A note on the picture: this isn’t the copy I read, but I can’t find the cover of Elaine E. Boney’s translation online, so this will have to do. In this series of ten elegies, Rainer Maria Rilke ponders on man’s place in the universe, offering not so much explanation but reflection. He begins with laments on the tragedy of human impermanence and the inevitability of departures. Humans mourn death because we cannot see past it; we see it as the ultimate end. In this Rilke distinguishes humans from animals, who are more at one with the universe, who acknowledge that “Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life” (Norwegian Wood).
This disjunction between our transitory world and that of the angels—those “near fatal birds of the soul”—comprises an overarching theme in the elegies. “Here everything is separation, while there / it was like breathing,” Rilke says, referring to a time when we too belonged to a “womb,” like the animals with nature. Still there are those of us who come closer to this “first home”: children, innocent as they are, and lovers, who find infinity in the other. Yet as Boney remarks in her commentary, “The distance from one human being to another—even the beloved—is insurmountable.” In Rilke’s words: “Lovers, you who are each fulfilled by the other, / you I ask about us. You clasp each other. Do you have any proof?”
The most fragile of all beings, mankind exists to bring this earth into eternity, to transform it into the inexpressible: “Earth, is this not what you want: to arise within us / invisibly?” Here lies the value of our tenuous existence: “One time and no more. And we, too, / once. Never again, But to have existed / this once, even if only one time: / to have existed here on earth, appears irrevocable.”
My first reading of the elegies yielded hardly any enjoyment: because I read them alongside the commentaries, I found them dry, arid, without resonance. This is not to say that I didn’t appreciate Boney’s insights; without them I probably wouldn’t have understood the work. But honestly I didn’t want to understand everything. When I reread Duino Elegies last night I let myself be immersed in its mystery, and only then did I grasp the fullness of its achievement. Only then did I discover beauty.