Rainer Maria Rilke

Excerpts from the Duino Elegies, translated by John Waterfield


The first elegy | The fourth elegy | The tenth elegy | The translator



Who, if I cried, would hear me, of the angelic 

orders? or even supposing that one should suddenly

carry me to his heart – I should perish under the pressure

of his stronger nature. For beauty is only a step

removed from a burning terror we barely sustain,

and we worship it for the graceful sublimity

with which it disdains to consume us. Each angel burns.

And so I hold back, and swallow down the yearning,

the dark call heard in the cave of the heart. Alas,

who then can serve our need? Not angels, not human

beings; and even the sly beasts begin to perceive

that we do not feel too much at home

in our interpreted world. Perhaps we can call on

a tree we noticed on a slope somewhere

and passed in our daily walk – the streets

of a city we knew, or a habit’s dumb fidelity,

a habit that liked our space, and so it stayed.

Oh, and the night, the night – when the wind full of emptiness

feeds on our features – how should she not be there?

– the long desired, mild disenchantress,

sure disappointer of the labouring heart.

Is she kinder to lovers perhaps? No, they hide from her,

seeking security in an embrace.

Haven’t you grasped it yet? Throw from your arms the nothing that

lies between them

into the space that we breathe as an atmosphere –

to enable the birds, perhaps, in new zest of feeling

to hurl their flight through the expanded air.


Yes, the springtimes needed you. Stars now and then

craved your attention. A wave rose

in the remembered past; or as you came by the open window

a violin was singing its soul out. All this

was a given task. But were you capacious

enough to receive it? Weren’t you always

distracted with expectation, imagining

these hints the heralds of a human love? (Where will you keep her,

the loved one – you with your vast strange thoughts

always coming and going, and taking up too much houseroom.)

If you feel longing, though, sing of the lovers, the great ones;

who has adequately immortalized

their alchemy of the heart? The unrequited -

you envied them almost, finding them so much more

loving than the physically satisfied. Begin, then,

the praise of what can never be praised enough.

Consider: the hero maintains an identity,

even his last stand merely a last occasion

for self-assertion – a kind of ultimate birth.

But lovers Nature takes to herself again

as if she lacked resources

to do it a second time: exhausted and fulfilled.

Have you pondered enough on Gaspara Stampa – that any girl

whose lover jilts her can take that life as a model

and think: I could be like her?

Shouldn’t at last these ancient familiar sorrows

bear feeling fruit in our lives? Isn’t it time

to free ourselves from the loved one, and bear the tension

as the arrow endures the tensed string – to gather its forces

and spring to a state of being that is more

than it could ever be? It is death to stand still.


Voices; voices, and echoes. Listen, my heart, as only

saints listened of old, till the giant summons

lifted them from the ground – but they went on kneeling,

impossibly, and stopped the ears of the heart.

That was their way. Don’t think, though, that you could endure

God’s voice – far from it. But listen for the whisper,

the wind that breathes out of silence continuing news.

Those who died young: their fate a picture

you saw on speaking tablets at Rome or Naples

or in Santa Maria Formosa, where a few bare words

spoke volumes.

       What do they want of me? That I should gently

undo the apparent injustice of their deaths:

that last hindrance to their spirits’ progress.



Strange it is, to inhabit the earth no longer,

to have no more use for habits hardly acquired –

roses, and other things of singular promise,

no longer to see them in terms of a human future;

to be no more all that we nurtured and carried

in endlessly anxious hands, and to leave by the roadside

one’s own name even, like a child’s broken doll.

Strange, not to have wishes any more.

To see, where things were related, only a looseness

fluttering in space. And its hard, being dead,

and takes much difficult recapitulation

to glimpse the tiniest hint of eternity.

The living, though, are too ready to posit a border

between two states of being: a human mistake.

Angels, it’s said, are often uncertain

whether they traverse the living or the dead. The eternal current

pours through both worlds, bearing all ages with it,

and overpowers their voices with their song.



They finally need us no longer, the early departed:

they grow beyond earthly things, as a child mildly

outgrows the mother’s breast. But we, left standing

before closed doors – we from whose living sorrow

blessedest growth can spring – where should we be

without them?

    Think again of the story

how at Linus’ departing a boldly tentative music

pierced, for the first time, the soul’s blank grief;

and in that startled vacuum from which an almost godlike

boy exited for ever, the air fell

into that intermittent pure vibration

which for us mortals is rapture, and comfort, and help.

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O trees of life, when is your winter season?

We are divided. Lack the knowledge of

migrating birds. Belated and outstripped,

we hurl ourselves suddenly on the wind

to tumble on a pond of misconceptions.

Both growth and withering present to our minds.

And somewhere lions wander in their glory,

and know in all their days no dearth of power.

We, though, where we intend one thing, and mean it,

are vexed by shimmering alternatives.

Enmity’s near to hand. Don’t lovers always

come upon fences in each other’s souls

where they expected hunting, home, and freedom?

Then briefly a design that’s based on contrast

comes into focus, carefully prepared

for us to see. (They take some pains with us.)

We do not know the contour of our feeling:

only the thing that moulds it from without.

Who has not sat expectant

before the curtain of the heart’s theatre?

And up it went. A scenery of farewells.

Easy to picture. The remembered garden,

the backdrop faintly stirred. Then came the dancer.

Not him. I’ve had enough. For all his footwork,

he is a fraud, a bourgeois in disguise,

and passes through the kitchen to his dwelling.

I cannot take these half-invested masks.

Better the puppet. That is full, and honest.

Out with pretence. I can accept the wires,

the stuffing and integuments, that face

of mere appearance. On with the show. I’m here.

If all the lights go dim, even if they tell me

the play is over, and only emptiness

drifts from the stage on the sickening grey air,

if none of my mute ancestors remain

to sit with me, no woman that I loved,

and even the squinting brown-eyed boy is gone

who died so young, I’ll stay here just the same.

Am I not right? My father, you whose life

tasted so bitter where it mixed with mine

as I grew on, the cloudy fermentation

that was my destiny teasing your palate

with a suggestion of strange futures – searching

my eyes upturned to yours opaquely, troubled

by what you saw and what you did not see –

you who, now dead, are present to my soul

and fearfully share my hope, surrendering

serenity such as the dead must have,

all that serene kingdom surrendering

to share my little life, am I not right?

And you, am I not right, you who once loved me

for the poor bud of love you saw in me

and thought was yours, which I outgrew, because

the space I saw and worshipped in your faces

opened on cosmic distances where you

were visible no longer – am I not right,

to sit just now and then, to watch the show? No –

to gaze rather with such strange constancy

that in the end, to compensate my gazing,

an angel must descend to tread the boards,

snatching the puppets into his hands.

Angel and puppet: that’s something like a play.

Then comes together all that we put apart

by our existence, and our seasons grow

to complete fullness in the round of time.

Above us then we sense the angel playing.

Look, surely the dying must suspect

how full of sham are all our ventures here.

Nothing can ever be itself. Oh, hours of childhood,

when behind the presented figure more

than just the past was, and no future either.

We grew, of course, and sometimes tried so hard

to grow up quickly, half in will to please

those who in adulthood had nothing else.

And yet were happy in our solitude

with the experience of pure duration,

stood in a space between the world and our toys,

upon a spot established from the beginning

to be the locus of a real event.


Who will depict a child just as it stands? – place it

within its constellation, give it the measure of distance

into its hand? who make the death of children

out of grey bread, which hardens like a stone,

or place it in the cherry mouth as it were the core

of a shiny apple? Murderers are

easy to fathom. Only this: to take on death

completely, before even life begins,

contain it lightly and without complaining,

bereaves description.

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That I may one day, leaving the vision of terror,

sing praise and glory again to assenting angels.

That of the heart’s clearly smitten hammers

none may fall weakly on flat, doubtful

or unsettled strings. That my streaming countenance

make me shine. That my hidden weeping flower.

How dear you will be to me then, nights of affliction.

Could I have taken you to me, comfortless sisters,

more kneelingly – could I have lost myself more

wholly in your loosened hair. We, the wasters of sorrows.

How we look out on their sad prolongation, wondering

if they will ever end. And yet they are

our lasting winter foliage, our dark evergreen of the senses,

one of the seasons of the inward year – nor just a

season merely, but bedrock, settlement, home, and dwelling.


Strange, though, are the streets of the City of Pain,

where in the false silence of mere noise

bursting out of the moulds of vacuity

the gilded monument boasts its tinsel glories.

Oh, how an angel would trample to nothing this mart of distraction,

which skirts their church – a developer’s property,

clean and closed as a shopping centre on Sunday.

Beyond it a whirl, the fair’s fringes. Dippers

of freedom! Tumblers and jugglers! – all on the make.

And the shooting gallery’s pretty incentives, where

the target twitches and offers a tinny sound

when the lucky man hits. Lauded, applauded, and wholly

fortuitous, he staggers on, for booths    

that pander to every taste solicit his custom

with a roll of drums. Then, for adults only,

there’s a quite special show, and it isn’t just entertainment:

the mating of money, for anatomical viewing,

the sexual parts, the whole process made plain.

You too can learn to breed... An instructive display.

Beyond that, behind the last hoarding, plastered with posters

that advertise their so-called “Deathless” beer

(a bitter beer that tastes sweet so long as the drinker

keeps chewing the pellets of ever novel amusements) –

right there, behind the hoarding, is the real thing.

Children are playing, and thoughtful lovers embrace

on the pitiful grass, some distance apart, and dogs

do as their nature instructs them. Perhaps the boy

wants to go further. Perhaps he has fallen in love


with a young Sorrow. He follows her into the fields. She says –

Far. Far away. Out there is the place where we live.

And he follows. Something has stirred him. Her neck,

                                                       her shoulder –

she comes of high lineage, surely. But he leaves her,

turns, waves – what’s the good? She’s only a Sorrow.



Only the young dead, in the first condition

of timeless serenity, the time of weaning,

love her and follow her willingly. Maidens

she waits for and befriends. Softly shows them

what she is wearing: pearls of pain, and the fine

veils of patience. Youths she accompanies

silently as they go.


Out there, where they live, in the valley, one of the ancient

Sorrows answers the youth when he asks her –  We

were once a great race, we Sorrows. Our ancestors

worked the big mines up on the mountain. You find

sometimes a piece of primitive polished pain

or the frozen magma of ancient rages even

in your world. Yes, that’s where it came from. We used to be rich.

    And she leads him gently through Sorrow’s wide domain –

shows him the temple columns, and the ruins

of mighty castles, where once the Lords of Sorrow

wisely governed the land. Shows him the lofty

trees of weeping and meadows of blossoming heartache,

shows him the beasts of sadness where they graze – and sometimes

a bird takes fright, and, skywards skimming their upturned gaze, 


the visible image of its desolate cry.


At evening she brings him to the ancestral graves

of Sorrow, where the Sybils lie, and the Lords of Warning.

Night comes on, they wander further, and suddenly

rises moonlike before them that ancient form

that watches over the dead.

Brother to that on the Nile, the lofty Sphinx:

that blind face of hidden chambers.

And they marvel at the crowned head, which has set for ever

the human face on the balance of the stars.   


His sight fails, and cannot grasp it, fainting

in the first state of death. But their gaze startles

the owl from behind the royal circlet, who traces

a curve in her flight along the slope of the cheek

where it shows ripest and fullest –

softly inscribes on the dead boy’s inner hearing

as over an open double page

the indescribable outline.


And higher, above them, the stars. New ones. The stars

of the Land of Pain. Slowly she names them. – Here,

look: this is the Rider, this the Staff, and that fuller

constellation they call the Fruited Garland.

Then, towards the pole, the Cradle, the Path, the Window,

the Burning Book, the Doll; and in the southern sky

shining as if on a hand upheld in blessing

the clear shape of an “M”, that stands for the Mothers...


But the boy must go on. In silence the ancient Sorrow

brings him to the ravine,

where a whiteness gleams in the moonlight: the Source of Joy.


she gives it its name. – In the human world, she says,

it is a stream that bears you.

They stand at the mountain’s foot.

And she embraces him, weeping.


Alone he climbs, till lost to sight, in the mountains.

Out of the blankness of fate his steps return no sound.




But if they wished to waken a likeness in us, the endlessly dead,

perhaps they would point to the hazel’s empty catkins

that hang in the dry wind; or else the rain

that moistens earth’s dark soil in the early year.


And we, who think of happiness ascending,

would with consternation

know the rapture that almost overwhelms us,

when happiness falls.

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English translation by John Waterfield. © John Waterfield 1999. 
The complete translation was published by Edwin Mellen Press, New York, in 2000.

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