"The Apple Orchard" - An Original Translation

In which poet Susan McLean translates Ranier Maria Rilke

Translator’s Note
In the summer of 1904, poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited Swedish artist Ernst Norlind at Borgeby-Gård [pictured above], his castle and farm in southern Sweden. This poem, “The Apple Orchard,” is set in the orchard there, and the trees that Rilke says resemble Dürer’s are probably an allusion to Dürer’s famous paintings and engravings of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I have tried to stick very close to the form of the original poem, but my desire for accuracy in content required me to use some slant rhymes and some variations in the rhyme schemes. Rilke’s poem is in trochaic pentameter, but because trochaic meter is much rarer in English than in German, and therefore sounds less natural, I substituted iambic meter, the most common meter in English poetry. In Rilke’s poem, the first two quatrains rhyme in alternating lines (ABAB CDCD) and the last two rhyme in envelope rhyme (EFFE GHHG). I have reversed that pattern (ABBA CDDC EFEF GHGH) to facilitate rhyming in the translation. His whole sixteen-line poem is one long sentence, and I have maintained that pattern. The unity in complexity of the poem mirrors the theme of the artist’s long life devoted to just one thing: the fruitfulness and self-abnegation of the patient artist is implicitly contrasted with the impatience and disobedience of Adam and Eve’s plucking of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Meanwhile, the soothing pulse of the meter and the orderly echoes of the rhymes reinforce the image of the artist taking his time as he carefully crafts his vision of the garden.

The Apple Orchard
by Rainer Maria Rilke 
translated by Susan McLean


Come right after the sun goes down, and see
the evening greenness of the fields of grass;
isn’t it just as if we had amassed
and saved it up inside us gradually,

so that from feeling now, and memories,
from recent hope and half-recalled delight, 
still mixed with darkness from inside, we might
strew it in thoughts before us under trees

like those of Dürer, bearing the encumbrance
of a hundred days of labor in the fruit
that overfills them, serving, full of patience,
attempting to experience how that

which goes beyond all measurements is still
to be raised up and offered in sacrifice,
when we, through a long life, with all our will
want just one thing and grow and hold our peace.


Susan McLean has written two poetry books, The Best Disguise (2009 winner of the Richard Wilbur Award) and The Whetstone Misses the Knife (2014 winner of the Donald Justice Poetry Prize). She was a finalist for the PEN Center USA Translation Award for her book of translation of Martial’s Latin poems, Selected Epigrams (U of Wisconsin Press, 2014).  Her translations of poems by Rilke have appeared in Measure, The American Journal of Poetry, Transference, and elsewhere. She is a professor emerita of English from Southwest Minnesota State University and lives in Iowa City, Iowa.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was one of the great modernists of German poetry.  Born in Prague when it was under the rule of Austria-Hungary, he traveled widely in Europe, visiting Russia and living for periods in Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. He was particularly influenced by contemporary artists, such as Rodin and Cézanne. In the two volumes of his New Poems (1907 & 1908), in which “The Apple Orchard” appeared, Rilke tried to focus intensely, in what he called  his “thing-poems,” on the appearance of things as a key to their meaning and inner life.

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Redeem the Time Now for Evil Days Will Come

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp | Jozef Czapski, trans. Eric Karpeles | NYRB

Reviewed by Sean Johnson

When Niccolo Machiavelli, oft-misunderstood and maligned, was exiled from his native Florence, he was reduced to a life of drudgery and relative poverty on a small farm, but he retained one tangible consolation—his books. He explained the solace they brought him in a letter to his friend and patron:

When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and . . . I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question . . . and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death.

Though Machiavelli by no means exaggerates his boredom, troubles, or dread, his circumstance is Edenic compared to that of Polish artist and army officer, Jozef Czapski. Czapski was captured by Germans in 1939 and handed over to the Soviets, along with twenty thousand of his fellows, for summary execution. Without explanation, however, the Bolsheviks spared three hundred and ninety-six of them, including Czapski, and shipped them to a single prison camp where they would endure hard labor and incessant attempts at Soviet reeducation. Clinging to the “joy of participating in an intellectual undertaking” of substance and import, the prisoners organized a series of after-hours lectures about their various personal interests and expertise. Through talks on the history of England, the history of books, the paintings of Degas, or the rigors of mountain climbing in South America, the men huddling in the frigid squalor of a prison mess hall found, like Machiavelli in his library, that “a world we had feared lost to us forever was revived.”

Lost Time: Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp (published late last year by the inimitable NYRB), is the record of Czapski’s contribution to the lecture series. He elected to speak for several evenings on Marcel Proust and his seven-volume mammoth of a novel, In Search of Lost Time. “Each of us spoke about what he remembered best,” explains Czapski, but his choice of Proust, the author par excellence on the theme of memory, was especially poignant.

Without the aid of books, notes, or research materials of any kind, Czapski laid open Proust’s background and entire opus to his fellows, often recalling lengthy passages verbatim. Apparently, this recall surprised even Czapski: “After a certain length of time, facts and details emerge on the surface of our consciousness which we had not the slightest idea were filed away somewhere in our brains.”

Proust is the ideal writer to carry into extreme isolation, and not only for his preoccupation with the theme of memory. Whereas an author like Tolstoy—himself not known for brevity—might devote twenty-two pages to the description of a lavish ball, Proust could spend hundreds describing a single conversation. The abundance of physical and emotional detail furnishing Proust’s novel is ideal for stocking the storehouse of memory against the lean years of adversity. Predictably, Czapski’s own memory is most accurate when recounting to his companions the concrete details of Proust’s minute, painterly descriptions.

Czapski’s translator references a dictum of Samuel Beckett that “the man with a good memory does not remember anything, because he does not forget anything.” As the anguish of their incarceration beat down the memories of their former lives, remembrance became the special privilege of the prisoners. “Worn out after having worked outdoors in temperatures dropping as low as minus forty-five degrees, packed together underneath portraits of Marx, Engels, and Lenin,” they listened intently to reminders “of precious psychological discovery and literary beauty” possible beyond the cramped world of their imprisonment. Recall was rarely perfect, as Czapski himself admits, remarking that some subjects described by Proust “are fixed in my memory more vividly than others” and that what he chooses to relate is not necessarily what is most valuable, but “a hierarchy subjectively fixed by my enthusiasm.”

Proust wouldn’t begrudge Czapski any inaccuracies, either. “For Proust, a fact is never a simple fact,” and a memory is never a simple memory. He understood memory as a mediator of reality, “infinitely enriched and transposed in his brain by the vision of an artist separated from the world…so that [his] pages become much more an account of his own thoughts awakened by a collision with a fact, rather than just the facts themselves.” By extension, Lost Time becomes much more an account of Czapski’s own thoughts awakened by collision with Proust.

Mediated as he is by Czapski’s affectionate memory, Proust still comes through vibrantly. “A hothouse flower,” rare and always a bit out of step with his native world, Proust would sequester himself away from the Parisian high society that inspired the characters in his books. Czapski dwells with reverence on the artist’s surrender to “the slow and painful transformation of a passionate and narrowly egotistical being into a man who gives himself over wholly to some great work or other that devours him, destroys him, lives in his blood, is a trial every creative being must endure.”

Always in poor health, Proust’s rare entrances into society taxed him greatly, but he could always summon the energy to charm his friends and gather material for his writing. When a wealthy patron once coaxed him into public with the gift of a box at the opera, Proust arrived late and sat with his back to the stage for the entire performance. When taken to task the following day, he goodheartedly recounted, in minute detail, everything that had happened on stage and the surrounding theater, including details no one else had noticed. “Don’t worry,” he quipped, “when it comes to my work, I’m busy as a bee.” This would be his rejoinder whenever someone remarked on his ever-shrinking public life.


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In the midst of his sweeping exposition of In Search of Lost Time, Czapski returns frequently to Proust’s own later-in-life seclusion. The frail writer would shut himself in a cork-lined room for days on end, working feverishly and at the expense of his own health. Proust made the sacrifice gladly, believing this removal to solitude afforded him “the capacity to analyze, clinically and coolly, to see all the dramatic and humorous details even in life’s most tragic moments.” As valuable as this ability was to Proust, he could not have envisioned how much more valuable it would prove to a group of Polish prisoners clinging to hope half a world away.

Lost Time is an apology for memory as an interior country to be grown and attended to in times of prosperity. And for those distrustful of “memorization,” it offers the subtle suggestion that enthusiasm is more than sufficient to get something “by heart.” Proust’s enthusiasm for the particulars of life and Czapski’s enthusiasm for Proust were loves, not labors, and both sowed seeds that would bear enduring fruit. Because Czapski and his fellow lecturers had been men of rich enthusiasms in peacetime, they could weather their misfortunes like the man who yearns for Innisfree in Yeats’ poem, with a place of peace he could “hear…in the deep heart’s core” and return to at will. After reading Lost Time we hear with new urgency the command to be “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

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Sean Johnson is an associate editor of the FORMA Journal and the FORMA Review. He teaches humanities at Trinitas Christian School in Pensacola, Florida.

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The Triumphant Love of Perseus & Andromeda

Finding Faith, Hope, and Love in a Pagan Classic

By Paul Krause

What hath the Greco-Roman classics to do with Christianity? 

Why study those stories and writers when all you need to do is read the Bible and learn about Christ? Unknowingly, many who follow this path walk the way of Tertullian who famously derided all forms of non-scriptural learning and believed that Christians should have nothing to do with the wisdom and insights of the Greeks.

But against this antagonistic view is also a long tradition of Christian liberal arts. Clement of Alexandria believed the best of Greek literature and philosophy was a praeparatio evangelium, a preparation for the gospel. It cannot be forgotten that Hellenization provided the lingua franca for the gospel to spread—after all, the entire corpus of the New Testament was originally written in Greek. In De Doctrina Christiana. St. Augustin declared that “all truth belongs to God” and that Christians should not be afraid to utilize the truths found in the pagan liberal arts, natural sciences, rhetoric, and logic, to advance the glory of Christ and the truths of the Christian faith. While it is true that Augustine also said that all superstitions and falsities in the pagan stories and traditions should be rejected, Clement and Augustine provided a deep hermeneutical reorientation of the classics to the Good, True, and Beautiful. Dispensing with the superstitions and falsities therein allowed Christians to penetrate the heart of pagan culture and stories and direct the soul to what it truly desires (love).

The pagan world was often bereft of hope. But in the decades leading up to the incarnation of Christ, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was being compiled (it was eventually published in the first decade A.D.). The Metamorphoses represents perhaps the fullest maturation of Greco-Roman story, and none are as powerful and close to the Christian message as the story of Perseus and Andromeda. For in the tale of Perseus slaying Medusa, rescuing Andromeda, and defeating Phineus, faith and love triumph, bringing hope to the reader concerning the power of faith and love in our world.

There is much skullduggery involved in the Perseus narrative, that much is true and not to be forgotten. The vanity and debauchery of Medusa and Poseidon caused Athena to turn Medusa’s beautiful hair into a nest of snakes, and Cassiopeia’s vanity and pride led her to declare that her daughter, Andromeda, was more beautiful than the naiads, thus enraging Poseidon and causing Andromeda to be enchained as a prospective sacrifice to the sea monster. And Phineus’ ambition and lust for power ultimately led to his death.


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But amid all these sins, the faith and love of Perseus and Andromeda stand out. Perseus is informed by Athena how to defeat Medusa and his faith, his trust (fides), in Athena’s revelation allows him to slay thee sleeping monster with the help of the reflective shield. Perseus’ love for Andromeda allows him to defeat the sea monster and rescue the beautiful and life-giving princess. And Andromeda’s love for Perseus seals their bond of marital union despite the politicking of Phineus and his ambitious lust for power.

Phineus never loved Andromeda. His interest in her was to secure his claim to the throne. Love was subordinated to power. Love was turned inward to the self—the incurvatus in se, as Augustine called it—which is the root of all sin. His pride, his sin, was that he directed the love that ought to be properly shared with another person to himself, turning Andromeda into an instrument of his own desires.

By contrast, Perseus had a selfless heart which recognized Andromeda’s distress and led him to brave the dangers of Cetus and rescue Andromeda. Love rescued Andromeda. Andromeda never forgot the daring and loving rescue and Perseus never forgot her beauty.

Although the marriage between Perseus and Andromeda enraged Phineus (because it took away his path to power), the story of Perseus and Andromeda is one in which faith and love triumph in the end. Phineus’ lack of love for Andromeda and his pure, unadulterated, ambition for power eventually destroys him. When Phineus storms the wedding feast, Perseus uses the head of Medusa—still faithful to Athena’s instruction not to look into the Gorgon’s eyes—and turns Phineas and his followers to stone. With the threat of Phineus and all the monsters subdued, Perseus and Andromeda are wed and their blessed marriage leads to the birth of many children. The laughter and smiles of Perseus and Andromeda remind us of the laughter and smiles of Abraham and Sarah at the birth of Isaac (whose name means laughter, or joy).

At the heart of Ovid’s Perseus narrative is a story about how faith and love triumph over vanity, ambition, and politics. Ending in marriage and children instead of death (a rarity among the classical myths), it is profoundly Christian. For the story of Perseus and Andromeda is about two flesh made one in love, from which pours forth joy-giving life. The story of Perseus and Andromeda offers hope that faith and love will triumph in the end. Faith, hope, and love bring about that most remarkable metamorphosis—a metamorphosis that reveals life instead of death.

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*Painting credit: Joachim Wtewael (1566–1638), Perseus Releases Andromeda (1611), oil on canvas, 180 × 150 cm, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Paul Krause is a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative and Associate Editor at VoeglinView. He holds advanced degrees in philosophy and theology and studied under Sir Roger Scruton.


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Original Poetry: "My Body Is a Vessel" by Grace

This week’s poem is by Grace, a Hong-Kong-born, Chinese-Canadian writer living in TkaRonto, part of the territory of the Mississaugas, the Anishnabeg, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples. Her debut collection of poetry is coming soon from Guernica Editions.

MY BODY IS A VESSEL

For the sun
and a home
for the salt
air, buried in concrete
and dust, risen
again
as if my skin remembers
its spring song, no longer
a young and dying thing
but at last,
winged. Bring my body
back to slow rivers.
What’s the word
for a flock
of little joys?
I think it was
a blessing.

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Grace is a Hong-Kong-born, Chinese-Canadian writer living in TkaRonto, part of the territory of the Mississaugas, the Anishnabeg, the Haudenosaunee, and the Wendat peoples. Her debut collection of poetry is coming soon from Guernica Editions. Her work has been nominated for the Best New Poets and Best of the Net Anthologies and is published or forthcoming in Grain Magazine, Frontier Poetry, Arc Poetry, Sonora Review, Mud Season Review, Yes Poetry, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter at @thrillandgrace. 

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Harold Bloom's Swan Song

Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism | Harold Bloom | Knopf (2019)

Reviewed by Heidi White

Unlike Harold Bloom, the infamous literary critic and Yale professor, swans have no voice. Legend says that the graceful birds remain silent until moments before death, when, for the first and only time, they sing. Those who have heard the elusive swan song report that it is strangely dissonant, an unearthly bugle as if the swan is calling into eternity while offering a clamorous farewell to the waking world.

The prolific Bloom was not at all like a swan in its lifelong silence. He had a prodigious voice. Over the course of his illustrious career as a professor, literary critic, and scholar, he wrote more than forty books, including one novel, twenty books of literary criticism, and multiple books on religion. Well known for his vigorous rhetoric articulated in stately prose, Bloom has always been a fiery enigma, forcefully defending the sanctity of the traditional Western Canon on the one hand while abjuring the “Protestant god” as an angry fiction on the other. Bloom was a man whose emotional capacity was as great as his intellectual prowess, both strenuously expressed in his outspoken public presence and his monumental body of work. In nearly everything, Bloom was nothing like a swan.

However, in reading his final book, Possessed by Memory, I hear Harold Bloom's unearthly bugle. The book was released earlier this year; Bloom died last week. For those in the literary world, his death comes as something of a surprise, for although the man was 89-years-old at his death, there was a quality of timeless resilience about him. Bloom taught his humanities classes at Yale well into his later years, once declaring that he would need to be removed from the classroom "in a great big body bag.” He had open-heart surgery in 2002 and broke his back after a fall in 2008. His colleagues and contemporaries have mostly died, but it is only now, in 2019, that the legendary literary scholar and critic gave up the ghost, leaving behind, in his final publication, a swan song of phantom beauty.

Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism was Bloom's last book, published in April, 2019. Conditioned to expect polemics, I steeled myself for Bloom's often brilliant but generally controversial pronouncements on literary and religious matters but found instead a series of poignant meditations. This was a new Bloom. Gone were dogmatic interpretive statements, replaced instead by gentle musings and memories. Rather than an academic pursuit, Bloom asserts that literary criticism is an inward journey of love that happens only when we are “possessed by memory.”

Not only does he claim it, but he also embodies it. “This book is reverie,” he states, “not argument.” The book is luminously self-revelatory, written as a series of memories and meditations on the literature that Bloom loved, often since childhood. Personal memory weaves in and out of poetic contemplation. Bloom does not shrink from the grief inherent in such an endeavor. “All of us wish that, when we experience sorrow, we could be shown the end of sorrow. If we are secular, that cannot be expected.” In true Bloom fashion, the book, at 508 pages, is a tome. It is not, however, the tome I expected. I anticipated a theory of criticism; I found, rather, the deeply human Harold Bloom on the brink of death, telling us the unfolding story of the great love of his life: literature.


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In The Odyssey, Telemachus wistfully asked the goddess, “Does any man ever really know his father?” It was Bloom himself who claimed that every new age of literature and culture springs from a primal need of sons to cast off the stifling influences of their fathers, a dogma he called “the anxiety of influence.” Much ink has been spilled on whether or not Bloom got this right, most of the ink on behalf of the sons. Throughout Possessed by Memory, however, I hear the voice of the metaphorical father pleading with the usurping generation not to be forgotten. “For me, survival is a mode akin to the work of mourning. Our beloved dead live only as long as we absorb them into our daily thoughts and feelings. When we die, our own survival will be the extent to which we have changed the lives of those who come after us.”

Reading the book upon his death and in light of his “anxiety of influence” creed is inexpressibly moving. I cannot help but imagine the frail but still formidable Bloom, typing on a laptop at the break of dawn so that he will be remembered, knowing that if he was right, he almost certainly will not, or at least it will not be on his own terms. This is the dissonance inherent in his last song. For Bloom, whose longing and tenderness illuminates every page, memory is our afterlife. Will memory be enough to quiet the soul that is raging against the dying of the light?

My grandfather died when I was 9 years old. Before his death, he would call for me to sit with him while he told me stories about growing up as one of the thirteen children of poor farmers during the Great Depression. He wore denim overalls as he picked cotton. Once he found a rattlesnake and killed it with a shovel. He snuck out of the cotton fields to read books. His father beat him for it, but he kept on reading because he wanted a better life. He fought in World War II and received a purple heart, then he worked his way through college, married my grandmother, and became a botany professor at U.C. Berkeley. I did not know it then, but I was listening to my grandfather's swan song just as we are invited to listen to Bloom's.

Those conversations meant far too little to me when I was a child, but they possess my memory now that I know their immense worth. I never really knew my grandfather until he was nearly gone, when I became a possessor of his memories, a keeper of his legacy. Here is where I confess that I hope that Bloom was wrong all along, that perhaps the world is less like the dismissive child and more like the awakened woman who grows more generous as she becomes more wise, who is not only possessed, but redeemed, by memory.

As I read Possessed by Memory, I am deeply moved to find that I am again nine-years-old, holding the hand of a dying man as he sings his final song.


Heidi White is managing editor of the Forma Journal, host of the FORMA Podcast, and a regular contributor to the Close Reads Podcast Network. She lives and teaches in Colorado Springs, CO.

If you enjoyed this review, be sure to subscribe to the quarterly print edition of FORMA Journal and the latest episodes of the FORMA podcast.

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