The polish translator of the Duino Elegies wrote to Rilke asking several questions regarding the Elegies. This is Rilke’s response. (Edited by me to remove a few less relevant points. All italics are Rilke’s.)
Here, dear friend, I venture to say scarcely anything, myself. At the hand of the poems themselves, however, may not many things perhaps attempt clarification? Where to begin? And is it I who should be allowed to give the Elegies their correct explanation? They reach out intimately beyond me. . . . Affirmation of life AND death turns out to be one and the same thing in the “Elegies.” As experienced and celebrated here, to acknowledge the one and not the other would be finally to shut out all that is infinite. Death is the side of life turned away from us and unilluminated by us. We must try to achieve the greatest consciousness of our existence, which is at home in both unlimited realms, from both inexhaustibly nourished . . . The true shape of life reaches through both spheres; the blood of greatest circulation flows through both: there is neither a Here nor a Beyond, but the great unity in which those beings which transcend us, the “angels”, are at home. . . .
. . . We of the Here and Now are not for a moment satisfied with the Time-World nor bound in it; we are forever flowing over and over toward those who preceded us, toward our origin, and toward those who seemingly come after us. In that greatest “open” world all are, one cannot say “simultaneous”, for the very falling away of time implies that they all are. Transitoriness everywhere plunges into a deep Being. And so all the configurations of the Here are to be used not only in a time-bound way, but adjusted, insofar as we can, to those superior meanings in which we have a share. But not in the Christian sense, . . . but in a purely earthly, deeply earthly, blissfully earthly consciousness, we must introduce what we see and touch here into the wider, widest range. Not into a Beyond whose shadow darkens the earth, but into a whole, into the whole. Nature, the things we are associated with and use, are provisional and perishable things; but they are, as long as we are here, our possession and our friendship—confidants of our distress and of our rejoicing, as they have already been the intimates of our forebears. The main point is, not only not to speak ill of or put down the Here, but precisely because it is provisional (which it shares with us), to comprehend and transform its appearances and things in a most intimate understanding. Transform? Yes, for it is our duty to imprint so deeply, so patiently and passionately into ourselves this provisional, perishable earth, that its reality can rise again in us “invisibly.” We are the bees of the invisible. Distractedly we pilfer the honey of the visible to collect it in the big golden hive of the invisible. The “Elegies” show us at this work, at the work of perpetually converting the beloved Visible and Tangible into the invisible vibration and agitation of our own nature, which introduces new frequencies into the sphere-vibrations of the universe. (For the diverse substances of the cosmos are only different vibration-exponents, and so we prepare in this way not only intensities of a spiritual nature but, who knows, new bodies, metals, nebulae and constellations.) And this activity is characteristically sustained and urged on by the ever more rapid vanishing of so much that is visible, which will never again be replaced. Even for our grand-parents a “house”, a “spring”, a trusted tower, their very clothes, their coat: were infinitely more, infinitely closer. Almost everything was a vessel in which they found something human and added to the store of what was human. . . . The animate things, the experienced things, the things which have known us, are running out and can no longer be replaced. We are perhaps the last who will have known such things. On us rests the responsibility to preserve not only their memory (that would be little and unreliable) but also their human and laric worth. (“Laric” in the sense of household gods.) The earth has no other refuge than to become invisible: in us who with part of our being partake of the Invisible, at least hold stock in it, and can increase our holdings in Invisibility during our time here.
In us alone can this intimate and enduring transformation of the visible into an invisible no longer dependent on being visible and tangible be accomplished—as our own destiny at the same time continually becomes MORE AVAILABLE AND INVISIBLE in us. The Elegies set up this norm of existence: they assure, they celebrate this consciousness. They locate it carefully in its traditions, in that they claim for it ancient inheritances and rumors of inheritances, and call up foreknowledge of such references even in the Egyptian cult of the dead. (Although the “Land of Lamentation” through which the older “lament” leads the young dead is not to be identified with Egypt, but is only, so to speak, a mirroring of the Nile country into the desert- clarity consciousness of the dead.) . . . The angel of the Elegies is that creature in whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible which we are carrying out, appears already fulfilled. For the angel of the Elegies all past towers and palaces exist because they have been long invisible, and the still-standing towers and bridges of our life are already invisible, though (for us) still physically enduring. The angel of the Elegies is that being who stands for the recognition of a higher order of reality (in the invisible). Therefore “terrible” to us, because we, its lovers and transformers are, for all that, still attached to the visible. All worlds of the universe are hurling into the invisible, as though into their next deepest reality. A few stars intensify themselves immediately and disappear in the infinite consciousness of the angels— others depend on creatures who slowly and painstakingly transform them, creatures in whose terrors and delights they reach their next invisible realization. We are, let it be once more stressed, in the sense of the Elegies, we are these transformers of the earth; our entire existence, the flights and plunges of our love— everything— qualifies us for this task (beside which no other essentially exists). …
May you recognize here, dear friend, some counsel and elucidation and, for the rest, further help yourself. For I do not know whether I could ever say more.
Your R.M. Rilke
Excerpts from the Elegies
The First Elegy excerpt
Who, if I cried, would hear me from the order
of Angels? And even if one suddenly held me
to his heart: I would dissolve there from
his stronger presence. For beauty is only
the beginning of a terror we can just barely endure,
and what we so admire is its calm
disdaining to destroy us. Every Angel brings terror.
So I withhold myself and keep back the lure
of my dark sobbing. Oh, who is there
to prevail upon? Neither Angles nor men,
and already the ingenious beasts are aware
that we are not reliably at home
in our interpreted world.
Yes, the springtime did need you. Many stars
demanded that you sense them. A wave
long since gone by lifted itself toward you,
or when you passed a window that was open, a violin
gave itself up. All this was charge.
But did you complete it? Were you not always
distracted with expectation, as though this were
but announcing someone you could love?
Should not this ancient pain at last produce in us
more fruit? Is it not time that our loving
freed us from our beloved and we, trembling, endured;
as the arrow endures the string that, gathered to leap forth,
it may be more that itself. For staying is nowhere.
— But all the living
mistakenly draw too sharp distinctions.
Angels (one says) often are not sure if they
move among the living or the dead. The eternal torrent
hurls all ages along through both realms
forever, and sound above them in both.
The Second Elegy excerpts
Every Angel brings terror. And yet, woe is me,
my song calls upon you, near-deadly birds of the soul,
knowing who you are. Where have the days of Tobias gone
when one supremely shining stood in a simple doorway,
disguised a little for the journey and no longer frightening;
(young to the young one as he curiously peered out.)
Should the archangel, the perilous one, behind the stars
take a single step downward and toward us, our own
surging hearts would slay us. Who are you?
Lovers, if they but knew, could in the night air
speak wonderful things. For it seems that all things
conceal us. Look, the trees exist; and the houses
we live in – still stand. But we pass them by
like an exchange of breath.
And all is in agreement to ignore us; half as shame, perhaps
and half as ineffable hope.
The Fifth Elegy excerpt
Angel! Could there be a place we have not known, and there
on an ineffable carpet, lovers revealed all that here
they can never accomplish, the daring
high figures of the heart’s flight,
their towers made of pleasure, ladders
leaning only on each other where there was never
ground, and swaying – and could it be
before those rings of spectators, the countless silent dead,
would not fling their last, their always kept back, always
hidden and unknown to us, forever valid
coins of happiness before that pair whose smile
at last was true, out of the quietened
The Seventh Elegy excerpt
To be present is glorious. You knew it, even you
girls, who seemingly went without, sank under, in the
saddest streets of the cities, festering ones kept for refuse.
For one hour was each of you, or perhaps not
entirely an hour, some span of time that is scarcely
a measure between two whiles, wherein you had
existence. Everything. Your veins full of existence.
But we so lightly forget what our laughing neighbor
will neither confirm nor envy. Into the visible
we want to raise it, when even the most visible joy
only can disclose itself to us when we have transformed it within.
Nowhere, my love, can there be World but within us.
Our life goes by in changing, and ever fainter
dwindles the external. Where an enduring house once stood,
an invented image now strikes across our sight, the concept’s
entire property, as though it still loomed in the mind.
Vast stores of power the Time Spirit builds itself, formless
as that vital drive it levies from all things.
Temples it knows no more. These extravagances of the heart
we are secretly saving. Yes, where there remains
a thing once prayed, served, or knelt before,
it survives, just as it is, into the unseen world.
Many no longer perceive this, still lack the vantage
for building it inwardly now, with pillars and statues, greater!
The Eighth Elegy excerpt
With all their eyes all creatures gaze into
the Open. Only our eyes, as though turned in,
on every side of it are set about
like traps to circumvent its free outgazing.
What is without we know from the face
of animals alone, for even the youngest child
we turn around and force to see the past
as form and not that openness that
lies so deep within the face of animals. Free from death,
has its destruction always behind it
and before it God, so when it moves, it moves
into eternity, like a running spring.
We have never, not for a single day,
that pure space before us, into which the flowers
endlessly open: where it is always world
and never Nowhere without No:
that Pure, Unwatched-over. That one breathes and
endlessly knows and does not desire.
Were consciousness after our manner within this
sure beast that draws near to us
but in another direction -, he would pull us with him
on his way. But his being to him is
infinite, incomprehensible and without sight
into his situation, pure, like his outward gaze.
And where we see future, he sees all
and himself in all, and is complete forever.
The Ninth Elegy excerpt
… why, then
must we be human – and evading destiny,
long for destiny? . . .
Oh not because happiness is
that hasty profit of an approaching loss.
Not from curiosity, nor to exercise the heart,
it could have been that in the laurel. . . .
But because being present is so much, because it seems
that what is here is in need of us, this fading world
has strangely charged us. Us who fade the most. Once
to everything, only once. Once and no more. And we too,
once. And never again. But this
once to have been, if only this once:
to have been of the earth seems beyond revoking.
Earth, is not this what you want: invisibly
to arise in us? Is it not your dream
to become one day invisible? – Earth! invisible!
What do you charge us with if not transformation?
Earth, my love, I will. Oh believe me, I need
no more of your springtimes to win me; one,
ah, just one is already too much for my blood.
Unutterably I am resolved to be yours, from afar.
You were always right, and your holiest occurrence
is our intimate companion, Death.
Look, I live. And for what? Neither childhood nor future
grows any less in me . . . . Unaccountable being
springs up in my heart.
The Tenth Elegy excerpt
That I one, with the passing of this grim vision,
might sing out jubilant praise for assenting Angels.
That from the clear-struck keys of my heart, not one
should fail from doubtful, or slack or breaking strings;
that my streaming face might make me more radiant,
until an inconspicuous weeping bloom there. How dear
will you be to me then, you nights of sorrowing.
Oh why did I not, disconsolate sisters, kneel
more to receive you, give myself more loosely
into your loosened hair. We, wasting our sorrows,
how we gaze beyond them into some drab duration
to see if they may not end there. While already
they are the winter foliage, our darkened evergreen,
one of the season of our secret year -, not only
season -, but place, settlement, camp, soil, habitation.
Yet within us the endless dead were waking in a likeness;
see, they were pointing perhaps to the catkins hung
from the empty hazels, or suggesting the rain
that falls on the dark soil in early spring. –
And we, who have always counted
on joy as ascending, would suffer
the emotion that almost alarms us
when a joyful things falls.
Translations by Stephen Garmey and Jay Wilson as printed in the Petrarch Press edition, 1987.