Die Erste Elegie; The First Elegy

[This page by Marielle Sutherland]

WER, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel

Ordnungen? und gesetzt selbst, es nähme

einer mich plötzlich ans Herz: ich verginge von seinem

stärkeren Dasein. Denn das Schöne ist nichts

als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,

und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,

uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

Und so verhalt ich mich denn und verschlucke den Lockruf

dunkelen Schluchzens. Ach, wen vermögen

wir denn zu brauchen? Engel nicht, Menschen nicht,

und die findigen Tiere merken es schon,

daß wir nicht sehr verläßlich zu Haus sind

in der gedeuteten Welt.

WHO, if I cried out, would hear me among the orders

of Angels? And even if one of them suddenly

clasped me to his heart: I would expire before

his much stronger existence. For beauty really is nothing

but the beginning of terror we are only just able to bear,

and we hold it in awe as, disdainful, serene, it refrains

from annihilating us. Every Angel is terrifying.

And so, I hold myself back and swallow my bird-call,

full of dark, sobbing. Ah, who can we turn to for help?

Not angels, not other people, and the capable animals

can already see we are not so reliably at home

in the interpreted world. […]



The Elegies appear to open with an invocation to a deity, asking to be heard, asking, as so many pleas to the divine have done before, for a guarantee that we are not alone. Yet this appeal is never actually made. It is muffled immediately. The speaker asks a rhetorical question, asking who would hear him if he were to call out. The implied answer is ‘no one’. He swallows back the call, conscious of the modern human being’s isolation in a godless universe and of his inability to find any external answers to his existential crisis. He imagines the Angel as the measure by which we fail as human beings. The Angel is a figure of dread, its beauty and intensity of being able to annihilate us, but this form of divinity is also blissfully self-contained, self-replete and indifferent to us. We are, by comparison, only half conscious, not fully able to inhabit the world and our experiences. The animals appear to us to be more capable of living, more fully connected to their existence, less distracted and dissatisfied. They intuit our alienation. Our world is ‘interpreted’, suggesting our consciousness and understanding of the world and our experience is limited, prescribed and not able to give full meaning to life, death, love and suffering.