What Is Unseen Is Eternal: Rilke’s Duino Elegies

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.- 2 Corinthians 4:18 

I’m currently rereading Rilke’s Duino Elegies for the first time in at least 10 years. It is an overwhelming experience. Rilke is one of the few poets that touch the invisible realms of life. I love lots of modern poetry, but so much of it is based either on images or personal experience. Very few modern poets reach for the holy, the realms beyond mankind. Paul Celan certainly did. But that type of poetry, the one that reaches into archetypical souls is very hard to write, and maybe even harder to write about. (My recent reflections on Carl Jung’s “The Red Book” were an attempt). 

Along with The Sonnets To Orpheus, Rilke’s Duino Elegies are his masterpieces. They are an expression of everything his earlier poetry hinted at but were never fully expressed. The key to understanding the elegies lies in the image of angels. Angels are all over the elegies. For example, the second elegy famously begins, “every angel is terrifying.” (I’m currently reading A. Poulin’s translation if you’re interested). I have always assumed that Rilke meant angels of a Christian heaven, which gave the poems a different flavor. But a note in my translation has changed my view. Rilke in a letter to a Polish translator in 1925 said, “The angel of the Elegies is that creature whom the transformation of the visible into the invisible, which we are accomplishing, appears already consummated.”

The angels of the elegies, it seems, have nothing to do with external angels but the invisible angels of the self, the intuitive less explored areas of the unconscious, and if you’re into that sort of thing, God. It is not God the father figure who judges us from high above, but the God Carl Jung describes in the “The Red Book,” the eternal and divine in our souls. 

Rilke understands the immensity of human life beyond the ego. What most of us call the self, are merely our egos. By ego, I mean a sort of middle manager of the human personality. Our egos keep us alive. They project into the future to plan and consider the past to learn from our mistakes. Our egos are anxious and always desirous for more. They are rarely content with what is. They are rarely present. Almost all of us mistake our egos for the self. 

This prevents us from really seeing and listening. We long for more with understanding why. Rilke does something that seems impossible to me, however. He hints at the why through language, the way beyond our egos. Take a look at the beginning of the Ninth Duino Elegy (I cut and pasted a Stephen Mitchell translation because I could not find a Poulin one on the internet) :

The Ninth Duino Elegy 

Why, if this interval of being can be spent serenely

in the form of a laurel, slightly darker than all

other green, with tiny waves on the edges

of every leaf (like the smile of a breeze)–: why then

have to be human–and, escaping from fate,

keep longing for fate? . . .

Oh not because happiness exists,

that too-hasty profit snatched from approaching loss.

Not out of curiosity, not as practice for the heart, which

would exist in the laurel too. . . . .

But because truly being here is so much; because everything here

apparently needs us, this fleeting world, which in some strange way

keeps calling to us. Us, the most fleeting of all.

Once for each thing. Just once; no more. And we too,

just once. And never again. But to have been

this once, completely, even if only once:

to have been one with the earth, seems beyond undoing.

This is one of the most beautiful passages I’ve ever read. It speaks to our need to want more despite already being here. Why can’t we be content with what is? Because we long for fate. We want our lives to mean something. We understand we are here just once and never again. Our desires for fate are not about happiness, but more. Serenity isn’t what we want. 

Rilke’s Duino Elegies show us a different path, however, one that he shares with mystical traditions throughout human history. It is a path of being. It is a path of letting go of the go and letting life unfold as it needs to. It means an internal life, one that faces the terrifying nature of our angels. It is a contemplative life. It is one I aspire to in the here and now, despite the many messages we receive to the contrary.  

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