"love & departure"
The Second Elegy from the Duino Elegies by Rainer Marie Rilke
(Translation by Stephen Mitchell)
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 starstook even one step down toward us: our own heart, beatinghigher and higher, would beat us to death.
Who are you?Early successes, Creation’s pampered favorites,mountain-ranges, peaks growing red in the dawnof all Beginning, — pollen of the flowering godhead,joints of pure light, corridors, stairways, thrones,space formed from essence, shields made of ecstasy, stormsof emotion whirled into rapture, and suddenly, alone,mirrors: which scoop up the beauty that has streamed from their faceand gather it back, into themselves, entire.
But we, when moved by deep feeling, evaporate; webreathe ourselves out and away; from moment to momentour emotion grows fainter, like a perfume. Though someone may tell us:”Yes, you’ve entered my bloodstream, the room, the whole springtimeis 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 risesin their face, and is gone. Like dew from the morning grass,what is ours floats into the air, like steam from a dishof 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 spacewe dissolve into, taste of us then? Do the angels reallyreabsorb only the radiance that streamed out from themselves, orsometimes, as if by an oversight, is there a traceof our essence in it as well? Are we mixed in with theirfeatures even as slightly as that vague lookin 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, marvelouswords in the night air. For it seems that everythinghides us. Look: trees do exist; the housesthat we live in still stand. We alonefly past all things, as fugitive as the wind.And all things conspires to keep silent about us, halfout of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope.
Lovers, gratified in each other, I am asking youabout us. You hold each other. Where is your proof?Look, sometimes I find that my hands have come awareof each other, or that my time-worn faceshelters itself inside them. That gives me a slightsensation. But who would dare to exist, just for that?You, though, who in the other’s passiongrow until, overwhelmed, he begs you:”No more…”; you who beneath his handsswell with abundance, like autumn grapes;you who may disappear because the other has whollyemerged: I am asking you about us.
I know,you touch so blissfully because the caress preserves,because the place you so tenderly coverdoes not vanish; because underneath ityou feel pure duration. So you promise eternity, almost,from the embrace. And yet, when you have survivedthe 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 upto 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 gestureson Attic gravestones? wasn’t love and departure placed so gently on shoulders that it seemed to be madeof 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 godscan press down harder upon us. But this is the gods’ affair.”If only we too could discover a pure, contained,human place, our own strip of fruit-bearing soilbetween river and rock. For our own heart always exceeds us,as theirs did.
And we can no longer follow it, gazinginto images that soothe it or into the godlike bodieswhere, measured more greatly, it achieves a greater repose.