The Duino Elegies is, perhaps, Rilke's most famous poem. Filled with numinous figures like Angels and animals, lovers and children who die young, acrobats and wanderers, the figure that captures the essence of this poem, I believe, the one that appears at the end of the eighth elegy. It is the image of a man on a hill that overlooks his valley, the final hill that shows him his home for the last time.
Who is this person? It is each of us, the one who obviously has turned around the sake of a final glance. All of us know such moments, and we often live them with some passing sense of sorrow. Rilke's poem, however, burns the image of this moment into the soul. His poem turns this gesture into a poetic act through a simple question that he inserts into this turning.
"Who's turned us round like this, so that we always
do what we may, retain the attitude
of someone who is departing?"
To underscore the impact of this image-question, Rilke says that just like this man on the hill "will stop and linger, / we live our lives forever taking leave."
The eighth elegy is a hymn of mourning. There is a very strong feeling tone of lament for something we have lost along the way, not only in our personal lives, but also in our collective lives as human beings. One reads this elegy and hears a continuous sigh for what we have become, "spectators" who look at the world from a distance, who are never nestled within things long enough in order to look out from them. For us as spectators the world is a display, crowded with "empty, indifferent things, pseudo-things, dummy-life," as he says in a letter one year before his death.
In contrast with the spectator we have become, Rilke praises the animal within whom "there lies the weight and care of a great sadness." The curious thing about this phrase is that this sorrow of the animal is for us, as if the animal somehow knows our spectator condition and mirrors for us what we have lost. Thus Rilke says, "For that which often overwhelms us clings / to him as well,--a kind of memory / that what we're pressing after now was once / nearer and truer and attached to us / with infinite tenderness."
Compared to that time and place, a place that Rilke calls our "first home", and which I would call a landscape of the soul, that no-where world now-here, this time and place that is our second home where we are spectators "seems ambiguous and draughty".
In this elegy the backward glance turns us toward this original home, which the animal remembers for us and which we ourselves dimly recall. This other time and place is what beckons us, this calling of the world that once was but never has been, that no-where now-here, that soulscape which is not for the eyes of a spectator, that homeland of the heart.
Rilke's work and life bear continuous witness to the claim that we owe life a death, and that it is only in living life from the side of death that we most truly exist as human beings. For Rilke the awareness of death deepens love. While Rilke is eloquent about the difficulties of love, it remains for him our highest calling. He says "only from the side of death...is it possible to do justice to love."
So who has the heart for this turning? Those who have risked the difficulties of loving in the face of loss. That is who we are with the man on the hill, lovers whose vision looks upon the world with the attitude of departing, lovers whose vision looks upon the real world with an attitude of departing, lovers who see things as if for the last time. If it is the dead who call us home, then it is the lovers who have risked the terrors of loving in the face of death whose hearts are attuned to those voices that solicit the backward glance.
(in rereading this I realized it might sound morbid to some people but its not. there is a life i'm leaving behind but not literally--just as there was a life i left behind when i got sick)