January 21, 2011

The Man Watching (II)

What we triumph over is so small,
and the victory makes us small too.
The eternal and uncommon
refuses to be bent by us.
Like the angel who appeared
to the wrestler in the Old Testament:
when his opponent's sinews
grow hard as metal in the struggle,
they feel to his fingers like strings
on which to play a depthless melody.

Whoever is conquered by this angel
when the angel does not refuse to fight
walks away erect and ennobled,
strengthened by that fierce hand
that, like a sculptor's, shaped him.
Winning does not tempt that man.
His growth is this: to be defeated
by ever greater forces.

Book of Images


  1. The final lines of this poem have been my dear friends for nearly twenty years. They are familiar to me in the translation by Edward snow, which I prefer to the one here by Barrows and Macy:

    His growth is: to be the deeply defeated
    by ever greater things.

    Since I don't know the German, I only prefer this because of that phrase deeply defeated. I do not know how Rilke has managed (and through translation) to get across hope when writing about being conquered and deeply defeated. But that is what his words give me. Because the things that defeat us will become greater, and we more and more able to survive them, there is a knowing that we are winning along the way, an increasing consciousness of what is.

  2. to be defeated
    by ever greater forces.

    sounds kind of bleak, but actually is uplifting if you think about it, really enjoying this series!

  3. Ruth, I would have to say I think the Snow translation you share of the last two lines is the more poetic and moves me more because of that. That use of "the" - the deeply defeated - is an addition that for me turns the poem.

    There is such great truth in those two opening lines. So often we walk away from what we think is too difficult, settling for what we know we will "win", or we take on one somehow deemed "lesser" and so easier to go up against.

  4. The poem is bookended between the initial idea of our triumphs diminishing us and the final one of our defeats ennobling us. Like Niamh, I find the idea is perhaps a bit jarring or eccentric at first, but the deeper meaning quickly comes through. It all depends on whom, what angels, which forces we are locked in battle with. The image of the sinews as strings on which a depthless melody is played is so rich and compelling.

    I, too, prefer the "deeply defeated" of the Snow version, but likewise would opt for the present translation's "every greater forces" rather than "ever greater things". I guess we can each make our own hybrid version to interpret this stunning poem and assimilate its many messages into our lives.

  5. Again, I find paradoxical Zen wisdom in this statement by Rilke. We are defeated by winning (which is driven by the ego), and we win by acceding to defeat if that is the price of selfless nonresistance.


"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!