Rainer Maria Rilke began writing Duino Elegies one hundred years ago this year while visiting — I am not making this up — a princess. She lived in the Duino castle along the Adriatic Sea in northeastern Italy. Rilke arrived there by chauffeured car in mid-winter, and he wiled away his time by toying with translations of Dante alongside the princess. (Rumor has it that Dante wrote part of The Divine Comedy in this very castle.) But the princess, who doubles as Rilke's patron, is intent on setting the stage for the poet to write poems. By January 1912, she leaves the castle and expects Rilke to work. He has a full staff to care for him, and plenty of rooms of his own. But the poet, not yet forty years old, is full of gloom.
Nicole Krauss has written about what happened next:
(Rilke) gingerly lowers himself into his "divinely ordained solitude," like a swimmer into freezing water. And there he waits. For despite his hair-shirt regimen of daily work, poems have always arrived to Rilke suddenly, in urgent bursts, like visitations. Then one day, as the story goes, while marching around on the stormy cliffs puzzling over how to answer a thorny business letter, a voice rings through the gale. Rilke, in awe, takes out his notebook and transcribes what he’s heard, and that night it becomes the opening lines of the first of the Duino Elegies: Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic / orders?
A creative storm then overtook him; Rilke wrote the first two elegies in just days. But it would take him a decade to complete the full cycle of ten poems. The complete incarnation of Duino Elegies lagged with Rilke's depression and the immense upheaval of the First World War. Rilke spent most of the war unable to leave Munich and return to Paris, where all his property was confiscated and auctioned. He was compelled to go through basic training for the military, which traumitized him. He had a torrid affair. But in 1922, after he'd gotten to Switzerland — and another castle — the poet penned the final words of these rather mystic poems. He was in the midst of the last great rush of inspiration of his life. The elegies spilled onto the page like holy water, and were followed in short order by all 55 of the Sonnets to Orpheus. Then, he was done. Rilke died four years later, having published nothing else.
Duino Elegies is altogether striking and strange, but one particular point of intrigue is what Rilke sees fit to say more than once.
Repetition! It is a funny concept, associated with boredom and unoriginality just as much as it is with the glory of religious litany and pagan chorus. There is a dance to be done with repetition, and Rilke is quite good at leading. He finds the most fire when syntactical and thematic repetition occurs at the same time, in the same set of words. A passage in the Ninth Elegy is one of his most emphatic examples of syntactical repetition. Let's use it as our template.
The second stanza of the Ninth Elegy reads (and I'm relying on A. Poulin Jr's translation here):
But because being here means so much, and because all
that’s here, vanishing so quickly, seems to need us
and strangely concerns us. Us, to the first to vanish.
Once each, only once. Once and no more. And us too,
once. Never again. But to have been
once, even if only once,
To have been on earth just once—that’s irrevocable.
The repetition of ‘once’ is prominent — all the italics are Rilke's. While the word refers to our brief, unrepeatable mortal lives on this delighted earth, Rilke finally asserts that “once” is infinite, lasting. One life, though it will ultimately “vanish” and be “no more,” nonetheless has a kind of permanence. In a line of thinking that would find an echo in the story of 'ol George Bailey in Bedford Falls years later, Rilke argues for the profound way our little lives are webbed with thousands of others, creating a tug and pull that moves on and on, unceased by friction.
So, the repetitive use of "once" gives the transitory word a concrete, or permanent, shape in this poem. Its extra-use morphs the word from something airy into something solid. Rilke underlines the poem's thematic intent by molding the language into an example of what he describes. Taking the sequence as a whole, the use of repetition expands into Rilke’s concept of the oddly fused identities of things eternal and things mortal—“angels,” for example.
“Once,” heightened by italics, also establishes a beat in this passage—a trance-like musicality. It conjures the pattern of hymns, mantras, prayers, and incantations. The use of “once” speaks not only to the traditional elegiac tactic of musing on things mortal and immortal, but it does it in a poetic style that echoes a distinctly spiritual form. The recurring images in the full sequence of the elegy (songs, voices, trees, and angels), like the word "once," creates a sort of hypnotic lyric that loops in and around itself. In this poetic whorl, the speaker’s fears (“Every angel is terrifying”) are guided by reassuring, repetitive underpinnings. They are a textual hand to hold, speaking all along to what is finally said in so many words, in opening of the the Tenth Elegy:
One day, when this terrifying vision’s vanished,
let me sing ecstatic praise to angels saying yes!
Repetition is how we see what the speaker's hope looks like. The points of obsession, and the form they take, reveal a sort of faith. It is unsurprising then, when the Tenth Elegy concludes with joy via a connection between heaven and earth, a connection that moves both ways at once.
And we, who have thought of joy
as rising, would feel the emotion
that most amazes us
when a happy thing falls.
These are the final words of the Duino Elegies and, nearly, of Rilke's poetic life. Despite the transience of "once," the speaker has faith that he—we—matter. He's right.