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on February 12, 2001
With this particular volume of Rilke, you get two things: (1) perhaps the finest example of German poetry (the book is bilingual) this side of Schiller, and (2) without a doubt the finest translation of Rilke, or probably any poet, you will ever encounter in English. Hefty praise, but I can say no less about this magnificent book. I often find myself reading the English more than the German, the translations are so elegant. In its review of the volume, the New York Times Book Review said that "it is easy to feel that, if Rilke had written in English, he would have written in this English." I concur. I am no fan of Mitchell's Daodejing translation, though I know that he says up front that he is interpreting more than translating in that work. But Rilke volume is a triumph. Often, translators of poetry feel that they have to re-write the poem in order to get der Sinn, and Mitchell, himself a minor poet, could have done that easily and given us a nice book (even bad Rilke by a good translator is better than no Rilke at all). Mitchell did not do that; he very simply gave us Rilke, Rilke's poems, in English. They say what Rilke said, I don't know how else to say that. Mitchell wisely does not try to reproduce Rilke's rhyme schemes, though he does seem to match Rilke's alliterations note for note. This is not a flaw in the translations by any means; complex, artful, infuriating German sentence structure being what it is, I cannot imagine successfully duplicating the rhymes and still making a book as beautiful as the one Mitchell has made. German is a forbidding, precise, and multi-layered language, a daily Sprechstimme that is a far cry from the crude throat noises one often hears from people who wouldn't know German if it bit them (they are probably thinking of French, a terribly gutteral tongue that they likely haven't heard either). But, thankfully, Mitchell is not translating French (much; there are a few sketches included in French), and anyway everyone knows that Merwin is the past master at that. Baudelaire is about the only poet I can stand to read in French, anyway, maybe Rimbaud (Paul Schmidt's Rimbaud is a masterful translation, the best on the market in English, and Rimbaud is difficult in French).

To conclude, Mitchell's poems in this volume aren't translations of Rilke's poems, so much as they are Rilke's poems. Let me give one example, the first stanza of the first of the Sonnetts to Orpheus,in German then in English:

Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung! / O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr! / Und alles schweig. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung / ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.

Now, the same thing, in English:

A tree ascended there. Oh pure transcendence! / O Orpheus sings! Oh tall tree in the ear! / And all things hushed. Yet even in that silence / a new beginning, beckoning, change appeared.

This is what you want in a translation.
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on September 14, 2001
"You are not my favorite poet. That implies comparison. You are poetry itself." in a letter from Marina Tseteyeva to Rilke.
Since I do not speak German, I can speak neither to the accuracy of translation nor interpretation (realizing that they are separate concepts). But I can tell you that this keeps me coming back for more (so much so I have 2 copies, plus a hardback, which differs slightly in content). It's the sort of book that if I loan it, I'm astonished to get it back. And don't really mind.
Mitchell has included in his notes excerpts from diaries and letters which I otherwise would never have had the joy of knowing, nor insght into not only the heart of the poet, but the heart of God as well.
Mitchell also has the integrity to refrain from attempting to translate some works which, I believe, he would have otherwise loved to share. His rationale, from the intro to the "Notes" section, follows:
"Translating poems into equivalent formal patterns is to some extent a matter of luck, or grace, and this is especially true of rhymed poems. Rilke called rhyme "a goddess of secret and ancient coincidences" and said that "she is very capricious; one cannot summon or foresee her; she comes as happiness comes, hands filled with the achievement that is already in flower." Some of my favorite poems never got beyond a rough draft, because that sweet goddess refused to make even the briefest appearance."
This poetry is a love letter to life, no matter what an acedemic might say about the relative merits of the translation/ interpretation. Reading Rilke, I understand why Jung (I think it was Jung) said, "Everywhere I go, I find the poet is there before me." (or words to that effect) Enjoy.
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Over the years I have owned and read a number of translations of Rilke's verse. I find this superb volume translated by Stephen Mitchell to be both the best selection of his poetry and the finest translation. Take nearly any of the poems in this volume and set it beside a competing translation, and the Mitchell version is both more poetic and more in keeping with the spirit of Rilke.
This volume collections all of the Duino Elegies, and generous portions of the various collections, including a fair number of the Sonnets to Orpheus. For most, this will be the only edition of Rilke's verse that they will need.
These are some great, great poems. Apart from the Duino Elegies, I believe my favorites would include the amazing "Archaic Torso of Apollo," in which the poet becomes so entranced studying the statue that it proclaims to him in closing, "You must change your life." "The Panther" is without any question one of the most haunting poems of the twentieth century, with its building sense of some great revelation, only to end with the expected image plunging into the heart and disappearing. My favorite poem in the collection, however, may be one from the UNCOLLECTED POEMS, the amazing "You Who Never Arrived," in which the poet muses on all the occasions upon which he and his beloved never met (Rilke's belief was that we are destined never to meet our true love), but nevertheless perhaps came tantalizing close. For instance, he walks into a shop from which she has just left, where the "mirrors are still dizzy with your presence." He ends his musings, "Who knows? perhaps the same/bird echoed through both of us/yesterday, separate, in the evening . . . "
This is an essential volume for any lover of great poetry. I can't recommend this highly enough.
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on April 14, 2000
I've read a few books of Rilke's poetry, but this is the one that made me love his work. I've compared Mitchell's translations with several others, including William H. Gass's recent "Reading Rilke" and no other translation comes close to Mitchell's in finding the power in Rilke's words. This is a book anyone with ANY interest in poetry must have.
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on October 11, 1998
This is a luminous and remarkable book--it brings Rilke alive with integrity and poetic clarity to those of us who don't know German, and had previously lost what is most magical and fresh about this unusual, raw, Romantic poet. I am a poet and poetry professor at a San Francisco area college, which doesn't suggest I know everything but it hints that I've read a few other poetry books--and this is my very favorite one. Thank you Stephen Mitchell.
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on May 12, 2006
This is one book I cannot live without.

I can't read German, so I am grateful for the translation, and Rilke's genius is not lost in translation. :)

Favorites? I can't name just one. You who never arrived...For the sake of one poem...The Prodigal Son...Spanish dancer...

Oh, the sheer beauty and power of his words make the familiar unfamiliar - alive. Whenever I feel down, I find myself leafing through these pages and the blues will slip away, making me appreciate life with all its ups and downs.

A book to read for a lifetime!
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on October 15, 2003
Despite the glowing reviews, and my adoration of Mitchell's _The Book of Job_, I was disappointed by this book. First, I have previously heard poems from _The Book of Hours_ that sang to me, but there are only 2 fragments from that book included here. Second, the translations in places lose (to my ear) too much of the meaning and poetry of Rilke. Having just learned German and lived 10 days with Germans in Germany, I could tell that it was the translation--and not Rilke--that was lacking. Some of the translations are powerful and beautiful--if somewhat different from Rilke--namely, Spanish Dancer, Archaic Torso of Apollo, Washing the Corpse, Exposed on the cliffs of the heart, Antistrophes, Original Version of the 10th Elegy, Imaginary Career, and some Sonnets of Orpheus.
For too many of the other poems, though, there is more poetry in simply the sound of the German read aloud (absent of meaning) than in the content of the English version. Sometimes this may be because Mitchell is striving for a similar rhythm or rhyme as Rilke's; there are places, though, where this can not be the excuse. For example, in the idiot's song, Rilke has, literally, "Sometimes think I, I can no more--"
Manchmal glaub ich, ich kann nicht mehr--,
which Mitchell translates
Sometimes I think that I can't go on--,
which adds another (perhaps obvious) meaning, hitting the reader over the head -- and is _less_ rhythmic than the literal!
Or examine the last lines of "Buddha in Glory" from Rilke:
"denn ganz oben werden deine Sonnen / voll und gluhend umgedreht.
Doch in dir ist schon gegonnen, / was die Sonnen ubersteht."
Literally: "for quite above become your suns / full and glowing spinning round. / Yet in you is already begun / what overcame the suns."
For unsurmised reasons, Mitchell has changed "suns" to stars", and altered other meanings--to my comprehension, weakening it:
"a billion stars go spinning through the night, / blazing high above your head. / But in you is the presence that / will be, when all the stars are dead."
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on April 20, 2005
Rilke is ecstatic! And the ecstasy is contagious! Nothing like this has been written in the last one hundred years. This is a beautiful edition of Rilke's poems that really grasps the essence of his angelic, poetic rhythm and quiet, sincere voice. The only contemporary work I know to compare it with is (un)leash's "Hymns for Brueghel" which are also prose-poems, and I believe (un)leash was directly inspired by Rilke as well. I truly feel that Rilke has been unsurpassed. These are sacred writings, to cherish, a tome to have by your bed or on your shelf for the rest of your life.
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on September 25, 2002
One defintion of poetry is that it is untranslatable. This volume is, i think, sufficient proof that that is nonsense. One has, perhaps, the sense that one is hearing an ecstatic music through a partition, with one's ear pressed, so to speak, to the wall; but one is hearing the music nonetheless. It seems to me that, along with Proust and only a few others, Rilke is one of the few modern writers with a genuinely philosophical intelligence. Indeed, if one wanted a way into Heidegger, one could do worse than begin by a serious reading of the poetry and prose of Rilke, esp. his poetics of the "Thing" and of the "Open". Auden called Rilke the "Santa Claus of Loneliness". This is rather too disparaging. The correct designation, i think, would be a terrible lonely elation - something which connects him to that other Prague born writer, Franz Kafka.
Rilke is, among other things, a secular mystic who rams language up against the wall of the inexpressible. Give me Proust, Rilke and Kafka for my desert island and i'll be content (so long, of course, as i have a constant supply of freshly ground coffee.)
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VINE VOICEon April 16, 2006
Du im Voraus

Verlone Geliebte, Nimmergekimmene,

Nicht weiss ich, welche Tone dir lieb sind.

Nicht mehr versuch ich, dich, wenn das Kommenende wogt,

Zu erkennen. Alle die grossen

Bilder in mir, im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft,

Stadte und Turme und Brucken und un-

Vermutete Wedung der Wege

Und das Gewaltige jener von Gottern

Einst durchwachsenen Lander:

Steigt zur Bedeutung in mir

Deiner, Entgehende, an.

You who never arrived

In my arms, Beloved, who were lost

From the start,

I don't even know what songs

Would please you. I have given up trying

To recognize you in the surging wave of the next

Moment. All the immense images in me-the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,

Cities, towers, and bridges, and un-

Suspected turns in the path,

And those powerful lands that were once

Pulsing with the life of the gods-

All rise within me to mean

You, who forever elude me.

This has been a passage from Rilke's `You who never arrived', one of the many beautiful and profound poems in this extraordinary collection, provided with an equally extraordinary translation by Stephen Mitchell. Rilke is almost universally established as the most important European poet of the 20th century. The poems in this collection will stay in your mind and in your heart long after you finish reading.
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