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Duino Elegies: The First Elegy

Not angels, not humans;



By Rainer Maria Rilke



Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels'

hierarchies? and even if one of them suddenly

pressed me against his heart, I would perish

in the embrace of his stronger existence.

For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror

which we are barely able to endure and are awed

because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.

Each single angel is terrifying.

And so I force myself, swallow and hold back

the surging call of my dark sobbing.

Oh, to whom can we turn for help?

Not angels, not humans;

and even the knowing animals are aware that we feel

little secure and at home in our interpreted world.

There remains perhaps some tree on a hillside

daily for us to see; yesterday's street remains for us

stayed, moved in with us and showed no signs of leaving.

Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind

full of cosmic space invades our frightened faces.

Whom would it not remain for -that longed-after,

gently disenchanting night, painfully there for the

solitary heart to achieve? Is it easier for lovers?

Don't you know yet ? Fling out of your arms the

emptiness into the spaces we breath -perhaps the birds

will feel the expanded air in their more ferven flight.


Yes, the springtime were in need of you. Often a star

waited for you to espy it and sense its light.

A wave rolled toward you out of the distant past,

or as you walked below an open window,

a violin gave itself to your hearing.

All this was trust. But could you manage it?

Were you not always distraught by expectation,

as if all this were announcing the arrival

of a beloved? (Where would you find a place

to hide her, with all your great strange thoughts

coming and going and often staying for the night.)

When longing overcomes you, sing of women in love;

for their famous passion is far from immortal enough.

Those whom you almost envy, the abandoned and

desolate ones, whom you found so much more loving

than those gratified. Begin ever new again

the praise you cannot attain; remember:

the hero lives on and survives; even his downfall

was for him only a pretext for achieving

his final birth. But nature, exhausted, takes lovers

back into itself, as if such creative forces could never be

achieved a second time.

Have you thought of Gaspara Stampa sufficiently:


that any girl abandoned by her lover may feel

from that far intenser example of loving:

"Ah, might I become like her!" Should not their oldest

sufferings finally become more fruitful for us?

Is it not time that lovingly we freed ourselves

from the beloved and, quivering, endured:

as the arrow endures the bow-string's tension,

and in this tense release becomes more than itself.

For staying is nowhere.


Voices, voices. Listen my heart, as only saints

have listened: until the gigantic call lifted them

clear off the ground. Yet they went on, impossibly,

kneeling, completely unawares: so intense was

their listening. Not that you could endure

the voice of God -far from it! But listen

to the voice of the wind and the ceaseless message

that forms itself out of silence. They sweep

toward you now from those who died young.

Whenever they entered a church in Rome or Naples,

did not their fate quietly speak to you as recently

as the tablet did in Santa Maria Formosa?

What do they want of me? to quietly remove

the appearance of suffered injustice that,

at times, hinders a little their spirits from

freely proceeding onward.


Of course, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,

to no longer use skills on had barely time to acquire;

not to observe roses and other things that promised

so much in terms of a human future, no longer

to be what one was in infinitely anxious hands;

to even discard one's own name as easily as a child

abandons a broken toy.

Strange, not to desire to continue wishing one's wishes.

Strange to notice all that was related, fluttering

so loosely in space. And being dead is hard work

and full of retrieving before one can gradually feel a

trace of eternity. -Yes, but the liviing make

the mistake of drawing too sharp a distinction.

Angels (they say) are often unable to distinguish

between moving among the living or the dead.

The eternal torrent whirls all ages along with it,

through both realms forever, and their voices are lost in

its thunderous roar.


In the end the early departed have no longer

need of us. One is gently weaned from things

of this world as a child outgrows the need

of its mother's breast. But we who have need

of those great mysteries, we for whom grief is

so often the source of spiritual growth,

could we exist without them?

Is the legend vain that tells of music's beginning

in the midst of the mourning for Linos?

the daring first sounds of song piercing

the barren numbness, and how in that stunned space

an almost godlike youth suddenly left forever,

and the emptiness felt for the first time

those harmonious vibrations which now enrapture

and comfort and help us.



Translated by Albert Ernest Flemming

Rainer Maria Rilke

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