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Rilke’s Russian Poems

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The English language reader is by and large unaware that Rainer Maria Rilke, the great Bohemian-Austrian poet of the German language, wrote some Russian verse. His eight Russian poems, dated 1900-1, have been translated into English twice before, but for scholarly purposes and in academic publications known only to the specialist. Even in Russia the reading public is barely aware of these early Russian texts by Rilke, though they can be found both in print and online.  Literary Russians tend to see them as curious trifles, a great stranger’s attempts, failed though touching, at poetry in our robust and supple language. Their Russian, unmistakably a foreigner’s, exhibits errors of grammar, usage and scansion. Still, in a handful of lines Rilke manages to get the Russian right, and they ring true as lines of Russian verse. Even faulty lines have their charm and strangely convey a Rilkean tone. For a Russian like myself, it takes an extra charitable reading to see past the somewhat comical flaws of expression to the details of the pure and distinctly Rilkean imagery, thoughts and sentiments that inform these outlandish creations. Their linguistic bizarreness notwithstanding, the Russian poems, continuous with Rilke’s German writings at the turn of the 20th century, are inspired works by a great poet and the results of a daring poetic experiment. They offer unique insights into his lyric concerns. One can sense the poet behind them, the vibrancy of his inspirations, and his great love of Russia, which he called his “spiritual motherland.”

Source: Rilke’s Russian Poems

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