‘The Swan’ by Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Robert Bly)

This clumsy living that moves lumbering
as if in ropes through what is not done,
reminds us of the awkward way the swan walks.

And to die, which is the letting go
of the ground we stand on and cling to every day,
is like the swan, when he nervously lets himself down
into the water, which receives him gaily
and which flows joyfully under
and after him, wave after wave,
while the swan, unmoving and marvelously calm,
is pleased to be carried, each moment more fully grown,
more like a king, further and further on.

I am so sad that my German is non-existent, apart from the odd greeting or pleasantry. I would so love to be able to read and understand this poem in its original language, but for now Bly’s superb translation will have to do.

From what I can tell, this translation is brilliant. It reads very seamlessly, and I love the attention to the sounds as well as to the accuracy of meaning — particularly in the first line, where I love the assonance of “This clumsy living that moves lumbering”. Translating a poem is not an easy task; a poem is such a complex, loaded thing. It is not like holding up a mirror, but rather creating a new poem that captures the essence of the original, losing neither meaning, implied meaning, tone nor beauty. It seems an almost impossible task.

Rilke’s poem describes the clumsiness of swans as they walk, and then compares it to when the swan “lets himself down/ into the water”, and is suddenly transformed into the embodiment of grace. Although on land swans lumber “as if in ropes” and are terribly “awkward”, on the water, a swan is one of the most graceful sights on this earth.

Rilke takes this image and uses it to suggest that Man is like the clumsy swan in life — stumbling along as if in the dark — and that in death (“which is letting go/ of the ground we stand on and cling to every day” ) Man might be like the swan on water. On water, the swan is “pleased to be carried”, and “more like a king, further and further on”. I think this is a very beautiful, inspiring and comforting image.

The Swan reminds me of Baudelaire’s poem, ‘L’albatros’ (‘The Albatross’), which uses a very similar image to evoke an idea of the nature of the artist. More on that tomorrow…

P.S. If any of you speak German, please let me know what you think of Bly’s translation. Is there anything that you would have done differently?

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh