Diary of the Plague Year: Day 89 12 June 2020: Quotidian Poetry: Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926), Duino Elegies

The Fourth Elegy

O trees of life, when does your winter come?
We are not attuned, not at one, we lack the instinct
of migrant birds. Late, we get left standing –
abruptly we launch ourselves into the wind
only to go plummeting down into water
that does not care for us. At once, we feel ourselves
both wither and flower. Somewhere else, lions
roam unaware of any weakness in their majesty.

But for us, as we focus on one thing, already
we feel the pull of another. Conflict is always
our companion. Even those in love, are they not
always confronting each other’s limits
though promised space, good hunting, a home?
    It’s as if – in a quick sketch – all the effort
has gone to prepare a background that allows us
to see precisely and yet still we cannot grasp
the real contour of our feelings and know
only the pressures that shape us from outside.
    Who has not sat before his own heart’s curtain
anxiously. It rises! The stage set for a scene
of parting that is simple enough to understand
with the garden, so familiar, wavering a little.
Enter a dancer – oh, no, not him! – enough!
No matter how gracefully he moves, nothing
disguises the fact he is a bourgeois who gains
access to his apartment through the kitchen.
    I cannot bear these half-filled human masks.
Better have a puppet. At least it’s full.
I can put up with a puppet’s stuffed limbs, wire,
the appearance of a face. Here. I’m waiting.
Even if the lights black out, or if one shouts
‘That’s your lot!’ and even if emptiness drifts
like a grisly draught towards me off the stage,
even if none of my tight-lipped ancestors
will sit beside me – no, not one of the women,
even the boy with his squinting brown eye.
I’ll stay anyway. I can always watch this.

Am I not right? Father – you knew it well,
how life tasted bitter after you had taken a sip
of me, first turbid dose of what had to be done.
As I grew, you kept on drinking, became
troubled at the after-taste of so strange a future
and searched out answers in my clouded gaze.
You, who so often since you died, have grown
more anxious for my well-being – so I feel,
in the depths of hope – giving up the serenity
of the dead, that serene realm they each take
possession of, given for this scrap of my life.
And am I right? All you others – am I not? –
you who loved me from the small beginnings
of my love for you, which I always turned
aside from because the space within your face
I fell in love with grew more like outer space,
where you seemed no more to exist for me.
Am I not right to feel that I must remain
sitting before this puppet show – indeed, to stare
at it so intently, in the end, that in answer
to my gaze an angel comes, a player, to shake
life into these stuffed dolls! Angel and puppet –
then, at last, a real drama worth my watching!
Then all that we divide simply by being here
can come together. Our fluid seasons can take
their place in the far greater cycle of change.
Then the angel plays on above us and beyond.
If no one else, should not the dying perceive
the unreality, how full of pretence
is everything we do here, how nothing
is really itself. Oh, the hours of childhood,
when what stood behind its figures was more
than the past and what spread before us was not
the future. Of course, we knew we were growing.
Even then, we felt impatient at times
to be fully grown – half for the sake of those
who had nothing to show but that they had grown.
Yet – left to ourselves – we found happiness
in what did not change and we lived then
in the interval between the world and our toys,
in a place that from the beginning had been
prepared for this pure event.

Who shows a child for what he really is?
Who sets him in the stars and thrusts a rule
to measure the distance of separation in his hand?
Who creates death for a child from grey bread
which only hardens – or who leaves it
in his round mouth like the core of a sweet apple?
Murderers are easy to understand. But this –
to be so possessed by death, the whole of death,
even before life has really begun – to take in
the fact, but gently, so as not to refuse in anger –
this . . . it’s unspeakable!


Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated by Martyn Crucefix
Introduction by Karen Leeder