The Rainer Maria Rilke Archive

A Collection of Poetry, Quotations, & Writings

Third Duino Elegy


To rhapsodize the beloved is one thing.
It is another, alas, to call forth
the shameless River God of the blood
from his hidden places.
What does her young lover,
face dissolving in the distance,
know of the Lord of Lust
who erects himself, despite
her attempted soothing,
from the depths of solitude,
godhead adrip with unknown essences,
blind at times to her very existence,
rousing night to a continuous riot?
O, blood’s Neptune, O terrible trident,
O, dark wind of his breast
sounding the spiral conch!
Listen to the night’s hollow ring.
Is it not, O stars, from you
that the lover’s lust for his
beloved’s face comes streaming?
Is not the substance of his
secret vision of her purest
inner being drawn from your
virgin constellations?

You are not the one, alas, nor
was it his mother, who lent that
arch of expectation to his brow.
Not from you, attentive girl,
nor from your kiss, did his lips
achieve a more fruitful curve.
Do you expect your gentle step
to shake the ground he stands upon,
you who waft like morning breezes?
It is true you startled his heart
but terrors more ancient rocked him,
awakened by your touch.
Call as you will, you cannot free him
from those dark companions,
though he himself desires escape.
Succeeding, he throws off their weight
and settles in the bower of your heart.
Discovering the seed of himself within you,
he begins to manifest his individual being.
But does he ever actually begin?
Mother, you made him small.
In you was his beginning.
To you was he new
and above the new eyes
you spread the friendly world,
barring disturbing strangeness.
Ah! Where are the years fled
when your slender silhouette
was all he needed to obliterate
the impending waves of chaos?
You made it all all-right,
hid true darknesses and lighted,
with the sweetness of your heart,
the suspicious corners of his room;
rendered them harmless,
mixing human breath into
their chill, alien wind.
His nightlamp was your presence,
not the candle in the darkness,
but the glow of friendly love.
You explained each creak with a smile
which implicitly stated foreknowledge
that the alloted time for the
floorboard to assert itself had come.
He believed you and was soothed.
All this your presence,
at his bidding, settled.
His tall, cloaked shadow of a fate
slipped back into the closet,
for the moment foiled-
or mingled with the
ripples of his curtains.

Lying there rescued-as your
sweet defending presence
drowsily dissolved
into gentle sleep-
he seemed so secure, yet
who could truly contain
the internal floods of
his fearsome origin?
There were no doubts
in this sweet dreamer…
but in nightmare or in fever:
another matter!
How this new sprout grew,
entangled with the roots
of olden things;
with strangling vines among
prowling ancient predators!
He was the born lover of this
internal primeval wilderness.
Among the rotting trunks of
deposed giants, his heart sprouted
green as the spring and loving.
Loving, he left, descending through
the shoots of his own roots, on out…
out where the grand source of his
little birth already lay outmoded.
Loving, still, he waded into the
depths of vast arroyos flowing
with the blood of his fathers;
where every cohort terror
lay winking in complicity. Yes,
the face of horror smiled upon him.
Seldom, O Mother, have you,
yourself, so sweetly smiled.
What smiled at him, he loved-
how could he help it?
He loved it before he ever knew you-
it was part and portion of your
embryonic waters, upon which he floated.

Observe: a season does not contain
our whole lifetime, as with a lilac.
When we love, a slower sap,
thicker than centuries,
courses through our embrace.
O my love, consider: the child
we would fain conceive was never
an individual but a multitude,
the personification of the fathers
lying in our depths like mountains
leveled to the lowest summits; like
the barren riverbeds of mothers past-
the entire soundless panorama,
whether cloudy or clear,
of mutual destiny.
Before you,
sweet lover,
this was…

And you, yourself, are you
able to know anything of
the eternal darkness which
you stirred in your lover?
How much of his forefathers’
being claimed him?
What women, coveting him,
despised you?
What dark jealousy of
unknown lovers have you
awakened in his veins?
Dead children reach out to you…
Ever so gently, perform with love
some ordinary task before him.
Lead him to the margin of the garden.
Show him the counterweight of darkness…..
Stop him…..

Translated by Robert Hunter

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