Tom Phillips, And the Wind (after Rilke), oil collage, 2013, image courtesy Flowers Gallery
Tom Phillips translates the first of Rilke's Duino Elegies
But who if I cried out would hear me amongst
the hierarchies of angels? and just supposing
one of them suddenly drew me close to his heart: I'd succumb
to the greater strength of his selfhood. For beauty is nothing
but the onset of horror, yet we manage to bear it,
and worship it even, since it blithely disdains
to destroy us. Each and every angel is horrific.
That's why I hold back, to drink in the beckoning call
of darkness sobbing. But who can our needs invoke?
not angels; not people; and the wily animals
already suspect that we're not altogether at home
in the significant world. Maybe we're left
with some tree on the slope we have noticed
day after day; we're left with yesterday's street
and the loyal support of a habit,
that took to us, and then stayed and never went away.
Oh and night, the night, whenever the wind,
full of the beyond, eats at our face - who is denied it,
that yearned after, gently disenchanting harbinger of pain
to the solitary heart. Is it kinder to lovers?
Ah, they just cover each other to ward off their fates.
You still don't understand? Fling the void from your arms
into the open where we breathe; perhaps the birds
will respond to a widened sky with keener flight.
Yes, each springtime did need you. Star upon star
sought out your attention. A wave
surged forward from distant times, or
as you passed under an opened window,
a violin surrendered its sound. All that was a test.
But could you have coped with it? Weren't you still always swayed
by expectation, as if everything promised you
someone to love? (Where did you think to shelter her then,
with all those lumbering alien thoughts inside you
coming and going, and frequently staying the night).
Let your longing sing rather of women who loved:
undying fame for their passion is long overdue.
Then, you almost envy them, there are the jilted; that you found
more ardent by far than those who achieved fulfilment. Start now
rehearse again their praise, forever inadequate;
imagine: the hero lives on, that twilight of his
was only for show: a stage of his latest rebirth.
But Nature, worn out, repossesses the lovers
as if unable to summon the force to create them
a second time. Have you thought hard enough of Gaspara Stampa
and how any young girl, whose lover has left her,
inspired by that loftiest model of loving,
might be stirred to reflect: if I could just be as she was?
Shouldn't by now these oldest of heartaches
have borne us more fruit? Isn't it time
lovingly to release ourselves from the loved one
withstanding the tremor: as the arrow withstands
the string of the bow, gathering up from the throb of the shot
a greater self than itself. Staying put is nowhere reached.
Voices, voices. Hear them my heart, as only
the saintly once used to hear: that colossal call
raised them right up from the ground; they, unimaginably
just carried on kneeling, and did not react:
this was true hearing. As for you, you're far from prepared
to deal with the real voice of God. Yet listen to the moving air,
the seamless news that creates itself out of silence.
Now it rustles towards you from all that died young.
Whenever in Rome or in Naples you entered some church.
Didn't their destiny make itself quietly known?
Or else some telling inscription aroused you
as that plaque did just lately in Santa Maria Formosa.
What do they want of me? that I should softly erase
the stains of injustice that sometimes and somewhat
impede the perfect motion of their souls.
Without doubt it's strange no longer to inhabit the earth,
no longer to pursue barely mastered activities,
not to give roses and suchlike things, redolent
of a meaningful human future; no longer to be
in eternally nervous hands, the being one was,
and to cast aside one's very name, like a broken toy.
Strange not to carry on wishing one's wishes. Strange to see all
that once held together so randomly scattered in space.
Even being dead is hard work, so full of recollections
until by degrees one can sense a hint of eternity -
But the living themselves all make the mistake
of drawing too crude a distinction.
Angels (they say) may not be aware if it's among
the living or the dead that they move. The ageless flood
engulfs both those realms bearing the whole of time
and drowns out both voices as one.
In the end they need us no longer, those
who so early were spirited away,
gently one leaves behind the earth's concerns
as one is weaned from the mother's fond breast. But we
who need such grand mysteries, we for whom grief
so often gives rise to the blessing of progress
- : could we really manage without them?
Is the tale not worth telling, how once in the mourning for Linos
a first daring music pierced the dumb stillness; shocking the space
that a demigod youth abruptly, forever, had left,
and where emptiness first received those vibrations
that now bring us rapture and comfort and help.