The Swan

(after Ranier Maria Rilke)


Despite having so many things still left undone
(Important things, things you were meant to do)
You spent the hour observing swans.

Swans waddle; are awkward; you hadn’t known. One—ungainly thing—
You watched slowly approach the verge, like one would who
Faced death by drowning—till, resigned to sink,

It pitched into the pool at last
With an undignified, un-swan-like splash.
Then bore up, unsurprisingly, upon the waves.
The water endless came—oh, but the swan
Glided, glided, glided on and on
As if it were no miracle it had been saved.



Not a translation, this, again; more like a parallel construction, but in a geometry where parallel lines diverge. Der Schwan, being by Rilke and therefore famous, has already been translated half to death, or to death. (“This clumsy living that moves lumbering as if in ropes through what is not done…” Really? “Dying… is like his anxious letting himself fall  into the water…” Indeed it is.)

Let the man speak for himself, since I wouldn’t pretend to speak for him:

Der Schwan

Diese Mühsal, durch noch Ungetanes
schwer und wie gebunden hinzugehen,
gleicht dem ungeschaffnen Gang des Schwanes.

Und das Sterben, dieses Nichtmehrfassen
jenes Grunds, auf dem wir täglich stehen,
seinem ängstlichen Sich-Niederlassen—:

in die Wasser, die ihn sanft empfangen
und die sich, wie glücklich und vergangen,
unter ihm zurückziehn, Flut um Flut;
während er unendlich still und sicher
immer mündiger und königlicher
und gelassener zu ziehn geruht.


Image: Swan Waddling by Flickr user raider of gin, published under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license; Feather 1 by Jim Champion, published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

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