Daimon Publishers

Duino Elegies
Rainer-Maria Rilke



A few words of introduction seem appropriate for a new English translation of Rainer Maria Rilke's Duineser Elegien, this short sequence of ten poems widely considered to be the century's masterpiece of German lyric poetry. Since a number of English translations already exist (I have read seven of them), the reader deserves a justification for being confronted with yet another one.

Rilke's poetry, at least in German, shows an unusual sensitivity to inner experience and to the symbolic processes of the psyche, two things that are important to me in my work as a Jungian analyst. Making people conscious of their own psychic reality, of their inner world, is a fundamental aspect of my work, which is the healing of mental suffering. A person's dreams serve as the instrumental guide to this process of becoming conscious. A Jungian approach understands them to be self-expressions of the inner world in symbolic form, and learning to understand this symbol language brings the realization that the images express inner reality more precisely, subtly and directly than spoken or written language can. What I admire most in Rilke's poetry is that his carefully crafted language, particularly in his later works, manages to convey the movements of this otherwise "unsayable" realm and often addresses the issues of finding the proper relationship to it. Rilke's mastery in this area is unsurpassed by any other modern poet known to me, and nowhere is this mastery more beautifully or more comprehensively displayed than in his Duino Elegies, a work that he struggled with for more than ten years and which he considered to be the greatest task of his life.

I miss this sensitivity to the reality of the psyche in the various English translations of the Duino Elegies that I have seen. My goal has been to create one that preserves it. My overall criterion was a subjective one: I wanted the poems in English to affect me as strongly as they do in German. I wanted to re-create the atmosphere of the Elegies, the urgency, the passion, the despair, the playfulness, the peculiarities of the language, the ambiguity, the ambivalence, the denseness, and yes, at least some of the beauty as well. Above all, I wanted the message of the Elegies to be formulated as clearly as possible.

I am aware that in today's climate of deconstructionism it is controversial to assert that a poem has any substantial meaning behind it, let alone a message. In this regard I am a "constructionist." Meaning, in a psychological sense, is always present wherever human consciousness is involved, and writing or reading a text is no exception. It belongs to the freedom of the human mind that one can choose to look for or to ignore this meaning; from a psychological viewpoint, both approaches are equally valid. But there is no way to resolve the issue non-dogmatically without the willingness to risk a look and then let one's experience decide. By denying this possibility at the outset, deconstruction performs a most radical act of interpretation. The Elegies themselves are the most beautifully pleaded case against deconstruction,1 arguing against the idea of interpretation in favor of a willingness to listen to the experience of one's own soul and to risk a plunge into the emptiness that deconstruction accurately perceives behind its own stance.

When I speak of the Elegies' message, I do not mean that there is a blunt "I, Rilke, am telling you, reader, that this and this is so and that therefore you should do such and such." For a critical analysis, the text should be separated as much as possible both from Rilke's biography and from the response it arouses in the reader. In the poems, a lyric "I" speaks to a lyric "you" (and to angels, lovers, mother, father, the beloved, a young girl, a fig tree, an evolved voice, and the earth), often with a pressing sense of need, and laments "our" plight; an impassioned monologue about coming to terms with human existence is taking place. The substance of this monologue and the resolution or conclusion that it reaches is what I refer to as the message of the Elegies. Although this text content is difficult to grasp, it is nevertheless remarkably precise in a psychological sense.2 My major intent in this short introduction is to present at least a rough outline of it. I will also briefly address the issue of the relationship between this message and Rilke's experience, and only superficially touch the difficulties of the relationship between a symbolic text and its readers.


Rilke's German in the Elegies conveys an emotional intensity of experience that yearns to be sung more than spoken. From the very first sentence it is clear that he is writing about an "ultimate concern," to borrow an expression from Paul Tillich. And yet the language is always highly differentiated, with precise images that reveal both a sensitivity of perception and a careful indeterminacy that forces the reader's imagination to go beyond the literal sense of the text. Multiple levels of meaning and ambivalence breathe through these patches of ambiguity, frustrating both the reader and translator whose heart is set on finding out exactly what Rilke means. Occasionally, even an apparent misuse of grammar or idiom appears, causing the casual and careful reader alike to stumble. These are not merely playful provocations. The reader who can contain his or her impatience with such passages and not skip over them with an irritated grumble, but rather examine and ponder them more closely, will discover that these are the entrances into the symbolic dimension of the Duino Elegies. In the words of the Fourth Elegy: "everything is not itself." Inner reality is hiding behind the figures of Rilke's images, coming directly from his experience but able to be expressed only indirectly through images and symbolic language.

Let me illustrate what I mean with a few examples. These lines are from the second stanza of the First Elegy: "think: the hero maintains himself, even decline was / merely a pretext for him to be: his last birth." Rilke is speaking not only of specific heroes, but also the inner experience of what in Jungian psychology is called the hero archetype, a heroic attitude that fights to overcome obstacles. Thus "decline" is left ambiguous; it can be the hero's decline, times of outer decline, or also an individual's movement towards death which calls forth the heroic response, the last birth of the hero within the person.

This line is from the second stanza of the Fourth Elegy: "We're in closest fellowship with enmity." On the one hand, fellowship refers here to a relationship with another person. We have enmity in close relationships whenever the other person does not meet our needs or expectations. But enmity also arises entirely within us when our wishes and urges conflict with one another. Our psychic make-up, in fact, is based on the structure of opposites. We can only perceive something by being aware of what it is not. Our closest fellowship in this sense is not with another person at all, but with the enmity inherent in the structure of the human psyche.

Here is another passage from the First Elegy, part of an "assignment" that the Duino Elegies ask us to be aware of: "Several stars / presumed you'd be able to feel them." A person doesn't normally "feel" a star, he or she sees it or notices it. Yet the German verb that Rilke uses here is "spüren," a synonym of "fühlen," both of which mean "to feel" and carry the same physical and emotional connotations as the English "feel." If anything, "spüren" emphasizes the quality of sensual perception more than "fühlen," plus it has the additional meaning of "to track" as in hunting. How does someone "feel" a star? It is clearly impossible to reach out and physically touch a star. To make any sense out of the passage, the reader must play with it in his or her imagination. "What do I feel when I look at a star? Wishes? Emptiness? Consolation? Order? Randomness? How could people in antiquity have ever seen gods and goddesses in the stars?..." The symbolic process already began with the first question. The reader's mind is not only weaving its way around Rilke's words, but is out wandering among the stars in the evening sky as well, trying to make a connection between inner and outer worlds. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that the stars have entered the reader's psyche, that they have begun to arise within the reader in an invisible way.

Symbolic reality, put most simply, is this ability of ours as human beings to endow "things" with meaning. This can take place through conscious effort, as when bread and wine is endowed with the meaning of the Christian communion, but it is also a process that is occurring constantly in each of us. Our reaction to a doll, to the house we live in, to a fruit tree in bloom, to the motion of water in a fountain - in all of these we experience a meaning that goes beyond the physical qualities of the object. It is a most natural thing, one is tempted to say; we need only stop and pay attention to what strikes us as meaningful and to what this meaning that strikes us is. Rilke puts it this way in the First Elegy: "Voices. Voices. Listen, my heart, [... //// ...] Not that God's is a voice / you could bear, far from it. But what is blowing like breeze, listen to that, / the uninterrupted message forming itself out of stillness." What precise imagery! Listen with the heart, let feeling be our receptive organ; the voices of meaning surround us like breeze, shapeless, shifting, always in motion, and when we are still, our feeling can begin to give shape to their message.

Consider the example of the stars again. Suppose that the reader is curious enough to actually spend an evening, or even an hour, observing stars while remaining open to whatever thoughts and feelings appear. Suppose further that this reader is not discouraged by thoughts such as "I am out here looking at stars because some translator said that it would help me understand Rilke's Duino Elegies" or of feelings such as "This is exciting, something special is coming," but instead waits until...... until what? How strongly we depend upon a goal for our actions! No matter how that unfinished sentence is completed, the reader will have an expectation of what is to come and will invariably compare his or her experience to that expectation. The reader who understands this little exercise will understand the importance of the words "nothing" and "open" in these lines from the Seventh Elegy: "how you often overtook him whom you loved, breathing, / breathing after a blissful course, towards nothing, into the open."


That last example, in a small way, touches the heart of the Duino Elegies. The lines from the Seventh Elegy are another part of the cycle's message that never seemed clearly formulated to me in other translations and which, if missed, means that the essence of the poems is missed. The driving force behind the entire cycle is the longing for and aspiring to reach "the open," a term that is explicitly used only in the Seventh and Eighth Elegies although its meaning unfolds over all ten. The briefest formulation of the Elegies' message is this: Aspire to reach the open, do so by giving voice to "things" in a way that gives them human meaning.

The word "elegy" derives from the Greek words "elegeia," a lament for the dead, and "elegos," a mournful song. What gives rise to the laments of the Duino Elegies is that our experience is always split by our human consciousness, which prevents us from reaching the open. No matter what we do, we are always aware of ourselves, observing, comparing, interpreting, naming and judging our experience. Consciousness separates us from the rhythms of nature: "we're not at home, not reliably, in the interpreted world" (First Elegy), "not informed like migratory birds" (Fourth Elegy), "never have before us the pure space into which flowers endlessly blossom" (Eighth Elegy). Yet consciousness is also what enables us to perceive "the whole silent landscape" (Third Elegy) beneath our outer existence, to overcome the "ill-bred fidelity of a habit" (First Elegy), to orient our lives according to values ("... evolved voice, let your cry's nature no longer / be wooing." (Seventh Elegy)) and to perceive and have a relationship to the divine realm ("[Angels,] Who are you ?" (Second Elegy)).

To aim for the open means first and foremost to accept the full experience of one's earthly existence without longing for a different life and without the consolation of an afterlife. Rilke wants to find the ultimate meaning of life in this finite transient existence of ours, not in eternal life. By itself, this is not an unusual idea today; existentialism, for example, has this basic attitude. But by acceptance Rilke means not just a grudging acknowledgment but an unconditional affirmation and active praise. And he means this in full awareness of man's insignificance and imperfection in the face of transcendent experience. The praise he is seeking is only possible when a new conscious relationship to the divine realm has been reached, a separation between human and divine measures of experience, and acceptance that we are the former and not the latter. This means affirming the pains and sufferings of human existence as well as the joys and happiness, the downward movements of life as well as the upward ones. Perhaps most difficult of all, it means accepting and affirming death as a necessary part of human existence.

What are we? The Elegies seek a measure of humanness that is positive in form, one that goes beyond the painful recognition that we are neither totally natural in the way that animals are, nor totally transcendent as angels are. The emphasis on "are" comes from the despair over the split of consciousness that hangs us "between current and stone," between the flow of our inner experience and the rigidity of our interpreted world, thus making it impossible for us to be "something one" or something that remains constant. To be an "I" means to be constantly caught between the polarities of the night and the day world, of animal and angel, of man and woman, of sexuality and spirituality, of hero and lover, of inner and outer world, of life and death, and never to be at one with any of it.

The Duino Elegies do not overcome or eliminate this lament, but the cycle tries to give meaning to the split by giving consciousness a direction towards the open. What Rilke means by the open is difficult to express in words; it goes beyond words into non-interpreted experience, which can best be approached through the images that he uses. It is something that animals, lacking our kind of consciousness, can see; it resembles being in love without needing one's lover; it is an openness that was experienced in childhood. It is a quality of consciousness that he is after, a quality of "being here," a state of relationship with this world, without being possessed by performance.

This direction is expressed in the cycle as an assignment that "I" is trying to understand, one that the earth gives to us. It is most clearly stated in the Ninth Elegy, the culmination of the cycle, in which earthly existence is accepted for its own sake as a one-time experience: the outer world wants and needs us to experience it inwardly, to transform it into our inner world, letting it "arise invisible within us." Our ability to give meaning is something that the physical world lacks: "things" need us so that they can experience eternity. And conversely, we can give meaning an earthly shape, which is something angels cannot do: we can use "things" to express and give shape to our inner world. "Things, speak those to [the angel]", saying them "as the things themselves never believed deeply to be." They, rather than angels or animals or other people, are the medium through which we can "do humanness" and thereby approach the open. In other words, experiencing and shaping the symbolic dimension of one's own reality is the ultimately human activity.

The lovers play an important role in maintaining this direction towards the open. They are in a sense a counterpoint to the hero, for their goal is to be in relationship rather than to overcome. It is their feeling which most profusely infuses things with meaning, indeed, even creates connections between them. The Elegies therefore urge us to preserve the direction of love towards the open, to recognize that eros seeks not only the person we love but also the inner state of openness that accompanies such love.

A final theme that needs to be mentioned is the struggle between consciousness and fate. The Duino Elegies hold out the hopeful possibility that fate itself can be overcome through the development of symbolic consciousness, that through symbolic understanding it can be transformed into part of our inner landscape that we move through rather than remaining something that dominates us. "This is called fate: finding oneself opposite / and only that and always opposite." These lines from the Eighth Elegy do not only express the impossibility of overcoming the split of consciousness, they also maintain that nothing besides having consciousness should be called fate.

The reader familiar with Jungian psychology will recognize, (even though using psychological terms puts us squarely into the interpreted world), that the Duino Elegies are urging us to take back our projections from the world and recognize them as part of the experience of our own soul, not interpreting them away but transforming them into symbolic consciousness. This means developing the ability to consciously let "things" from the outer world express our inner realities. This is different from the heroic expansion of consciousness that is always seeking new limits. It is the development of the ego-Self axis, the recognition through experience that there is a psychic totality greater than one's ego and the subsequent necessity of shaping a relationship between the two. In this process our "imageless doing" outgrows the "crusts" of the interpreted world and "bounds itself differently," with images of human boundaries that avoid the inflation of acting like gods. This work, and it is indeed work, is the process of becoming conscious of oneself. It is at the heart of Jungian analysis. The untangling of inner from outer world that goes on in analysis brings one's experience of both closer to the open.


Do the Duino Elegies reflect Rilke's own experience? There is no question that they are closely tied to his life. The work was a preconceived artistic and existential goal that Rilke had set for himself. He did not want to create an abstract philosophical declaration. Instead, his own existence was to be a living example of the affirmation and praise that was to find its poetic formulation in the Duino Elegies. He thus wanted to be ruthlessly honest towards his own experience and therefore developed a highly differentiated awareness of his inner reality. This need to reach a unity between artistic expression and lived experience, I believe, was the reason that it took ten years to complete the cycle. The Tenth Elegy, for instance, proves that Rilke knew from the outset what he wanted to write. The first twelve lines of this Elegy were composed at roughly the same time as the first two Elegies were. These verses employ the future tense, and they describe what Rilke imagines the acceptance of his "furious insight" to be like.

What was this insight? There is a now legendary account of a visionary experience connected with the birth of the First Elegy in January, 1912. Rilke spent that winter as a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe in her Duino Castle on the Adriatic Sea near Trieste, Italy. The memoirs of Princess von Taxis are the source of this account:3 Rilke is pacing back and forth on the bulwarks of the castle on a windy day, concerned with answering a bothersome business letter, and suddenly hears a voice calling to him out of the storm, "Who, if I cried out, would hear me then, out of the orders of angels?"...; stopping, listening, he writes the words in his notebook and returns to his room; by that evening the First Elegy is completed. Rilke himself is silent about the cycle's beginning. He has written a short piece, however, entitled "Erlebnis" (Experience)4, an account of something that happened to him in the second half of January, 1912. I suspect that the experience it describes is what led him to begin the actual writing of the Duino Elegies. Because the work is not widely known, I have included a summary of it here with the Elegies. Even if I am wrong in my assumption, the summary gives a vivid description of what it is like when the condition lamented in the Eighth Elegy, that of "finding oneself opposite," lifts for a moment.

But neither of these experiences is the "furious insight" of the Tenth Elegy. From the sense of the poems, the insight can only be Rilke's realization of how slender the fruitful range of humanness is. I maintain that the subsequent ten years were largely spent struggling with the work of inner transformation, trying to turn this insight into a lived reality. There were other factors of course, among them World War I. Yet part of the wonder of the Duino Elegies is that the cycle not only gives voice to its assignment, but also fulfills it. The second half of the Tenth Elegy, for example, is Rilke's transformation of death into a personal mythological event. It is a magnificent example, the finest known to me, of language expressing the mythic dimension of inner experience. It is the purest form of symbolic expression, where the image not only stands for but in a sense becomes the reality, using the physical object (here: the lament, sphinx, bird, owl, page, well-spring, etc.) but giving up all of its physical reference.

For the sake of completeness, I would like to relate briefly the circumstances under which the writing of the Duino Elegies was concluded. These are less apocryphal than those of the work's beginning. By the end of 1915, Rilke had completed the first four Elegies and fragments of the Sixth, Ninth and Tenth.5 Six years later, he finally found his "Elegy-place" of security and solitude at Château Muzot in the Rhone valley of Switzerland. (Despite its name, it was little more that a run-down stone house that a wealthy benefactor rented and later purchased for Rilke's use.) It was there, in a "storm of spirit" between February 7 and 14, 1922, that Rilke wrote the Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Elegies, completed the Sixth and Tenth, and wrote an entirely new version of the Fifth Elegy.

Rilke achieved his artistic goal. Did he also realize it in his life? More bluntly, did he reach the open? The Fifth Elegy, the most despairing lament of human insufficiency, ends with an appeal to the angel for there to be a place where lovers reach mastery. This was the last Elegy to be written, and that it ends on this note suggests that he didn't. And yet, in its own paradoxical way, this acceptance is perhaps the deepest fulfillment of the Elegies' message.

Does this mean that Rilke's undertaking was pointless? I think not. The issues that appear in the Elegies are undeniably real, as anyone who has been forced into withdrawing his or her projections can verify. I say "forced" because this is seldom a voluntary process, but most often one that is initiated by some form of suffering. Once this process has begun - in Jungian psychology it is referred to as the individuation process - there is no turning back except at the price of one's soul. It continues until.... Well.... What finally matters, for those of us who are not primarily Rilke scholars, is whether his Elegies speak to our own experience.


Communicating symbolic reality is always difficult. A living symbol has to have a certain degree of ambiguity so that not only the conscious mind can participate, but also the unconscious psyche which makes the symbol's image come alive. When the symbol is passed on to someone else, there is no guarantee that the recipient will project the same unconscious or even conscious meaning into it. If the recipient has had the "proper" experience, the symbol will come alive for him or her, its energy and meaning will be unlocked. If not, the symbol remains a mute locked chamber that stubbornly refuses to open itself. The word "proper" should not be misunderstood as "identical"; because of the inherent ambiguity in the symbol, it will always be able to carry meanings other than the one(s) originally intended.

One implication of this is that any translation of the Duino Elegies will necessarily be an interpretation of the text, one determined by the meaning that is unlocked within the translator. And this meaning, if one follows the Elegies into the dimensions of experience that they speak of, will be something that ripens with time. I still discover something new with each reading. Another implication is that whether or not the symbolic dimension of the Duino Elegies comes alive depends finally upon the reader. This puts the translator into a delicate position. My attitude has been to use the Elegies' own assignment as my guide, listening with the heart to what the original poems bring to life in me and then trying to find adequate English to give that experience a shape. Although I have tried to stay as close as possible to Rilke's language, on numerous occasions I was forced to choose one meaning where the German offered two or three sometimes contradictory meanings. I made my choice according to what I considered the most prominent sense of the passage. The English language occasionally permitted me to play with words in a way that was impossible in German, and as long as the result was in keeping with the spirit of the Elegies and the primary meaning of the passage was not obscured, I did so. Rilke's rhythms and rhymes are also present more in this general spirit than in exact replication.

In the belief that the poems themselves should be the best articulation of what I have to say, I have tried to keep explanatory notes concerning the translation to a minimum. My list of shortcomings would be painfully long, and to point out each place where alternative renderings were possible would require the great majority of lines to be annotated. Likewise, although most of the images and ideas of the Elegies also appear in Rilke's correspondence and other writings in an extended context that makes certain passages easier to understand, I have elected not to include these quotations, for a thorough list would yield several hundred pages of documentation.6 For the same reason, I have chosen not to attempt a more detailed interpretation of the Duino Elegies from a Jungian perspective. The best interpretation will be the one that grows from and in the reader's own experience.

While working on the translation, I happened to have lunch with a German priest who had been doing missionary work for many years in Africa. It was clear from his manner of speaking that he had a love for language, and so I asked him if he was familiar with Rilke's poetry and if he could explain a phrase that I was finding difficult to translate ("wo wir Eines meinen" from the Fourth Elegy). His eyes lit up and he spent ten minutes explaining the range of feelings and images that the phrase brought to his mind, and then he said, "You can't just read Rilke's poems, you know, you have to meditate upon each line." I can think of no better advice for the reader. My hope for the translation is that it might open not only the beauty but also the depth of the Duino Elegies to a wider English-speaking audience.


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