January 13, 2011

Be Ahead of All Parting

On the Sofa, by Leonid Pasternak

Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened,
like winter, which even now is passing.
For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart.

Be forever dead in Eurydice, and climb back singing.
Climb praising as you return to connection.
Here among the disappearing, in the realm of the transient,
be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings.

Be. And know as well the need to not be:
let that ground of all that changes
bring you to completion now.

To all that has run its course, and to the vast unsayable
numbers of beings abounding in Nature,
add yourself gladly, and cancel the cost.

Sonnets to Orpheus II, 13


  1. Aha! I've just this second finished commenting on the previous post and I see another one has popped up! Rilke is coming thick and fast these days. Which is such a good thing.

    Isn't this wonderful? I haven't checked back on the original German, but the translated version seems to read bloody well to me. Beautiful. A triumph.

    A lot of the ideas contained in your previous extracts seem to be encapsulated here: the alienation, the triumphing over alienation, the praising, the unsayable. 'Be. And know as well the need to not be.' - the very heart of the poem.

  2. "For beneath the winter is a winter so endless
    that to survive it at all is a triumph of the heart." Feeling this these past days and weeks, such endless winter! As I said earlier today, I'm ready for summer (115 degrees heat even) right now!

  3. Orpheus was a central figure for Rilke and in this poem, from his Sonnets to Orpheus, we see a reference to Eurydice, the legendary lyre-player’s great love. To refresh our memories of the great tale of how Orpheus lost Eurydice, descended to the underworld to retrieve her, only to lose her again when climbing back, I’m including this rather longish (two parts) excerpt from Bullfinch’s Mythology.

    Part I

    Orpheus was the son of Apollo and the muse Calliope. He was presented by his father with a lyre and taught to play upon it, and he played to such perfection that nothing could withstand the charm of his music. Not only his fellow mortals, but wild beasts were softened by his strains, and gathering round him laid by their fierceness, and stood entranced with his lay. Nay, the very trees and rocks were sensible to the charm. The former crowded round him and the latter relaxed somewhat of their hardness, softened by his notes.

    Hymen had been called to bless with his presence the nuptials of Orpheus with Eurydice; but though he attended, he brought no happy omens with him. His very torch smoked and brought tears into their eyes. In coincidence with such prognostics Eurydice, shortly after her marriage, while wandering with the nymphs, her companions, was seen by the shepherd Aristaeus, who was struck with her beauty, and made advances to her. She fled, and in flying trod upon a snake in the grass, was bitten in the foot and died. Orpheus sang his grief to all who breathed the upper air, both gods and men, and finding it all unavailing resolved to seek his wife in the regions of the dead. He descended by a cave situated on the side of the promontory of Taenarus and arrived at the Stygian realm. He passed through crowds of ghosts, and presented himself before the throne of Pluto and Proserpine. Accompanying the words with the lyre, he sung, "O deities of the underworld, to whom all we who live must come, hear my words, for they are true! I come not to spy out the secrets of Tartarus, nor to try my strength against the three-headed dog with snaky hair who guards the entrance. I come to seek my wife, whose opening years the poisonous viper's fang has brought to an untimely end. Love had led me here, Love, a god all powerful with us who dwell on the earth, and, if old traditions say true, not less so here. I implore you by these abodes full of terror, these realms of silence and uncreated things, unite again the thread of Eurydice's life. We all are destined to you, and sooner or later must pass to your domain. She too, when she shall have filled her term of life, will rightly be yours. But till then grant her to me, I beseech you. If you deny me, I cannot return alone; you shall triumph in the death of us both."

  4. Part II

    As he sang these tender strains, the very ghosts shed tears. Tantalus, in spite of his thirst, stopped for a moment his efforts for water, Ixion's wheel stood still, the vulture ceased to tear the giant's liver, the daughters of Danaus rested from their task of drawing water in a sieve, and Sisyphus sat on his rock to listen. Then for the first time, it is said, the cheeks of the Furies were wet with tears. Proserpine could not resist, and Pluto himself gave way. Eurydice was called. She came from among the new-arrived ghosts, limping with her wounded foot. Orpheus was permitted to take her away with him on one condition, that he should not turn round to look at her till they should have reached the upper air. Under this condition they proceeded on their way, he leading, she following, through passages dark and steep, in total silence, till they had nearly reached the outlet into the cheerful upper world, when Orpheus, in a moment of forgetfulness, to assure himself that she was still following, cast a glance behind him, when instantly she was borne away. Stretching out their arms to embrace one another they grasped only the air. Dying now a second time she yet cannot reproach her husband, for how can she blame his impatience to behold her? "Farewell," she said, "a last farewell," and was hurried away, so fast that the sound hardly reached his ears.

    Orpheus endeavored to follow her, and besought permission to return and try once more for her release but the stern ferryman repulsed him and refused passage. Seven days he lingered about the brink, without food or sleep; then bitterly accusing of cruelty the powers of Erebus, he sang his complaints to the rocks and mountains, melting the hearts of tigers and moving the oaks from their stations. He held himself aloof from womankind, dwelling constantly on the recollection of his sad mischance. The Thracian maidens tried their best to captivate him, but he repulsed their advances. They bore with him as long as they could; but finding him insensible, one day, one of them, excited by the rites of Bacchus, exclaimed, "See yonder our despiser!" and threw at him her javelin. The weapon, as soon as it came within the sound of his lyre, fell harmless at his feet. So did also the stones that they threw at him. But the women raised a scream and drowned the voice of the music, and then the missiles reached him and soon were stained with his blood. The maniacs tore him limb from limb, and threw his head and his lyre into the river Hebrus, down which they floated, murmuring sad music, to which the shores responded a plaintive symphony. The Muses gathered up the fragments of his body and buried them at Libethra, where the nightingale is said to sing over his grave more sweetly than in any other part of Greece. His lyre was placed by Jupiter among the stars. His shade passed a second time to Tartarus, where he sought out his Eurydice and embraced her, with eager arms. They roam through those happy fields together now, sometimes he leads, sometimes she; and Orpheus gazes as much as he will upon her, no longer incurring a penalty for a thoughtless glance.

  5. I agree that this is a beautiful translation-poem (but I know nothing of German).

    I absolutely love Bullfinch’s Orpheus and Eurydice telling and am so grateful to have it here for background!

    I’m a bit overwhelmed by the simultaneous being and not being! A ringing glass shattering as it’s ringing! . . . forever dead in Eurydice . . .

    The revelation in the last line is it! It’s it, it’s it, it’s it:

    . . . add yourself gladly, and cancel the cost.

    That is how to live with the opposites, the plus sign and the minus sign, in one whole!

    OK, per E. Dickinson, I have used up all my exclamation points.

  6. I would be curious to hear other readers' interpretation of the, to me, somewhat enigmatic "cancel the cost".

    It is very suggestive and just when I think I have grasped a 'meaning' (one of many possible meanings I am sure) that suits me, it vanishes. Does 'meaning' in poems play the role that Eurydice did for Orpheus? Should we content ourselves with climbing out of the underworld in her company, yet dare not fix our gaze, lest we lose her irretrievably?

  7. I love Macy & Barrows' translation of this special poem.

    Lorenzo: "...and cancel the cost" are the words in it that transfix me. They both shock and console. They make me think of a scene in Cunningham's "The Book of Hours" where a girl hesitates to enter a room, and an old lady says something like, "Come in dear, all you have to do is die." This is how I understand 'the cost' we should cancel.

    This poem is replete with references to death - parting, passing, transience, being-not being - but Rilke reminds us to climb back singing and count not the cost. Death is the price of a ticket on this incredible trip called life, and I work daily to remind myself to follow Rilke's advice and "count not the cost".

  8. Rilke is always very suggestive. I think that 'Be Ahead of All Parting' is another metaphor of Death(the parting, winter,the disappearing, the transient in life ). Life and death are always beautifully interwoven in his poetry.

  9. I'm not sure I would have translated 'vernichte die Zahl' as 'cancel the cost'. Other translations say 'cancel the count' ('Zahl' means 'number'). To bring in a notion of 'cost' may be adding a layer of meaning Rilke did not intend? Just freewheeling here, as I'm not really sure. If it's simply (or not so simply!) 'count', it may mean that there's no point in counting or listing, in a scientific rational way, the infinite forms of nature (which are 'unsayable'), the only thing that's important is to include yourself in nature, and accept you are part of its transience, indeed be joyful at the fact. (The original German stresses much more this 'run its course' idea with the words 'gebraucht', 'dumpf' and 'stumm' - meaning 'used-up', 'muffled' and 'dumb'.)

    All these sonnets are beautifully mysterious, and can't really be reduced to a prosaic equivalence, can they?. As you say so evocatively, Lorenzo, perhaps the 'meaning' may be lost if we try to gaze and analyze too intently and literally. There's a case with Rilke, above all poets, for meaning to sink in subliminally. Apparently Rilke himself found his Orpheus sonnets just as mysterious as we do, and wrote them very quickly in a kind of frenzy of inspiration.

    This said however, it's clear, I think, that dualism and its attempted reconciliation is at the heart of this poem, as it is at the heart of the whole sequence. (Winter or death/survival of winter or death; Eurydice's death/seamless life through the music of Orpheus; the ringing cup/the shattered cup; being in life/being in the void; the used-up, dumb creatures of the world/the joy at being part of this etc.)

    1. Well, Solitary, this the Taoist Wanderer, and I'm with you on the translation of "cancel the count" as the meaning of "Zahl." Try Stephen Mitchell's translation, much better, more music, more accuracy to the German. The Barrows-Macy translations so often do not care for Rilke's interpretations. Read their notes to Rilke's Book of Hours, where they explain how they drop lines of one poem because he used the same idea in the next poem. Their most egregious liberty with Rilke words and view of life was their statement that they "spared the reader" by eliminating Rilke's masculine pronouns (not good Buddhist-Feminist ideology) and spared the world Rilke's references to "pregnant men." Wow! They spared us Rilke's seminal idea that all life is gestation. That is real violence for those whose seminal ideology is non-violence. On a more positive note, I'm trying with European friends to get what the possibilities are for the German inflection of the phrase "cancel the count." I first heard it from a French speaking Swiss person. I had loaned him money in Mexico so that he and his girlfriend could go swim with dolphins. I told him to forget about paying me back and he used the cancel the count phrase in French, which meant something like, to always keep the count or balance sheet at zero--not owing--was the way to keep the friendship. Without knowing the German inflection of the phrase, I think Rilke is saying in the context of the poem's use of number references is, add yourself to all of creation that is mutable, don't count yourself as separate from those you affirm both the beauty and terror of existence, let Eurydice stay dead, don't fight it. Add yourself to the oneness/void which is "the infinite source of of your own most intense vibration" (Mitchell's trans)--a phrase that Barrows-Macy ignore even though it contains Rilke's core idea of knowing the source of your being, not just acceptance of mutability. But it's their poem now.

  10. So, perhaps, we must die a little death to "meaning" -- let it go, feel it, understand it in an intuitive way that can't necessarily be spoken?

    As Neruda says in "Poetry" ("La poesía"):

    . . . And I, infinitesimal being,
    drunk with the great starry
    likeness, image of
    felt myself a pure part
    of the abyss,
    I wheeled with the stars,
    my heart broke loose on the wind.

    En Español:

    Y yo, mínimo ser,
    ebrio del gran vacío
    a semejanza, a imagen
    del misterio,
    me sentí parte pura
    del abismo,
    rodé con las estrellas,
    mi corazón se desató en el viento.

  11. As we all know, Hamlet says that the great question is, "to be or not to be." Maybe the greater question — suggested by Rilke in this poem — is whether we can be and simultaneously not be, be in the moment and simultaneously let go of the moment as it passes. I'm thinking here of an interesting parallel in Eliot's "Four Quartets:" "Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still."

    Beyond this, my only other comment is that I love the call to "be a ringing glass that shatters as it rings." We must fearlessly hurl ourselves into the fullness of life, "ring the bells that still can ring," as Leonard Cohen sings, and not be concerned with the costs, even when the cost is a shattering of the source of the music. It is in these movements from the ringing to the shattering, and then from the shattering to some kind of reemergence, that life seems to find its meaning.

  12. Yes, Ruth - interesting that Rilke fell for mysticism in a big way when travelling in Russia with LAS (where they visited Tolstoy, incidentally!), and mysticism is all about what 'can't necessarily be spoken'.

  13. What little I have experienced with very brief readings on Buddhism, I felt in this piece. The dynamics of the opposites, and the darned difficulty and yet necessity of letting go and accepting. Just a quick read, but this is what I take away from it.

    Although, a brief sadness comes to me when I read, "Be ahead of all parting, as if it had already happened, like winter, which even now is passing." To my non-Buddhist mind I want to say, no, no, stay here in the moment and be. But perhaps there is the view that knowing that it will pass, we free our hands, we accept tomorrow, endings, and thereby can be more in today? I'm unsure, but again, this is how it feels.

    OK, fourth read. I'm convinced - utter acceptance. Utter.


  14. Ruth, thank you for referring to this blog:)
    Maybe I'll have a different reaction than most -it was the painting that drew me to comment. Even though it has a somber mood, the gestural position of the figures is very meaningful. Crystal clear to me is what the painter thinks about relationships. Thanks for sharing this one!
    My thoughts on "and cancel the cost" go beyond the poem - with everything worth living for, I would cancel the cos, because I gained more than it cost me:)


"Everything is blooming most recklessly; if it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night."

~ Rainer Maria Rilke

Go ahead, bloom recklessly!