Rilke’s ‘Convalescent’


Akseli Gallen-Kallela. ‘Landscape from Ruovesi’. Oil on canvas on board, 37.1 x 35 cm. About 1900.


Almost thirty years ago I first came across a very nicely bound volume of Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1907 collection of verse, ‘New Poems’ (‘Neue Gedichte’), as translated by Edward Snow and published by North Point Press in San Francisco in 1984. I have only very occasionally returned to it, but I took it off the shelf this week and have been astounded once again at what it contains. Here is my own new translation, followed by Rilke’s original, of the poem entitled ‘The Convalescent’. I don’t think I have ever attempted to translate Rilke before, but I do remember reading him as a much younger man and finding the experience transformative. Putting him into English has been no less so. No one could accuse Rilke of being simplistic or easy to understand. But there is a limpidity to the surface of his verse, an almost glasslike clarity, which can keep you from realizing at first how deep is what lies below. Those depths are active. They have an energy and force which is not at all merely verbal. This initial translation has helped me to glimpse how much I’m looking forward to future exploration of them.


The Convalescent

As a singing comes and goes in streets
and now draws near, now shies away again,
fluttering its wings, at times almost to grasp,
then as before is scattered wide:

life plays with the convalescent;
while she, weakened and rested,
fumblingly, to give herself,
makes an unaccustomed move.

And she feels it nearly as seduction,
when the stiffened hand, in which
dwelt fevers full of senselessness,
from afar, as if with flowering touch,
comes to caress the hardness of her chin.


Die Genesende

Wie ein Singen kommt und geht in Gassen
und sich nähert und sich wieder scheut,
flügelschlagend, manchmal fast zu fassen
und dann wieder weit hinausgestreut:

spielt mit der Genesenden das Leben;
während sie, geschwächt und ausgeruht,
unbeholfen, um sich hinzugeben,
eine ungewohnte Geste tut.

Und sie fühlt es beinah wie Verführung,
wenn die hartgewordne Hand, darin
Fieber waren voller Widersinn,
fernher, wie mit blühender Berührung,
zu liebkosen kommt ihr hartes Kinn.


4 comments on “Rilke’s ‘Convalescent’

  1. As well as Rilke, I love Akseli Gallen-Kallela! He’s popped up on my blog a couple of times. I don’t think I know this painting, though I know many of his.

    • leifhendrik says:

      This particular work reminds me of the Canadian landscape painters of the early to mid 20th century. It’s that northern light, perhaps. But the Russian quality–or perhaps it’s just extreme northern Baltic–really shows through too. Somehow I associate Rilke with this kind of painting at times. Though not always.

      • I agree about the northern light. My mother is from Finland and I spent a lot of time there as a child, and I grew up in Canada, so the fall of light in those countries is a precious thing to me.

        Finland of course is Scandinavian in some respects, but probably more correctly “Nordic”, as it’s also different from the other Scandinavian countries and closer to Russia in some ways.

      • leifhendrik says:

        Part of my own family is from Nordland province in Norway, from the Arctic Circle and north of that–Mosjøen, Narvik, Lofotens. I’m quite interested in the whole northern light phenomenon and the vegetation and other features that go with it, especially in terms of painting. I think the National Gallery in Helsinki has some very fine and unusual things unknown outside Finland. The Russian aspects and history of the place make it especially fascinating to me.

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