DEPTFORD QUATRAINS Rilke: The Seventh Elegy


No more wooing, enough of this courting,
your voice has outgrown it – make that the burden
of your call, though you might cry out pure as a bird
when the stirring of the season lifts him
and he almost forgets he is a troubled creature,
not just a single heart flung towards cheerfulness,
to the embrace of heaven. Like him, even then,
you would be wooing still and the unseen lover
would hear you, the silent lover whose response
stirs slowly in listening as she boldly warms
her passionate response to your bolder passion.

Oh, and spring would conceive it – no place
would fail to respond to such a proclamation.
At first, small notes would be as questionings
intensified in the surrounding stillness
of the pure and affirming day. Then up steps,
the flight of calls, to the dreamt-of temple
of the future – then a trill of water, a jet, a rising
fountain, already embracing its tumbling down
in a game of promises … And soon to come, summer.
Not only all the summer’s dawns – not only
the transformation into day, radiant with beginning.
Not only such days, so tender around flowers
and above, in tree-shapes, huge and powerful.
Not only the reverence of these unfolding forces,
not only pathways, meadowland in the evening,
not only, after late thunderstorms, the breath
of cleared air, not only the on-coming of sleep
and a premonition in the evening …
but the nights too. Those tall nights of summer
and the stars, stars around the earth.
Oh! to be dead at last and know them infinitely,
the stars: then how, how, how could we forget them!
And see – even now I have called the beloved!
Though it’s not just she who responds …
Out of insecure graves come girls to stand close by …
how can I curb it once the call’s been proclaimed?
For spirits, entombed, still search out the earth.
You children – some earthbound thing experienced
truly, even once, can do service for so much.
Do not think a life’s destiny is anything other
than the pressure of sense you knew as a child.
How often since have you out-distanced the one
you loved, breathing, breathless after the joyous
chase, going nowhere but into freedom?

Just being here is glorious! You understood that,
you girls, even you who appeared so deprived
and in decline – you, in the dirtiest alleys of the city,
festering there, or laid wide open to filth.
For each of you had an hour – perhaps not
even an hour, a barely measurable moment
between whiles – when you had a sense
of the destined shape of all things. Everything.
Your veins grew awash with it. But we so easily
forget what our laughing neighbour neither
affirms nor envies in us. For ourselves,
we want to make it visible – though the most
evident happiness goes unrecognised
unless we can transform it – and that is within.

The world is nowhere, my love, if not within.
Our life passes in transformation. The external world
is forever dwindling to nothing. Where once
there stood a solid and lasting house,
now a dreamt-up construct straddles our path
and seems to belong entirely to the realm
of conception as if it still stood in the brain.
The spirit of the age has engineered for itself
vast reservoirs of power, though they are shapeless
as the charged force it draws from all things.
Temples are no longer known and it is we who
secretly conserve these extravagances of the heart.
Yes – where one still stands, a thing prayed to once,
worshipped, knelt before – it holds, just as it is
and it passes into the outwardly invisible.
Many no longer see it, so they miss the chance
to build it again, to build within themselves
the pillars and the statues, yet greater still.

Every muffled turning of the world discovers
those disinherited ones who do not possess their past,
nor yet what is to come. For even the next moment
is far off for man. Yet we should not become
confused by this, rather strengthened in preserving
the still-recognisable form … This once stood
among mankind, amidst ever-destructive fate,
in the middle of Not-Knowing-Where it stood
as if enduring and it drew down the stars from
their secure heaven. Angel – to you I will show it,
there! In your vision it will stand, now finally
upright and rescued at last. Columns, gateways,
the Sphinx, the up-striving thrust of the grey cathedral
in a city that is passing or is foreign to us.

Was this not miraculous? Marvel! Angel! We are
all this! We are – oh, great one – will you proclaim
what we can achieve? My own breath is too weak
for such praise! So we have not, after all,
failed to make use of these generous spaces,
these spaces of ours (how frighteningly vast
they must be, since thousands of years have passed
and still they do not overflow with feelings).
But a tower was great, was it not? Oh, angel, it was –
great, even when set beside you. Chartres was great –
and music reached higher still and passed beyond us.
Even a girl in love, all alone by a window at night …
did she not reach your knee -?
Do not think I am wooing.
Angel, even if I were, you would not come.
For my call is always full of leaving and against
such a powerful current you cannot move.
My call is like an outstretched arm.
And my hand, held open, reaching high
to grasp, in fact, is lifted before you,
splayed as if to ward off and warn
the ungraspable, far above.

Translated by Martyn Crucefix
(courtesy of the Enitharmon Press –


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