Duineser Elegien; Duino Elegies

[This page by Marielle Sutherland]

Duineser Elegien; Duino Elegies (1922)

In 1912, during the period when Rilke was struggling to write, he had a moment of inspiration during a visit to Castle Duino, near Trieste, when he heard a voice calling to him. The voice’s words became the first line of the First Duino Elegy: ‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the orders of Angels?’ Immediately, Rilke wrote the first two elegies and some fragments that would form the next eight to produce a cycle of ten poems. The intensity of his inspiration lapsed after this, and Rilke was unable to complete the Elegies until 1922 when he was staying at the Château de Muzot in Switzerland.

The Elegies lament our modern human consciousness, before finally shifting key and reaching out towards affirmation of life. They explore how in the modern world we are limited by inherited and prescribed ways of thinking, unable to relate to death, perpetually distracted and filled with a sense of isolation and exclusion from a former state of complete and whole being. The poems ‘try out’ alternative models of consciousness, e.g. the instinctive nature of animals, intense, unrequited love, and those who die young and bypass the stage of awareness of death. They explore in the figure of the Angel (a non-Christian angel) a super-consciousness that is whole and self-replete because it is not inhibited by subjectivity. The Angel belongs to the realm of the invisible – that side of consciousness that we cannot access because we cannot recognise a higher degree of reality. The invisible is also imagined in the Elegies as the other side of mirrors.

After the Neue Gedichte; New Poems Rilke develops his concept of ‘Weltinnenraum’ (‘world-inner-space’) (from ‘Es winkt zu Fühlung fast aus allen Dingen’/’Almost all things beckon us to feeling’, a uncollected poem written in 1914) where the boundary between inner consciousness and outer world collapses. In the Elegies we are called upon to transform the things of the visible world within the interior and invisible space in our imagination by interacting with them, experiencing and expressing them in their fullest meaning and relation to ourselves, and so enabling them to live within us. The Angel becomes the being who can witness our attempts to praise and transform the visible world by imbuing it with meaning. Rilke’s answer to our sense of transience is not the Christian message of transcendent, eternal life, rather it is to sing, speak and affirm the abundance of our being from within the here and now of our fragile and temporary lives on the earth, accepting death rather than repressing it. The Elegies shift between both concrete and abstract explorations of this idea, between pictures of everyday twentieth century life and mythological and symbolic imagery. In the Fifth Elegy for example, Rilke introduces ‘Madame Lamort’ – a real and historical presence on the Parisian squares during Rilke’s time – a milliner selling bonnets decorated with artificial fruits and flowers. Rilke presents her artistry as soulless and cheap, and he also puns on her name, presenting her as the personification of death. In the Tenth Elegy Rilke depicts twentieth century city dwellers distracting themselves from death at fairgrounds and in taverns whilst presenting a newly dead young man following a female personification of grief and lament through a heavily symbolic and almost inscrutable landscape of death.

The Elegies are elegiac in the formal sense too, for they contain echoes of the classical elegiac distich (pairs of dactylic lines consisting of a hexameter followed by a pentameter). The traces of classical form point, like T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, to loss of wholeness and orientation, fragmentation and broken traditions in the modern world. Rhythmically, the dactyls bring strong pace and movement to the Elegies, and the unrhymed lines loosen and dynamise the poetry. Rilke also transforms language, stretching its limits, merging concrete and abstract, creating neologisms and straining syntax to support the Elegies’ call to life, movement and transformation.

Die Erste Elegie; The First Elegy

Die Zweite Elegie; The Second Elegy

Die Neunte Elegie; The Ninth Elegy

Please click on the above links for extracts from (and commentaries on) individual elegies.

Further Reading

Kathleen L. Komar, Transcending Angels. Rainer Maria Rilkes Duino Elegies (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1987)

Roger Paulin and Peter Hutchinson (eds.), Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies’: Cambridge Readings (London: Duckworth; Riverside, CA: Ariadne Press, 1996)

Torsten Pettersson, ‘Internalization and Death: A Reinterpretation of Rilke’s Duineser Elegien’, Modern Language Review 94:3 (1999), 731-43