DEPTFORD QUATRAINS Rilke: The First Duino Elegy


Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
of the angels? Even if one of them clasped me
suddenly to his heart, I’d wither in the face
of his more fierce existence. For their beauty
is really nothing but the first stirrings of a terror
we are just able to endure and are astonished
at the way it elects, with such careless disdain,
to let us go on living. Every angel is terrifying,
So I hold back – I swallow back the bird-call
of black grief that would burst from me.
Ah, who is it we can turn to for help? Not angels.
Not other people. Even the knowing creatures
already dumbly see we do not feel at home
in our interpretations of the world, though there is,
perhaps, a specific tree on a hillside we settle on
over and over. Or yesterday’s stroll remains,
through the usual streets – the comforting loyalty
of a habit that took a liking to us,
that moved in and now will not leave us alone.
Oh, but the night. Night with a wind that comes
as if filled with infinity and gnaws at our faces.
This is what awaits every one of us –
that looked-for, tender disenchantment of the night –
so hard for hearts alone to bear. Though is it
any easier for lovers? They make use of each other
to hide what they know what must otherwise come.
Don’t you see this yet? Fling this emptiness
out of your arms, back into the spaces
into which we breathe and suddenly the birds
will feel the more expansive air, will sense it,
perhaps, with a more fervent flying.
Yes – the springtimes needed you. There were stars
waiting to be seen by you. A wave rolled
to your feet in the past, or as you strode
beneath half-shuttered windows, the bowed violin
leant itself to you. All this was your mission.
But were you up to it? Weren’t you more often
distracted by anticipation, as if everything
about you was there only to herald a beloved?
(Oh but where would you keep her – what with
strange thoughts looming in and out of your head
from dawn to dark, so often staying in the night?)
Rather, if desire tempts you, sing of the lovers
those famous ones, though even their love’s
not immortal enough, those – you almost envy
them this – forsaken, abandoned and unrequited,
who have so much more loving in them
than those who are satisfied. Like them, begin
and begin again the eternal task of praising!
Remember this: the hero lives for ever.
His death is no more than a pretext for being,
for his latest birth – whereas lovers are withdrawn,
sapped and spent, back into Nature, as if
it had no strength left to create their like again.
Have you imagined the love of Gaspara Stampa?
Recalled it so intensely that any girl – deserted
by her lover – might emulate her fine example
and might say to herself: let me be like her!
Because isn’t it time this oldest of heartaches
finally bore us some fruit? Isn’t it time,
though still loving, we learned to wrench ourselves
free of the beloved and, though trembling,
endure as the arrow endures the tensed bowstring,
becomes something more than itself in the leap
of release? For our point of rest is nowhere.

Voices. Voices. My heart, listen, listen
as only the saints have done before you
till a gigantic calling lifted them bodily
from the ground and they rose, impossibly,
still kneeling, still unaware, so intently they listened.
Not that you could hear God’s voice – far from it.
So then listen to the wind’s, its ceaseless
message rising out of silence, bringing whispers
of all who died young. Didn’t their fate come to you
to speak quietly when you stepped into churches
in Rome or Naples? Or didn’t some sublime
epitaph impose on you? Remember, so recently,
that day – the plaque in Santa Monica Formosa?
What they ask of me is gently to shake off
the sense of injustice that still troubles their deaths
and sometimes hinders them a little, holds them
back in the onward process of their soul.

It’s true enough, of course, no longer to live
on earth is strange, to abandon customs
barely mastered yet, not to interpret roses
and other auspicious things, not give them meaning
in a human future. No longer to be as we have
always been, in those endlessly anxious hands –
to leave even our name behind us as a child
leaves of playing with a broken toy. Strange,
no longer to know desires desired – strange
to witness the involvement of all things lost
suddenly, each drifting away singly into space.
And truly, to be dead is hard, so full of making
up lost ground, till little by little we find
a trace of eternity. Yet, the living are wrong
to draw such distinctions so clearly:
angels (it is said) are often never quite sure
whether they pass among the living or the dead,
since through both these realms, and forever,
eternity’s flood tumbles all the ages and in both
their cries are drowned out by its roar.

In the end, the young-dead do not need us:
they are weaned off the earth mildly as a child
will outgrow the mother’s breast. But we,
who long for such great mysteries, we, for whom
sorrow is often the path on which we progress –
can we exist without them? Is the old myth
really nonsense? The one about the mourning of Linus,
how music first broke on the barren wilderness;
how, in the startled space left gaping by the loss
of a boy like a god, emptiness rang as never before
with what holds us rapt, comforts now and can help.

Translated by Martyn Crucefix (courtesy of the Enitharmon Press –


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