We have a marvelous, almost legendary, image of the circumstances in which the composition of this great poem began. Rilke was staying at a castle (Duino) on the sea near Trieste. One morning he walked out on the battlements and climbed down to where the rocks dropped sharply to the sea. From out of the wind, which was blowing with great force, Rilke seemed to hear a voice: Wer, wenn ich schriee, horte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen? (If I cried out, who would hear me up there, among the angelic orders?). He wrote these words, the opening of the first Duino Elegy, in his notebook, then went inside to continue what was to be his major work and one of the literary masterpieces of the century.
The rather Gothic conception of this poem sets the scene for what is a masterly composition so vast that it continuously impresses and confounds in its vision bringing together myths, philosophy, theology and an explosion of other ideas that run through the veins of modern humanity.
It is hard to sum up the Duino Elegies into a simplistic form, it’s a multilayered orgy of awesomeness, encompassing the human fear of one’s own mortality, love and human limitation, despair, beauty and a celebration and also a questioning of cultural achievement. It really calls one’s own awareness of the BIG questions into play…In fact for the first few elegies I wish I would have had Strauss’ Also Spach Zarathustra playing on repeat in the background such was the imagery involved.
There is a sense of profoundness in the transience of our life spans and a depth to such musings that can become obsessive to thinkers, the first two elegies bring forth these thoughts and fears by conjuring up a Gothic panorama of nature. It’s a heady explosion that really feels like it involves all the senses. This tumultuous,epic start has a feeling of the primordial visions of nature at its inception and is a thoroughly captivating piece of writing.
The writing became less intense (for me) after the second elegy, or perhaps on reflection it was just subtly different in its approach. Dealing as it does with such themes as love and art, however it does maintain a feeling of wonder about everything that we come into contact with. Although the writing feels sparse there is so much depth, it does feel like one is standing on the edge of an abyss. Indeed who wouldn’t when faced with contemplating our place in the cosmos and our awareness of it not to mention our limitations.
Spilling over with ideas, of heritage passed down through the generations, Rilke has woven in the essence of great universal myths such as the creation and the classic descent into the underworld. In amongst the questions to muse upon and the metaphors to wallow in, there is still room to encompass a celebration of the great human arts and the meaning of life. With several changes in style of imagery and tone it is just such an innate idea for us to try to understand the inconceivable.
There is a feeling of the evermore about the poem, it is external and yet the poem moves between the universe and the minutiae of the internal body both physically, spiritually and socially. Perhaps the ideas contained herein are dwarfed by the abstract concepts tackled but at the same time makes it seem less scary than it is when you think about hugeness of it all.
It draws in and involves the reader completely, sometimes I got to the point where I found it all a little too overwhelming such are the layers that are structured so delicately yet complexly…like the architecture of a cathedral. To be subsumed and staggered by the ambitious words is a sign of great poetry though and this really should be added to every book collection.