth reading, for there is much to learn from Brodsky’s masterly knowledge of poetics. Indeed, all his essays collected in On Grief and Reason glow with insights from his very special mind. As does his poetry, which, in some of his poems, shines through even in translation, especially in his early work, written when he was barely out of his teens, in which we hear the authentic voice that comes from the poet’s soul.
The columnist is a novelist, literary critic, Professor emeritus at the University of Texas and author of the novel The Murder of Aziz Khan and a collection of short fictions, Veronica and the Góngora Passion
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 23rd, 2020