Rilke’s The Eighth ElegyMarch 31, 2011
In The Eighth Elegy from Rilke’s Duino Elegies, the poet seems to question the human consciousness as being less capable of experiencing Nature than a more primitive or base animal instinct. Although our analytical consciousness, which is form-giving and memory laden, may interfere with the direct experience of Nature, Rilke elevates the more simple form of consciousness found in the lower animal kingdom and views within it a more radical complexity. Yet this is not an absolute distinction between human and animal consciousness. Perhaps it is a call to humanity to “simplify, simplify” (in the words of Thoreau) or embrace Wittgenstein’s precept of “don’t think, describe.”
Rilke, like Blake before him, while exalting the imagination and man’s inner life, also questions it here as a potentially delimiting factor in the experience of Nature. Rudolf Krassner, to whom the poem was dedicated, sought to understand the problems of modernity and Man’s subsequent disconnectedness from time and place and his own nature. I see this as an “answer poem” to those problems. How often do we see our lives as “boundless, unfathomable, and without regard to our own condition?” and “where we see the future, it sees all time and itself within all time, forever healed….everything womb.” Some of the framework of this comment was borrowed from a Martin Creaven who wrote a comment on the poem at the website bittergrace. I didn’t agree that much with what he said but liked the way he had thought about it.
THE EIGHTH ELEGY
Dedicated to Rudolf Kassner
With all its eyes the natural world looks out
into the Open. Only our eyes are turned
backward, and surround plant, animal, child
like traps, as they emerge into their freedom. We
know what is really out there only from the
animal’s gaze; for we take the very young child
and force it around, so that it sees objects–not
the Open, which is so
deep in animals’ faces. Free from death. We,
only, can see death; the free animal has its
decline in back of it, forever,
and God in front, and when it moves, it moves
already in eternity, like a fountain.
Never, not for a single day, do we have before
us that pure space into which flowers endlessly
open. Always there is World
and never Nowhere without the No: that pure
unseparated element which one breathes without
desire and endlessly knows. A child
may wander there for hours, through the timeless
stillness, may get lost in it and be
shaken back. Or someone dies and is it.
For, nearing death, one doesn’t see death; but stares
beyond, perhaps with an animal’s vast
gaze. Lovers, if the beloved were not
there blocking the view, are close to it, and
marvel .. As if by some mistake, it opens
for them behind each other … But neither
can move past the other, and it changes
back to World. Forever turned toward
objects, we see in them the mere reflection
of the realm of freedom, which we have
dimmed. Or when some animal mutely, serenely,
looks us through and through.
That is what fate means: to be opposite, to
be opposite and nothing else, forever.
If the animal moving toward us so securely
in a different direction had our kind of
consciousness–, it would wrench us around and drag us
along its path. But it feels its life as boundless,
unfathomable, and without regard
to its own condition: pure, like its outward gaze. And where we
see the future, it sees all time
and itself within all time, forever healed.
Yet in the alert, warm animal there lies
the pain and burden of an enormous sadness.
For it too feels the presence of what often
overwhelms us: a memory, as if
the element we keep pressing toward was once
more intimate, more true, and our communion
infinitely tender. Here all is distance; there
it was breath. After that first home, the
second seems ambiguous and drafty.
Oh bliss of the tiny creature which remains
forever inside the womb that was its shelter; joy
of the gnat which, still within, leaps up even at its
marriage: for everything is womb. And look at the
half-assurance of the bird,
which knows both inner and outer, from its source,
as if it were the soul of an Etruscan,
flown out of a dead man received inside a space,
but with his reclining image as the lid.
And how bewildered is any womb-born
creature that has to fly. As if terrified and
fleeing from itself, it zigzags through the air,
the way a crack runs through a teacup. So
the bat quivers across the porcelain of evening.
And we: spectators, always, everywhere,
turned toward the world of objects, never outward.
It fills us. We arrange it. It breaks down. We
rearrange it, then break down ourselves.
Who has twisted us around like this, so that
no matter what we do, we are in the posture
of someone going away? Just as, upon
the farthest hill, which shows him his whole
valley one last time, he turns, stops,
lingers–, so we live here, forever taking leave.