DEPTFORD QUATRAINS Rilke: The Third Duino Elegy


It is one thing to sing the beloved, quite another,
alas, to invoke the hidden, guilty river-god
of the blood. Take a young lover – what does one
whom she may know only remotely as yet,
what does he know of that lord of desire
who often, breaking out of his solitude
and even before she has the chance to soothe him,
acts as if she were nothing to him – a god, ah,
raising its head, dripping, unfathomable, urgent,
turning the night over to endless uproar.
Oh, this is the Neptune who inhabits our blood,
the god who wields such terrifying weapons!
His dark breath blows through the windings
of a conch! Listen to where the night begins
to gape and hollow! Oh, you stars – the lover’s
desire for the face of his beloved, does it not
arise first from you? Isn’t his deepest response
to her pure face inspired by the pure bright stars?

Not you, alas, and nor was it his mother
who tensed up the bow of his brows
in such anticipation. Nor was it for you, girl,
despite all your sensitivity to his presence –
no, it was not for your lips, particularly,
that his lips pursed so fruitfully.
Do you really think you could have startled him so
with your gentle arrival, you who move
as delicately as a breeze at dawn. Of course,
you gave his heart a shaking, but really
it was these older horrors, driven to his depths
at your touch. Call him … but you cannot quite
call him away from those dark companions.
He wants to escape them, of course, and he does.
Then, relieved, he nestles into the seclusion
of your loving heart, takes hold to begin himself –
but did he ever really begin himself?
Mother, you made him small. You began him.
He was so new to you, over his new-born brows
you bent a friendly world, shut out the strange one.
Oh, where are all those years when you used
your slim form and simply stood in the way
of seething chaos? How much you hid from him!
The suspect chamber of darkness you made
harmless and, out of the refuge of your heart,
you stirred more humanity into his night-space.
And in the darkness, you did not set a light,
but rather deployed it in your own presence
and there let is shine like a companion.
There was no creak your smile could not explain.
It was as if you had always known when the boards
would do that … And he listened to you
and knew himself soothed. You stood over him
so tenderly till the long-cloaked figure of his fate
retreated beyond the wardrobe and his future
restlessness took the shape of a folded curtain,
though all this was easy postponement.

And as he lay there, himself, relieved in the sweetness
of the gentle world you conjured before him,
dissolving under drowsy eyelids towards sleep,
he seemed protected … but inside who could divert
or forestall the on-coming flood of his origins?
Ah! there was no precaution in the sleeper!
Sleeping, but dreaming, and that feverishly –
how he let himself go, he, the new one, shy,
tangled in the spreading tendrils of inner events
already entwined into patterns of choking
undergrowth, threaded by hunting bestial shapes.
How he submitted to it! Loved! How he loved
his inwardness! His inner wildness!
The primal forest within, where his heart shone
like a beacon, pale green amongst the decay.
He loved it. And left it. Went down through
his own roots and out to the point of origin
where his little birth seemed an anachronism.
He waded deeper, deeper, still loving it,
to ancient blood, towards ravines where terrors
lay in wait, gorged still with his own fathers
and every horror knew him, winked in complicity.
Oh yes, the horrors smiled …
You, his mother, had hardly ever smiled with such
tenderness, so how could he resist loving
what had smiled at him? Yet, he loved it even
before he knew you, since it was already dissolved
in the waters that buoyed him in your belly.

Do you see this? We do not love only
as flowers do over the course of a single year.
When we fall in love, an immemorial sap
rises in our arms. Oh, my girl – it is this we love
inside ourselves – not the one, not the beloved
who will one day, perhaps, appear – but these
seething multitudes. Not the love of a single child,
but also these fathers, spreadeagled in our deeps,
a mountain devastation, the dried-up river beds
of ancient mothers, a whole noiseless landscape
under the clear or cloudy sky of destiny.
My dear girl, all this long preceded you.

And as for yourself, what do you know?
That you stirred prehistory in your lover?
What passion was it welled from the long-dead
in him? What women were there who hated you?
What men of darkness did you rouse in young veins?
What dead children reached their arms to you?
O gently, gently, then! Let him watch you
at some steady, everyday task – lovingly, lead him
close up the garden, give him whatever might
outweigh the nights …
Hold him back …

Translated by Martyn Crucefix
(courtesy of the Enitharmon Press –


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