imaginary life history

Imaginary Life History

english translation

Imaginary Life History

original German poem

“Imaginärer Lebenslauf”

Imaginärer Lebenslauf
Erst eine Kindheit, grenzenlos und ohne
Verzicht und Ziel. O unbewußte Lust.
Auf einmal Schrecken, Schranke, Schule, Frohne
und Absturz in Versuchung und Verlust.

Trotz. Der Gebogene wird selber Bieger
und rächt an anderen, daß er erlag.
Geliebt, gefürchtet, Retter, Ringer, Sieger
und Überwinder, Schlag auf Schlag.

Und dann allein im Weiten, Leichten, Kalten.
Doch tief in der errichteten Gestalt
ein Atemholen nach dem Ersten, Alten . . .

Da stürzte Gott aus seinem Hinterhalt.


     — Rainer Maria Rilke
           (Original German poem)

Imaginary Course of Life
First a childhood, limitless and without
renunciation and goal. O unconscious delight.
Suddenly, terror, limit, school, drudgery,
and the fall into temptation and loss.

Defiance. The bent child becomes himself the bender,
and revenges on others what he succumbed to.
Loved, dreaded, rescuer, wrestler, winner
and conqueror, blow on blow.

And then alone in vastness, light, cold.
But deep in the grown-up character,
a gasping for the first, the old [world]. . . .

Then God leapt out from his place of ambush.


     — Susan McLean
           (Literal translation of the original poem)



Susan McLean

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



Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926), born René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke, understood the power of words. At a lover’s urging, he changed his name to Rainer, which he thought sounded more masculine. He is probably the best-known twentieth-century German-language poet, best known for his Duino Elegies, his Sonnets to Orpheus, and his New Poems. In the Duino Elegies—his most important work—and his other poems, Rilke combined knowledge of classical literature with a mystical sense of existence and religion.


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