Duino Elegies - The Second Elegy
Every angel is terrifying. And yet, alas, I invoke you, almost deadly birds of the soul, knowing about you. Where are the days of Tobias, when one of you, veiling his radiance, stood at the front door, slightly disguised for the journey, no longer appalling; (a young man like the one who curiously peeked through the window). But if the archangel now, perilous, from behind the stars took even one step down toward us: our own heart, beating higher and higher, would beat us to death. Who *are* you? Early successes, Creation's pampered favorites mountain-ranges, peaks growing red in the dawn of all Beginning, pollen of the flowering godhead, joints of pure light, corridors, stairways, thrones, space formed from essence, shields made of ecstasy, storms of emotion whirled into rapture, and suddenly, alone, *mirrors*: which scoop up the beauty that has streamed from their face and gather it back, into themselves, entire. But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; we breathe ourselves out and away; from moment to moment our emotion grows fainter, like a perfume. Though someone may tell us: "Yes, you've entered my bloodstream, the room, the whole springtime is filled with you . . . "-what does it matter? he can't contain us, we vanish inside him and around him. And those who are beautiful, oh who can retain them? Appearance ceaselessly rises in their face, and is gone. Like dew from the morning grass, what is ours floats into the air, like steam from a dish of hot food. O smile, where are you going? O upturned glance: new warm receding wave on the sea of the heart . . . alas, but that is what we *are*. Does the infinite space we dissolve into, taste of us then? Do the angels really reabsorb only the radiance that streamed out from themselves, or sometimes, as if by an oversight, is there a trace of our essence in it as well? Are we mixed in with their features even as slightly as that vague look in the faces of pregnant women? They do not notice it (how could they notice) in their swirling return to themselves. Lovers, if they knew how, might utter strange, marvelous words in the night air. For it seems that everything hides us. Look: trees do exist; the houses that we live in still stand. We alone fly past all things, as fugitive as the wind. And all things conspire to keep silent about us, half out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope. Lovers, gratified in each other, I am asking *you* about us. You hold each other. Where is your proof? Look, sometimes I find that my hands have become aware of each other, or that my time-worn face shelters itself inside them. That gives me a slight sensation. But who would dare to exist, just for that? You, though, who in the other's passion grow until, overwhelmed, he begs you: "No *more* . . ."; you who beneath his hands swell with abundance, like autumn grapes; you who may disappear because the other has wholly emerged: I am asking you about us. I know, you touch so blissfully because the caress preserves, because the place you so tenderly cover does not vanish; because underneath it you feel pure duration. So you promise eternity, almost, from the embrace. And yet, when you have survived the terror of the first glances, the longing at the window, and the first walk together, once only, through the garden: lovers, are you the same? When you lift yourselves up to each other's mouth and your lips join, drink against drink: oh how strangely each drinker seeps away from his action. Weren't you astonished by the caution of human gestures on Attic gravestones? wasn't love and departure placed so gently on shoulders that it seemed to be made of a different substance than in our world? Remember the hands, how weightlessly they rest, though there is power in the torsos. These self-mastered figures know: "We can go this far, this is ours, to touch one another this lightly; the gods can press down harder upon us. But that is the gods' affair." If only we too could discover a pure, contained, human place, our own strip of fruit-bearing soil between river and rock. For our own heart always exceeds us, as theirs did. And we can no longer follow it, gazing into images that soothe it or into the godlike bodies where, measured more greatly, it achieves a greater repose.
From 'Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke' Edited and Translated by Stephen Mitchell