The Rainer Maria Rilke Archive

Poetry, Quotations, & Writings

Fourth Duino Elegy

O Trees of Life,
when does your winter fall?
Strangers to instinct,
we lack the focus and
the harmony which guide
the southbound birds.
Overtaken and tardy, we
thrust ourselves upon the wind;
fall out of the sky
into icily indifferent ponds.
We wither as we blossom,
knowing both states at once.
Somewhere lions roam,
knowing nothing of weakness
in the hour of their majesty.

But we cannot focus on
a single object without
worrying about another.
Conflict is our essence.
Aren’t lovers always
crowding one another,
despite mutual longing
for wide open spaces,
homestead and plentiful hunting?
As when a canvas is carefully
stretched and primed to receive
a spontaneous sketch,
the better to offset it,
we do not observe the
background of emotion,
only what is splashed upon it.
Who has not sat frightened
before the heart’s curtain,
watching it rise upon
a scene of farewell?
So well understood:
the familiar garden,
lightly swaying.
Then came the dancer.
No! Not that one!
No matter how lightly he flies,
he is only a costumed actor,
an ordinary man who takes his bow
then hurries homeward, entering
through the kitchen door.
I will no longer endure
these half filled masks!
Better the completeness
of an honest puppet.
No matter the stuffing and
the wire frame; the painted
face of pure appearance.
Here I stay!
Though they cut the lights and
declare there is no more…
though a grey mist of emptiness
curls from the stage…
though my silent ancestors
no longer sit beside me
-neither that woman nor the
boy with the squint brown eye-
here I stay!
I still may watch.

Am I not right to do so, Father?
You I ask, whose cup of life
seemed bitter after tasting mine, so
vital with the bouquet of youthful promise
but bearing a troubling aftertaste.
You often searched the depths
of my unfocused eyes for
signs of my uncanny future.
Am I not right, O Father,
who, so oft since dying,
hath roused thyself from
vast eternal peace to shudder
at my crumb of fate?
I pray it may be so.
Am I not right?
And you, dear ones, who
loved the first stirrings
of my love inside yourselves:
am I not correct?
You, beloved ones, whose faces
faded in my very gaze
to distances in which
I never existed,
am I not right to sit here,
staring at the puppet stage,
if only to gaze so steadily
that an angel must arise,
obedient to balance,
to startle the stuffed skins
into living action.
Angel with marionettes!
Actual theatre at last!
What our presence has divided
now is in our presence joined.
Only now do the interstellar seasons
correspond to the seasons of the soul.
Above and beyond an angel frolics.
Do only the dying notice how vapid
and pretentious are all of our
accomplishments here, where
nothing is allowed to be
as it is meant to be?
O childhood hours, the shadows of
whose shapes were not yet mere
repetitions of shades past-
when that which gleamed ahead
was not yet the future.
Growing, we often wished we were
already grown, half to please those
for whom nothing but their own
maturity remained.
Yet, when alone, we played
with eternal toys and stood
enchanted in the breach between
our playthings and the world:
a place primordially prepared
for an immaculate advent.

Who can show a child as he really is;
set him starlike in his proper firmament
and place the rod of distant measure
in his hand?
Who bakes the gray bread of his death
and leaves it hardening, sharp as a
sweet apple’s inedible core,
in his rounded mouth?…..Murderers
are easy enough to understand.
But to hold death,
the whole of death,
even before life is fairly begun-
to contain it gently
and without complaint-
that defies understanding.

. . . Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Robert Hunter

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