Under So Many Lids


Rainer Maria Rilke

 

A myth developed surrounding  Rainer Maria Rilke‘s death and roses. It was said: “To honour a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well”, and so he died

 

Grave of Rainer Maria Rilke at the Churchyard in Raron, Swizerland

 

Rilke chose both his own gravesite and epitaph. He is buried where one can see both German-speaking villages and land where the main language is French. Late in his life Rilke began writing in French, so this burial site at the edge of his German-speaking world suits his writing well. So does the blend of vastness and intimacy that so nearly reflects the quality of Rilke’s own poetic voice.

Rilke’s epitaph speaks on so many levels that the best translation I can offer is an excavation of its layers, admittedly a bit like trying to explain away a superbly nuanced joke. His epitaph is also an extraordinary feat of verbal condensation. The German word for poetry suggests that a poet’s task is to condense (‘Dichtung’ derives from the root ‘dicht’ meaning dense). Rilke’s epitaph does just that. It reads:

“Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel
Lidern”

(“Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being no-one’s sleep under so many
lids.”)

Rilke here compares rose petals to eyelids, and remarks that unlike eyelids, the petals conceal no desire for sleep. But the word for eyelids (Lidern) happens to sound exactly like the German word for songs (Liedern), so this pun in sound also lets him say that beneath his many songs there is no desire to be anyone’s sleep.

the epitaph refrains from saying that the rose (or the poet) desires no sleep for itself alone. Instead it says it does not want to be anyone’s sleep. So Rilke’s desire may be for a general awakening, not just his own.

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