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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1656

For the reader who must rely on a translation of Rainer Maria Rilke’s culminating work, the story and the man behind its appearance may overshadow the poem itself. No translation of the elegiac German original can do justice to the philosophy of the man who wrote it or be as deeply affecting as the inspiration that produced the work.

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Rilke is often ranked with William Butler Yeats as one of the preeminent poets of the twentieth century. His poetic innovations might, however, be better compared with those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, though in the case of Rilke, experimentation with rhythm and rhyme never took precedence over content. Like Yeats, he often let the content find the form. Of the three, Rilke was the most intuitive, rhapsodic, and mystical, and he was perhaps the most consummate craftsman.

In October, 1911, the poet visited his friend Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe at Duino Castle, near Trieste. He remained at the castle alone throughout the winter until April, and there he composed the first and second elegies and parts of several others. The opening stanza—which begins “Who, if I cried, would hear me among the angelic orders?”—came to him while he was walking in a storm along a cliff two hundred feet above the raging sea, a romantic interlude worthy of an atmospheric passage in a gothic novel. Rilke conceived the plan of all ten elegies as a whole, though ten years elapsed before the poem found its final form.

The first elegy, like the first movement of a musical work, presents the central theme and suggests the variations that follow. From the opening line to the last, Rilke invokes the angels, not those of Christianity but of a special order immersed in time and space, a concept of being of perfect consciousness, of transcendent reality. As a symbol appearing earlier in Rilke’s poetry, the angel represents to him the perfection of life in all the forms to which he aspired, as high above humankind as God is above this transcending one. Nearest to this angelic order are the heroes—later he praises Samson—and a woman in love, especially one who dies young, as did Gaspara Stampa (1523-1544), whom Rilke celebrates as a near-perfect example. Like the lover, human beings must realize each moment to the fullest rather than be distracted by things and longings. With this contrast of people and angels, of lovers and heroes, and with the admission of life’s transitory nature, the poet suggests the meaning of life and death as well as words can identify such profound things.

If the introduction or invocation is a praise of life, the second elegy is a lament for life’s limitations. Mortals must, at best, content themselves with an occasional moment of self-awareness, of a glimpse at eternity. Unlike the Greeks, people in later times have no external symbols for the life within. In love, were humans not finally satiated, they might establish communication with the angels; finally, though, human intuitions vanish, leaving only a fleeting glimpse of reality.

Rilke began the third elegy at Duino and completed it in Paris the following year; during an intervening visit to Spain, he composed parts of the sixth, ninth, and tenth elegies. In the third section, he confronts the physical bases of life, especially love. He suggests that woman is always superior in the love act, man a mere beginner led by blind animal passion, the libido a vicious drive. Sublime love is an end in itself, but human love is often a means to escape life. Even children have a sort of terror infused into their blood from this heritage of doubt and fear. From this view of mortality, Rilke would lead the child away, as he says in a powerful though enigmatic conclusion:

 . . . Oh gently, gentlyshow him daily a loving, confident task done,—guide himclose to the garden, give him those counter-balancing nights. . . .Withhold him.

Perhaps the advent of war made the fourth elegy the most bitter of all, written as it was from Rilke’s retreat in Munich in 1915. The theme of distraction, of humankind’s preoccupation with fleeting time and time-serving, makes this part a deep lament over the human condition. People are worse than puppets who might be manipulated by those unseen forces, angels. Attempts to force destiny, to toy with fate, cause mortals to break with heaven’s firm hold. People must be as little children, delighted within themselves by the world without, and with their attention and energies undivided, alone. Here, they will find the answer to death as the other side of life, a part of life and not the negation or end of it.

The fifth elegy, the last from the standpoint of time, written at the Château de Muzot in 1922, was inspired by Pablo Picasso’s famous picture of a group of acrobats. Here again the circumstances of the writing overshadow the real worth of the poem. Picasso’s Les Saltimbanques was owned by Frau Hertha Koenig, who allowed Rilke the privilege of living in her home in 1915 so that he could be near his favorite painting. Either the poet imperfectly remembered the details of the painting when the poem was finally written or he included the recollections of acrobats who delighted him during his Paris years. Regardless of influences, however, the poem is remarkable in its merging of theme and movement with a painting, emphasizing Rilke’s conviction that a poem must celebrate all the senses rather than appeal to eye or ear alone.

The acrobats, symbolizing the human condition, travel about, rootless and transitory, giving pleasure to neither themselves nor the spectators. Reality to the acrobat, as to humankind, is best discovered in the arduousness of the task; routine, though, often makes the task a mockery, especially if death is the end. If death, however, is the other side of life and makes up the whole, then life forces are real and skillfully performed to the inner delight of performers and spectators, living and dead alike.

The hero, Rilke asserts in the sixth elegy, is that fortunate being whose memory, unlike that of long-forgotten lovers, is firmly established by his deeds. Being single-minded and single-hearted, the hero has the same destiny as the early departed, those who die young without losing their view of eternity. The great thing, then, is to live in the flower of life with the calm awareness that the fruit, death, is the unilluminated side of life. For the hero, life is always beginning.

In the seventh elegy, the poet no longer worries about transitory decaying or dying. Now he sings the unpremeditated song of existence:

Don’t think that I’m wooing!Angel, even if I were, you’d never come.For my callis always full of ’Away!’ Against such apowerfulcurrent you cannot advance. Like anoutstretchedarm is my call. And its clutching,upwardlyopen hand is always before youas open for warding and warning,aloft there, Inapprehensible.

From this viewpoint, Rilke attempts in the eighth elegy, dedicated to his friend Rudolph Kassner, to support his belief in the “nowhere without no,” the “open” world, timeless, limitless, inseparable “whole.” “We,” contrasted to animals, are always looking away rather than toward this openness.

Rilke continues the theme of creative existence in the ninth elegy, possibly begun at Duino but certainly finished at Muzot. He suggests that the life of the tree is superior in felicity to human destiny. People should, perhaps, rejoice in the limiting conditions of mortality by overcoming the negation of the flesh with a reaffirmation of the spirit. Death then holds no fears; it is not opposite to life, not an enemy but a friend. This work possibly represents the author’s own recovery from the negating, inhibiting conditions of World War I to a renewed faith in life.

The tenth elegy, the first ten lines of which came to Rilke in that burst of creativity at Duino, contains a satiric portrait of the City of Pain, where man simply excludes suffering, pain, and death from his thoughts; where distractions, especially the pursuit of money, are the principal activities. This semiexistence of the poet contrasts with that in the Land of Pain, Life-Death, where there is continuous progress through insights of a deeper reality to the primal source of joy: “And we, who have always thought/ of happiness climbing, would feel/ the emotion that almost startles/ when happiness falls.” Perhaps Rilke means that by complete submission or attunement to universal forces individuals are suspended or even fall into the “open.” This deeply realized philosophy he developed in Die Sonette an Orpheus (1923; Sonnets to Orpheus, 1936), a work that complements Duino Elegies, though it does not surpass it in deep emotional undertones and sheer power of expression.

Taken together, the elegies offer a mural of Rilke’s inner landscape. Internalization of travel experiences, the lonely scenery of Duino Castle, the flight of birds, mythological constructs, and other phenomena create a background of timeless “inner space” against which the author projects his coming to grips with the existential polarities of life and death. Progressing from lament to profound affirmation of mortality, the poems glorify the fulfillment of humanity’s promise to maintain all things of value through a process of transformation that rescues external nature by placing it in the protected realm of the spirit. The power by which this is accomplished is love. By bringing together earth and space, life and death, all dimensions of reality and of time into a single inward hierarchical unity, Rilke sought to ensure the continuation of humanity’s outward existence.

The definitive English translation of the Duino Elegies remains the 1939 version produced by J. B. Leishman and the renowned poet Stephen Spender, who established a standard of literary accuracy and fluency that few later translators match. Other useful editions include C. F. MacIntyre’s 1961 dual-language version and Elaine Boney’s literal 1975 rendering.

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