The Rainer Maria Rilke Archive

A Collection of Poetry, Quotations, & Writings

First Duino Elegy

Who, though I cry aloud,
would hear me in the angel orders?
And should my plea ascend,
were I gathered to the glory
of some incandescent heart,
my own faint flame of being
would fail for the glare.
Beauty is as close to terror
as we can well endure.
Angels would not condescend
to damn our meagre souls.
That is why they awe
and why they terrify us so.
Every angel is terrible!
And so I constrain myself and
swallow the deep, dark music
of my own impassioned plea.
Oh, to whom can we turn
in the hour of need?
Neither angel nor man.
Even animals know that we
are not at home here.
We see so little of what
is clearly visible to them.
For us there is only
a tree on a hillside,
which we can memorize, or
yesterday’s sidewalks, or
a habit which discovered us,
found us comfortable and moved in.
O and night…the night!
Wind of the infinite
blowing away all faces.
Within our solitude appears
a nearly lovely god
or goddess, all the
heart is ever apt to meet.
Lovers fare no better,
concealing, by their love,
each other’s destiny.
Do you still not understand?
Pour your emptiness
into the breeze-
the birds may soar
more swiftly for it.

Yes, springtime needed you!
The very stars, row on row,
sparkled for your attention.
From bygone days a wave rolled
or a violin yielded itself as you
wandered by some open window.
These were your instructions.
But what could you do-
distracted, as you were,
by all of that significance?-
as though each signpost
pointed on beyond itself
towards something higher yet:
a mere prelude to The Beloved!
(Where would you find room to
keep such a one, in amongst
those vast, weird thoughts,
always coming and going,
often spending the night?)
Sing, in your lovelorn
longing, of the losers.
Make their dark fame glisten.
Sing of those whom you are
nearly moved to envy in the
purity of their despair:
hearts more loving in their pain
than many never broken.
Sing again-and yet again-
your altogether insufficient
praise of them.
The hero lives!
His ruin is but a pretext
to be born again.
Depleted Nature calls her lovers
back into her bosom, as though
she had not strength to fashion them anew.
Have you yet sung the bold grief
of Gaspara Stampa so poignently
that another girl, likewise spurned in love,
might be moved to similar transcending passion?
Is it not time these ancient seeds of pain
put forth a flower?…time that, lovingly,
we free ourselves from lovers?…
time we fit ourselves, quivering
like an arrow to its bowstring,
enduring tension with the prospect
of flight exceeding the limits of
the feathered shaft, the string,
the very bow which looses it?
Nowhere may we remain.

Voices, Voices!
Hear, my heart,
as only the holy hear,
lifted from Earth by
celestial command but
taking no notice, so
perfect is their listening.
You could not bear to hear
the voice of God.
Not that, no…
but perhaps attend
the ceaseless murmer of
silence: the vespers
of the untimely dead,
borne upon the wind…
the whispers of the
children who haunted
that cathedral in Naples-
the church in Rome…
the injunction discovered
on a tombstone last year at
Santa Maria Formosa.
All they ask:
“Weep no more for us!
Your tears muddy the
path of our ascent.”

Strange to be no more of Earth.
To quit half learned habits.
To view roses and their kind
no more in human terms.
To be no more a babe in arms
that ever fear to drop you.
To leave the name you are
known by like a child leaves
a broken toy.
Strange to desire nothing.
Strange to watch the
known world dissolve.
Death is very difficult.
Lost time is painfully
reconstructed until the
struggle yields some
slight glimmer of eternity.
The living are mistaken
in their distinctions-
angels often do not know
whether they walk among
the quick or the dead.
So ’tis said.
The storm of eternity roars;
all voices drown in its thunder.

Children who have gone do not require us.
Weaned, they need no mother’s breast.
Our joys and sorrows don’t concern them.
But we, for whom the mysteries are golden,
still unsolved, our very sustenance-
can we exist without them?
Grief is our spirit’s fodder.
Remember the Lament for Linos: how
the first shaft of song shot through
barren air carving a sudden vacuum
in the astonished space where
godlike youth forever vanished,
leaving only a melody, which is
our sole comfort and enchantment.

. . . Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Robert Hunter

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