Rilke’s First Duino Elegy

Peter Lach-Newinsky


A Translation of:


Rainer Maria Rilke, The First Duino Elegy (from: Duineser Elegien, 1923)


 Who, if I screamed, would hear me from the angels’

realms? And should one even take

me suddenly to its heart: I would perish under its

stronger being. For beauty is nothing

but the beginning of terror we can still just bear,

and we admire it so because it serenely disdains

to destroy us. Each angel is terrible.

   And thus do I contain and swallow the seductive call

of dark sobbing. Oh, for whom are we able

to really need? Not angels, not humans,

and the clever animals have already noted

that we are not very dependably at home

in the interpreted world. Perhaps we are left

with some hillside tree, that we may daily

see it again; we are left with yesterday’s road

and the pampered loyalty of a habit

that liked being with us, and so stayed and never left.

 Oh and the night, the night when wind full of cosmic space

pulls at our face –, for whom would it not remain, the longed for,

gently disappointing one that strenuously threatens

the single heart. Is night easier for lovers?

Oh, they merely cover over their destiny each to each.

   Do you still not know it? Throw from your arms the emptiness

towards the spaces we breathe; so that perhaps the birds

may feel the expanded air with more fervent flight.

 Yes, the Springs probably did have need of you. Some stars

expected you to feel them. A wave

arose in the past, or

as you passed an open window

a violin abandoned itself.  All that was mission.

But did you accomplish it? Were you not always

still distracted by expectation, as if everything were announcing

a lover? (Where shall you house her

since great and alien thoughts throng

you and often stay the night.)

Yet should you long for it, then sing the lovers; by far

not immortal enough is their famous feeling.

Those, you almost envy them, forsaken ones you found

so much more loving than the stilled. Begin

ever anew their never attainable praise;

remember: the hero endures, even his fall

was just pretext to be: his ultimate birth.

But exhausted nature takes back lovers

into herself as if the strength were not there twice

to achieve this. Have you considered Gaspara Stampa

enough, that some girl whose lover has slipped away,

feels in the heightened example of these lovers:

would that I become like them?

Should not at last these oldest pains of ours

become more fruitful? Is it not time that we, loving,

freed ourselves from the beloved and survive, quaking:

as the arrow survives the string to be, concentrated in release,

more than itself. For staying is nowhere.

 Voices, voices. Hear, my heart, as otherwise only

the holy heard:  that the great call lifted

them from ground; yet they kneeled on,

impossible ones, and payed it no attention:

thus were they hearers. Not that you could bear

God’s voice, far from it. But hear the blowing,

the uninterrupted message that forms from silence.

Now it rustles from the young dead to you.

Wherever you entered did not their fate

in Rome and Naples’ churches calmly speak to you?

Or else an inscription sublimely impose itself on you,

like that recent tablet in Santa Maria Formosa.

What they want of me? Quietly should I

throw off the semblance of injustice that sometimes

slightly disturbs the pure movement of their spirits.

  True, it is strange to inhabit the earth no longer,

no longer exercise habits scarcely learned,

not lend roses and other things of special promise

meaning in terms of a human future;

no longer be what one was

in infinitely anxious hands, and even lay aside

one’s own name like a broken toy.

Strange to not wish one’s wishes onwards. Strange

to see everything that was relation flutter so loosely

in space. And it’s hard being dead

and full of catching up so that one gradually

feel eternity a little. – But the living all make

the mistake of drawing too sharp distinctions.

Angels (it is said) often do not know whether they

wander among the living or the dead. The eternal current

always drags all ages along with it through both realms

and drowns them out in both.

 In the end they no longer need us, the early departed,

one is gently weaned from the earthly like one mildly

outgrows one’s mother’s breasts. But we who such

great secrets need, to whom from grieving so often

blessed progress springs – could we be without them?

Is the tale in vain that once within the lament for Linos

daring first music thrust through barren numbness,

that only in the startled space which an almost divine youth

for ever quit, the void entered that vibration

that now enraptures us and consoles and helps.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on November 22, 2009.

One Response to “Rilke’s First Duino Elegy”

  1. Hey – this is great-I do like the translation a lot. Also, can you tell me about the sculpture??!!

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