Posts filed under ‘Stephen Mitchell’

The Lament of Gilgamesh



Shouldn’t my cheeks
be hollow, shouldn’t my face be ravaged,
frost-chilled, and burnt by the desert sun?
Shouldn’t my heart be filled with grief?
Shouldn’t I be worn out and ready to collapse?
My friend, my brother, whom I loved so dearly,
who accompanied me through every danger –
Enkidu, my brother, whom I loved so dearly,
who accompanied me through every danger –
the fate of mankind has overwhelmed him.
For six days I would not let him be buried,
thinking, “If my grief is violent enough,
perhaps he will come back to life again.”
For six days and seven nights I mourned him,
until a maggot fell out of his nose.
Then I was frightened, I was terrified by death,
and I set out to roam the wilderness.
I cannot bear what happened to my friend –
I cannot bear what happened to Enkidu –
so I roam the wilderness in my grief.
How can my mind have any rest?
My beloved friend has turned into clay –
my beloved Enkidu has turned into clay.
And won’t I too lie down in the dirt
like him, and never arise again?
That is why I must find Utnapishtim,
whom men call ‘The Distant One’. I must ask him
how he managed to overcome death.
I have wandered the world, climbed the most treacherous
mountains, crossed deserts, sailed the vast ocean,
and sweet sleep has rarely softened my face.
I have worn myself out through ceaseless striving,
I have filled my muscles with pain and anguish.
I have killed bear, lion, hyena, leopard,
tiger, deer, antelope, ibex, I have eaten
their meat and have wrapped their rough skins around me.
And what in the end have I achieved?
When I reached Shiduri the tavern keeper,
I was filthy, exhausted, heartsick. Now let
the gate of sorrow be closed behind me,
and let it be sealed with tar and pitch.

(translation by Stephen Mitchell)

It doesn’t get older than this. The Epic of Gilgamesh is one of the oldest works of literature – a set of legends dating back as far as 2000 BC, eventually formalized in an Akkadian version, believed to be the work of Sin-liqe-unninni sometime around 1000 BC. (for more on the Epic see Wikipedia)

This extract is the longest monologue in the epic – a grand lament by Gilgamesh for the death of his friend and comrade Enkidu. It’s a marvellous study of the pathology of mourning as well as its eventual futility. Gilgamesh is a man torn between grief and horror, and his words betray a strangely authentic mish-mash of conflicting emotion. There is a great deal of tenderness for the dead Enkidu here, but there is also Gilgamesh’s concern with his own mortality, the fact of which his companion’s death has so forcefully brought home to him.

What I love about this lament is the way it combines the epic with the realistic – the overall tone is grandoise, almost prophetic, but what other great lament would include the line “a maggot fell out of his nose”? Certainly you won’t find anything like that in Lycidas or In Memoriam. This is a powerful and savage poem, a startlingly real, startlingly human voice from a distant civilisation whose moral and aesthetic values may have been somewhat different from ours, but whose concern with mortality we can easily share.


September 18, 2006 at 2:54 am 1 comment

Autumn Day

Rainer Maria Rilke


Lord: it is time. The huge summer has gone by.
Now overlap the sundials with your shadows,
and on the meadows let the wind go free.

Command the fruits to swell on tree and vine;
grant them a few more warm transparent days,
urge them on to fulfillment then, and press
the final sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now, will never have one.
Whoever is alone will stay alone,
Will sit, read, write long letters through the evening,
and wander on the boulevards, up and down,
restlessly, while the dry leaves are blowing.

(translated from the German by Stephen Mitchell)

On the theory that one great poem deserves another, here’s my other favourite end-of-summer poem, this one looking forward to the days to come rather than back to the season past.

We’ve posted a great deal of Rilke on this website in the past, so there’s little new I can say about him here, except that for me this has always been one of his finest poems. I love the abruptness, the certainty of that opening (“Herr: es ist Zeit”) and the terrible, terrible sadness of “Whoever has no house now, will never have one / Whoever is alone will stay alone”. If autumn is the season of resignation, of defeat, then this poem captures that spirit better than anything else.

Stanley Kunitz, in an essay on Rilke (over at the Poetry Foundation), writes: “One of Rilke’s primary ideas, elaborated in The Journal, is that of the proper death: the need of dying one’s own death, of carrying that death within one like the kernel of a fruit, of exhausting all the forces, accidents, and implications of one’s destiny”. ‘Autumn Day’ is a fine elaboration of that principle, of the slow ripening of the inevitable as a source of authentic sorrow.


The original in German:


Herr: es ist Zeit. Der Sommer war sehr gross.
Leg deinen Schatten auf die Sonnenuhren,
und auf den Fluren lass die Winde los.

Befiehl den letzten Fruchten voll zu sein;
gieb ihnen noch zwei sudlichere Tage,
drange sie zur Vollendung hin und jage
die letzte Susse in den schweren Wein.

Wer jetzt kein Haus hat, baut sich keines mehr.
Wer jetzt allein is, wird es lange bleiben,
wird wachen, lesen, lange Breife schreiben
und wird in den Allen hin und her
unruhig wandern, wenn die Blatter treiben.


Herbsttag is also one of Rilke’s most widely translated poems – has a round-up of the various translations around, with links to them at the bottom (in footnotes! yaay!), along with an attempt at a new translation.

September 4, 2006 at 9:04 pm 1 comment

Spanish Dancer

Rainer Maria Rilke

Listen (to Hatshepsut read)

As on all its sides a kitchen-match darts white
flickering tongues before it bursts into flame:
with the audience around her, quickened, hot,
her dance begins to flicker in the dark room.

And all at once it is completely fire.

One upward glance and she ignites her hair
and, whirling faster and faster, fans her dress
into passionate flames, till it becomes a furnace
from which, like startled rattlesnakes, the long
naked arms uncoil, aroused and clicking.

And then: as if the fire were too tight
around her body, she takes and flings it out
haughtily, with an imperious gesture,
and watches: it lies raging on the floor,
still blazing up, and the flames refuse to die –
Till, moving with total confidence and a sweet
exultant smile, she looks up finally
and stamps it out with powerful small feet.

Hatshepsut writes,

'So I took this Flamenco class with this crazy Spanish lady from Juilliard for six months of my life last year. She was an incredible dancer and if I can execute a dramatic and flawless Sevillanas, it’s thanks to her sound, fury and insistence on form. This poem is her. The fire metaphor is just perfect. It’s poems like this one that make me wish I knew German. Come to think of it, I wish I knew Rilke. But I would be settle for just being able to pronounce his name (Honestly, the way it’s written is nothing like the sounds my German friends make when pronouncing his name).'

And the original in german,

Wie in der Hand ein Schwefelzundholz, weiss,
eh es zur Flamme komt, nach allen Seiten
zuckende Zungen streckt -: beginnt im Kreis
naher Beschauer hastig, hell und heiss
ihr runder Tanz sich zuckend auszubreiten.

Und plotzlich ist er Flamme, ganz und gar.

Mit einem Blick entzundet sie ihr Haar
und dreht auf einmal mit gewagter Kunst
ihr ganzes Kleid in diese Feuersbrunst,
aus welcher sich, wie Schlangen die erschrecken,
die nackten Arme wach und klappernd strecken.

Und dann: als wurde ihr das Feuer knapp,
nimmt sie es ganz zusamm und wirft es ab
sehr herrisch, mit hochmutiger Gebarde
und schaut: da liegt es rasend auf der Erde
und flammt noch immer und ergiebt sich nicht –
Doch sieghaft, sicher und mit einem sussen
grussenden Lacheln hebt sie ihr Gesicht


May 27, 2006 at 6:07 pm Leave a comment

You who never arrived

Rainer Maria Rilke


You who never arrived
in my arms, Beloved, who were lost
from the start,
I don’t even know what songs
would please you. I have given up trying
to recognize you in the surging wave of the next
moment. All the immense
images in me – the far-off, deeply-felt landscape,
cities, towers, and bridges, and unsuspected
turns in the path,
and those powerful lands that were once
pulsing with the life of the gods –
all rise within me to mean
you, who forever elude me.

You, Beloved, who are all
the gardens I have ever gazed at,
longing. An open window
in a country house – , and you almost
stepped out, pensive, to meet me.
Streets that I chanced upon, –
you had just walked down them and vanished.
And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors
were still dizzy with your presence and, startled,
gave back my too-sudden image. Who knows?
perhaps the same bird echoed through both of us
yesterday, seperate, in the evening…

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

And the German Original:

Du im Voraus
verlorne Geliebte, Nimmergekommene,
nicht weiß ich, welche Töne dir lieb sind.
Nicht mehr versuch ich, dich, wenn das Kommende wogt,
zu erkennen. Alle die großen
Bildern in mir, im Fernen erfahrene Landschaft,
Städte und Türme und Brücken und un-
vermutete Wendung der Wege
und das Gewaltige jener von Göttern
einst durchwachsenen Länder:
steigt zur Bedeutung in mir
deiner, Entgehende, an.

Ach, die Gärten bist du,
ach, ich sah sie mit solcher
Hoffnung. Ein offenes Fenster
im Landhaus—, und du tratest beinahe
mir nachdenklich heran. Gassen fand ich,—
du warst sie gerade gegangen,
und die spiegel manchmal der Läden der Händler
waren noch schwindlich von dir und gaben erschrocken
mein zu plötzliches Bild.—Wer weiß, ob derselbe
Vogel nicht hinklang durch uns
gestern, einzeln, im Abend?

The hallmark of a great poem is its ability to make you feel nostalgic for things you’ve never had, the things you have forgotten to be. Rilke’s verses ache with that sense of loss – they are poems that time and translation have worn to a slow beauty – like ancient sculpture they have the ability to make us recognise ourselves in the images of a lost age. Rilke is the poet of terrifying angels, at once Orpheus and Apollo, at once lyrical and profound.

This poem, an unpublished fragment, exemplifies this quality of Rilke’s work. It is an exquisitely beautiful poem (and Mitchell’s translation is, as always, superb), one that captures perfectly that sense of absence, of something just missed. “And sometimes, in a shop, the mirrors / were still dizzy with your presence” Rilke writes. It’s precisely that dizziness of presence that makes Rilke’s poems so special.

April 4, 2006 at 7:25 am 5 comments