The second Duino Elegy
by Rainer Maria Rilke

Every angel terrifies. Though I shouldn’t, I am singing
at you, all-but-lethal birds of the soul, in full knowledge
of what you can do. Where has it gone, the age of Tobias, when from
the realm of radiant beings just one stood at a plain front door,
partly disguised for the journey, and no longer frightening
(one young man curious about another young man, as he looked outside).
Now, if the archangel stepped like a threat from behind the stars
and took a single stride down towards us, our own pounding
heartbeat would slaughter us. Who could you be?

Joyous from the start, creation’s beloved companions,
upthrust heights, Earth’s sierras tinged rose-red
at dawn,—pollen of flowering godhead,
cusps of light, hallways, stairs, thrones,
spaces made of Being, crests of rapture, cyclonic,
ravishing tumults, and suddenly, one at a time,
mirrors, each recreating itself in each while pouring
forth beauty into its own countenance.

For we, wherever we feel, diffuse, oh, we breathe
ourselves out and away; ember to glowing ember
we release a fading scent of smoke. Though someone might say:
Yes, you’re seeping into my bloodstream, this room, this spring
is filling up with you . . . Does it matter? he can’t hold on to us,
we vanish inside and all around him. And the loveliest:
who then is holding them back? Semblance constantly
rises up in their face and then departs. Dew from the grass at dawn,
what is ours lifts away from us, like warmth above
a steaming dish. O smile, where to? O upturned glance:
new, warm, receding ripple of the heart—;
alas, but that is what we are. Does the space we dissolve
into then taste of us? And is it true that angels
merely recapture their own, what they first poured out,
or sometimes, as though by mistake, a little
of our essence also? Are we an ingredient in their
features, much like that vagueness seen in the faces
of pregnant women? They don’t notice it as they revolve
back into themselves. (How should they notice it?)

Lovers might, if they only understood, voice awe-inspiring
words to the night air. For it seems that everything wants
to hide us away. Look around you, the trees exist, the houses
we inhabit are still standing firm. It’s only we
who let it all go by like some weightless exchange of breath.
And everything agrees not to speak of us, half out
of shame, maybe, and half out of ineffable hope.

You lovers, contented with one another, I’m asking you
about us. You cling to each other. What guarantees do you have?
You see, sometimes I find that my hands become
aware of themselves, or that my exhausted forehead
takes shelter in them. It gives me a fleeting
sensation. Yet who, just because of that, would claim to be?
You, though, who expand in each other’s
rapture until, overpowered, one of you begs:
no more—; you who thrive under each other’s hands
as sumptuously as grape clusters in a vintage year;
who at times dwindle away only because the other
so strongly takes the lead. I’m asking you about us. I know,
you touch each other so ardently because the caress
holds fast: no place your hand rests on, tender souls,
ever vanishes; because under it you sense a pure
continuing. You exchange the promise of eternity almost
in your embrace alone. And yet, if you withstand
those first terrifying glances, your long vigil at the window,
and the first walk together, that one time through the garden:
Lovers, are you still all that you were? If both of you lift
each other to your lips and unite—: potion to potion:
oh how strangely those who are drinking elude that deed.

Didn’t it astound you, the foresight of those human gestures
carved on Athenian grave markers, weren’t love and farewell
laid on shoulders so lightly as to seem composed of a material
different from ours? Consider those hands, the way they rest
without pressure, no matter how strong the chest and shoulders.
Having mastered themselves, they acknowledged: we can go only so far,
this much is allowed, to touch one another just this way. The gods can
press down on us with more strength. But that is the gods’ prerogative.
We would like to find something pure, contained, spare,
human, our one and only strip of fruitful land between
river and rock. For our own heart climbs beyond us
just as theirs always did. And no longer can our eyes
follow it into images, which soothe it, nor even into
godlike bodies, where it gains greater self-control.

—translated from the German by Alfred Corn

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 8, on page 44
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