Sunday, November 4, 2012

Verse: Alcestis

 I heard an NPR interview this morning that was interesting on several levels.  A woman named Joanna Macy, philosopher, German translator, environmental activist, talked about many things, including the poems of Rainer Maria Rilke.  This interview helped me see some of Rilke's poems in a new light, with regard to his feelings about nature and God.  Both Ms. Macy and Rilke are well worth reading.  Anyway, I had to get out my Selected Poetry of Rilke and follow along with the interview, and came across the poem "Alcestis."  I don't remember reading this before, but now that I have read Euripedes' play of the same name, this poem of Rilke's jumped out at me.  I found it very subtle and heartbreaking. 

by Rainer Maria Rilke

Then all at once the messenger was there,
amid the simmer of wedding guests:  dropped in
like the last ingredient in a bubbling pot.
They kept on drinking and did not feel the stealthy
entrance of the god, who held his aura
as tight against his body as a wet cloak,
and seemed to be like any one of them
as he walked on.  But abruptly, halfway through
a sentence, one guest saw how the young master
was startled from his couch at the table's head,
as though he had been snatched up into the air
and mirroring, all over, with all his being,
a strangeness that addressed him, horribly.
And then, as though the mixture cleared, there was
silence;  on the bottom, just the dregs
of muddy noise and a precipitate
of falling babble, already giving off
the rancid smell of laughter that has turned.
For now they recognized the slender god,
and, as he stood before them, filled with his message
and unentreatable,--they almost knew.
And yet, when it was uttered, it was beyond
all understanding;  none of them could grasp it.
Admetus must die.  When?  Within the hour.

But by this time he had broken through the shell
of his terror;  and he thrust out both his hands
from the jagged holes, to bargain with the god.
For years, for only one more year of youth,
for months, for weeks, for just a few more days,
oh not for days:  for nights, for just a night,
for one more night, for just this one:  for this.
The god refused;  and then he stared screaming,
and screamed it out, held nothing back, screamed
as his own mother had once screamed in childbirth.
And she came up beside him, an old woman,
and his father came up also, his old father,
and both stood waiting--old, decrepit, helpless--
beside the screaming man, who, as never before
so closely, saw them, stopped, swallowed, said:
do you care about the wretched scrap of life
still left you, that will just stick in your throat?
Go spit it out.  And you, old woman, old
why should you stay here?  you have given birth.
And grabbed them both, like sacrificial beasts,
in his harsh grip.  Then suddenly let them go,
pushed the old couple off, inspired, beaming,
breathing hard and calling:  Creon!  Creon!
And nothing else, and nothing but that name.
Yet in his features stood the other name
he could not utter, namelessly expectant
as, glowing, he held it out to the young guest,
his dearest friend, across the bewildered table.
These two old people (it stood there) are no ransom,
they are used up, exhausted, nearly worthless,
but you, Creon, you in all your beauty--

But now he could no longer see his friend,
who stayed behind;  and what came forth was she,
almost a little smaller than as he knew her,
slight and sad in her pale wedding dress.
All the others are just her narrow path,
down which she comes and comes--:  (soon she will be
there, in his arms, which painfully have opened).

But while he waits, she speaks;  though not to him.
She is speaking to the god, and the god listens,
and all can hear, as though within the god:

No one can be his ransom:  only I can.
I am his ransom.  For no one else has finished
with life as I have.  What is left for me
of everything I once was?  Just my dying.
Didn't she tell you when she sent you down here
that the bed waiting inside belongs to death?
For I have taken leave.  No one dying
takes more than that.  I left so that all this,
buried beneath the man who is now my husband,
might fade and vanish--.  Come, lead me away,
already I have begun to die, for him.

And veering like a wind on the high seas,
the god approached as though she were already
dead, and instantly was there beside her,
far from her husband, to whom, with an abrupt
nod, he tossed the hundred lives of earth.
The young man hurried, staggering, toward the two
and grasped at them as in a dream.  But now
they had nearly reached the entrance, which was crowded
with sobbing women.  One more time he saw
the girl's face, for just a moment, turning toward him
with a smile that was as radiant as a hope
and almost a promise:  to return
from out of the abyss of death, grown fully,
to him, who was still alive--

At that, he flung
his hands before his own face, as he knelt there,
in order to see nothing but that smile.


  1. First time I ever read Rainer Maria Rilke, powerful...too much to absorb in 1 reading. Loved the last 2 lines...."his hands before his own face, as he knelt there,
    in order to see nothing but that smile. "

    1. Try Rilke's "The Panther." Oliver Sacks wrote that this poem was a favorite of one of his paralyzed patients. Powerful, yes.