Rilke or Not?

A friend writes that she remembers working with an interactive system called «Примус» [Primus] back in the ’80s that when you started it up displayed the following greeting:

«И он уже не тот, что был в начале
Чужие судьбы, став его судьбой,
Признав, его уводят за собой.»

Райнер Мария Рильке

Which might be Englished something like this:

And he is no longer that which he was in the beginning
Others’ fates, having become his fate,
Having recognized/acknowledged, take him away after/behind them.

Rainer Maria Rilke

I figured if it were genuine I should be able to google it in English and/or German, but I came up empty; on the other hand, it might be a loose translation, so I thought I’d check with the Varied Reader. Anybody recognize it, or is it one of those pseudo-quotes that infest the internet?

It turns out to be from the last stanza of this poem, “Читатель” [The reader] (1908), which means the original German must be this… but the German doesn’t have anything corresponding to the Russian, as far as I can see!


  1. You only have do go the old-tie fav avva blog to discover that Rilke wrote plenty of poems in (somewhat halting, someone German-accented) Russian. And corresponded intensely with young Marina Tsvetaeva, too.

    Я так устал от тяжбы больных дней
    пустая ночь безветренных полей
    лежит над тишиной моих очей.
    Мой сердце начинал как соловей,
    но досказать не мог свой слова;
    теперь молчанье свое слышу я -
    оно растет как в ночи страх
    забытого умершего ребенка.

    So strictly speaking not all poetry of Rilke is google’able in German. But this quote? “Fremde” is Rilke’s favorite word, but…

  2. He also wrote poems in French: puisque tout passe, tout passe, faisons la musique passage\re.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    Some of his French poems were set to music by an English composer (whose name I don’t remember.) I used to belong to a choir that sang one of them a few years ago, Dirait-on. Rilke’s French is a little strange in places, and the English composer obviously was not familiar with French singing conventions or even with normal French pronunciation and intonation, so that the (otherwise pleasant) melody and the words did not always go together very well. An audience unfamiliar with French would enjoy the song more than would a French-speaking audience, who would be aware of the discrepancy.

    Bill W: faisons la musique passage\re : This structure feels foreign. I would say: faisons de la musique passagère.

  4. ML you should see how peculiar / foreign feeling is his Russian! Stressed syllables in wrong places and mismatched genders too. But at least one of his poems is put to music by my beloved Psoy Korolenko, the great master of musical collage based on weird poetry. I probably mentioned Psoy Koroleko a few times on these pages, and I have a feeling that irks our host every single time, so I apologize in advance, Language! Psoy is a renegade linguistics professor of sorts, collating all sorts of both high-brow and substandard literary heritage snippets from many languages into his poignant yet absurdist musical performances, and it certainly rubs the wrong way many people who expect deeper respect to the classics. But I think many also agree that the unsmiling weirdness of Russian Rilke makes for a perfect Psoy materiel.

  5. Mélodies passagères was composed by Samuel Barber, who was American.

  6. Dirait-on by Morten Lauridsen, another American.

  7. Mélodies passagères with extracts.

  8. Psoy Korolenko, “Russian Heritage” vol. 1: Rilke’s “Morning”
    И помнишь ты, как розы молоды,
    когда их видишь утром раньше всех,
    все наше близко, дали голубые,
    и никому не нужно грех.

    Вот первый день, и мы вставали
    из руки Божья, где мы спали -
    как долго – не могу сказать,
    и то что было очень мало, -
    и мы теперь должны начать.

    Что будет? Ты не беспокойся,
    да от погибели небойся,
    ведь даже смерть только предлог;
    что еще хочешь за ответа?
    да будут ночи, полны света
    и дни сияющего света
    и будем мы и будет бог

  9. I don’t know Russian at all, but I put the last two lines of the German into Google Translate, and for the penultimate line’s “geordnet” or “sorted” it spat out “Начиная”. Which seems to be related to the “beginning” term in your Russian.

    So I guess the quote might be a kind of fantasy translation of the last two lines, with some confusion b/c a crucial word apparently means both “geordnet” and “beginning” in Russian?

  10. I think Hindemith set Mélodies passagères, too.

    And I misremembered the words:

    Puisque tout passe, faisons
    la mélodie passagère ;
    celle qui nous désaltère,
    aura de nous raison.

    Chantons ce qui nous quitte
    avec amour et art ;
    soyons plus vite
    que le rapide départ.

  11. Perhaps appropriately, my favorite line of Rilke is a translation, which the original can’t match:

    “We cannot know his antique head / with eyes like ripening fruit”

    from Archaic Torso of Apollo. Too lazy to look up the English translator at the moment, but the line has been etched in my memory.

  12. Sorry for spamming comments, but I misspoke earlier and feel I must correct myself. My favorite lines from Rilke are of course from the original Herbsttag.

    There are only 3 or 4 poems I can’t read without nearly breaking into tears, and Herbsttag is one of them, up there with Yeats’ Inisfree, Keats’ Nightingale, and whatever that Old English one is with “hreran mid hondom hrimcalde sae”

  13. I probably mentioned Psoy Koroleko a few times on these pages, and I have a feeling that irks our host every single time, so I apologize in advance, Language!

    Not at all, and I don’t know where you got that impression — no need to apologize!

    Sorry for spamming comments

    Nonsense — the more comments, the better!

  14. the English translator

    Stephen Mitchell. Almost. For , “legendary.”

  15. Oops. I wanted for unerhörtes.

  16. Trond Engen says:

    AG: Sorry for spamming comments.

    Was that you, in all those years?

  17. I think Hindemith set Mélodies passagères, too.

    Hindemith wrote ‘Six chansons’, which consists of six choral settings of French Rilke poems; Barber wrote ‘Mélodies passagères’, which consists of five settings of French Rilke poems for solo voice and piano. Two poems are in both sets: ‘Puisque tout passe’ and ‘Un cygne’.

    The Hindemith settings are some of my favorite choral pieces ever. Here’s a good recording.

  18. but the German doesn’t have anything corresponding to the Russian, as far as I can see!

    This is why: . Toporov is sort of famous, or infamous, for “taking liberties” with the original.

  19. hilding: The words “police”, “policy”, Полиция, Polizei etc must have interesting semantic histories. The current German word for “policy” is (die) Police [three syllables].

  20. I should add: Police is an insurance policy. For “political policy” in general, or specific kind of policies, say economic policy, one uses various expressions based on forms of “Politik2.

  21. John Cowan says:

    I remember seeing an machine-translation anecdote from the 1980s in which the French version of a home-insurance policy ended with the admonishment that jewels and such were not covered, and that people with valuables in their homes should consider purchasing a police spéciale. Unfortunately, the English translation recommended the purchase of a police special instead!

  22. Sir JCass says:

    I’m sure we must have memtioned the teenage Goethe’s attempts at writing English verse on this blog before, but – just in case we haven’t – here’s his “A Song Over the Unconfidence Towards Myself”:

    Thou knowst how heappily they Friend
    Walks upon florid Ways;
    Thou knowst how heavens bounteous hand
    Leads him to golden days.

    But hah! a cruel enemy
    Destroies all that Bless;
    In Moments of Melancholy
    Flies all my Happiness.

    Then fogs of doubt do fill my mind
    With deep obscurity;
    I search myself, and cannot find
    A spark of Worth in me.

    When tender friends to, tender kiss,
    Run up with open arms;
    I think I merit not that bliss
    That like a kiss me warmeth.

    Hah! when my child, I love thee, sayd,
    And gave the kiss I sought;
    Then I – forgive me tender maid-
    She is a false one, thought.

    She cannot love a peevish boy,
    She with her godlike face.
    O could I, friend, that thought destroy.
    It leads the golden days.

    And other thought is misfortune
    Is death and night to me:
    I hum no supportable tune,
    I can no poet be.

    When to the Altar of the Nine
    A triste incense I bring,
    I beg let Poetry be mine
    O Sistres let me sing.

    But when they then my prayer not hear
    I break my wispring lyre;
    Then from my eyes runns down a tear,
    Extinguish th’incensed fire.

    Then curse I, Freind, the fated sky,
    And from th’altar I fly;
    And to my Freinds aloud I cry
    Be happier than I.

  23. Sir JCass says:

    Teenage Goethe does French:

    Le Véritable Ami

    Va te sévrer des baisers de ta belle,
    Me dit un jour l’ami; par son air séduisant,
    Ses yeux perçans, par son teint éclatant,
    Sa taille mince, son langage amusant,
    Elle te pourroit bien déranger la cervelle;
    Fuis de cette beauté le dangereux amour!
    Mais pour te faire voir à quel degré je t’aime,
    Je veux t’ôter tout espoir du retour,
    En m’en faisant aimer moi-même.

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