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

In 1912, during an extended stay at the home of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, the Castle Duino near Trieste, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) began writing the first elegies in the cycle of poems that would eventually become known as Duino Elegies. He continued his work in 1913 and 1915, but first finished the cycle in February 1922, having been interrupted both by the dramatic political events and a personal creative lull. The poems were published the following year with a dedication to Princess Marie. Rilke’s evocative language, his symbolism and daring use of metaphor combine to make Duino Elegies a unique achievement in the history of German poetry. The complexity of the elegies’ content and the profundity of their references, often drawn from religion, reflect Rilke’s conception of the human condition. At the same time, these elements also make the elegies some of the most demanding poems in the German language.

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The First Elegy

WHO, if I cried out, might hear me – among the ranked Angels?
Even if One suddenly clasped me to his heart
I would die of the force of his being. For Beauty is only
the infant of scarcely endurable Terror, and we
are amazed when it casually spares us.
Every Angel is terrible.
And so I check myself, choke back my summoning
black cry. Who'll help us then? Not Angels,
not Mankind; and the nosing beasts soon scent
how insecurely we're housed in this signposted World.
And yet a tree might grow for us upon some hill
for us to see and see again each day. Perhaps
we have yesterday's streets. Perhaps we keep
the pampered loyalty of some old habit
which loved its life with us – and stayed, never left us.
But, oh, the nights – those nights when the infinite wind
eats at our faces! Who is immune to the night, to Night,
ever-subtle, deceiving? Hardest of all to the lonely,
Night, is she gentler to lovers? Oh, but they only
use one another as cover, to hide what awaits them.
Do you still not know it? Throw that emptiness
out of your arms and into the air that we breathe:
does it widen the sky for the birds – add zest to their flight?

Yes, you were needed. Every springtime needed you.
Even stars relied on your witnessing presence
when a gathering wave surged from the past – or when
some violin utterly offered itself
as you passed by a half-opened window. All this was your mission.
Did you discharge it? Were you not ever distracted
by anticipation? As if all Creation existed
only to signal a mistress? (Where would you keep her?
With those great foreign Conjectures coming and going
by night as by day?)
Yet, if you must, sing of lovers –
those famous passions, still not immortal enough:
those whom you almost envied – those who were cheated,
abandoned. You thought them more ardent than those
who are quenched and requited. Ever again recommence
your unachievable task: you must praise!
For the Hero, remember, lives on. To the Hero
death is no more than his recentest birth; his reason for being.
And Nature herself, exhausted, takes lovers back
into herself – as if there were strength to achieve them,
but only one time . . . And you . . .?
Have you sufficiently thought about Gaspara Stampa;
remembered that somewhere a woman whose lover had left her
might, reaching beyond herself, pray: Let me be as she was ...?
Is it not time for these oldest of heartaches, now
at last, to bear fruit for us? Is it time that, still loving, we learned
how to leave our beloved and, trembling, endure it?
As an arrow endures the bowstring and focused on flight
becomes . . . more than itself. Nothing stays still.

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