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8th Duino Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke

8th Duino Elegy - Rainer Maria Rilke

With their whole gaze the creatures behold what is. Only our eyes
are as though reversed, and set like traps around themselves,
keeping us inside. That there is something out there
we know only from the animals' countenance,
for we turn even the young child, forcing her
to look backwards at the shapes we make,
not outwards into the open, which is reflected
in the animals' eyes.

Free from death. We alone see that.
For the animals, their death is, as it were, completed.
What's ahead is God. And when they move,
they move in timelessness, as fountains do.

Never, not for a single day, do we let
the space before us be so unbounded
that the blooming of one flower is forever.
We are always making it into a world
and never letting it be nothing: the pure,
the unconstructed, which we breathe
and endlessly know, and need not crave.

Sometimes a child loses herself in this stillness
and gets shaken out of it. Or a person dies
and becomes it. For when death draws near, we look beyond it
with an animal's wide gaze. Lovers come close
to the open, filled with wonder,
when the beloved doesn't block the view.
It surges up behind the other, unbidden. But it's hard
to grasp, so it becomes again the world.

Ever turned toward what we create,
we see only reflections of the open, overshadowed by us.
Except when an animal mutely looks us through and through.
This is our fate: to stand
in our own way. Forever
in the way.

If the confident animal, coming toward us,
had a mind like ours,
the change in him would stun us.
But his own being is endless to him, undefined, and without regard
for his condition: clear,
like his eyes. Where we see future,
he sees all, and himself
in all, made whole for always.

And yet in the warm, watchful animal
there is the weight of a great sadness.
For what at times assaults us
clings to him as well: the sense
that what we strive to reach
was once closer and more real
and infinitely tender.
Here all is distance --
there it was breath.
After that first home
the second feels invaded, and windy.

And we: always and everywhere spectators,
turned toward the stuff of our lives, and never outward.
It all spills over us. We put it to order.
It falls apart. We order it again
and fall apart ourselves.

Who has turned us around like this?
Whatever we do, we are in the posture
of one who is about to depart.
Like a person pausing and lingering
for a moment on the last hill

where he can still see his whole valley --
this is how we live, forever
taking our leave.

Translated by Joanna Macy & Anita Barrows