The Rainer Maria Rilke Archive

Poetry, Quotations, & Writings

Second Duino Elegy

Every angel is terrible.
Knowing this, I invoke thee,
O Deadly Birds of the Soul.
Gone are the days of Tobias,
when shining Raphael,
awful majesty disguised,
stood at a door, twin
to the youth who gazed
out, curious, upon him.
Should such an archangel
now descend a single step
from behind the stars,
our hearts would rise and
rage until they burst!
Who art thou?

Primordial Perfection!
First darlings of Creation:
mountain summits crimson
in the dawn of genesis-
pollen of Godhead in
resplendent blossom,
essence of light…
halls, stairs, thrones,
places of pure being,
shields shaped of ecstasy,
swirling storms of rapture-
all suddenly ceasing…
mirrors!…commanding all
the scattered sweetness
into themselves again.

When we feel, we do not recoup but
blow until we empty, fading like embers
or trace of perfume, bit by bit.
Should someone say:
“You are the sweet
spring air I breathe,
my heart’s own blood!”…
what can it mean?
Contain us? They? No!
We slip in, out and
round them like wind.
And the beautiful…
Who can hold them?
Fairness pours from their faces
and…gone!-morning
dew in rising sun…
our essence dissipates
like steam from a kettle.
O smile, where do you run,
eyes turned to the sky…
new, warm, receding wave
of the heart’s own sea?
O sorrow:
all these things are what we are.
Is there any taste of us in that
eternity into which we merge?
Do angels reclaim only perfect light,
or does some hint of what we were remain?
Do our faces linger, if only in that
slight way a mother’s face reflects
her unborn child?
They cannot see it in their swirling
return to self! (How could they see it?)

Lovers, had they the time, could
recite words of wonder to the night.
But most things end by concealing us.
Look: trees are!
Our shelters endure.
But we, like mingled winds,
claim no single habitat.
All things conspire to
keep us secret-half,
it seems, from shame
and half in token of
some unspoken hope.

O Lovers, completed in
one another, I turn
to you to ask of us.
Is there certainty in your embraces?
Look at it this way…
my hands sometimes recognize each other
and offer sanctuary to my weary face.
This yields some slight sensation.
But what proof of existence is that?
You who fan the fires of one another’s
passion till, overcome, you cry
“No more!”-who, beneath lover’s hands,
swell like purple grapes at harvest;
who subside, that the other may
more completely come to be:
I ask you about us.
I know the blessed touch
abides with you-that what
love cherishes does not decay;
immortality oozes from those caresses-
a promise, almost, of eternity.
And yet, when you’ve weathered
the shy fear of first glances,
the sighs of longing at the window,
the first-never again that first-
garden promenade together:
O lovers, are you then as you were?
When you raise the glasses
of each other’s lips to drink,
thirst to thirst,
where does the drinker vanish?

Were you not awed by
the easy attitudes of
Grecian graveyard statuary?
Did not love and farewell
sit lightly on their shoulders,
as though compounded of an
essence unknown to us?
Remember how the hands
rested without pressure
despite apparent strength?
Their very poses seem to say:
“It is given us to touch this way.
If the gods press us harder…
that is for the gods to say.”
If only we could discover
such a singular human place-
pure, determined, self-contained,
our own fruitful soil between
the river and the stone!
But our hearts outrun us.
We cannot capture their essence by
lingering before consoling statuary,
nor by contemplation of those godlike forms
containing all for which we yearn
in monumental measure.

. . . Rainer Maria Rilke
translated by Robert Hunter

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