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

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And the boy? He feels his heavy eyelids dissolving
in the sweet foretaste of sleep which you conjure. Lies there
unburdened . . . and seems one protected. Yet
who can ward off, who safeguards his future?
Who stills the whirlpool raging inside him, the tempest of Origin?
Oh, how the child – sleeping; dreaming; feverish –
lets himself get carried completely away!
Such a new creature; so timid; already so deep entangled
in vine and creeper – all the activity writhing inside him
starting to weave itself into pattern; looping and choking;
predatory . . . animal. Yet how completely he gave himself to it.
Loved. Doted on all that wildness
inside him. Loved and gave himself up to exploring
the primitive beckoning forest within him; and over
its silent decay his shining green heart stood.
Loved. Loved it and left it behind him, outgrowing
his own roots . . . reaching for urgent beginning. Loving,
he finds himself wading in ancestral blood, goes down
into chasms where Terrors lie, sated; gorged
with the flesh of his fathers. They know him; nodding and winking;
sharing the secret.
The Unspeakable smiled at him – you, his mother, were
never as tender; how could he not answer with love
the thing that lay smiling . . .?
Loved it before even you. It was present
from the first day you bore him, dissolved in the waters
that carried his making.

Understand this: we do not love as flowers love,
all out of one single year. Whenever, wherever we love
the ageless juice rises . . . fills us, suffuses our limbs.
Dearest: that we might love, hold within us,
not the awaited One, but the Many;
their ferment too great to be numbered. Not one single child
but all fathers; like the ruins of mountains
they lie buried within us. Not one child
but the dry river-bed of long-ago mothers
– and all silent landscapes, whether their skies
show cloudless or stormy. Dearest: all this was before you.

As for yourself? Why then . . . it was you
who teased out prehistory from deep in your lover:
what emotion, from creatures long-gone, burst up into light!
What of the women who loathed you, and what of the spirits
of darkhearted men you roused in the veins of the young?
Dead children sought you.
But softly, now, softly: it is time
to do him some kindness, time to stand by him;
time to lead him close up to the garden . . . to help him
outbalance the night . . . to contain him.

Source: Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies. Translated from the German by Stephen Cohen. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1998, pp. 21-43.

Copyright © by Stephen Cohen. Preface copyright © by Peter Porter. First published 1989 in Great Britain by Carcanet Press Limited, Manchester. Northwestern University Press edition published 1998 by arrangement with Carcanet Press Limited. All rights reserved.

The translation is reproduced here with the permission of Northwestern University Press,

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