May 092009

from the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke

Who, if I shouted, among the hierarchy of angels
would hear me? And supposing one of them
took me suddenly to his heart, I would perish
before his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure,
and we admire it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
And so I restrain myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobbing. Ah, whom can we use then?
Not angels, not men, and the shrewd animals
notice that we’re not very much at home
in the world we’ve expounded. Maybe on the hill-slope
some tree or other remains for us, so that
we see it every day; yesterday’s street is left for us,
and the gnarled fidelity of an old habit
that was comfortable with us and never wanted to leave.
Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind full of space
feeds on our faces — for whom wouldn’t it stay,
yearned for, gently disappointing night
that wearily confronts the solitary heart.
Is night more easy on lovers? Ah, they only
hide their fate from themselves by using each other,
Don’t you know that yet? Throw the emptiness
from your arms into the spaces we breathe, so maybe the birds
can feel the expanded air, more ardently flying.

Yet, the springs needed you. And many stars
expected you to feel them. A wave rose
toward you in the past; or as you walked by
an open window, a violin yielded itself to someone.
All this was assignment. But could you handle it?
Weren’t you always distraught by anticipation,
as if all this announced a sweetheart’s coming?
(Where do you think you can hide her,
what with those great strange thoughts running in and out
of you and often staying for the night?)
But when you yearn, then sing of the girls who were lovers;
the fame of their passion has not been made immortal enough.
Those you almost envy, the deserted ones you found
so much more loving than those who had been appeased.
Ever newly begin the praise you cannot accomplish,
Remember: the hero keeps going, and even his ruin
was only a subterfuge for achieving his final birth,
But nature, exhausted, takes the lovers back
into herself, as if she hadn’t strength to achieve it
a second time. Have you thought enough of Gaspara Stampa
so that any girl whose lover ran off will feel,
from the heightened example of this loving woman:
“Ah, might I be like her!” Should not these oldest
sorrows finally become more fruitful for us?
Isn’t it time that we lovingly free ourselves
from the beloved and stand it, although we tremble
as the arrow stands the bowstring, tense to be more than itself?
For abiding is nowhere.

Voices, voices. Listen, my heart, as hitherto only
saints have listened, so that the mighty call
lifted them from the earth; but they kept on kneeling,
these impossible ones, and paid no attention —
so hard they were listening:  Not that you could bear
the voice of God — far from it. But hear the wind’s blowing,
the uninterrupted tidings created from silence,
they sweep toward you now from those who died young.
Whenever you went into a church in Rome or Naples,
did not their fate speak quietly to you?
Or loftily an inscription charged itself upon you,
as recently the tablet in Santa Maria Formosa.
What do they want of me? I must clear away gently
the semblance of injustice that sometimes hinders
a little the pure movement of their spirits.

True, it is strange to live no more on earth,
no longer follow the folkways scarcely learned;
not to give roses and other especially auspicious
things the significance of a human future;
to be no more what one was in infinitely anxious hands,
and to put aside even one’s name, like a broken plaything.
Strange, to wish wishes no longer. Strange, to see
all that was related fluttering so loosely in space.
And being dead is hard, full of catching-up,
so that finally one feels a little eternity, —
But the living all make the mistake of too sharp discrimination.
Often angels (it’s said) don’t know if they move
among the quick or the dead. The eternal current
hurtles all ages along with it forever
through both realms and drowns their voices in both.

In the end, those taken early no longer need us;
one is gently weaned from earthly things,
even as he tenderly outgrows the breasts of his mother.
But we who need such mighty mysteries,
we for whom blessed advancement so often comes from grief;
could we exist without them? Is the legend in vain,
that once in the lamentation for Linos, the daring
first music pierced the barren numbness, and only
then in frightened space, which an almost godlike youth
suddenly forsook forever, the void began to feel
that vibration which now enraptures, consoles and helps us?

  One Response to “The First Elegy”

  1. There are many translations of the Duino Elegies, including the classic one by Leishman and Spender, an excellent translation by Stephen Mitchell, and the more recent rendering by Edward Snow. This one is by C. F. MacIntyre. It is like the “gnarled fidelity of an old habit.”

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