Sunday, February 19, 2012

On the Duino Elegies

Dear Rilke. If he were not a great poet, he might be one of the most purely annoying figures in the literary pantheon. Few poets have been responsible for as much bilge as Rilke has: he seems to be a magnet for a certain kind of literary narcissism. His invocations to self-insight and solitude can be easily softened into exhortations to mere self-regard or soft-centred spirituality, in the same way that Hollywood celebrities assure themselves that God loves them personally through determinedly vague readings of the Zorah. And Rilke’s moments of self-pity or mere fatuousness can seem to confirm your worst suspicions about the self-indulgence and preciousness of poets.

Not all of this is Rilke’s fault (although some of it is). Moreover, who of us could survive intact the reverent mythologising that has haunted Rilke’s legacy? And how many could survive his naivety? For one of his greatest strengths is his refusal to eschew what William Carlos Williams called “the essential naivety of the poet”. No one, not even a great poet, can survive this naivety without appearing at some point to be a fool. And perhaps only the very best and the very worst poets have the strength of mind to continue with that naivety once the world begins to mock it: the best because they see quite clearly that they have no choice but to seem foolish if they place their faith in poetry, and the worst because the world’s base mockery confirms them in their vain purity.

But I am already flinging around some big words – “faith”, “great”. It seems impossible to think about Rilke without them; but they apply in very contradictory ways. Contradiction, after all, lives in the heart of Rilke’s poetics. As William Gass points out, for a poet who hated organised Christianity, Rilke populated his poetry with enough Virgin Marys and angels to rival the Catholic Church. And I have no doubt that Rilke is a great poet: but what do I mean by that? I think I mean two things: his lack of embarrassment in the face of the numinous, by which I mean a certain courage (the other face of poetic naivety); and his sheerly beautiful language, which enacts the inarticulate vortices of passionate being. Nowhere are these qualities more evident than in the ten poems that comprise the Duino Elegies.

The Duino Elegies: The Tenth Elegy

Sometime, leaving this violent vision,
I’ll sing up joy and glory to assenting angels.
Let none of the clearstruck hammers of my heart
fail against softening, uncertain or
rent strings.  Let my streaming face
shine forth; let the plain weeping
flower.  O grieving night, then you become to me
what love is.  Why didn’t I kneel before you, inconsolable sisters,
why not accept you, give my loosening
within your loosened hair.  We, spendthrifts of sorrows.
How we look away to the sad duration beyond them
to see if they end.  Truly they are but
our enduring winter leaf, our dark evergreen,
one of the seasons of the secret year - , not only
seasons, - are place, settlement, storehouse, ground, home.

How strange, alas, are the streets of the city of pain,
where in the falsity, uproar becomes a powerful
silence, and out of the mould of the void outpours,
bragging its gilded noise, this bursting monument.
O, how an angel would trample their market of solace,
and the fenced church, bought ready-made:
clean and shut and disillusioned as the post on Sunday.
But outside swirl the edges of carnival.
Swings of freedom! Divers and jugglers of passion!
And the embracing happiness of shooting galleries,
where the trick shot hits the target, fidgeting off
its tinplate.   From applause to chance
he staggers on; for booths enlist his every curiosity,
drumming and yelling.  Especially 
for adults: money’s anatomical reproduction!
more than just amusement: the genitals of money -
everything, the whole process - , worth seeing for instruction
and fertility...
  Oh but just outside, over there,
behind the final hoarding plastered with ads for “Deathless”,
that bitter beer which seems so sweet to drinkers
who always imbibe it with fresh dissipations,
just at the back of the hoarding, just behind, it’s real.
Children play and lovers hold one another, - aside,
earnestly, in the shabby grass, dogs follow nature.
It draws the youth further; perhaps he loves
a young Lament.  He comes up behind her in the meadows.  She says:
Far away.  We live out there...
     Where?  And the young man
follows.  Her posture moves him.  The shoulder, the throat - , perhaps
her origins are noble.  But he leaves her, 
turns away, waves.  What’s the use?  She’s just a Lament.

Only the young dead, in that first condition
of timeless equanimity, that of weaning,
follow her lovingly.  Girls
she awaits and befriends.  Gently she shows them
what she has on.  Pearls of pain and the fine
veils of endurance.  - She goes with the young men 

But where they live, in the valley, one of the older Laments
grabs the youth when he questions her: - We were,
she says, once a great family, we Lamentations.  Our fathers
worked the mines there in that huge range; among men
sometimes you find a polished fragment of original pain
or slaggy petrified rage from an old volcano.
Yes, that came from here.  Once we were rich. -

And lightly she leads him through the wide landscape of  Lament,
shows him the temple columns or the ruins
of towers, from where the Lament Lords wisely
ruled the land.  Shows him the high
tear trees and fields of blossoming sadness,
(the living know them only as gentle foliage);
shows him the pastured beasts of mourning, - and sometimes
a startled bird, flying straight through their upglance,
writes the distant image of its solitary cry. -
At evening she leads him on to the graves of the oldest
Lamentations, the sibyls and omen masters.
But night presses, so they walk more gently, and soon
the moon lifts up the sepulchre
that watches over everything.  Twin to the one of the Nile,
the lofty Sphinx - : the secret chambered
And they are awed by the regal head, that forever
silently places human vision
on the scales of stars.

His sight can’t take it, dizzied 
by early death.  But her glance
from behind the pschent frightens an owl.  And its
slow downstroke brushes along the cheek,
the one with the ripest roundness,
sketches softly in the new
death-given hearing, over a doubly
upflapped page, the indescribable outline.

And higher, the stars.  New.  The stars of the Painlands.
Slowly the Lamentation names them:  “Here,
see: the Rider, the Staff, and that fuller constellation
they call Fruitwreath.  Then, further, towards the Pole,
Cradle, Way, The Burning Book, Doll, Window.
But in the southern sky, pure as the interior
of a blessed hand, the clear radiant M
that signifies mothers...”

But the dead must go on, and silently the older Lament 
brings him as far as the gorge,
where the source of joy 
shimmers in moonlight.  She names it
with reverence, saying: “Among men
it’s a sustaining stream.”

They stand at the foot of the range.
And there she embraces him, weeping.

Alone then he climbs the mountains of primal pain.
And his step never once rings on his soundless destiny.

But if they awakened a likeness within us, the endlessly dead,
they’d show us perhaps the catkins hanging
from empty hazels, or 
would mean rain falling on dark earth in the early year.  -

And we, who think of happiness
climbing, would feel the compassion
which almost confounds us,
when happiness falls
Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Alison Croggon 

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Duino Elegies: The Ninth Elegy

Why, when it approaches, the interval of life
surges forward, as laurel, a little darker than all
other green, with tiny waves on every
leaf edge (like a smiling wind) -:  why then
must we be human - and, shunning destiny,
long for destiny ...
   Oh, not because there is happiness,
that hurried gain so close to loss.
Not out of curiosity, nor for the heart’s use
which was also in the laurel .....
But because being here is so much and all that is here
seems to desire us, these vanishings, that so strangely
approach us.  Us, the most vanishing.  Each thing once,
only once.  Once and no more.  And we also
once.  Never again.  But this
once was real, even if only once:
earthly and real, shining beyond revocation.

And so we compel ourselves and will to achieve it,
will to hold in our simple hands,
in the generous glance and in speechless hearts.
Will to become it.  To give to whom?  We’d love
to keep it forever.  Ah, to that other dimension,
woe, what can be taken there?  Not that intuitive sight, learnt here
so slowly, and nothing that happened here.  Nothing.
Thus the sorrows.  Thus, most of all, the weight of being,
thus love’s slow unfolding - thus
the purely unsayable.  But later,
under the stars, what then:  they are better unsaid.
Yet the wanderer brings from the mountain edge
not a handful of speechless earth, but a word
hard-won, absolute, the yellow and blue
gentian.  Perhaps we are here to say:  house,
bridge, spring, gate, jug, fruit-tree, window -
at most:  column, tower ...  But to say, you understand,
oh to say in such a way that these things never
meant so intensely to be.  Isn’t the secret cunning
of this reticent earth, when she urges lovers,
simply that each and each rejoice in their feeling?
Threshold: what is it for two
lovers, that they should slightly wear down
the older threshold of that door, they too, after so many before them
and in the future ...., lightly.

Here is the sayable time, here its home.
Speak and confess.  More than ever
things fall away, our experiences, as 
they are driven out and replaced by an imageless act.
Act under crusts that will split whenever
the business inside outgrows them and finds other outlines.
Between the hammer endures
the heart, as the tongue
between the teeth, that yet
nevertheless still praises.

Praise the world to the angel, not the unsayable, to him
you can’t brag of magnificent beatitude:  in the world
where he so feelingly feels, you are a novice.  So show
him the simple, formed from generation to generation,
which lives as a part of ourselves near the hand and in looking.
Tell him the Things.  He will stand astonished, as you stood
beside the roper in Rome or by the Egyptian potter.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent and ours,
how even complaining grief purely decides on a form,
serves as a thing, or dies into a thing, - and beyond
approaches the bliss of a violin.  And these things, which live
by departure, understand that you celebrate them; transitory,
surely they rescue us, the most transient.
They want us to change them wholly in our invisible hearts
into - o endlessly - into ourselves! which finally also we are.

Earth, isn’t this what you want:  invisibly
rising within us?  Isn’t your dream
just once to be invisible?  Earth!  Invisible!
What, if not transformation, is your urgent order?
Earth, my love, I will.  Oh faith, my yielding to you needs
no more of your springs, one, 
ah, only one is already too much for my blood.
I’ve been namelessly yours from the very beginning.
You were always right, and your holiest insight
is this intimate death.
See, I live.  On what?  Neither childhood nor the future
dwindles .....  Supernumerous being
springs in my heart.

Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Alison Croggon

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Duino Elegies: The Eighth Elegy

For Rudolph Kassner

With all its eyes the creaturely sees
the open.  But our eyes are
as if reversed and placed all round it
like snares ringing its free departure.
What is outside, we know from the beast’s 
face only: for we turn around
the early child and force it to see formation
backwards, not the open, which is so deep
in beastsight.  Free from death.
Only we see death; the free beast
has its going down behind it
and before it god, and when it goes, goes
into eternity, like a running spring.
We have never, not for a single day,
the pure space before us, in which flowers
unendingly burst open.  It is always world
and never nowhere without no:
that pureness, that unwatched, which one breathes and 
endlessly knows and never wants.  But a child
might lose himself inside the quiet and become
shaken.  Or someone dies and is.
For near to death one sees that death no more
and stares ahead, perhaps with a beast’s huge glance.
Lovers, were not the other barring
sight, are nearby, astounded . . .
As if in error one is lifted
behind the other.  But beyond him
nothing emerges, and world returns.
The universe is always empathetic, we see
there only reflections of freedom
darkened by us.  Or an animal’s
dumb glance, silent through and through.
These rule destiny: to be opposite
and nothing else and always opposite.

Were the awareness of our species in the
sure beast, which pulls towards us
from another direction - , it would drag us 
into its mutability.  But for the beast its being is
unending, unprepared, and without insight
of its belonging, pure, like its outward glance.
And where we see future, there it sees all
and itself in all and healed for always.

And yet in the wakeful warm animal
is the weight and sorrow of a huge dejection.
For it also clings to what often
overwhelms us, - a memory,
that what we thrust after, was formerly
nearer, truer and its connection
endlessly tender.  Here all is distance,
and there was breath.  After the first home
the second is ambiguous and windy.
O bliss of tiny creatures
which remain always in the womb which carries them;
o happiness of the gnat, which still hops within,
even on its wedding: for womb is all.
And see the half assurance of a bird,
which almost knows both through its origin,
as if it were one of those Etruscan souls
received by space out of a corpse
whose silent figure is its lid.
And how dismayed is one which must fly
out of its native womb.  As if it is
afraid of itself, it zigzags through the air, like a crack
running through a cup.  So the track
of a bat rends through the porcelain evening.

And we: onlookers, always, over all,
interested in everything, and never looking out!
Overfills us.  We order.  It decays.
We order again and ourselves decay.

Who turned us thus around, so we,
no matter what, have the pose 
of one who is departing? As he who on
the last hill which still shows
his whole valley, will turn, halt, pause -,
so we live, forever taking leave. 
Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Alison Croggon

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Duino Elegies: The Seventh Elegy

Woo no more, no wooing, outgrowing voice,
be your natural cry; your cry pure as the bird
when the heightening seasons lift him up, almost forgetting
that he is a pitiable animal and not just a single heart
they fling into brightness, into the ardent sky.  You plead
as wholly as he does, no less - for the yet invisible
friend to arrive within you, in whose silence an answer
slowly awakes and warms itself over listening, -
your venturing touch which kindles feeling.

O and spring comprehends - , there is no place
which doesn’t carry the note of prophecy.  First each little
inquiring sound, which with the gathering stillness
expansively hushes a purely assenting day.
Then the steps upward, the call-steps up to the dreamt
temple of futurity - ; then to the trill, the fountain
whose urgent jet already grasps its collapse
in a play of promise ... And before this, the summer.
Not only all of the summer mornings - not only
how they change themselves into day and shine of beginning.
Not only the days, so soft around flowers, and above
so strong and forceful about the forming trees.
Not only the prayer of these unfolding powers,
not only the paths, not only the fields of evening,
not only, after late storm, the breathing clarities,
not only approaching sleep, and a prescience, evening ...
but the nights!  But the high
summer nights, but the stars, the stars of the earth. 
O once to be dead and endlessly know them,
all the stars:  for how, how, how to forget them!

See, there I called for the lover.  But not only
she came ... Out of their fragile graves
girls came and stood ...  How then could I confine,
how, this continually calling call?  The sunken still
constantly want the earth. -  You children, here it means as much
to wholly feel one thing, as a thousand.
Don’t think that fate is more than the gift of childhood;
how often you overtake the beloved, panting,
panting, after the blissful flow, to nothing, to free air.
Being here is magnificent.  You knew it, girls, you also,
sunk in your seeming lack - in evil
city alleys suppurating with open rubbish.
For each there was an hour, maybe not
even an hour, one measure of time barely 
measurable between two whiles: there she had
being.  All.  The vein-full being.
But we forget so easily what the laughing neighbour
neither confirms nor envies.  We want to possess
the visible, although the most visible joy 
first gave itself to perception when we transformed it within.

Beloved, world can be nowhere but within.  Our lives,
changing, arrive there.  And always the outward
meanly contracts.  Where once was a durable house,
an abstract structure, wholly imagined, 
stamps itself in the brain.
The zeitgeist forges huge silos of power, extracted 
out of everything, formless as the excited throng.
It knows the temple no more.  Of all the heart’s extravagance
secretly we spare this one.  Yes, where only one endures,
one once petitioned thing, once served, once knelt before -
holding itself, just as it is, already there in invisibility ...
Many see it no more, missing their chance
of building it now within, with pillars and statues, greater!

Each dulled return of the world has such disinherited,
neither the dawns nor the nights belong to them. 
For nearness is also far from mankind.  This must not
confuse us; the proof within us is strong
of this yet perceptible form.  It once stood beneath us,
in the midst of destiny, in annihilation, it stood
in not-knowing-where, as it was, and bent
stars to itself out of the steady sky.  Angel,
I’ll show you, there!  In your aspect
it stands, rescued at last, now finally upright.
Columns, pylons, the Sphinx, the shoring buttresses
of domes, grey in the strange, vanishing city.
Wasn’t it miraculous?  O Angel, be amazed, because we are,
o great one, tell how we desired so much, my breath 
cannot encompass such praise.  So after all we haven’t
neglected the spaces, these vouchsafed, these,
our spaces.  (How terrifyingly vast they must be
if they’re not swamped by millennia of feelings).
But a tower was great, surely?  O Angel, it was, -
great, even next to you?  Chartres was great - and music
reached still further and overstepped us.  But even only
a lover, o alone at the nightly window ....
didn’t she reach to your knee - ?
     Don’t believe that I beg.
Angel, I even beseech you!  You don’t come.  For my call 
is always full of away; against so strong
a current you cannot advance.  Like an outstretched
arm is my call.  And its hand opening
to the grasp above remains against you
open, as defence and warning,
Ungraspable, further on.

Rainer Maria Rilke, transated by Alison Croggon

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Duino Elegies: The Fifth Elegy

For Frau Hertha Koenig

But who are they, tell me, these vagrants, a little
more fugitive even than us, in their springtime
so urgently wrung by one who - who pleases
a never contented will?  So it wrings them,
bends them, twists them, swings them, 
flings them and catches them behind:  out of the oil-smooth
air they come down
onto the flimsy carpet worn
by their eternal leaping, this forlorn
carpet lost in the universe.
Stuck on like a plaster, as if there the suburban
sky had wounded the earth.
    And scarcely there,
upright, there and shown:  the vast
initial letter of Being ..., so the strongest
men roll again to the joke, that ever
approaching grip, like a tin plate rolled by August the Strong
along a table.

Ah and around this 
centre, the rose of looking:
blooms and defoliates.  Around this
pestle, the pistil, stricken
by its own blooming pollen again
conceiving illusory fruits of disgust, never
aware of it, - bright with flimsy
surfaces the frail smile-sheen of disgust.

There, the flabby, wrinkled strongman,
old and now only drumming,
decayed in his mighty skin, as if once
two men lived there and one
lay now in the graveyard, and the other outlived him,
deaf and sometimes a little
bewildered in his widowed skin.

But the young man like the son of a thug
and a nun: he’s strong and stuffed full
of muscles and simpleness.

Oh you,
who once were given a pain, that was still
small, like a toy, in one of your
slow convalescences....

You, who fall with the shock
only fruits know, upripely
a hundred times daily out of the commonly built
tree of motion (that, quicker than water, in a short
minute bears spring, summer and autumn) -
fall and crash to the grave:
sometimes, in half a pause, a loving face wants
to grow beyond you towards your seldomly
tender mother; but it loses itself in your body
which smoothly consumes it, that shy, 
scarcely attempted expression ...  And again
the man claps his hand to begin the leap and before
an ache forms distinctly near your perpetually
jogging heart, the brands of footsoles
arrive, its origin, driving before them with pain
the quick and carnal tears into your eyes.
And yet, blindly,
the smile .....

Angel! o take, pluck, the small-flowered leaves of healing.
Make a vase to preserve them!  Place among them our yet
unopening gladness; inscribe the lovely urn
with flowering, soaring praise:
          Subrisio Saltat.

You then, darling,
you, mutely leapt over
by the most bewitching of joys.  Perhaps
your frills are happy for you - ,
or over your young
taut breasts the green metallic silk
feels itself endlessly pampered and wanting nothing.
constantly place on all the swaying scales of equilibrium 
under your public shoulders 
a marketfruit of equanimity.

Where, o where is the place, - I carry it in my heart - ,
where still they can do nothing, still fall away
from each other, like mounting animals
wrongly coupled; -
where the weights are still heavy,
where from their vainly
whirling sticks the plates
stagger and fall .....

And suddenly in this laborious nowhere, suddenly
the unsayable place, where the pure too-little
inexplicably changes - , leaps
into that empty too-much.
Where the many-numbered calculation
numberlessly resolves.

Plaza o plaza in Paris, infinite theatre,
where the modiste, Madame Lamort,
knots and winds those endless ribbons,
the restless ways of the earth, inventing new
nooses, ruffles, flowers, cockades, artificial fruits  -  all
falsely coloured - for the cheap
winterhats of destiny.


Angel: there’s a place that we don’t know, and there
on some unsayable carpet, lovers display what now
they can never bring up to knowing - their bold
high figures of heartplay, 
their towers of pleasure, their
long-since groundless ladders, leaning
on only each other, tremulously, - and understand
before the surrounding onlookers, the innumerable soundless dead:
Wouldn’t the dead then throw their last, ever-hoarded,
ever-concealed, unknown, eternally
valid coins of luck before the finally
truly-smiling pair on the stilled

Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Alison Croggon

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Duino Elegies: The Fourth Elegy

O trees of life, where’s winter?
We are not one.  Are not intelligent
as flocking birds. Outstripped and late,
we hurl ourselves into sudden winds
and fall down into apathetic pools.
Bloom and wither meet in us.
And somewhere still roam lions who understand
in their majesty, nothing of impotence.

But for us, when we assert one thing wholly,
it’s at the other’s palpable expense.  Enmity
is what follows.  Don’t lovers tread
always on edges, one into the other,
which promise them width, pursuit and home?
There for the blink of an eye becoming a sketch,
a ground of contrast arduously prepared,
to aid perception; only then can we
distinguish it.  We don’t know the contours
of feeling, only what forms it from outside.
Who hasn’t sat timidly before his own heart’s curtain?
It flings itself up: the scenery is parting.
Easy to understand.  The familiar garden,
slightly swaying: then first of all the dancer.
Not him.  Enough.  And if he acts too lightly
he’s just disguised, he turns into a bourgeois
going home through the kitchen.
I’ll not have these half-filled masks,
rather the puppet.  That’s full.  I’ll endure
the skin and the wire and its sight
that’s all outlooking.   Here.  I’m waiting.
Even if the footlights go out, even if they 
say to me: Nothing more - , even if the stage
breathes out grey draughts of void,
even if none of my silent forebears
will sit with me, no woman, not even
the boy with the brown-eyed squint. 
I’ll stay anyway.  It’s always a spectacle.

Am I not right?  You, to whom life with me
tasted so bitter, sipping mine, father,
that first thickened infusion of my force,
always bigger sips as I grew,
and busy with its aftertaste of such strange
future, tested my covert gaze, -
You, father, often since your death
my inmost hope is your fear for me, 
giving up death’s equanimity, empires
of equanimity, for my bitten destiny,
am I not right? And you, am I not right,
that you loved me for that little beginning
love for you, which I always drove away,
because the space in your countenance overflowed,
there as I loved you, to worldspace,
and you were no longer there. When it moves me
to wait in front of the puppet stage, no,
gazing so intensely that as my gaze 
at last swings up, an angel is forced down 
as an actor, shredding the skins.
Angel and puppet: that’s finally drama.
Then what we’re always dividing while we’re here
comes together.  Then emerges
the circle of all mutability out of our
first seasons.  Then the angel plays
over and under us.  Look, don’t the dying
imagine the whole pretext of everything
is what we achieve here?  Everything
is not itself.  O hours of childhood,
behind those figures was more than just
a past, and before us was not the future.
We grew of course, and sometimes we pushed
ourselves to grow up quickly, half to please
those others who had no more than their bigness.
And yet in our solitude we were
amused with duration, and stood there 
in the interstices between world and toy,
on a place which from the earliest beginning
was founded for a pure process.

Who shows a child what he is?  Who places
him in his constellations and puts in his hand
the measure of distance?  Who makes the childish death
out of grey bread grown hard, or leaves
it in his round mouth, like the core
of a beautiful apple?  . . . Murderers
are easy to understand.  But this: death,
the whole of death, even before life so
soft to hold and so unmalignant,
is indescribable. 
Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Alison Croggon

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Duino Elegies: The Third Elegy

One thing to sing the beloved.  Another, alas,
that hidden guilty rivergod of blood.
Her distantly known boy, her lover, what does he know
of the lords of lust, who often, out of his loneliness,
before the girl soothes him, often as if she doesn’t exist, 
overflow, ah, from what unrecognisable, heaving the godhead
up, rousing the night to unending uproar.
O the blood’s Neptune, his awesome trident!
O the dark blast of his breast from the winding shell!
Hear how the night hollows itself.  You stars,
doesn’t the lover’s delight in the face of his loved one
stem from you?  Doesn’t his ardent insight
into her pure sight come from the purest star?

Not for you, alas, nor for his mother
is the taut bow of his expectation.
Not for you, girl who feels him, not for you
does his lip bend to fertile expression.
Did you really think that your lighter appearance
would shake him, you, who step like an early wind?
Of course you terrified his heart; but older terrors
hurled into him at the shock of touch.
Call him - you can’t call him back from those dark companions.
Of course, he wants to, he springs; lightened he settles 
himself in your homely heart and grasps and begins himself.
But did he ever begin himself?
Mother, you made him small, it was you who began him;
to you he was new, you bent over those new
eyes the friendly world and averted the strange.
Where, ah where are the years when just for him 
with your slender form you trod back the boiling chaos?
You hid so much from him; that nightly suspected room
you made harmless: out of your heart’s full refuge 
you mixed human space into his night-space.
Not within darkness, no, in your nearer being
you set the nightlight, and it shone as if out of friendship.
Nowhere a creak your smile didn’t explain,
as if you’d long known when the plank would behave so.
And he heard you and relaxed.  You managed so much
tenderly standing there; his tall mantled destiny stepped
behind the cupboard, and in the folds of the curtain
lay neatly what so easily slips, his unruly future.

And he himself, as he lay, relieved, under
sleepy lids your lightening form
loosening sweetly into the foretaste of sleep - :
seeming protection.  But inside: what checked,
what hindered inside him the floods of origin?
Ah, there was no caution in that sleeper; sleeping,
but dreaming, but in fever: he sank himself.
He, new, fearful, how he was tangled
in the long vines of inner event
winding already to intricate patterns, to strangling growths, to bestial
predatory forms.  How he gave himself up - .  Loved.
Loved his innerness, his interior wilderness,
these ur-forests within him, on whose mute collapse
stood his greenlit heart.  Loved.  Left it, and went
down to his roots and out to immense beginning
where his small birth was already outlived.  Lovingly
lifted down into older blood, the ravines
where horror lay, gorged with his fathers.  And every
terror knew him, winking, was so understanding.
Yes, atrocity smiled. . .  Seldom
have you smiled so tenderly, mother.  How could he
not love what smiled at him.  He loved it
before you, for even as you bore him
it loosened inside the waters that lighten the seed.

See, we don’t love like flowers, for one
single year; we raise, when we love,
immemorial sap in our arms.  O girl,
this: that we love inside us, not one, a possible, but
numberless brewings; not a single child,
but the fathers who root as ruinous mountains
in the ground of us; but the parched riverbeds
of earlier mothers - ; but the entire
noiseless landscape under its clouded or
clear destiny: these, girl, forestalled you. 

And you yourself, what do you know - , you coax 
deep pasts up in your lover.  What feelings
swelled out of mutable substance?  What women
hated you there?  What sinister men
did you rouse in the veins of boys?  Dead
children reached towards you. . . O softly, softly,
make love for him, a solid day’s work, - lead him
close to the garden, give him the night’s
excess. . . . .
  Restrain him. . . . .
Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Alison Croggon

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Duino Elegies: The Second Elegy

Every angel is terrible.  And yet, alas,
when I hear of you, deadly birds of the soul,
I desire you.  How long since the days of Tobias,
when one of the radiant would stand at the plain front door,
slightly disguised for the journey, no longer alarming
(a young man to the young man looking curiously out).
If the archangel, perilous behind the stars, trod now 
only one step down here:  our own hearts
beating so high would kill us.  Who are you?

Early blessings, you coddle creation’s
mountain ranges, the red dawning edges 
of all making. - Pollen of blossoming godliness,
hinges of light, corridors, stairs, thrones,
expanses of being, shields of rapture, tumults
of stormily joyous feelings and suddenly, singly,
mirrors: which draw up again their own flowing beauty
into their own faces.

For we, when we feel, evaporate; ah, we
breathe ourselves out and away; from ember to ember
giving a fainter smell.  Here perhaps someone might say
yes, you enter my blood, this room, the spring
feels itself with you ... it’s no use, he can’t hold us,
we dwindle in and around him.  And those who are beautiful,
o who holds them back?  Appearance continuously 
enters and leaves their gaze.  As dew on the early grass
what is ours rises from us, as the heat of a
steaming dish.  O smile, where do you go?  O upturned glance:
new, warm, vanishing wave of hearts -;
alas, that’s what we are.  Does the universe 
in which we dissolve, taste of us?  Do angels capture
only their realness, streaming towards them,
or sometimes, in error, a little
of our being?  Are we only diffused
in their features, like a vagueness in the gaze
of pregnant women?  Unremarked in the vortex 
of their recoil to themselves.  (How should they remark it.)

Lovers might, if they understood, speak
amazedly in the night air. For it seems that everything
hides us.  See, the trees are; the houses 
we inhabit still persist.  Only we 
pass everything by like an exchange of air.
And everything unites to conceal us, half in 
shame perhaps and half in unsayable hope.

Lovers, you, who fulfil yourselves in each other,
I ask about us.  You seize yourselves.  Have you proofs?
See, what happens to me is that my hands 
move within one another, or my used
expression considers itself in them.  That gives me a little
sensation.  Yet who would gamble existence on that?
But you, who swell each other in rapture, until overcome you
implore: no more - ; you who under each other’s hands
grow ample as vintage grapes;
vanishing sometimes, only because the other
wholly seizes the upper hand: I ask you about us.  I know
you touch so blessedly because the caress persists,
because the place doesn’t fade, that you, fondlings,
conceal; because beneath it you feel
pure duration.  So your embrace almost
promises eternity.  And yet, when you endure
the first frightened glance, the yearning at the window,
and the first walk together, once through the garden:
lovers, do you yet exist?  When you join your mouths 
one to the other -: drink on drink:
o how oddly the drinkers elude their action.

Weren’t you amazed by the prudence of human gesture
on attic steles? weren’t love and departure placed
so lightly on shoulders, that they seemed to be made
from stuff other than us?  Think of the hands,
how they rest without weight, despite the strength of the torso.
Those masters knew this: we are so big
we encompass this, and may touch it so; the gods lean
hard against us.  But this is the business of gods.
Could we but find our own strip of orchard, 
contained, pure, narrow, human, 
between river and rock.  Then would our heart overstep us
even as theirs.  And we can no longer
gaze after it into those soothing figures, nor in 
those godly bodies, where it more modestly expands.

Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Alison Croggon

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Duino Elegies: The First Elegy

Who, if I cry, hears me among the angelic
orders?  and even supposing one of them seized me
suddenly to his heart:  I’d vanish
in his violent presence.  For beauty is nothing
but this terrifying beginning, which astonishingly we endure,
and we admire it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us.  Each single angel is terrible.
And so I restrain myself and choke this call 
in darkening sobs.  Ah, who then is able
to our need?  Not angels, not men,
and the clever animals understand well
that we are not trustingly at home
in our imagined world.  There remains for us perhaps
some tree on a slope that from day to day
we re-encounter; there remain yesterday’s streets
and that distorted fidelity of a habit
which kissed us with pleasure, and so remained.
O and the night, the night, when the wind full of worldspace
consumes our faces - where does she not remain, this longing, 
soft disillusioner, whom solitary hearts
laboriously approach?  Is she lighter for lovers?
Ah, with each other they only conceal their lot.
Don’t you know yet?  Fling the void from your arms
towards this freedom, where we breathe:  perhaps as birds
sense the expanding air with more ardent flight.

Yes, the spring needed you.  It petitioned
many a star to you, so you might trace it.  It lifted
itself as a wave out of the past, or maybe
there as you passed an opened window
a violin gave itself.  That was all a duty.
But were you overpowered?  Were you not always
distracted by expectation, as if it all announced
a nearby lover?  (How could you hold her,
when the vast strange thoughts within you
wink in and out and often stay all night.)
Yet it desires you; so sing the lovers:  their renowned
feelings are far from immortal enough.
Those abandoned, you envied them almost, whom you found
so much more loving than the requited:  perpetually
begin their unattainable praise.
Think:  the hero survives, his foundering self
is but a pretext for being, his ultimate birth.
But lovers are grasped by exhausted nature
back to herself, as if such strength could not
flare twice.  Have you said enough
of Gaspara Stampa, that any woman
whose lover escaped her would feel this love
for her stronger example:  if I could be like her?
Shouldn’t at last these oldest sufferings
bear more fruit?  Isn’t it time that in loving
we freed ourselves from the lover and tremulously endured:
as the arrow endures the string, gathering in the leaping off
to a being more than self?  For remaining is nowhere.

Voices, voices.  Hear, my heart, how otherwise only
the holy hear:  so when the immense cry
lifted them up from the ground, they kept kneeling,
impossibly, more deeply attentive:
such was their listening. Not that you could endure
the voice of God, even remotely.  But hear the waves,
the ceaseless communication shaped out of silence.
It rushes now from those young dead towards you.
Whenever you entered a church in Rome and Naples,
didn’t their destiny silently press upon you?
Or it sublimely bore you an inscription
as recently the plaque in Santa Maria Formosa.
What does it want of me?  Gently I must remove
this false appearance, which sometimes slightly
impedes the pure motion of its spirits.

Certainly, it’s strange to inhabit the earth no longer,
discarding scarcely learnt customs, no longer using
roses and other expressly promised things
to give the future a human meaning,
to be no more whatever one was 
in endlessly anxious hands, and even to leave one’s name
behind like a shattered toy.
Strange, the wish to wish no longer.  Strange
to see all those relations fluttering
so loosely in space.  And this being dead is painful
and full of retrieving, as one gradually sees
a little eternity. - But the living are all mistaken,
marking divisions so certainly.
Angels (they say) often don’t know if they pass
over or under the living or the dead.  The endless torrent
tears all ages through both spheres
always and in both sounds over them.

Finally they need us no longer, the early departed,
they wean themselves gently from earth, as one outgrows
the mild breasts of a mother.  But we, who so desire
vast mysteries, whose grief so often
springs in blissful progress:  can we exist without them?
Is the myth pointless, how once, in the mourning for Linos,
music’s first wager broke the nerveless drought,
and how the terrified space, which an almost godlike boy
suddenly left forever, first struck in the void
that other vibration, which now overwhelms us,
and comforts, and helps.

Rainer Maria Rilke, translation Alison Croggon