DEPTFORD QUATRAINS Rilke: The Second Duino Elegy

THE SECOND ELEGY

Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I go on
singing at you in the knowledge of what you are –
you all but deadly birds of the soul.
Where are the days of Tobias, when one of these
most radiant creatures stood at the simple doorway
ready to travel, in part disguised and so not
as frightening (a young man, in fact like the one
who peered out curiously to see who was there).
If the archangel bent down now, dangerously
bent from behind the spread of stars, took one step
towards us, we would be beaten to death
by our own high-beating heart. Who are you?

Perfection’s firsts, creation’s pampered favourites,
the peaks and summits we look to where they
redden in the first touch of the created world –
spilt pollen of flowering Godhead, knots of light,
passageways, stairs, thrones, spaces of life,
the blazoned shields of bliss, tumults of ecstasy
and as suddenly, solely – mirrors, scooping
up that flood of beauty that pours from them
and re-directing it back into themselves.

For we, even as we feel, evaporate in the act
of breathing ourselves out and beyond,
ember after ember, we burn away to nothing.
We give off an ever-diminishing scent.
Though somebody might come and say, ‘Yes!
You are in my blood now. This room, the whole
of spring is full of your presence …” What’s the use?
He cannot preserve us. We still disappear
in him or around him. Even the truly beautiful –
who holds them? Nothing but appearance.
continually rises and departs in their faces.
Like a morning dew, where it rises from the grass,
so vanishes what is ours – it is like heat ascending
from uncovered dishes. Oh, that smile there!
Where are you going? Those up-glancing eyes
that propel a warm but forever ebbing wave
through the heart – alas, that is what we are.
The space beyond us, into which we continually
dissipate, does it come to taste of us at all?
Do angels take back into themselves only
what is theirs, only what has streamed from them,
of what we are? Are we mixed into their features
as subtly as that vague look you see pass
into the faces of pregnant women? Of course,
they do not notice, occupied in the whirling
reinvigoration of themselves. (How could they notice?)

Yet lovers, if they knew how, might articulate
wonders in the night air, though it seems
all things intend to obscure us. Look – trees exist.
The houses we live in continue to stand. Only we
pass away like air traded for air and everything
conspires to maintain silence about us, perhaps
half out of shame, half out of unspeakable hope.

Lovers – you who find satisfaction in each other –
I am asking you about us. You hold one another,
but where is the proof? Look – sometimes my hands
know comfort in each other. Or sometimes I shelter
my worn face within them. Then I am in touch
with some slight sensation. Yet who would dare step
into existence for that? Lovers – do you not grow
ever more present in each other’s passion until,
overwhelmed, you beg – ‘No more!’ –
you, who at the touch of the other’s hands swell,
fill out to such abundance like grapes
in a great vintage – you, who sometimes vanish,
though only in moments the other is so fully present –
I am asking you about us. I know it is bliss for you
to touch since every caress conserves the place
on a lover’s body you cover so tenderly –
it cannot be lost. You sense a permanence beneath it.
You almost promise eternity in your embrace.
And yet, once you have survived the terrors
of first glances, of day-dreaming at a window,
of a first walk, that once, together through
the gardens, then, do you remain the same forever?
When you lift one another, raise each other to drink
the full draught, mouth on mouth – oh, strange
the way each drinker grows distant from the act.

Were you not astonished at the restraint of human
gestures on Attic stelae? Didn’t love and parting
sit so gently on their shoulders that they appeared
to be made of material other than this world?
Remember how lightly the hands pressed, though there
was great strength in the torsos? Those people knew
such self-control: ‘We go only so far – this touching
each other – this is ours – as for the gods, they impose
on us more fiercely, but that must be for the gods’.

If only we too could discover such a pure,
contained and human place, our own fertile stretch
between river and rock, since, as theirs did long ago,
our heart must always exceed us and we can no longer
pursue it by contemplating images inclined
to soothe, nor is it any use gazing at god-like forms
more magnificently capable of restraint.

Translated by Martyn Crucefix
(courtesy of the Enitharmon Press – http://www.enitharmon.co.uk)

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