The Duino Elegies (Duineser Elegien) are a set of ten elegies written by Rainer Maria Rilke from 1912 to 1922. They are considered to be Rilke’s major poetic work.
Rilke had been visiting Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis in the Duino castle near Trieste in January 1912 and, while walking near the castle on steep cliffs that drop down to the beach, he later said he had heard a voice calling him, and these words became the opening of the first Elegy: “Wer, wenn ich schriee, hörte mich denn aus der Engel Ordnungen?” (Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angelic orders?).
Within days he produced the first two elegies and some fragments which became elements the others, including the opening section of the tenth. After this, the creative production on the Elegies stopped abruptly and he could not restart it, although he continued to work on other poetic projects.
The completion of the elegies was delayed by Rilke’s battle with depression, and also by the First World War which shook the foundations of his beliefs and his way of life. The German-speaking aristocracy, from which came his major sponsors, and the Austrian Empire as a whole, were among the prime casualties of the war. The Duino cycle was completed only in February 1922, when Rilke was staying at the Muzot castle in Veyras, Rhone Valley, Switzerland. It was also during this time that Rilke wrote the Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke described the sudden return of inspiration in a letter as “a savage creative storm”, and claimed that he even had stopped eating, because the poetic spirit had gripped him for many hours on end. Rilke’s statements about the creative process behind the elegies are cryptic; they indicate that he believes in elements of clairvoyance, and connections to the spirit world.
The Duino Elegies have a coherent structure, and are arranged in the form of a sweeping survey of human life. The Sonnets are very beautiful poems that apply Rilke’s new insights to simple poetic topics, like fountains.
Rilke, who was always a tortured soul, finds some peace of mind towards the end of his life, and his poems express a new understanding of nature that anticipates our collective future. Nature is alive, and our interwoven-ness with nature is much more complex than we are aware of.