Tuesday Poem: “The Gazelle” by Rainer Maria Rilke

The Gazelle

Gazella Dorcas

Enchanted thing: how can two chosen words
ever attain the harmony of pure rhyme
that pulses through you as your body stirs?
Out of your forehead branch and lyre climb,

and all your features pass in simile, through
the songs of love whose words, as light as rose-
petals, rest on the face of someone who
has put his book away and shut his eyes:

to see you: tensed, as if each leg were a gun
loaded with leaps, but not fired while your neck
holds your head still, listening: as when,

while swimming in some isolated place,
a girl hears leaves rustle, and turns to look:
the forest pool reflected in her face.

From New Poems (1907; 1908). Translated by Stephen Mitchell

As my undergraduate studies were in fine arts and museums, I don’t have an academic background in literature. This might be why I am just discovering the work of Ranier Maria Rilke, the Bohemian-Austrian poet who lived from 1875-1926. He wrote in German, his melodic poetry talked about the inner life, emptiness, and solitude, and he had a love affair with a woman to whom Nietzsche once proposed. It is also said he wrote poems in French because German didn’t have an exact word for absence.

My discovery of Rilke’s work came about by accident. I had ordered Stephen Mitchell’s The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, because the introduction is written by Robert Hass, one of the poets I am studying for my doctorate (I find poets can be revealing about their own work when writing about other poets). So far I am surprised by how modern Rilke’s poetry seems, at least in translation. This especially applies to his prose poetry, poetic sketches and exploration of form. I find it interesting that the original version of “The Gazelle” does not rhyme the first and third line of the last stanza. I would say this rhyme makes the ending quite powerful in the English translation. On the other hand, the original version rhymes the last two lines. This must be the compromise and complexity of translation.

For other Tuesday Poems, check out the hub.

10 thoughts on “Tuesday Poem: “The Gazelle” by Rainer Maria Rilke

  1. Thanks for posting this – i loved it! I’ve been doing some work on the woman Rilke loved – Lou Andreas Salome – she was quite a babe! He wrote one of the Duino elegies for her. I love those, but hadn’t come across this poem before.

  2. I adore Rilke, Sarah. I was lucky enough in my Honours year at university to take a class with Peter Simpson where we explored multiple translations of Rilke’s poetry with the original German to look at the sacrifices translation makes. I was in my element! Thanks so much for posting The Gazelle.

  3. Sarah, oh! this exquisite poem! How beautiful it is. I know some of Rilke, but the translations can be so radically different as to drive one to distraction–it’s hard always in translation to ‘get’ the original, but this is absolutely sublime. Thank you, Sarah.

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