In the bleak winter of 1922, a “hurricane of the spirit” swept the ailing and downtrodden Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) into a rapture of creative vitality. “I didn’t know that such a storm out of mind and heart could come over a person! Within a week, he had written his now-iconic Sonnets to Orpheus. He completed the suite of ten elegies he had begun a decade earlier amid hollowing loneliness, alienation, poverty, and despair.
” the poet wrote to his publisher in an ecstasy of disbelief, not knowing that he had just composed one of the most profound and most beautiful works in the poetry of feeling and the poetry of truth — a breakthrough translator Stephen Mitchell calls “the most astonishing burst of inspiration in the history of literature” in his introduction to the bilingual classic( ).
What makes Rilke’s elegies so powerful is the way he takes our elemental human sorrow — the sorrow of living as refugees from reality, of being what he calls “the knowing animals,” creatures “aware that we are not really at home in our interpreted world” — and transmutes it not only into a gladsome acceptance of our limitations but into a celebration of ourwithin those limitations. And so, with his lush versus branching into myriad vectors of possibility, he builds a timeless bower for our dwelling amid the dispossession of this interpreted .
A century after Rilke, at the fourth annual Universe in Verse (now available as a limited-time weeklong hurricane of ain its entirety through January 1), the poetic astrophysicist and creator Brian Greene read an excerpt from the most poignant of Rilke’s elegies, translated by A.S. Kline — an English mathematician with a literary ardor and a gift for language, creator of the excellent open-access project .
Greene — who thinks deeply aboutand has explored these questions with uncommon nuance in — prefaced his reading with a beautiful reflection on how our limitation as ephemeral creatures fuels our passion for finding the eternal truths of nature so that we may feel more at home in the universe and ourselves.
from “THE NINTH ELEGY.”
by Rainer Maria Rilke
Why, if it could begin as laurel and be spent so,
this of Being, a little darker than all
the surrounding green, with little waves at the edge
of every leaf (like a breeze’s smile)—: why then
have to be human — and shun destiny
long for destiny?…
Oh, not because
that over-hasty profit from an imminent loss,
not out of curiosity or to practice the heart,
which could exist in the laurel…
But because being here is much, and because all
that’s here seems to need us, the brief, that
strangely concerns us. We: the most fleeting. Once,
for each thing, only once. Once, and no more. And we ,too,
once. Never again. But this
once, to have been, though only once,
to have been an earthly seems irrevocable.
Earth, is it not this that you want: to rise
invisibly in us? — Is that not your dream,
to be invisible one day? — Earth! Invisible!
What is your urgent command if not transformation?
Earth, beloved, I will. O, believe me, you need
no more Spring-times to win me: only one,
ah, one, is already more than my blood can stand.
Namelessly, I have been truly yours from the first.
You were always right, and your most sacred inspiration
is that familiar Death.
. On what? Neither childhood nor future
grows less… Excess of being
wells up in my heart.
For other highlights from, savor astronomer Natalie Batalha’s reading of and reflection on , Patti Smith’s reading of , and astrophysicist Janna Levin’s reading of and reflection on the staggering by the astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson, then revisit Rilke on , , and .