Ceremonies: Long Readings for Afternoon: The Ninth Duino Elegy – Rainer Maria Rilke

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The Ninth Duino Elegy —Rainer Maria Rilke   Why, if this interval of being can […]

The Ninth Duino Elegy

—Rainer Maria Rilke

 

Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely

in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all

other green, with tiny waves on the edges

of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)—: why then 

have to be human—and, escaping from fate,

keep longing for fate?…

 

Oh not because happiness exists,

that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.

Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which

would exist in the laurel too…

 

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here

apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way

keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.

Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,

just once. And never again. But to have been

this once, completely, even if only once:

to have been at one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

 

And so we keep pressing on, trying to achieve it,

trying to hold it firmly in our simple hands,

in our overcrowded gaze, in our speechless heart.

Trying to become it.—Whom can we give it to? We would

hold on to it all, forever…Ah, but what can we take along

into that other realm? Not the art of looking,

which is learned so slowly, and nothing that happened here. Nothing.

The sufferings, then. And, above all, the heaviness,

and the long experience of love,—just what is wholly

unsayable. But later, among the stars,

what good is it—they are better as they are: unsayable. 

 

For when the traveler returns from the mountain-slopes into the valley,

he brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead

some word he has gained, some pure word, the yellow and blue

gentian. Perhaps we are here in order to say: house,

bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit-tree, window—

at most: column, tower…But to say them, you must understand,

oh to say them more intensely than the Things themselves

ever dreamed of existing. Isn’t the secret intent

of this taciturn earth, when it forces lovers together,

that inside their boundless emotion all things may shudder with joy?

Threshold: what it means for two lovers

to be wearing down, imperceptibly, the ancient threshold of their door—

they too, after the many who came before them

and before those to come…, lightly.

 

Here is the time for the sayable, here is its homeland.

Speak and bear witness. More than ever

the Things that we might experience are vanishing, for

what crowds them out and replaces them is an imageless act.

An act under a shell, which easily cracks open as soon as

the business inside outgrows it and seeks new limits.

Between the hammers our heart

endures, just as the tongue does

between the teeth and, despite that,

still is able to praise.

 

Praise this world to the angel, not the unsayable one,

you can’t impress him with glorious emotion; in the universe

where he feels more  powerfully, you are a novice. So show him

something simple which, formed over generations, 

lives as our own, near our hand and within our gaze.

Tell him of Things. He will stand astonished; as you stood

by the rope-maker in Rome or the potter along the Nile.

Show him how happy a Thing can be, how innocent and ours, 

how even lamenting grief purely decides to take form,

serves as a Thing, or dies into a Thing—, and blissfully

escapes far beyond the violin.—And these Things, 

which live by perishing, know you are praising them; transient,

they look to us for deliverance: us, the most transient of all.

They want us to change them, utterly, in our invisible heart,

within—oh endlessly—within us! Whoever we may be at last.

 

Earth, isn’t this what you want: to arise within us, 

invisible? Isn’t it your dream

to be wholly invisible someday?—O Earth: invisible!

What, if not transformation, is your urgent command?

Earth, my dearest, I will. Oh believe me, you no longer

need your springtimes to win me over—one of them,

ah, even one, is already too much for my blood.

Unspeakably I have belonged to you, from the first.

You were always right, and your holiest inspiration

is our intimate companion, Death.

 

Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future

grows any smaller…Superabundant being

wells up in my heart.

 

 (Translated by Stephen Mitchell)