Some day, in the emergence from this fierce insight,
let me sing jubilation and praise to assenting Angels.
Let not a single one of the cleanly-struck hammers of my heart
deny me, through a slack, or a doubtful, or
a broken string. Let my streaming face
make me more radiant: let my secret weeping
bear flower. O, how dear you will be to me, then, Nights
of anguish. Inconsolable sisters, why did I not
kneel more to greet you, lose myself more
in your loosened hair? We, squanderers of pain.
How we gaze beyond them into duration’s sadness,
to see if they have an end. Though they are nothing but
our winter-suffering foliage, our dark evergreen,
one of the seasons of our inner year – not only
season – : but place, settlement, camp, soil, dwelling.
Strange, though, alas, the streets of Grief-City,
where, in the artificiality of a drowned-out false
stillness, the statue cast from the mould of emptiness bravely
swaggers: the gilded noise, the flawed memorial.
O, how an Angel would utterly trample their market of solace,
bounded by the Church, bought ready for use:
untouched, disenchanted and shut like the post-office on Sunday.
Beyond though, the outskirts are always alive with the fair.
Swings of freedom! Divers and jugglers of zeal!
And the figures at the shooting range of easy luck,
targets that shake tinnily whenever some better marksman
hits one. From applause at his luck
he staggers on further: as booths for every taste
are wooing him, drumming, and bawling. Here’s something
special, only for adults, to view: how money is got, anatomy,
not just to amuse: the private parts of money,
all of it, the whole thing, the act, – to instruct and make
potent…….O, but just beyond
behind the last hoarding, plastered with adverts for ‘Deathless’,
that bitter beer that tastes sweet to its drinkers,
as long as they chew fresh distractions along with it……
just at the back of the hoardings, just behind them, it’s real.
Children are playing, lovers are holding each other – to the side,
sombrely, in the sparse grass, and dogs are following their nature.
The youth is drawn on, further: perhaps it’s a young
Lament he loves……He comes to the field, beyond her. She says:
‘It’s far. We live out there….’
‘Where?’ And the youth follows.
He is moved by her manner. Her shoulders, her neck – perhaps
she’s from a notable family. But he leaves her, turns round,
looks back, waves…….What’s the point? She’s a Lament.
Only those who died young, in their first state
of timeless equanimity, that of being weaned,
follow her lovingly. She waits
for girls and befriends them. She shows them gently
what she is wearing. Pearls of grief and the fine
veils of suffering. – With youths she walks on
But there, where they live, in the valley, one of the older Laments,
takes to the youth, when he questions: – ‘We were,’
she says, ‘a large family once, we Laments. Our ancestors
worked the mines on that mountain-range: among men
you’ll sometimes find a lump of polished primal grief,
or the lava of frozen rage from some old volcano.
Yes, that came from there. We used to be rich.’ –
And she leads him gently through the wide landscape of Lament,
shows him the columns of temples, the ruins
of castles, from which the lords of Lament
ruled the land, wisely. Shows him the tall
Tear-trees, and the fields of flowering Sadness,
(The living know it as only a tender shrub.)
shows him the herds of Grief, grazing – and sometimes
a startled bird, flying low through their upward glance,
will inscribe on the far distance the written form of its lonely cry –
At evening she leads him to the graves of the elders
of the race of Laments, the sibyls and prophets.
But as night falls, so they move more softly, and soon,
like a moon, the all-guarding
sepulchre rises. Brother to that of the Nile,
the tall Sphinx, the secret chamber’s
And they are astonished by the regal head, that forever,
silently, positioned the human face
in the scale of the stars.
His sight cannot grasp it, still dizzied
by early death. But her gaze
frightens an owl from behind the rim of the crown,
and the bird brushes, with slow skimming flight, along the cheek,
the one with the richer curve,
and inscribes the indescribable
outline, on the new
hearing born out of death, as though
on the doubly-unfolded page of a book.
And higher: the stars. New stars, of Grief-Land.
Slowly the Lament names them: ‘There,
see: the Rider, the Staff, and that larger constellation
they name Fruit-Garland. Then, further, towards the Pole:
the Cradle, the Way, the Burning Book, the Doll, the Window.
But in the southern sky, pure as on
the palm of a sacred hand, the clearly shining M,
that stands for the Mothers……’
But the dead must go on, and in silence the elder Lament
leads him as far as the ravine,
where the fountain of joy
glistens in moonlight. With awe
she names it saying: ‘Among men
this is a load-bearing river.’
They stand at the foot of the mountains.
And there she embraces him, weeping.
He climbs alone, on the mountains of primal grief.
And not once do his footsteps sound from his silent fate.
But if the endlessly dead woke a symbol in us,
see, they would point perhaps to the catkins,
hanging from bare hazels, or
they would intend the rain, falling on dark soil in Spring-time. –
And we, who think of ascending
joy, would feel the emotion,
that almost dismays us,
when a joyful thing falls.
Gaspara Stampa. 1523-1554. Famous for her intense love for the young Lord of Treviso, Collaltino, which he was ultimately unable to return. She wrote some two hundred sonnets telling the story of her love for him, dying at the age of thirty-one. She was for Rilke a ‘type’ of unrequited love.
Santa Maria Formosa. The church, in Venice, which Rilke visited in 1911. The reference is to one of the commemorative tablets, inscribed with Latin texts, on the church walls.
Linos. The mythical poet: in some versions of Greek myth, he is the brother of Orpheus, and son of Calliope the Muse. The ancient ‘Lament for Linos’ was part of the vegetation rituals mentioned by Homer (Iliad XVIII, 570). The Greek myths provide a complex of hints about him, that involve, song and music, ritual lament, and the sacred nature of poetry.
Tobias. The Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha (5:4,16) tells the story of Tobit the Israelite, who ordered his son Tobias to go and recover some of his property from Media. The Archangel Raphael, disguised, guided the young man. ‘So they went forth, and the young man’s dog with them.’
The boy with the brown squinting eyes was Rilke’s cousin, Egon von Rilke, who died in childhood. His brown eyes were ‘disfigured by a squint’.
Les Saltimbanques. This elegy is founded on Rilke’s knowledge of Picasso’s painting Les Saltimbanques (he lived, from June to October 1915, in the house where the original hung, in Munich). Picasso depicts a family of travelling acrobats. Rilke was familiar with such people from his stay in Paris, where he became Rodin’s secretary.