why, then, did we have to be made human?

Slow down for a few minutes this Sunday to read the penultimate of Rainer Maria Rilke’s astonishing Duino Elegies, ten intense meditations on beauty and suffering, love and death. I could ramble more about how much I adore Rilke (1875-1926), these elegies, and this particular Gary Miranda translation, but I will simply leave you with the poem for now.

“Ninth Elegy”

Why—when we might have been laurel trees,
a little darker than all the other greens,
with tiny curves at the edge of every leaf
(like the smiles of a wind)—why, then,
did we have to be made human, so that
denying our destiny, we still long for it?

Certainly not because happiness really exists,
that quick gain of an approaching loss.
Not to experience wonder or to exercise the heart.
The laurel tree could have done all that.

But because just being here matters, because
the things of this world, these passing things,
seem to need us, to put themselves in our care
somehow. Us, the most passing of all.
Once for each, just once. Once and no more.
And for us too, once. Never again. And yet
it seems that this—to have once existed,
even if only once, to have been a part
of this earth—can never be taken back.

And so we keep going, trying to achieve it,
trying to hold it in our simple hands,
our already crowded eyes, our dumbfounded hearts.
Trying to become it. And yet who do we plan
to give it to? True, we’d rather keep it all
ourselves, forever. But into that other state
what can be taken across? Not the ability to see,
which we learn here so slowly, and not anything
that’s happened here. None of it. And so,
the pain. And so, before everything else,
the weariness. The long business of love.
Only the completely indescribable things.

But later, under the stars—what good would it do
anyway, then, to describe these things?
For the traveler doesn’t bring back
from the mountainside to the valley
a handful of earth, which would explain nothing
to anyone, but rather some acquired word, pure,
a blue and yellow gentian. And are we here,
perhaps, merely to say: house, bridge, fountain,
gate, jar, fruit tree, window—at most,
pillar, tower? But to say them, you understand—
to say them in such a way that even the things
themselves never hoped to exist so intensely.
Isn’t the sly earth’s secret purpose,
when it urges two lovers on, that all of creation
should share in their shudder of ecstasy?
A doorsill: the simple way two lovers
will wear down the sill of their door a little—
they too, besides those who came before
and those who will come after . . . gently.

Here is the time for what you can say,
this is its country. Speak and acknowledge.
More than ever things are falling away—
the things that we live with—and what is replacing them
is an urge without image. An urge whose crusts
will crumble as soon as it grows too large
and tries to get out. Between the hammerblows
our heart survives—just as the tongue, even
between the teeth, still manages to praise.

Praise, but tell the angel about the world,
not the indescribable. You can’t impress him
with your lofty feelings; in the universe,
where he feels with far greater feeling, you’re
just a beginner. So show him some simple thing,
something that’s fashioned from generation to generation
until it becomes really ours, and lives near our hand,
and in our eyes. Tell him about the things.
He’ll stand there amazed, the way you stood
beside the rope-maker in Rome or the potter on the Nile.
Show him how happy a thing can be, how innocent
and ours, how even the groan of sorrow decides
to become pure form, and serves as a thing
or dies in a thing, escaping to the beyond,
ecstatic, out of the violin. And these things,
that live only in passing, they understand
that you praise them. Fleeting, they look to us,
the most fleeting, for help. They hope that within
our invisible hearts we will change them entirely into—
oh endlessly—into us! Whoever we finally are.

Earth, isn’t this what you want, to rise up in us
invisible? Isn’t it your dream to be someday
invisible? Earth! Invisible! If not this change,
what do you ask for so urgently? Earth, loved one,
I will. Believe me, you don’t need any more
of your springtimes to win me: one
is already more than my blood can take.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been yours
completely. You’ve always been right,
and your most sacred idea is that death
is an intimate friend.

Look: I live. But from where do I draw this life,
since neither childhood nor the future grows less . . . ?
More being than I can hold springs up in my heart!

translated by Gary Miranda