The Rainer Maria Rilke Archive

A Collection of Poetry, Quotations, & Writings

Tenth Duino Elegy

That someday, delivered at last
from this terrifying vision,
I might sing out in praise and
jubilation unto approving angels;
that no single tone shall fail
to sound due to a slack,
a doubtful or a broken string
when clearly struck by
the hammer of my heart;
that my joyful face
might stream with radiance
and these hidden tears at last
erupt in blossoms fully blown,
I must learn to hold these
nights of anguish dear!
O Sisters Of Lament,
why did I not kneel
more lowly to receive you-
surrender myself more fully
to your loose and flowing hair?
We are wastrels of our sorrows,
gazing beyond them into the
desolate reaches of endurance
where we seek to know their ends.
They are but our winter foliage,
our somber evergreen,
a single season of our inner year;
nor season only, but land,
colony, storehouse,
floor and residence.

It is certain, alas,
that we are strangers
to the alleys of the
City of Sorrow, where
in the falsified silence
born of continual clatter,
the mold of emptiness ejects
a strutting figure: the gilded din,
the exploding memorial.
O, with what finality
would an angel trample to dust
their marketplace of consolation,
bounded by the church with its
off-the-rack indulgences: as
tidy, dull and shut tight
as a post office on Sunday.
Outside, always, curls
the edge of the carnival.
Swings of freedom!
High divers and
dedicated jugglers!
And cosmeticized fortune’s
metaphoric shooting gallery
whose tin targets clang and
spin when struck by some
marksman’s chance shot-
who, dizzy with applause,
seeking further luck,
stumbles down the midway
where diverse attractions
seduce, drum and hawk their wares.
For adults only-a special attraction:
graphic reproduction of currency!
Titillating! The sex life of money,
in the nude, gonads and all,
before your very eyes-
educational and guaranteed
to enhance your virility….
Beyond the last billboard-
plastered with ads for “Deathless,”
the bitter beer, sweet
to those who drink it
(so long as they nibble fresh
distractions between sips)-
behind the billboard,
just to the rear: the real world.
Children play and lovers touch,
off to the side,
intent in the thin grass,
while dogs do as nature bids.
A youth is drawn further on,
enamoured of a young Lament.
Into the fields he follows-
“Beyond,” says she,
“far distant do we dwell!”
“Where?” he inquires,
by her bearing swayed.
Her shoulder, her neck,
bespeak a noble origin.
Anon he leaves her;
What’s the use?
She is a lament.

Only those who died young,
in the primordial equanimity
of their weaning,
follow her lovingly.
She waits for maidens
and befriends them,
gently shows them
her attire: pearls
of sorrow and veils
fine-spun of patience.
Alongside young men
she walks in silence.

Beyond, in the valley
where they dwell, an
elderly Lament fondly indulges
a youth who questions her.
“Once,” she tells him, “we were
a great family, we Laments.
Our fathers worked the mines
of yon mountain range.
Among men you still might find,
at times, a polished lump
of original sorrow-or a nugget
of petrified rage from the slag
of some ancient volcano.
Aye, from yonder range it came.
We once were wealthy.”

And lightly she leads him through
the spacious landscape of Lament,
shows him the pillars of the temples
and the crumbled towers from which,
in olden days, the Lords of Lament
so wisely ruled… shows him the
tall trees of tears and the fields
of woe full flowered
(such woe as the living know
only as a shrub unbudded);
shows him the herds of grief
where they stand grazing.
Once in awhile a startled bird,
darting through their skyward gaze,
inscribes its lonely cry upon the clouds.
At dusk she leads him to the graves
of the sibyls and dire prophets-
of all the Lords of Lament
the longest lived.
As night lowers, their steps slacken
and soon, rising like the moon,
the Guardian Sepulchre is seen,
kin to the Sphinx of Nile fame,
lofty in cavernous countenance.
They marvel at the regal head
which silently presents the human
face to be weighed upon the
scale of the stars, eternally.

His sight cannot grasp it,
giddy still from early death,
but her’s startles an owl from
behind the rim of the crown,
who brushes the rounder of
his cheeks, leaving a faint
impression upon the new
hearing born of his death;
an indescribable outline
scrawled as though across
the leaves of an open book.

And higher, the stars. New.
Stars of the Land of Lament.
Slowly the elder names their names:
“Look there: the Rider, the Staff,
and that larger constellation
they call the Fruit Garland.
Higher still, toward the Pole,
the Cradle, the Path, the
Burning Book, the Doll, the Window.
In the southern sky,
clearcut as the lines within
a consecrated hand,
sparkles the luminous M
denoting Mothers.”

But the dead must away
and silently the Elder Lament
leads him as far as the Arroyo,
where gleaming in the moonlight
springs the source of joy.
With reverence she names it,
saying: “Endlessly it flows
into the world of men.”

They stand at the mountain’s foot.
Weeping, she embraces him.

Alone, he starts his climb
up the peak of Primal Pain.
Not once do his footsteps echo
from this soundless path of fate.
Were the endlessly dead
to awaken some symbol,
within us, to indicate
themselves, they might
point to the catkins
dangling from the leafless
branches of the Hazel trees.
Or speak in drops of rain
falling to dark earth
in early spring.

Then we,
who have known joy
only as it escapes us,
rising to the sky,
would receive the
overwhelming benediction
of happiness descending.

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Robert Hunter

3 thoughts on “Tenth Duino Elegy

  1. My friend and I undertook to study Rilke on our journey through Lent. We almost fell at the first hurdle of a more literal and difficult translation until we were rescued by this beautiful version. Thank you for curating this site.

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