Translated by  A. S. Kline  © 2001 All Rights Reserved

This work may be freely reproduced, stored, and transmitted, electronically or otherwise, for any non-commercial purpose.

 

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Read more Rilke, with a commentary on the Elegies entitled The Fountain of Joy, here.

 

Contents


 

The First Elegy. 3

The Second Elegy. 7

The Third Elegy. 11

The Fourth Elegy. 15

The Fifth Elegy. 19

The Sixth Elegy. 24

The Seventh Elegy. 26

The Eighth Elegy. 30

The Ninth Elegy. 34

The Tenth Elegy. 38

Index by First Line. 44

Notes. 45

 

 


 

                                        The First Elegy

 

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic

Orders? And even if one were to suddenly

take me to its heart, I would vanish into its

stronger existence. For beauty is nothing but

the beginning of terror, that we are still able to bear,

and we revere it so, because it calmly disdains

to destroy us. Every Angel is terror.

And so I hold myself back and swallow the cry

of a darkened sobbing. Ah, who then can

we make use of? Not Angels: not men,

and the resourceful creatures see clearly

that we are not really at home

in the interpreted world. Perhaps there remains

some tree on a slope, that we can see

again each day: there remains to us yesterday’s street,

and the thinned-out loyalty of a habit

that liked us, and so stayed, and never departed.

Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind full of space

wears out our faces – whom would she not stay for,

the longed-for, gentle, disappointing one, whom the solitary heart

with difficulty stands before. Is she less heavy for lovers?

Ah, they only hide their fate between themselves.

Do you not know yet? Throw the emptiness out of your arms

to add to the spaces we breathe; maybe the birds

will feel the expansion of air, in more intimate flight.

 

Yes, the Spring-times needed you deeply. Many a star

must have been there for you so you might feel it. A wave

lifted towards you out of the past, or, as you walked

past an open window, a violin

gave of itself. All this was their mission.

But could you handle it? Were you not always,

still, distracted by expectation, as if all you experienced,

like a Beloved, came near to you? (Where could you contain her,

with all the vast strange thoughts in you

going in and out, and often staying the night.)

But if you are yearning, then sing the lovers: for long

their notorious feelings have not been immortal enough.

Those, you almost envied them, the forsaken, that you

found as loving as those who were satisfied. Begin,

always as new, the unattainable praising:

think: the hero prolongs himself, even his falling

was only a pretext for being, his latest rebirth.

But lovers are taken back by exhausted Nature

into herself, as if there were not the power

to make them again. Have you remembered

Gastara Stampa sufficiently yet, that any girl,

whose lover has gone, might feel from that

intenser example of love: ‘Could I only become like her?’

Should not these ancient sufferings be finally

fruitful for us? Isn’t it time that, loving,

we freed ourselves from the beloved, and, trembling, endured

as the arrow endures the bow, so as to be, in its flight,

something more than itself? For staying is nowhere.

 

Voices, voices. Hear then, my heart, as only

saints have heard: so that the mighty call

raised them from the earth: they, though, knelt on

impossibly and paid no attention:

such was their listening. Not that you could withstand

God’s voice: far from it. But listen to the breath,

the unbroken message that creates itself from the silence.

It rushes towards you now, from those youthfully dead.

Whenever you entered, didn’t their fate speak to you,

quietly, in churches in Naples or Rome?

Or else an inscription exaltedly impressed itself on you,

as lately the tablet in Santa Maria Formosa.

What do they will of me? That I should gently remove

the semblance of injustice, that slightly, at times,

hinders their spirits from a pure moving-on.

 

It is truly strange to no longer inhabit the earth,

to no longer practice customs barely acquired,

not to give a meaning of human futurity

to roses, and other expressly promising things:

no longer to be what one was in endlessly anxious hands,

and to set aside even one’s own

proper name like a broken plaything.

Strange: not to go on wishing one’s wishes. Strange

to see all that was once in place, floating

so loosely in space. And it’s hard being dead,

and full of retrieval, before one gradually feels

a little eternity. Though the living

all make the error of drawing too sharp a distinction.

Angels (they say) would often not know whether

they moved among living or dead. The eternal current

sweeps all the ages, within it, through both the spheres,

forever, and resounds above them in both.

 

Finally they have no more need of us, the early-departed,

weaned gently from earthly things, as one outgrows

the mother’s mild breast. But we, needing

such great secrets, for whom sadness is often

the source of a blessed progress, could we exist without them?

Is it a meaningless story how once, in the grieving for Linos,

first music ventured to penetrate arid rigidity,

so that, in startled space, which an almost godlike youth

suddenly left forever, the emptiness first felt

the quivering that now enraptures us, and comforts, and helps.

 


                                  The Second Elegy 

   

Every Angel is terror. And yet,

ah, knowing you, I invoke you, almost deadly

birds of the soul. Where are the days of Tobias,

when one of the most radiant of you stood at the simple threshold,

disguised somewhat for the journey and already no longer awesome

(Like a youth, to the youth looking out curiously).

Let the Archangel now, the dangerous one, from behind the stars,

take a single step down and toward us: our own heart,

beating on high would beat us down. What are you?

 

Early successes, Creation’s favourite ones,

mountain-chains, ridges reddened by dawns

of all origin – pollen of flowering godhead,

junctions of light, corridors, stairs, thrones,

spaces of being, shields of bliss, tempests

of storm-filled, delighted feeling and, suddenly, solitary

mirrors: gathering their own out-streamed beauty

back into their faces again.

 

For we, when we feel, evaporate: oh, we

breathe ourselves out and away: from ember to ember,

yielding us fainter fragrance. Then someone may say to us:

‘Yes, you are in my blood, the room, the Spring-time

is filling with you’..... What use is that: they cannot hold us,

we vanish inside and around them. And those who are beautiful,

oh, who holds them back? Appearance, endlessly, stands up,

in their face, and goes by. Like dew from the morning grass,

what is ours rises from us, like the heat

from a dish that is warmed. O smile: where? O upward gaze:

new, warm, vanishing wave of the heart - :

oh, we are that. Does the cosmic space,

we dissolve into, taste of us then? Do the Angels

really only take back what is theirs, what has streamed out of them,

or is there sometimes, as if by an oversight, something

of our being, as well? Are we as mingled with their

features, as there is vagueness in the faces

of pregnant women? They do not see it in the swirling

return to themselves. (How should they see it?)

 

Lovers, if they knew how, might utter

strange things in night air. Since it seems

everything hides us. Look, trees exist; houses,

we live in, still stand. Only we

pass everything by, like an exchange of air.

And all is at one, in keeping us secret, half out of

shame perhaps, half out of inexpressible hope.

 

Lovers, each satisfied in the other, I ask

you about us. You grasp yourselves. Have you a sign?

Look, it happens to me, that at times my hands

become aware of each other, or that my worn face

hides itself in them. That gives me a slight

sensation. But who would dare to exist only for that?

You, though, who grow in the other’s delight

until, overwhelmed, they beg:

‘No more’ -: you, who under your hands

grow richer like vintage years of the vine:

who sometimes vanish, because the other

has so gained the ascendancy: I ask you of us. I know

you touch so blissfully because the caress withholds,

because the place you cover so tenderly

does not disappear: because beneath it you feel

pure duration. So that you promise eternity

almost, from the embrace. And yet, when you’ve endured

the first terrible glances, and the yearning at windows,

and the first walk together, just once, through the garden:

Lovers, are you the same? When you raise yourselves

one to another’s mouth, and hang there – sip against sip:

O, how strangely the drinker then escapes from their action.

 

Weren’t you amazed by the caution of human gesture

on Attic steles? Weren’t love and departure

laid so lightly on shoulders, they seemed to be made

of other matter than ours? Think of the hands

how they rest without weight, though there is power in the torso.

Those self-controlled ones know, through that: so much is ours,

this is us, to touch our own selves so: the gods

may bear down more heavily on us. But that is the gods’ affair.

If only we too could discover a pure, contained

human place, a strip of fruitful land of our own,

between river and stone! For our own heart exceeds us,

even as theirs did. And we can no longer

gaze after it into images, that soothe it, or into

godlike bodies, where it restrains itself more completely.


 

                                        The Third Elegy

 

To sing the beloved is one thing, another, oh,

that hidden guilty river-god of the blood.

What does he know, himself, of that lord of desire, her young lover,

whom she knows distantly, who often out of his solitariness,

before the girl soothed him, often, as if she did not exist,

held up, dripping, from what unknowable depths,

his godhead, oh, rousing the night to endless uproar?

O Neptune of the blood, O his trident of terrors.

O the dark storm-wind from his chest, out of the twisted conch.

Hear, how the night becomes thinned-out and hollow. You, stars,

is it not from you that the lover’s joy in the beloved’s

face rises? Does he not gain his innermost insight,

into her face’s purity, from the pure stars?

 

It was not you, alas, not his mother

that bent the arc of his brow into such expectation.

Not for you, girl, feeling his presence, not for you,

did his lips curve into a more fruitful expression.

Do you truly think that your light entrance

rocked him so, you who wander like winds at dawn?

You terrified his heart, that’s so: but more ancient terrors

plunged into him with the impetus of touching.

Call him...you can’t quite call him away from that dark companion.

Of course he wants to, and does, escape: relieved, winning

his way into your secret heart, and takes on, and begins himself.

Did he ever begin himself, though?

Mother you made his littleness: you were the one who began him:

to you he was new, you hung the friendly world

over new eyes, and defended him from what was strange.

Oh where are the years when you simply repelled

the surging void for him, with your slight form?

You hid so much from him then: you made the suspect room

harmless at night, from your heart filled with refuge

mixed a more human space with his spaces of night.

Not in the darkness, no, in your nearer being

you placed the light, and it shone as if out of friendship.

There wasn’t a single creaking you couldn’t explain with a smile,

as if you had long known when the floor would do so....

And he heard you and was soothed. Your being

was so tenderly potent: his fate there stepped,

tall and cloaked, behind the wardrobe, and his restless future,

so easily delayed, fitted the folds of the curtain.

 

And he himself, as he lay there, relieved,

dissolving a sweetness, of your gentle creation,

under his sleepy eyelids, into the sleep he had tasted - :

seemed protected.....But inside: who could hinder,

prevent, the primal flood inside him?

Ah, there was little caution in the sleeper: sleeping,

but dreaming, but fevered: what began there!

How, new, fearful, he was tangled

in ever-spreading tendrils of inner event:

already twisted in patterns, in strangling growths,

among prowling bestial forms. How he gave himself to it -.  Loved.

Loved his inward world, his inner wilderness,

that first world within, on whose mute overthrow

his heart stood, newly green. Loved. Relinquished it, went on,

through his own roots, to the vast fountain

where his little birth was already outlived. Lovingly

went down into more ancient bloodstreams, into ravines

where Horror lay, still gorged on his forefathers. And every

Terror knew him, winked, like an informant.

Yes, Dread smiled.........Seldom

have you smiled so tenderly, mothers. How could he

help loving what smiled at him. Before you

he loved it, since, while you carried him,

it was dissolved in the waters, that render the embryo light.

 

See, we don’t love like flowers, in a

single year: when we love, an ancient

sap rises in our arms. O, girls,

this: that we loved inside us, not one to come, but

the immeasurable seething: not a single child,

but the fathers: resting on our depths

like the rubble of mountains: the dry river-beds

of those who were mothers - : the whole

silent landscape under a clouded or

clear destiny - : girls, this came before you.

 

And you yourself, how could you know – that you

stirred up primordial time in your lover. What feelings

welled up from lost lives. What

women hated you there. What sinister men

you roused up in his young veins. Dead

children wanted you.....O, gently, gently,

show him with love a confident daily task - lead him

near to the Garden, give him what outweighs

those nights........

                        Be in him...............

 


 

                                        The Fourth Elegy

 

O trees of life, O when are you wintering?

We are not unified. We have no instincts

like those of migratory birds. Useless, and late,

we force ourselves, suddenly, onto the wind,

and fall down to an indifferent lake.

We realise flowering and fading together.

And somewhere lions still roam. Never knowing,

as long as they have their splendour, of any weakness.

 

We, though, while we are intent on one thing, wholly,

feel the loss of some other. Enmity

is our neighbour. Aren’t lovers

always arriving at boundaries, each of the other,

who promised distance, hunting, and home?

And when, for the sketch of a moment,

a contrasting background is carefully prepared

so that we can see it: then this is clear

to us. We do not know the contours

of feeling, only what forms it from outside.

Who has not sat, scared, before his heart’s curtain?

It drew itself up: the scenery was of Departure.

Easy to comprehend. The familiar garden

swaying a little: then the dancer appeared.

Not him. Enough! However lightly he moves

he is in costume, and turns into a citizen,

and goes through the kitchen into his house.

I don’t want these half-completed masks,

rather the Doll. That is complete. I will

suffer its shell, its wire, its face

of mere appearance. Here. I am waiting.

Even if the lights go out, even if someone

says to me: ‘No more’ - , even if emptiness

reaches me as a grey draught of air from the stage,

even if none of my silent forefathers

sits by me any more, not one woman,

not even the boywith the brown, squinting, eyes.

I’ll still be here. One can always watch.

 

Am I not right? You, to whom life tasted

so bitter, father, tasting mine,

that first clouded infusion of my necessities,

you kept on tasting, as I grew,

and preoccupied by the after-taste

of such a strange future, searched my misted gaze –

you, my father, who since you were dead, have often

been anxious within my innermost hopes,

and giving up calm, the kingdoms of calm

the dead own, for my bit of fate,

am I not right? And you women, am I not right,

who would love me for that small beginning

of love, for you, that I always turned away from,

because the space of your faces changed,

as I loved, into cosmic space,

where you no longer existed......When I feel

like waiting in front of the puppet theatre, no,

rather gazing at it, so intently, that at last,

to balance my gaze, an Angel must come

and take part, dragging the puppets on high.

Angel and Doll: then there’s a play at last.

Then what we endlessly separate,

merely by being, comes together. Then at last

from our seasons here, the orbit

of all change emerges. Over and above us,

then, the Angel plays. See the dying

must realise that what we do here

is nothing, how full of pretext it all is,

nothing in itself. O hours of childhood,

when, behind the images, there was more

than the past, and in front of us was not the future.

We were growing, it’s true, and sometimes urged that

we soon grew up, half for the sake

of those others who had nothing but their grown-up-ness.

And were, yet, on our own, happy

with Timelessness, and stood there,

in the space between world and plaything,

at a point that from first beginnings

had been marked out for pure event.

 

Who shows a child, just as they are? Who sets it

in its constellation, and gives the measure

of distance into its hand? Who makes a child’s death

out of grey bread, that hardens, - or leaves it

inside its round mouth like the core

of a shining apple? Killers are

easy to grasp. But this: death,

the whole of death, before life,

to hold it so softly, and not live in anger,

cannot be expressed.


 

                                        The Fifth Elegy

   

But who are they, tell me, these Travellers, even more

transient than we are ourselves, urgently, from their earliest days,

wrung out for whom – to please whom,

by a never-satisfied will? Yet it wrings them,

bends them, twists them, and swings them,

throws them, and catches them again: as if from oiled

more slippery air, so they land

on the threadbare carpet, worn by their continual

leaping, this carpet

lost in the universe.

Stuck on like a plaster, as if the suburban

sky had wounded the earth there.

                                                            And scarcely there,

upright, there and revealed: the great

capital letter of Being.........and already the ever-returning

grasp wrings the strongest of men again, in jest,

as King August the Strong would crush

a tin plate.

 

Ah, and around this

centre, the rose of watching

flowers and un-flowers. Round this

stamp, this pistil, caught in the pollen

of its own flowering, fertilised

again to a shadow-fruit of disinterest,

their never-conscious, seeming-to-smile, disinterest,

gleaming lightly, on surface thinness.

 

There, the withered, wrinkled lifter,

an old man, only a drummer now,

shrunk in his massive hide, as though it had once

contained two men, and one was already

lying there in the churchyard, and the other had survived him,

deaf, and sometimes a little

confused in his widowed skin.

 

And the young one, the man, as if he were son of a neck

and a nun: taut and erectly filled

with muscle and simple-mindedness.

 

O you,

that a sorrow, that was still small,

once received as a plaything, in one of its

long convalescences......

 

You, who fall, with the thud

that only fruit knows, unripe,

a hundred times a day from the tree of mutually

built-up movement (that, swifter than water,

in a few moments, shows spring, summer and autumn),

fall, and impact on the grave:

sometimes, in half-pauses, a loving look tries

to rise from your face towards your seldom

affectionate mother: but it loses itself in your body,

whose surface consumes the shy

scarcely-attempted look.....And again

the man is clapping his hands for your leap, and before

a pain can become more distinct, close to your

constantly racing heart, a burning grows in the soles of your feet,

its source, before a few quick tears rush bodily into your eyes.

And yet, blindly,

that smile........

 

Angel! O, gather it, pluck it, that small-flowered healing herb.

Make a vase, keep it safe! Place it among those joys not yet

open to us: on a lovely urn,

praise it, with flowery, swirling, inscription:

                                  ‘Subrisio Saltat: the Saltimbanque’s smile’

You, then, beloved,

you, that the loveliest delights

silently over-leapt. Perhaps

your frills are happy for you –

or the green metallic silk,

over your firm young breasts,

feels itself endlessly pampered, and needing nothing.

You, market fruit of serenity

laid out, endlessly, on all the quivering balance scales,

publicly, beneath the shoulders.

 

Where, oh where is the place – I carry it in my heart –

where they were still far from capable, still fell away

from each other, like coupling animals, not yet

ready for pairing: -

where the weights are still heavy:

where the plates still topple

from their vainly twirling

sticks.......

 

And, suddenly, in this troublesome nowhere, suddenly,

the unsayable point where the pure too-little

is changed incomprehensibly -, altered

into that empty too-much.

Where the many-placed calculation

is exactly resolved.

 

Squares: O square in Paris, endless show-place,

where the milliner, Madame Lamort,

winds and twists the restless trails of the earth,

endless ribbons, into new

bows, frills, flowers, rosettes, artificial fruits – all

falsely coloured, - for winter’s

cheap hats of destiny.

 

Angel: if there were a place we know nothing of, and there,

on some unsayable carpet, lovers revealed

what here they could never master, their high daring

figures of heart’s flight,

their towers of desire, their ladders,

long since standing where there was no ground, leaning,

trembling, on each other – and mastered them,

in front of the circle of watchers, the countless, soundless dead:

Would these not fling their last, ever-saved,

ever-hidden, unknown to us, eternally

valid coins of happiness in front of the finally

truly smiling pair on the silent

carpet?

 


                                        The Sixth Elegy

 

Fig-tree, for such a long time now, there has been meaning for me,

in the way you almost wholly omit to flower

and urge your pure secret, unheralded,

into the early, resolute fruit.

Like the jet of a fountain, your arched bough

drives the sap downward, then up: and it leaps from its sleep

barely waking, into the bliss of its sweetest achievement.

See: like the god into the swan

                                            ..........We, though, linger,

ah, our pride is in flowering, and, already betrayed,

we reach the late core of our final fruit.

In a few the urge to action rises so powerfully,

that they are already waiting and glowing with their heart’s fullness

when the temptation to flower, like the mild night air,

touches their tender mouths, touches their eyelids:

heroes perhaps, and those chosen to vanish prematurely,

in whom Death the gardener wove different veins.

These plunge ahead: they go before their own smile,

like the team of horses in the slightly

hollowed-out relief of Karnak’s victorious pharaoh.

 

The hero is strangely close to those who died young. Lasting

doesn’t contain him. Being is his ascent: he moves on,

time and again, to enter the changed constellation

his risk entails. Few could find him there. But

Destiny, that darkly hides us, suddenly inspired,

sings him into the tempest of his onrushing world.

I hear no one like him. All at once I am pierced

by his darkened sound carried on streaming air.

 

Then, how gladly I would hide from the yearning: O if I,

if I were a boy, and might come to it still, and sit,

propped on the future’s arms, and reading about Samson,

how his mother first bore nothing, and then all.

 

Was he not a hero already, O mother, in you, did not

his imperious choice begin inside you?

Thousands seethed in the womb and willed to be him,

but see: he grasped and let go, chose and achieved.

And if he shattered pillars, it was when he burst

out of the world of your flesh into the narrower world,

where he went on choosing, achieving. O mothers of heroes,

O sources of ravening rivers! Ravines into which

weeping girls have plunged

from the high heart’s edge, future offerings to the son.

Because, whenever the hero stormed through the stations of love,

each heartbeat, meant for him, lifting him onward,

he turned away, stood at the end of the smiles, someone other.


                                        The Seventh Elegy

 

Wooing, no longer: wooing will not be the form of your

cry, voice that’s outgrown it: true, you would cry pure as a bird,

when the season lifts him, the ascending one, almost forgetting

that he is a suffering creature, and not just a solitary heart

that it flings into brightness, to intimate heavens. Like him,

you also, would be wooing no less – so that, still invisible,

some girl would sense you, the silent one, in whom a reply

slowly wakes and grows warm, as she listens –

the glowing feeling mated to your daring feeling.

Oh and the Spring-time would comprehend – there is no place

that would not echo its voice of proclamation.

First the tiny questioning piping, that a purely affirmative day

surrounds more deeply with heightened stillness.

Then up the stairway, the stairway of calling, up to

the dreamed-of temple of future - : then the trill, fountain

that in its rising jet already anticipates falling,

in promise’s play.......And the summer to come.

Not only the devotion of these unfolded forces,

not only the paths, not only the evening fields,

not only, after a late storm, the breathing freshness,

not only approaching sleep and a premonition, evenings...

also the nights! Also the high summer nights,

also the stars, the stars of this Earth!

O to be dead at last and know them eternally,

all the stars: for how, how, how to forget them!

See, I was calling my lover. But not only she

would come......Girls would come from delicate graves

and gather.....for, how could I limit

the call, once called? The buried always

still seek the Earth. – You, children, a single

thing grasped here is many times valid.

Don’t think that Fate is more than a childhood across:

how often you overtook the beloved, panting,

panting after the blissful chase after nothing, into what’s free.

Being here is the wonder. You knew it, girls, even you,

you who seemed dispensable, sunken – you, in the worst

streets of the cities, festering, or open

for refuse. Since an hour was given – perhaps not

so much as an hour, one that was scarcely

measurable by time’s measure, between two moments, where you

had a being. Everything. Veins filled with being.

But we forget so easily what our laughing neighbour

neither acknowledges nor envies. We want to visibly

show it, while even the most visible of joys

can only display itself to us when we have changed it, from within.

Nowhere, beloved, will world be, but within. Our

life passes in change. And ever-shrinking

the outer diminishes. Where there was once a permanent house,

some conceptual structure springs up, athwart us, as fully

at home among concepts, as if it still stood in the brain.

Vast reservoirs of power are created by the spirit of the age,

formless, like the tense yearning gained from all things.

Temples are no longer known. Those extravagances

of the heart we keep, more secretly. Yes, where even one survives,

a single thing once prayed to, served, knelt before –

it stands, as it is, already there in the invisible.

Many no longer see it, but lose the chance to build it

inside themselves now, with columns, and statues, grander!

 

Each vague turn of the world has such disinherited ones,

to whom the former does not, and the next does not yet, belong.

Since even the next is far from mankind. Though

this should not confuse us, but strengthen in us the keeping

of still recognisable forms. This once stood among men,

stood in the midst of fate, the destroyer, stood

in the midst of not-knowing-towards-what, as if it existed, and drew

stars towards itself out of the enshrined heavens. Angel,

I’ll show it to you, also, there! It will stand

in your gaze, finally upright, saved at last.

Columns, pylons, the Sphinx, the stirring thrust

of the cathedral, grey, out of a fading or alien city.

 

Was it not miracle? O, be astonished, Angel, since we are this,

O tell them, O great one, that we could achieve this: my breath

is too slight for this praising. So, after all, we have not

failed to make use of these spaces, these generous ones,

our spaces. (How frighteningly vast they must be,

when they are not overfull of our feelings, after thousands of years.)

But a tower was great, was it not? O Angel, it was though –

even compared to you? Chartres was great – and Music

towered still higher and went beyond us. Why even

a girl in love, oh, alone in the night, at her window,

did she not reach to your knees? –

                                            Don’t think that I’m wooing.

Angel, were I doing so, you would not come! Since my call

is always full of outpouring: against such a powerful

current you cannot advance. Like an outstretched

arm, my call. And its hand, opened above

for grasping, remains open, before you,

as if for defence and for warning,

wide open, Incomprehensible One.


                                        The Eighth Elegy

   

The creature gazes into openness with all

its eyes. But our eyes are

as if they were reversed, and surround it,

everywhere, like barriers against its free passage.

We know what is outside us from the animal’s

face alone: since we already turn

the young child round and make it look

backwards at what is settled, not that openness

that is so deep in the animal’s vision. Free from death.

We alone see that: the free creature

has its progress always behind it,

and God before it, and when it moves, it moves

in eternity, as streams do.

We never have pure space in front of us,

not for a single day, such as flowers open

endlessly into. Always there is world,

and never the Nowhere without the Not: the pure,

unwatched-over, that one breathes and

endlessly knows, without craving. As a child

loses itself sometimes, one with the stillness, and

is jolted back. Or someone dies and is it.

Since near to death one no longer sees death,

and stares ahead, perhaps with the large gaze of the creature.

Lovers are close to it, in wonder, if

the other were not always there closing off the view.....

As if through an oversight it opens out

behind the other......But there is no

way past it, and it turns to world again.

Always turned towards creation, we see

only a mirroring of freedom

dimmed by us. Or that an animal

mutely, calmly is looking through and through us.

This is what fate means: to be opposite,

and to be that and nothing else, opposite, forever.

 

If there was consciousness like ours

in the sure creature, that moves towards us

on a different track – it would drag us

round in its wake. But its own being

is boundless, unfathomable, and without a view

of its condition, pure as its outward gaze.

And where we see future it sees everything,

and itself in everything, and is healed for ever.

 

And yet in the warm waking creature

is the care and burden of a great sadness.

Since it too always has within it what often

overwhelms us – a memory,

as if what one is pursuing now was once

nearer, truer, and joined to us

with infinite tenderness. Here all is distance,

there it was breath. Compared to that first home

the second one seems ambiguous and uncertain.

 

O bliss of little creatures

that stay in the womb that carried them forever:

O joy of the midge that can still leap within,

even when it is wed: since womb is all.

And see the half-assurance of the bird,

almost aware of both from its inception,

as if it were the soul of an Etruscan,

born of a dead man in a space

with his reclining figure as the lid.

And how dismayed anything is that has to fly,

and leave the womb. As if it were

terrified of itself, zig-zagging through the air, as a crack

runs through a cup. As the track

of a bat rends the porcelain of evening.

 

And we: onlookers, always, everywhere,

always looking into, never out of, everything.

It fills us. We arrange it. It collapses.

We arrange it again, and collapse ourselves.

 

Who has turned us round like this, so that,

whatever we do, we always have the aspect

of one who leaves? Just as they

will turn, stop, linger, for one last time,

on the last hill, that shows them all their valley - ,

so we live, and are always taking leave.


                                        The Ninth Elegy
 

Why, if it could begin as laurel, and be spent so,

this space of Being, a little darker than all

the surrounding green, with little waves at the edge

of every leaf (like a breeze’s smile) - : why then

have to be human – and shunning destiny

long for destiny?....

                                  Oh, not because happiness exists,

that over-hasty profit from imminent loss,

not out of curiosity, or to practice the heart,

which could exist in the laurel......

But because being here is much, and because all

that’s here seems to need us, the ephemeral, that

strangely concerns us. We: the most ephemeral. Once,

for each thing, only once. Once, and no more. And we too,

once. Never again. But this

once, to have been, though only once,

to have been an earthly thing – seems irrevocable.

 

And so we keep pushing on, and trying to achieve it,

trying to contain it in our simple hands,

in the overflowing gaze and the speechless heart.

Trying to become it. Whom to give it to? We would

hold on to it for ever....Ah, what, alas, do we

take into that other dimension? Not the gazing which we

slowly learned here, and nothing that happened. Nothing.

Suffering then. Above all, then, the difficulty,

the long experience of love, then – what is

wholly unsayable. But later,

among the stars, what use is it: it is better unsayable.

Since the traveller does not bring a handful of earth

from mountain-slope to valley, unsayable to others, but only

a word that was won, pure, a yellow and blue

gentian. Are we here, perhaps, for saying: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, jug, fruit-tree, window –

at most: column, tower......but for saying, realise,

oh, for a saying such as the things themselves would never

have profoundly said. Is not the secret intent

of this discreet Earth to draw lovers on,

so that each and every thing is delight within their feeling?

Threshold: what is it for two

lovers to be wearing their own threshold of the ancient door

a little, they too, after the many before them,

and before those to come......., simple.

 

Here is the age of the sayable: here is its home.

Speak, and be witness. More than ever

the things of experience are falling away, since

what ousts and replaces them is an act with no image.

An act, under a crust that will split, as soon as

the business within outgrows it, and limit itself differently.

Between the hammers, our heart

lives on, as the tongue

between the teeth, that

in spite of them, keeps praising.

 

Praise the world to the Angel, not the unsayable: you

can’t impress him with glories of feeling: in the universe,

where he feels more deeply, you are a novice. So show

him a simple thing, fashioned in age after age,

that lives close to hand and in sight.

Tell him things. He’ll be more amazed: as you were,

beside the rope-maker in Rome, or the potter beside the Nile.

Show him how happy things can be, how guiltless and ours,

how even the cry of grief decides on pure form,

serves as a thing, or dies into a thing: transient,

they look to us for deliverance, we, the most transient of all.

Will us to change them completely, in our invisible hearts,

into – oh, endlessly, into us! Whoever, in the end, we are.

 

Earth, is it not this that you want: to rise

invisibly in us? – Is that not your dream,

to be invisible, one day? – Earth! Invisible!

What is your urgent command if not transformation?

Earth, beloved, I will. O, believe me, you need

no more Spring-times to win me: only one,

ah, one, is already more than my blood can stand.

Namelessly, I have been truly yours, from the first.

You were always right, and your most sacred inspiration

is that familiar Death.

See I live. On what? Neither childhood nor future

grows less......Excess of being

wells up in my heart.


                                        The Tenth Elegy

 

Some day, in the emergence from this fierce insight,

let me sing jubilation and praise to assenting Angels.

Let not a single one of the cleanly-struck hammers of my heart

deny me, through a slack, or a doubtful, or

a broken string. Let my streaming face

make me more radiant: let my secret weeping

bear flower. O, how dear you will be to me, then, Nights

of anguish. Inconsolable sisters, why did I not

kneel more to greet you, lose myself more

in your loosened hair? We, squanderers of pain.

How we gaze beyond them into duration’s sadness,

to see if they have an end. Though they are nothing but

our winter-suffering foliage, our dark evergreen,

one of the seasons of our inner year – not only

season - : but place, settlement, camp, soil, dwelling.

 

Strange, though, alas, the streets of Grief-City,

where, in the artificiality of a drowned-out false

stillness, the statue cast from the mould of emptiness bravely

swaggers: the gilded noise, the flawed memorial.

O, how an Angel would utterly trample their market of solace,

bounded by the Church, bought ready for use:

untouched, disenchanted and shut like the post-office on Sunday.

Beyond though, the outskirts are always alive with the fair.

Swings of freedom! Divers and jugglers of zeal!

And the figures at the shooting range of easy luck,

targets that shake tinnily whenever some better marksman

hits one. From applause at his luck

he staggers on further: as booths for every taste

are wooing him, drumming, and bawling. Here’s something

special, only for adults, to view: how money is got, anatomy,

not just to amuse: the private parts of money,

all of it, the whole thing, the act, - to instruct and make

potent.......O, but just beyond

behind the last hoarding, plastered with adverts for ‘Deathless’,

that bitter beer that tastes sweet to its drinkers,

as long as they chew fresh distractions along with it......

just at the back of the hoardings, just behind them, it’s real.

Children are playing, lovers are holding each other – to the side,

sombrely, in the sparse grass, and dogs are following their nature.

The youth is drawn on, further: perhaps it’s a young

Lament he loves......He comes to the field, beyond her. She says:

‘It’s far. We live out there....’

                                            ‘Where?’ And the youth follows.

He is moved by her manner. Her shoulders, her neck – perhaps

she’s from a notable family. But he leaves her, turns round,

looks back, waves.......What’s the point? She’s a Lament.

 

Only those who died young, in their first state

of timeless equanimity, that of being weaned,

follow her lovingly. She waits

for girls and befriends them. She shows them gently

what she is wearing. Pearls of grief and the fine

veils of suffering. – With youths she walks on

in silence.

 

But there, where they live, in the valley, one of the older Laments,

takes to the youth, when he questions: - ‘We were,’

she says, ‘a large family once, we Laments. Our ancestors

worked the mines on that mountain-range: among men

you’ll sometimes find a lump of polished primal grief,

or the lava of frozen rage from some old volcano.

Yes, that came from there. We used to be rich.’ -

 

And she leads him gently through the wide landscape of Lament,

shows him the columns of temples, the ruins

of castles, from which the lords of Lament

ruled the land, wisely. Shows him the tall

Tear-trees, and the fields of flowering Sadness,

(The living know it as only a tender shrub.)

shows him the herds of Grief, grazing – and sometimes

a startled bird, flying low through their upward glance,

will inscribe on the far distance the written form of its lonely cry –

At evening she leads him to the graves of the elders

of the race of Laments, the sibyls and prophets.

But as night falls, so they move more softly, and soon,

like a moon, the all-guarding

sepulchre rises. Brother to that of the Nile,

the tall Sphinx, the secret chamber’s

countenance.

And they are astonished by the regal head, that forever,

silently, positioned the human face

in the scale of the stars.

 

His sight cannot grasp it, still dizzied

by early death. But her gaze

frightens an owl from behind the rim of the crown,

and the bird brushes, with slow skimming flight, along the cheek,

the one with the richer curve,

and inscribes the indescribable

outline, on the new

hearing born out of death, as though

on the doubly-unfolded page of a book.

 

And higher: the stars. New stars, of Grief-Land.

Slowly the Lament names them: ‘There,

see: the Rider, the Staff, and that larger constellation

they name Fruit-Garland. Then, further, towards the Pole:

the Cradle, the Way, the Burning Book, the Doll, the Window.

But in the southern sky, pure as on

the palm of a sacred hand, the clearly shining M,

that stands for the Mothers......’

 

But the dead must go on, and in silence the elder Lament

leads him as far as the ravine,

where the fountain of joy

glistens in moonlight. With awe

she names it saying: ‘Among men

this is a load-bearing river.’

 

They stand at the foot of the mountains.

And there she embraces him, weeping.

 

He climbs alone, on the mountains of primal grief.

And not once do his footsteps sound from his silent fate.

 

But if the endlessly dead woke a symbol in us,

see, they would point perhaps to the catkins,

hanging from bare hazels, or

they would intend the rain, falling on dark soil in Spring-time. –

 

And we, who think of ascending

joy, would feel the emotion,

that almost dismays us,

when a joyful thing falls.

 


 

Index by First Line

 

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the Angelic. 3

Every Angel is terror. And yet,7

To sing the beloved is one thing, another, oh,11

O trees of life, O when are you wintering?. 15

But who are they, tell me, these Travellers, even more. 19

Fig-tree, for such a long time now, there has been meaning for me,24

Wooing, no longer: wooing will not be the form of your26

The creature gazes into openness with all30

Why, if it could begin as laurel, and be spent so,34

Some day, in the emergence from this fierce insight,38

 


Notes

 

Gaspara Stampa.  1523-1554. Famous for her intense love for the young Lord of Treviso, Collaltino, which he was ultimately unable to return. She wrote some two hundred sonnets telling the story of her love for him, dying at the age of thirty-one. She was for Rilke a ‘type’ of unrequited love.

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Santa Maria Formosa.  The church, in Venice, which Rilke visited in 1911. The reference is to one of the commemorative tablets, inscribed with Latin texts, on the church walls.

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Linos.   The mythical poet: in some versions of Greek myth, he is the brother of Orpheus, and son of Calliope the Muse. The ancient ‘Lament for Linos’ was part of the vegetation rituals mentioned by Homer (Iliad XVIII, 570). The Greek myths provide a complex of hints about him, that involve, song and music, ritual lament, and the sacred nature of poetry.

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Tobias. The Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha (5:4,16) tells the story of Tobit the Israelite, who ordered his son Tobias to go and recover some of his property from Media. The Archangel Raphael, disguised, guided the young man. ‘So they went forth, and the young man’s dog with them.’

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The boy with the brown squinting eyes was Rilke’s cousin, Egon von Rilke, who died in childhood. His brown eyes were ‘disfigured by a squint’.

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Les Saltimbanques. This elegy is founded on Rilke’s knowledge of Picasso’s painting Les Saltimbanques (he lived, from June to October 1915, in the house where the original hung, in Munich). Picasso depicts a family of travelling acrobats. Rilke was familiar with such people from his stay in Paris, where he became Rodin’s secretary.

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