Rilke, The Fourth Duino Elegy

[This is my translation of the fourth of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies (1922). Along with the great first and eighth elegies, available here in the archives under November 2009 and May 2010, probably one of the three best of the nine.]

Rilke, The Fourth Duino Elegy

O trees of life, oh when winterly?
We are not unified. Are not like the migratory
birds agreed. Overtaken and late,
we suddenly force ourselves on winds
and descend on indifferent ponds.
Of bloom and shrivel are we together aware.
And somewhere lions still walk and know,
as long as they are splendid, of no powerlessness.

We however, when we intend the One, completely,
already feel the other’s strain. Enmity
is our closest relative. Do not lovers
ever knock at edges, the one in the other,
that promised wideness, hunt and home?
For just one moment’s imprint
a ground of contrariety is prepared, painfully,
that we may see it; for one is very clear
with us. We know not the contour
of feeling, only what forms it from without.
Who has not sat anxious before the curtains of his heart?
They parted: the scenery was parting.
Easy to understand. The well known garden,
and quietly swayed: only then the dancer appeared.
Not him. Enough! And however lightly he foots it,
he wears a costume and will be a citizen
and enter his flat through the kitchen.
I will not have these half-filled masks,
rather the doll. That is full. I shall
bear the body and the wire and its
face made of appearance. Here. I am ready.
Even if the lights go out, am told:
That’s it – even if from the stage
emptiness drifts in with grey draught of air,
even if none of my silent forebears
sits by me here any longer, no woman, not even
the boy with the brown squinting eye:
yet shall I remain. There is always the watching.

Am I not right? You whose life around me tasted
so bitter, tasting mine, father,
the first turbid infusion of my Must,
tasting again and again as I grew,
and busy with the after-taste of such a strange future,
you weighed my misty gaze upwards, –
you, my father, who since your death, often
feel fear within me within my hope ,
and give up the equanimity the dead feel, realms
of equanimity, for my bit of fate,
am I not right? And you, am I not right,
who loved me for the small beginning
of love for you I always digressed from
because the space in your faces,
even while I loved it, segued into cosmic space
in which you no longer were … When I feel like
waiting before the puppet stage, no,
watching so completely that, to balance my gaze
in the end, an angel must be added
as a player who jerks up the stuffed bodies.
Angel and puppet: then, finally, a play.
Then will come together what we are always
sundering by simply being. Then only shall arise
from our seasons the environs
of complete transformation. Then over and above us
the angel shall play. See, the dying,
should they not suspect how full of pretext
all we achieve here is? Everything
is not itself. Oh, hours of childhood
when behind the figures there was more
than past and before us not the future.
Of course we grew, and sometimes we rushed
to soon become big, half for the benefit of those
who no longer had anything but being big.
And were in our solitary path
preoccupied with the lasting and stood there
in the gap between world and toy,
at a place that since the beginning
had been founded for a pure event.

Who shall show a child just as it is? Who shall place
it within its constellation and the measure of distance
in its hand? Who shall make a child’s death
from grey bread that shall become hard, – or leave it
inside its round mouth like the pip
of a beautiful apple?…. Murderers are
easily understood. But this: death
the whole of death, to so gently contain it
even before life and not be angry,
is inexpressible.


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on October 8, 2011.

3 Responses to “Rilke, The Fourth Duino Elegy”

  1. Rilke is one of my favorite poets. Thank you.

  2. […]        *duino autumn saw a man in overalls in the courtyard this morning trying to knock down the leaves of the ornamental peach ripping the rake handle along the twigs and branch looking for an early fall to save the sweeping of dry leaves rotten leaf between brick that comes later on stay your hand, friend, lest god shake your tree too soon **’Oh trees of life, oh when winterly?’ wrote Rilke who heard the angels in halls of the ear, in rooms overlooking the sea, the deeper standing of their voice, a stronger being here*** than that given us felt their voice in moon in wind in the turnings up and out scribing the edge of the bruised sea along cliffs in ornamental rooms of a castle left to his walking knelt down the gardener scooped hands deep into the leaves still a green crinkle with whitish speckle and thought his hands an instant green that shall replace them after the winterly turning. stay your hand, friend, lest god shake your tree too soon                         beijing                         october 2011 *refers to the poetic cycle ‘Duinser Elegien’ (‘Duino Elegies’) by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke written from 1912 to 1922. Rilke began with the first elegy while visiting visiting Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis in the Duino castle near Trieste in January 1912. For me these works are of that same wave of inspiration mankind saw in the early twentieth century with insights such as Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and Planck’s Quantum Theory. The elegies seem to me their poetic ‘equivalents’ in that they too go through the known world like an arrow to a deeper core. Photos can be easily found on the internet of the Duino Castle in its striking setting,e.g. **the first line of the Fourth Elegy. An excellent translation of this can be found at Mr. Peter Lachnewinsky’s website at: […]

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