DEPTFORD QUATRAINS Rilke: The Sixth Elegy

THE FIFTH ELEGY

Fig tree, how long has it been important to me
the way you almost wholly skip blossoming
and press pure mystery – quite unheralded –
into early-setting fruit. Like the pipe in a fountain,
your curved branches drive sap down, then up again,
to spring – almost without waking from sleep –
to the bliss of the sweetest performance.
See – it is as God enters the swan.
… But we linger too long,
believe glory lies in flowering and we are already
betrayed by the time we arrive at the long-awaited heart
of our final fruit. In only a few does the urge
to action rise so powerfully they stand ready,
at once, hearts brimmed and aglow before
the temptation to bloom – like a tender night-air-
brushes their young mouths, touches their eye-lids:
perhaps these are heroes, alongside those chosen
for an early demise, those whose veins
are twisted differently by the gardener, death.
These plunge on, they run ahead of their own smiles
like horses in the bas-relief of carvings at Karnak
galloping before the triumphant King.

How strangely alike are those who die young and the hero.
Permanence does not concern him. His way of life
is one of ascent, continually setting out towards
the ever shifting constellation of constant danger.
Few could go there with him. But Fate –
which to us retains its dark obscurity – with him
grows inspired and sings him forwards into the storm
of his on-rushing world. I hear of none like him.
All at once, I am run through by his darkened sound
as it is carried to me on the streaming air.
Then, how I would like to hide from that longing:
oh, to be, to be a boy again with my life yet to come,
to sit in the future’s embrace and read of Samson –
how his mother bore at first nothing, then everything.

Was he not already a hero inside you, mother?
Did his own imperious choosing not begin inside?
Thousands brewed in the womb, wanting to be him/
But see: he grasped, pushed aside. He chose and won out.
And when he shattered pillars, it was in that moment
he burst from the world of your body into this
more straitened one, where again he chose and won out.
Oh, mothers of heroes, spring of those torrential rivers!
You rifts into which, from the heart’s high rim,
plunge grief-stricken girls, your son’s future sacrifices.
For the hero, when he goes storming
through love’s stations, each heart beating for his sake
only serves to push him higher, pushes him beyond
and, turning away, he stands at the end of all those smiles –
something quite other.

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

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