“The Duino Elegies (German: Duineser Elegien) are a collection of ten elegies written by the Bohemian-Austrian symbolist poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926).
Rilke is often ranked with William Butler Yeats as one of the preeminent poets of the twentieth century. His poetic innovations might, however, be better compared with those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, though in the case of Rilke, experimentation with rhythm and rhyme never took precedence over content. Like Yeats, he often let the content find the form. Of the three, Rilke was the most intuitive, rhapsodic, and mystical, and he was perhaps the most consummate craftsman.
In October, 1911, the poet visited his friend Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe at Duino Castle, near Trieste. He remained at the castle alone throughout the winter until April, and there he composed the first and second elegies and parts of several others.
The opening stanza—which begins “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic hierarchies?”—came to him while he was walking in a storm along a cliff two hundred feet above the raging sea, a romantic interlude worthy of an atmospheric passage in a gothic novel. Rilke conceived the plan of all ten elegies as a whole, though ten years elapsed before the poem found its final form.”
The First Elegy
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.
And so I hold myself back and swallow the call-note of my dark sobbing.
Ah, whom can we ever turn to in our need?
Not angels, not humans, and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in our interpreted world.
Perhaps there remains for us some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take into our vision;
there remains for us yesterday’s street and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.
Oh and night: there is night, when a wind full of infinite space gnaws at our faces.
Whom would it not remain for–that longed-after, mildly disillusioning presence,
which the solitary heart so painfully meets.
Is it any less difficult for lovers?
But they keep on using each other to hide their own fate.
Don’t you know yet?
Fling the emptiness out of your arms into the spaces we breathe;
perhaps the birds will feel the expanded air with more passionate flying.
Yes–the springtimes needed you. Often a star was waiting for you to notice it.
A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past,
or as you walked under an open window, a violin yielded itself to your hearing.
All this was mission. But could you accomplish it?
Weren’t you always distracted by expectation, as if every event announced a beloved?
(Where can you find a place to keep her, with all the huge strange thoughts inside you
going and coming and often staying all night.)
But when you feel longing, sing of women in love; for their famous passion is still not immortal.
Sing of women abandoned and desolate (you envy them, almost)
who could love so much more purely than those who were gratified.
Begin again and again the never-attainable praising; remember: the hero lives on;
even his downfall was merely a pretext for achieving his final birth.
But Nature, spent and exhausted, takes lovers back into herself,
as if there were not enough strength to create them a second time.
Have you imagined Gaspara Stampa intensely enough
so that any girl deserted by her beloved might be inspired by that fierce example of soaring,objectless love and might say to herself, “Perhaps I can be like her?”
Shouldn’t this most ancient of sufferings finally grow more fruitful for us?
Isn’t it time that we lovingly freed ourselves from the beloved and,
quivering, endured: as the arrow endures the bowstring’s tension,
so that gathered in the snap of release it can be more than itself.
For there is no place where we can remain.
Artwork by the incomparable Ephraim Moses Lilien