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If someone could point out a specific meaning in Duino Elegies what would it tell us? If someone say without a doubt what Duino Elegies is about, what would they say? They might say life, they might say death, or they might say neither. In either case they would probably be right, for Duino Elegies touches upon not only life and death but many others things having to do with human existence such as love, change, loss, and pain. It searches not only for the meaning of life, that would be trivial in comparison, but it searches also for the meaning of death, love, nature, and in a sense creation in itself.

A book of poetry spanning the length of ten years Duino Elegies is considered by many to be a masterpiece. Rilke began Duino Elegies at Duino castle in 1912. It was here that he heard those unforgettable opening line to his first elegy,

If I cried out

who would here me up there

among the angelic orders?(Duino Elegies)

and it was in Muzot, Switzerland that he finally finished the tenth elegy some ten years later in 1922. Rilke spent a good deal of his life writing this poetry and it is reflected in the poetry itself, as he examines both his own life and the death that awaits all.

Only halfway through the first elegy and Rilke hits upon death, he has cried out to the angels and found them lacking and unable to help, for they themselves do not always seem to know whether they are walking among the land of the living or the dead.

the hero survives.

Even his ruin

is only another

excuse to continue

a final birth.

But nature, exhausted

takes lovers

back into herself

as if she couldn’t accomplish

that kind of vitality twice.(Duino Elegies)

But he respects death and sometimes he is defensive of the dead to make it seem as if he were almost jealous of their plight.

It’s very hard to be dead

And you try

To make up for the lost time

Till slowly you start

to get wiffs

of eternity

But the living are wrong

In the sharp

distinctions they make. (Duino Elegies)

In one sense the dead are wiser than the living, but at the same time the living have no need for the dead. Rilke seems to tell us to listen to what the dead have to say but do not take it fool-heartedly. In the third elegy Rilke comes again to the subject of death with the examination of loves upon the body and soul. He takes us down along the river of blood into the underworld of ones self were love awakens the dead, memories as well as souls.

I believe that Rilke is trying to tell us to have no false expectations of immortality but rather that we must accept and try to understand death, else how different are from animals? There are those that seem unaware of death as if they were merely an animal living for the moment, there are those that are aware of death and live life to the fullest, there are those that are aware of death and seem to worship it, and lastly there are the dead who according to the seventh elegy seem to seek out and long for the living earthly existence. He at times mockingly expresses how death will come and resolve difficulties, making all satisfactory.

I do not whether Rilke falls into the second or the third category of the living. He doesn’t seem to love death, but at the same time he seems overtly drawn towards it in Duino Elegies. At one time Rilke wrote to a friend “the determination constantly maturing in me to keep life open towards death.” (Duino Elegies) At times he speaks highly and courageously of death and at times he seems to almost scorn it, though never really. Through all this Rilke is trying to take us beyond life and into death in an original, unique way. In many ways he succeeds, through the examination of life, love, and those things related along with death one gets a glimpse beyond, so to speak, of what it all means.

Affirmation of life AND death appears as one in the ‘Elegies.’

To admit the one without the other is, as is here learned and

celebrated, a limitation that in the end excludes all infinity.

Death is the side of life that is turned away from us: we must

try to achieve the fullest consciousness of our existence

Transience everywhere plunges into a deep being. (Duino Elegies)


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