Rainer Maria Rilke

Duino Elegies

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Duino Elegies Summary

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Duino Elegies is a collection of ten poems published in German in 1923 by the Bohemian-Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Though the poems are described as elegies and, indeed, contain quite a bit of torment and melancholy, the works cover a wide range of human emotions, including love and elation. Many critics consider Duino Elegies to be Rilke’s most important work.

In the first elegy, the poet, amid great suffering, calls out to the Angels for help. Reconsidering this appeal, he concludes that the power and beauty of Angels are so beyond human comprehension that encountering one would result in his annihilation. In this way, Angels are actually terrible, their beauty beyond our grasp. The poet seeks consolation in more earthly things, such as his fellow man, animals, and lovers, but finds that none of these consoles him. In the end, the only thing capable of consoling him is perhaps music, but only if the songs are born out of grief.

Rilke continues to probe the mysteries of Angels in the second elegy. Despite the fact that Angels possess a sense of grandeur and beauty humans can never aspire to, man does possess something Angels do not: transience. Humans die and, in doing so, leave something behind, symbolized by the gravestone and the twin ideas of “Love” and “Parting” that gravestones signify.

Both the power and limitations of the female embrace are examined the third elegy. As boys grow into men, they leave the protective love of their mother for the arms of the gentle lover. Neither can save him, but perhaps the love of a good woman can busy a man and bring balance to his life, containing his basest urges.

The poet draws on the metaphor of puppetry in the fourth elegy to describe the ways in which our thoughts and actions are not in accord. He prefers to be a puppet controlled by an Angel as opposed to a dancer who is desperate in his need to fill the stage of his life with ostentatious movement. Only when controlled by an Angel can our mind and body be as one. However, when our lives do not follow this predictable course, it is a tragedy. To explain this, Rilke uses the example of a child who dies knowing nothing but purity and innocence.

The fifth elegy is dedicated to Frau Hertha Koenig, a woman who owned a house where Rilke lived for several months. There, she had a print of the Picasso masterpiece, “Family of Saltimbanques,” which depicts a group of itinerant circus performers amid a harsh, empty landscape. The poet questions what drives the traveling acrobats to work so tirelessly for the benefit of superficial audiences. He wonders if the acrobats provide little more than a distraction from the audiences’ ever-present fear of death. Finally, he considers the acrobats to be a metaphor for lovers.

The sixth elegy contrasts man to the flowering of a fig tree. The fig tree’s flowers are hidden until it bears fruit. By contrast, man languishes, seeking to prolong his flowering at the risk of never producing fruit. Because man is destined to die, Rilke admires heroes like Samson who rush toward self-destruction by tempting death.

The seventh elegy finds much to celebrate in dying young. Because humans are defined by their transience, there is something beautiful and elegant in transitioning into death more quickly than normal. The poet ends by defiantly reaching out to the Angels, despite knowing they are beyond his grasp.

Unlike the previous entry, the eighth elegy explicitly details the poet’s anger at death. He envies animals because they lack knowledge of their own mortality and can thus live tranquil lives. It is not death that is the problem but knowing that it is to come.

Rilke laments man’s inability to accept death as a fact of life in the ninth elegy. He argues that it is pointless to cling to life when it is impossible to know if there is any part of ourselves we may bring with us into the hereafter. The poet is certain that even if we do carry something into the afterlife, it won’t be our voices. Therefore, the way to make the most of life is to use our voices now, naming the things we create and leave behind in this world.

Rilke imagines what it might be like when he dies in the final elegy. After singing to the Angels and discovering the reason why human suffering exists, he travels to the City of Mourning, followed by the Land of the Griefs. He encounters increasingly older “Griefs” on his way down the River of Joy. He finally disappears, regretful that he cannot relate his experience of death to the living. A final vision of Spring gives the poet hope that renewal is possible.

Of Duino Elegies, the German author Herman Hesse wrote, “Through [Rilke] resounds the music of the universe; like the basin of a fountain, he becomes at once instrument and ear.”