In his greatest poems, and especially in the Duino Elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke lodged wide extremes of feeling in chilly but resonant abstractions. His most memorable lines arrive amid a veritable retinue of universals. Autumn, Loneliness, the Beloved, along with other cloudy presences, populate his verse; it is rarely, if ever, this autumn or my loneliness or a remembered lover with a definite address. Such particulars didn’t much interest him—he was an elegist of essences. In a lesser poet, this practice would have fogged the verse intolerably.

But Rilke knew how to make the loftiest abstractions pulse with expectancy. In this he was abetted by the German language. German likes nothing better than to couple dodgy antinomies in precarious compounds; how satisfying to be able to toss off such a dense phrase as the “Jetzt-Spitze im Zeitverfluá,”...


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