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

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The Third Elegy

ONE thing to sing the beloved: how different, alas! to sing
of that secret and wicked river-god of our blood!
What can that young man, marked from afar by a girl,
know of that Lord of Desire; of that implacable head
bursting again and again – up from the fathomless depths!
Still unconsenting, often . . . often as if she were nothing . . .
stirring the night awake to unending uproar.
O the god of our blood, his barbed, cruel trident;
O ominous wind from his breast of spiralling seashell!
Listen, the night moulds itself into caverns and tunnels.
O stars, does not a lover's delight in the face of his mistress
come straight from you? Does not his knowledge
of her shining features
flow to him out of the night's shining stars?

Alas, it was not you, his mother,
who bent the bow of his eyebrows to urgent expectancy.
Nor is it your presence, maiden so moved by him,
curving his lip to such a fervent expression.
You, whose footfall is light as the dawn's . . .
can you really believe that the sound of your gentle approach
could so discompose him? Yes, you touched fear in his heart,
but terror itself came rushing back too, with that touch.
Call to him: it isn't easy to hold him back
from those bitter engagements; yet that's what he wants
and so he wins free and escapes them. Unburdened, he learns
to live in his secret retreat, his place in your heart;
there he takes up his self and begins it.
Did he ever really begin it?
Mother: you made his model . . . it was you who began him;
new, even to you. Bending your body
over the eyes newly-opened, you were a whole world familiar.
Where did they go? the years when your slender figure,
alone, stood in the path of weltering chaos?
You shielded him from so much; made innocent
the bedroom which night had turned sinister; brought from the store
of your sheltering heart a human dimension to night-space.
And the candle, you placed it . . . not out there in the dark,
you brought it close to shine on your nearness, shining in friendship.
Each unexplained sound, you would smile and explain it
as if you had known in advance every creak of the boards . . .
and he heard you; he relaxed, reassured. So many portents
demanded your tender alertness; his cloaked Fate,
tall by the wardrobe – and in folds of the curtains his Future,
fugitive, restless.

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