For me, at least, Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies are the very epitome of poetry. I know others who, even though they admire Rilke above all other poets, prefer other "Rilke" poems, such as "Evening." For me, however, it has always been, and always will be, the Elegies. Certainly they are the most extravagant and elusive of Rilke's poems, even for those who count others among their favorites.
Rilke, who longed for a place of solitude in the country, arrived at the fortress-like Castle Duino, high above the Adriatic, near Trieste, in December 1911. His hostess was Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe, who had invited Rilke to translate Dante's Vita Nuova with her. Princess Marie, however, soon left for more sociable climes and Rilke was left alone on the stormy, wind-swept cliffs of Duino. Rilke, at this time of his life, was known to commit himself to a strict regimen of work. Nevertheless, his poems, he has written, always seemed to burst upon him suddenly, like a thunderstorm on a hot summer's afternoon. And, one afternoon at Duino, the opening line of the first elegy burst upon Rilke like a flash of lightening.
There is no problem with the Duino Elegies...if one reads and comprehends German. If one doesn't, however, the problems of translation can be enormous. Translation, always a fragile task, becomes even more so when it involves poetry, and reaches its zenith with a work as sublime as Rilke's Duino Elegies. So many versions of these gorgeous poems exist (at least twenty), that the Elegies are certainly suffering from a case of "translation overkill."
In the original German, the Duino Elegies are the most sublime expressions of awe, of terror, of love, of splendor, of Life, that have ever been set down by the hand of man. In hands other than Rilke's, however, they can seem clumsy and more than a bit melodramatic. Rilke wrote delicately-calibrated poetry, without excess words and, the dread of all translators, the hyphenated word. But, all that aside, reading the Elegies in translation, any translation, is better than not reading them at all.
No matter how "angelic" these poems may seem, never doubt that they are expression of life in the here and now. As Rilke, himself, tells us, "the world exists nowhere but within us." These gorgeous poems are about the difficulties of living in this world, of not being heard by the angels, and of the tragedy that can so easily befall us. They are about Rilke's desire for solitude and his desire to escape it, i.e., the need and the utter impossibility of understanding and being understood completely in this life.
Although many of the translations are flawed, as translation by its very nature must be, the Duino Elegies remain the epitome of poetry. They are a cry of terror, of awe, of joy, of splendor at the lonely and solitary condition of man.