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Muzot late in 1921; with a housekeeper who spoke only when spoken to and no dog to distract him, he stepped up to his specially built standing-desk and composed not the Elegies but twenty-six poems of the Sonnets, all but a handful written in four days. They were followed immediately by the missing Elegies, and then completed by the twenty-nine poems of the second part of the Sonnets, both works concluded, as Don Paterson notes, in the ‘preposterously brief’ period of about three weeks. Rilke later called the Sonnets the ‘most enigmatic dictation’ he had ever ‘withstood’ but added that ‘not one of them eludes the understanding in context’. At first he regarded the Sonnets as a short-circuiting of the current that bore the Elegies upon him; even late in 1925, he was referring to the ‘little rust-coloured sail of the Sonnets and the vast white sail-cloth of the Elegies’ that he had been allowed to fill ‘with one breath’. And despite their popularity, they have often been viewed as secondary to the Elegies, perhaps only lately considered Rilke’s best work. Certainly they struck out in a new direction. The labour of completing the Elegies was to get back to pre-war 1912, an act of salvage and recuperation, whereas the Sonnets were, as he said, totally ‘unexpected’, an unasked-for gift. Both cycles appeared in 1923 (the Sonnets a few months earlier), the same year as Wallace Stevens’s Harmonium, hard on the heels of The Waste Land, Ulysses and, much more importantly for Rilke, Valééry’s Charmes ou poèèmes, which he was translating. If Rilke had written in English, he might have sounded a bit like Stevens, though more the Stevens of ‘Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction’ than Harmonium. To bring him, or anyone, across into another tongue is to make him (almost) other. So the question of translation is how to negotiate the necessary gap, the shift that occurs as the original is transformed. Paterson’s answer is to emphasise this shift: ‘Morning Prayer’, from Nil Nil, is a version of Rimbaud’s ‘Oraison du soir’, while in Landing Light , Dante is put into quatrains, and the breast of Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ becomes a ‘double axe’ rather

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