The Ninth Elegy, (Die Neunte Elegie), from the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke
Why, when this span of life might be fleeted away as laurel, a little darker than all surrounding green, with tiny waves on the border of every leaf (like the smile of the wind): -oh, why have to be human, and, shunning Destiny, long for Destiny?…
Not because happiness really exists, that premature profit if imminent loss. Not out of curiosity, not just to practice the heart, that could still be in the laurel….. But because being here amounts to so much, because all this Here and Now, so fleeting, seems to require us and strangely concerns us. Us the most fleeting of all. Just once, everything, only for once. Once and no more. And we, too, once. And never again. But this having been once, though only once, having been once on earth – can it ever be canceled?
And so we keep pressing on and trying to perform it, trying to contain it within our simple hands, in the more and more crowded gaze, in the speechless heart. Trying to become it. To give it to whom? We’d rather hold onto it all forever…. Alas, but the other relation, – what can be taken across? Not the art of seeing, learnt here so slowly, and nothing that’s happening here. Nothing at all. Sufferings then. Above all, the hardness of life, the long experience of love; in fact, purely untellable things. But later, under the stars, what then? th emore deeply untellable stars? For the wanderer doesn’t bring from the mountain slope a handful of earth to the valley, untellable earth, but only some word he has won, a pure word, the yellow and blue gentian. Are we, perhaps, just here for saying: House, Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Olive tree, Window, – possibly: Pillar, Tower?….. but for saying, remember, oh, for such saying as never the things themselves hoped so intensely to be. Is not the secret purpose of this sly earth, in urging a pair of lovers, just to make everything leap with ecstacy in them? Threshold: how much can it mean to two lovers, that they should be wearing their own worm threshold a little, they too, after the many before, before the many to come,…. as a matter of course!
Here is the time for the Tellable, here is its home. Speak and proclaim. More than ever the things we can live with are falling away, and their place being oustingly taken up by an imageless act. Act under crusts, that will readily split as soon as the doing within outgrows them and takes a new outline. Between the hammers lives on our heart, as between the teeth the tongue, which, nevertheless, remains the bestower of praise.
Praise the world to the Angel, not the untellable: you can’t impress him with the splendor you’ve felt; in the cosmos where he more feelingly feels you’re only a tyro. So show him some simple thing, remoulded by age after age, till it lives in our hands and eyes as a part of ourselves. Tell him things. He’ll stand more astonished; as you did beside the roper in Rome or the potter in Egypt. Show him how happy a thing can be, how guileless and ours; how even the moaning of grief purely determines on form, serves as a thing, – to escape to a bliss beyond the fiddle. These things that live on departure understand when you praise them: fleeting, they look for rescue through something in us, the most fleeting of all. Want us to change them entirely, within our visible hearts into – oh, endlessly – into ourselves! Whoever we are.
Earth, isn’t this what you want: an invisible re-arising in us? Is it nt your dream to be one day invisible? Earth! invisible! What is your urgent command, if not transformation? Earth, you darling, I will! Oh, believe me, you need your Springs no longer to win me: a single one, just one, is already more then my blood can endure. I’ve now been unspeakably yours for ages and ages. You were always right, and your holiest inspiration’s Death, that freindly Death. Look, I am living. On what? Neither childhood nor future are growing less…. Supernumerous existence wells up in my heart.
Translated by J.B. Leishman and Stephen Spender