The urgent music of the Duino Elegies

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
of angels? Even if one should suddenly
take me to his heart, I would fade in the power
of his stronger existence . . .

Reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke in one of the many English translations, what voice do you hear? The languid rhythms often found there suggest his poems should be spoken in an intimate whisper, but that's not how they're usually read in German.

Many German-speaking actors have made recordings of Rilke's work: among the finest are these from A-Q Verlag: complete performances of the Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus by Swiss actress Irene Laett. They come from live radio broadcasts in 1989, and Laett performs the poems as Rilke did (see the next post): with urgency and great line-to-line sensitivity. Here's the beginning of the First Elegy, followed by my translation and then the German text:

AUDIO: Irene Laett reads the beginning of the First Duino Elegy

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the ranks
of angels? Even if one should suddenly
take me to his heart, I would fade in the power
of his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but an onset of terror that we can barely stand,
and that we admire because it serenely disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is frightening.

And so I restrain myself and swallow my dark,
sobbing cry for help. Oh, who can we reach for
when we need to? Not angels, not people.
And the clever animals already know
we were never entirely at home here,
in the interpreted world. There remains for us,
perhaps, a tree on some hillside that we look for
every day; there is still that remembered street
and the old loyalty of a pampered habit
that likes it here, stayed on and never left.

Oh, and the night: the night, when the space between stars
feeds on our faces; with whom has night not lingered—longed for,
gently disappointing and so hard for any single
heart to bear. But is it any easier for lovers?
Covering each other, all they do is conceal their lot.

Don't you know yet? Throw the emptiness out of your arms
and into the air we breathe, and, maybe, in that opening
space, the birds will find themselves in happier flight.

The opening lines of Rilke's poem in German

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. Es bleibt uns vielleicht
irgend ein Baum an dem Abhang, daß wir ihn täglich
wiedersähen; es bleibt uns die Straße von gestern
und das verzogene Treusein einer Gewohnheit,
der es bei uns gefiel, und so blieb sie und ging nicht.

O und die Nacht, die Nacht, wenn der Wind voller Weltraum
uns am Angesicht zehrt –, wem bliebe sie nicht, die ersehnte,
sanft enttäuschende, welche dem einzelnen Herzen
mühsam bevorsteht. Ist sie den Liebenden leichter?
Ach, sie verdecken sich nur mit einander ihr Los.

Weißt du's noch nicht? Wirf aus den Armen die Leere
zu den Räumen hinzu, die wir atmen; vielleicht daß die Vögel
die erweiterte Luft fühlen mit innigerm Flug. 

The First Duino Elegy (lines 1-25), Rainer Maria Rilke, 1912
Translated by Frank Beck

Irene Laett was born in Zürich in 1929. In her youth, she studied painting with Oskar Kokoshka but then became an actress, performing on stage and in TV productions. She later taught elocution at the Saarland School of Music and the Academy of Music and Theater in Hamburg. She died in 2006.

Writing in the newspaper Die Zeit, Rene Drommert wrote that Laett's performances revealed "an intelligence that goes beyond intellectual training and vocal agility." Laett made studio recordings of the works of German author Johann Peter Hebel (1760-1826) and Swiss author Gottfried Keller (1819-1880). The Keller recordings are still available from, the German online bookseller.

The Duino Elegies are a landmark in German-language poetry. The ten poems were written over a period of a decade, but the excerpt above comes from the First Elegy, most of which Rilke wrote in a single day in January 1912. He was staying at the 14th-century Castello di Duino near Trieste, which is pictured above; it belonged to Marie Thurn und Taxis, one of his closest friends.

Much has been written about the Elegies, but one of the most useful insights comes from a letter Rilke wrote to his Polish translator, Witold von Hulewicz, in November 1925:

The "Angel" of the Elegies has nothing to do with the angel of the Christian heaven (rather with the angelic figures of Islam) . . . a being who affirms the recognition, in the invisible, of a higher order of reality.

Rilke in Valais, Switzerland in 1925

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