Which of the angels (Duino Elegy #1)

(Rainer Maria Rilke: Duineser Elegien – Kapitel 1)

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And say I screamed aloud, let it all out —
Which of the angels, orderly and chaste,
Would even hear? And say one did, what then?
Say one broke ranks, took me in its embrace—
I’d be undone, as surely as a matchstick thrust into the sun.
Such beauty, unrelieved, could wreck our minds.
It’s why we worship them. Still, every angel terrifies.

And so I hold myself together: never cry,
Swallow my sobs before they have a chance to rise.
Anyway, who’d sympathize? Not Angels; people, no;
Nor yet the clever animals, who realize
That we’re beyond their help, we think too much to be
At home here in their world. What’s there
To cling too, then? — perhaps that solitary tree
Perched on the hillside, that we see day in, day out?
Maybe that street we walked down yesterday; maybe
A comfortable habit that wears us the way we’d wear
A favorite shirt threadbare — perhaps we can rely on these?

But then Night comes on — like a wind from space
Slapping and chafing the faces we display,
Night comes — and always slightly disappoints — but stays;
Before whom each must stand with downcast gaze.
Loners, lovers, we share a common fate.

Now do you understand? Then throw your two arms wide,
And fling the empty space, that fills you, to the sky!
– the while imagining the birds in flight
Buoyed up, and up, on the expanding air!

The springtime itself needed you. Also, the stars –
They twinkled when you noticed them.
Oh, and that wave — remember it? —
That heaved up from the ocean toward you, long ago?
And then the time you passed the open window,
And the violin shuddered its strings
And sang to you alone… It’s what those things
Were meant to do. But did you take it in?
Weren’t you rather waiting, always waiting, waiting
As if for your one true love to come? (Yet — had she come,
Could you have hidden from her those strange thoughts
That wracked your sleep, then haunted you by day?)
Do you long so for love? Well, then,
Extol the star-crossed lovers, surely they
Could stand to be a bit more recognized;
Yes, sing the lovelorn, whom you find
So much more satisfactory than the satisfied;
But think on this ere you begin
The usual lamentation: that heroes strive and die
To earn the right of being born a second time;
When lovers fade, it’s because Nature’s done with them:
They’re all used up, the sap’s dried in their veins,
They’re good for nothing. Gaspara Stampa—
You remember her? Then you’ll recall
How many young girls, jilted, thought she was the all-in-all,
Thought: “Now, like dear Gaspara, I have lived!” And there:
Isn’t that wisdom, of its sort? Shouldn’t such pain
Be put to use? It’s high time we, who suffer so for love,
Got free of any one particular beloved. For, you know,
You don’t see arrows cleaving to the bow
That sends them forth:
To stay put is — of course — to go nowhere.

These voices, voices — Oh, my heart! Would you could hear
As the saints heard — who, being called, were taken up
Still kneeling, raised bodily to heaven
But all the while so intent on their listening
They knew not they were taken. Not that you,
My own un-saintly heart, could thus endure the voice of God.
It’s just that – listen! There’s that sound! It rises
Out of silence, never ending; it’s speaking yet,
With all the tender voices of the newly dead.
Hear, how they call to you, my heart!
As in that quiet church in Naples,
Or the chapel once in Rome —
As in those words carved in the stones
Of Sant’ Formosa, where the voices spoke before;
They’re speaking; can you hear? My heart!
Are not they clear? And thus they bid me: that I must
Absolve the dead, remit the sin that clings
To them like cobwebs, hinders them like dust.

So strange not to inhabit the world anymore,
And to abandon customs barely learned;
Not to read omens in a rose’s blossoming,
Nor hope, nor anything else of that sort;
Not to be what one was, back when everything
Seemed infinitely fragile; yes, even
To lay aside one’s own name like a broken toy.
Strange, to be a stranger to desire; strange,
To see each thing that seemed to matter so, cast loose
To flutter away in the wind. And also, death
Is tedious: one dithers, hems and haws,
Before accepting that this is — as it is — eternity.
The living are mistaken if they think death’s not about the same
As life. Indeed, the Angels (so I’ve heard) can hardly say
If they’re among the living or the dead, since the same tide
Sweeps them the same; rocks them the same;
And drowns them all the same.

At last they have no need of us, these too-soon-dead.
They wean themselves from worldly things,
Just as a child outgrows its mother’s breast.
But we, who need a sense of Mystery —
We, for whom grief sometimes shows the forward path —
We need them—how else could we get along?
Here’s no vain tale: when god-like Linos — best
Of all men living — died,
And when the mourners came to cry him to his rest—
Then Music filled the emptiness he’d left:
Shivered the dying land, shocked space,
As it entered the world for the first time,
Then, as ever after, to enrapture us; enfold us; give us aid.

 

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The Swan

(after Ranier Maria Rilke)

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Despite having so many things still left undone
(Important things, things you were meant to do)
You spent the hour observing swans.

Swans waddle; are awkward; you hadn’t known. One—ungainly thing—
You watched slowly approach the verge, like one would who
Faced death by drowning—till, resigned to sink,

It pitched into the pool at last
With an undignified, un-swan-like splash.
Then bore up, unsurprisingly, upon the waves.
The water endless came—oh, but the swan
Glided, glided, glided on and on
As if it were no miracle it had been saved.

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The Panther

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From so much eyeing of these bars
The panther’s gone cage-blind
So that it sees a thousand bars,
And not the world behind.

Lithely padding, circling
In movement without cease
It coils its body like a spring
That cannot find release.

And sometimes on its eye within,
The silent pictures start–
That rush through sinew, nerve and skin,
But vanish at the heart.

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Rilke drew me in again; I’m not quite sure why. His lyricism? His romanticism? This particular poem’s fusion of imagism and philosophizing that, though it stops well short of banality, is certainly situated somewhere along the obviousness spectrum? Likely enough it was over-exposure to the slavish word-bound accuracy of over-respectful translators who run roughshod over sense and sensibility to turn–for example–this:

Sein Blick ist von Vorübergehen der Stäbe
so müd geworden, daß er nichts mehr hält. (Ranier Maria Rilke)

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Spanish Dancer

(translated from the German of Ranier Maria Rilke)

Dancer in Pigalle by Gino Severini (1912)

As fire lives in the cold matchstick
Before its striking, which when struck
Flicks out white tongues of flame from every side —
So she, within that curious circle, side to side,
Her body quick and hot and bright
Darts out, and back, and dances out again —

And suddenly she blazes up in flame.

Her kindled eyes ignite her hair,
And she with perfect skill whirls up her skirt
Into that swirling pyre,
From out of which, like writhing snakes,
Her naked arms rise rattling, waked by fire.

But then – as if the fire pressed her too close,
She spins it up into a ball – and casts it off,
And spurns it with her heel and with her eye
Imperious it lies, still raging, still alive,
Fueled with itself, and not to be denied –
Till she, unflinching, lifts her face up sweetly
Heavenward, with gentle, loving smile,

And stamps it out with small, firm feet.

Words: my translation of Spanische Tänzerin by Ranier Maria Rilke (ca. 1906) [public domain in U.S.]

Image: Dancer in Pigalle by Gino Severinix (1912) [public domain in U.S.]

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