Stanzas 4 - 7, The Second Elegy
Lovers, if they knew how, might utter strange, marvelous
words in the night air. For it seems that everything
hides us. Look: trees do exist; the houses
that we live in still stand. We alone
fly past all things, as fugitive as the wind.
And all things conspires to keep silent about us, half
out of shame perhaps, half as unutterable hope.
Lovers, gratified in each other, I am asking you
about us. You hold each other. Where is your proof?
Look, sometimes I find that my hands have come aware
of each other, or that my time-worn face
shelters itself inside them. That gives me a slight
sensation. But who would dare to exist, just for that?
You, though, who in the other’s passion
grow until, overwhelmed, he begs you:
“No more…”; you who beneath his hands
swell with abundance, like autumn grapes;
you who may disappear because the other has wholly
emerged: I am asking you about us. I know,
you touch so blissfully because the caress preserves,
because the place you so tenderly cover
does not vanish; because underneath it
you feel pure duration. So you promise eternity, almost,
from the embrace. And yet, when you have survived
the terror of the first glances, the longing at the window,
and the first walk together, once only, through the garden:
lovers, are you the same? When you lift yourselves up
to each other’s mouth and your lips join, drink against drink:
oh how strangely each drinker seeps away from his action.
Weren’t you astonished by the caution of human gestures
on Attic gravestones? Wasn’t love and departure
placed so gently on shoulders that it seemed to be made
of a different substance than in our world? Remember the hands,
how weightlessly they rest, though there is power in the torsos.
These self-mastered figures know: “We can go this far,
this is ours, to touch one another this lightly; the gods
can press down harder upon us. But this is the gods’ affair.”
If only we too could discover a pure, contained,
human place, our own strip of fruit-bearing soil
between river and rock. For our own heart always exceeds us,
as theirs did. And we can no longer follow it, gazing
into images that soothe it or into the godlike bodies
where, measured more greatly, it achieves a greater repose.
—Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, taken from The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, Bilingual Edition (Vintage International, 1982)