Abishag : Rainer Maria Rilke

I put my hand to another Rilke poem to translate, this time Abishag. My previous attempt of his poem “Autumn Day” is here, and I realize that I never posted my translation of his poem “The Beggars”, which I’ll try to post in a few days.

I’m not quite as happy with this one as with the other, but I submit it here for your thought. Consider this a first draft.


She lay. And her child arms were bound
by servants around that wilting man,
so on she lay, the sweet long hours,
the little one worried by his many years.

And sometimes she turned into his beard
her face, if an owl screeched;
and all, that was the night, came and circled
with fear and desire around them.

The stars match her trembling,
a scent searches amidst the room,
a curtain stirs and gives a sign,
a sign she follows with her eyes…

She kept near him, the waning old man
and, untaken by the night of nights,
she lay on his accruing chill,
a virgin and as lightly as a soul.

The king sat and recalled the empty day
of finished deeds, untasted lusts
and his favorite dog that he had raised…
but at evening Abishag arched
herself above him. His wild life lay
blank as an abandoned shore
under the starscape of her silent breasts.

And sometimes, as an knowing lover,
from underneath his brow he spies
her emotionless, unkissed mouth;
and saw: her green rod
did not reach into his ground.
He shivered. And he listened like a hound
and searched himself for his trail of blood.

-Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Remy Wilkins

Here is another translation of the poem to compare mine to, but the best I’ve found is Edward Snow’s translation.

The main complaint I have with Snow’s version is that he misses, I think, the final line, giving a more literal, but vague translation. Mine is full of problems not least of which is the crazy tenses I jump in and out of willy-nilly. Any suggestions or criticisms would be received gratefully.


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