page 9 of 96 of Duino Elegies

The First Elegy

What is within us is larger than us; we contain it and it contains us.

How can we look at an angel? How terrifying would that be to be confronted with an existence so much greater than ourselves but also one which can hardly detect if we are among the living or the dead? But even in the face of beauty, how do we really comprehend it? What is beauty? It’s not something we can point to as an object, in fact it almost has nothing to do with appearances at all – it’s a feeling, like the impression of the presence of an angel.

He writes, “how little at home we are / in the interpreted world” and I feel this line is very sad because it feels as if we will always fall short of experiencing the world as it truly is, as if we have to fall on words and impressions of things because if we were to be confronted with reality – angels (which is ironic, I suppose) – we would be consumed, overwhelmed, eradicated of all individuality. Perhaps this is what the Platonist’s mean by The Forms in that we cannot touch the One, true thing, we only live in shadows and interpretations of them. Yet perhaps beauty is the sort of energy or language the form of anything gives off and that allows us to we aware of it at all. Perhaps this is how something bigger than ourselves can be contained within ourselves.

The world feels so full of possibility (good and bad) in “the night, when the wind is full of worldspace”. We can imagine anything – infinity – within the confines of our mind, in the safety of darkness. Yet we don’t possess this infinity because we are not like the animals who live in infinity, we are forever qualifying the world. Better to “Cast the emptiness from your arms / into the spaces we breathe: perhaps the birds / will sense the increase of air with more passionate flying”. Infinity exists in the smallest possible spaces and moments, such in a wave or “a violin” playing from an “open window”. Those are the moments we remember, because those are the infinities of beauty, yet we are “always / distracted by expectation” of something more “real” which isn’t real at all, but fleeting and transitory.

Funny, too how in death is the eternal – the hero who “lives on. Even in his downfall”. We are almost closer to living in death than we are when we live, but we must rely on each other. Imagine how strange it is that we carry around everyone who has ever lived inside of us, and for those who we’ve loved take up an even larger portion of our souls, as if they too are larger than us, yet are within us. No wonder angels can’t tell if we are alive or dead, so slight is the difference to them.

“God’s voice” can be heard clearly “on the wind’s breathing” and it’s so simple to understand. Yet we cling so hard to the customs and traditions of living that we have to be literally ripped from this world in our “final birth”. We want to wish, to think of the future of our lives and it’s too strange  to “not go on wishing one’s wishes” and to prepare and plan for death with as little left undone as possible, but does the wind care if it is finished anything? Does the word of God ever stop? Does beauty? Why do we worry so much about the dead? Why do we need them so much more than they need us?