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Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies [First, Second, and Third] (1912)

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The Second Elegy

EVERY Angel is terror. I know it, yet still, alas!
I must sing you – you, great near-deadly birds
of the soul! Where have they gone, the days of Tobias
when one of those brilliant ones stood at the door
of the unexceptional house? Dressed for the journey
he was not at all terrible, a youth to the youth
who eagerly spied him. But should the Archangel –
dangerous, masked by the stars – should he tread
but a step Iower and closer we should be struck down
by our hammering hearts. What are you?

Fortune's favourites, early-successful,
Destiny-pampered; you stand as our very peaks
and our summit, seem crested and touched
by the rose of Creation; pollen of Godhead's own flowering;
limbs of the light; paths, stairways, thrones,
realms of pure being; emblazoned delight;
riots of sense's enchantments: and, of a sudden, alone –
you are mirrors: you pour out your beauty
but your faces gather it back to yourselves.

For whenever we feel – we evaporate;
we breathe ourselves, breathless, away; from ember to ember
burn with less fragrance. And when someone tells us:
Yes, my heart beats for you only; this room
and this springtime contain only you – Why, what of it?
He still cannot hold us; we disappear in him, around him.
And those who are beautiful . . . ? Oh, what might restrain them?
Appearance ceaselessly comes and goes in their faces . . .
As morning dew rises we lose what was ours . . .
the heat steams from us as from dishes uncovered.
What of our laughter, what of the watchfulness;
of the heart's surges, building, fading . . .?
. . . Alas, that is us.
Does then the cosmos in which we are gradually melting
not take a touch of our flavour? Not even
a taste of us? And the Angels, do they truly gather up
only their own . . . what flows out from them?
Isn't some of our essence, sometimes, by chance,
gathered up with it? Haven't we become
part of their nature? Just as women in pregnancy
share the same look, unknown to themselves,
a look of abstraction . . .?
(Why should they notice, caught in the whirling return into self?)

Lovers, if they knew how, might speak wondrously
under the night's silent air . . . It is as though
all things concealed us. See, our trees stand
and the houses we live in endure. Only we,
we alone drift past all of it – as if air
no more than changed places with air. And all things
conspire to silence us – we who embarrass them
yet remain, perhaps, their unsayable hope.

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