With regard to the Duino Elegies, the word “elegy” was first used as a formal term in distichs—paired lines, usually in dactylic hexameter, treating a variety of subjects. Later, the term was applied specifically to poems expressing lamentation, renunciation, or melancholy. Duino Elegies, a cycle of ten long poems, continues both of these traditions.
One of the most striking images in the Duino Elegies, and one that unites the various poems, is the figure of the angel. The Rilkean angel, however, departs from the traditional biblical figure. As Rilke himself stated:The angel of the Elegies is that being which stands for the recognition of the invisible as a higher level of reality. Therefore “terrible” for us, since we, its lovers and transformers, still cling to the visible.
The dichotomy of visible/invisible that Rilke stresses is a central image in the Duino Elegies. The poet’s task—as well as the reader’s—is to praise the world, thereby immortalizing it, by transforming the visible into “invisible” objects of language, imagination, and spirit.
In the opening lines of the first elegy, the angels appear aloof, unaware of humankind’s inferior presence. Humanity is pictured as having no genuine connection to the rest of creation. The speaker wonders whether there might be hope for humankind in its lovers, but this idea is rejected as self-delusion. In the second elegy, the notion of the angels’ vast superiority to humankind is reiterated. First, the speaker elevates their glorious and luminous nature. The remainder of the elegy presents by contrast humanity’s feeble essence. Once again, in lovers there is “almost . . . the promise of eternity,” but love is fleeting. The desire for permanence is a complex and ambivalent emotion that persists throughout the cycle. While the second elegy laments the transitory, insubstantial nature of humankind, later in the cycle the desirability of permanence is itself called into question.
The third elegy is entirely devoted to earthly things, to the dark, sexual,...
(The entire section is 866 words.)