Analysis of “8th Duino Elegy” by R. M. Rilke
Begun in 1912 but completed only after the First World War, Rilke’s elegies are deplorable and tragic in their reflection of the search for a broader truth than is known to a man. “8th Duino Elegy” is dedicated to displaying the difference between the existence of a human and an animal. People, realizing themselves, are trapped in what they know about this world. At the same time, the animal sees freely; the world in its eyes is displayed without any restrictions.
The first quote that captures the reader’s attention is one of the introductory phrases, where Rilke immediately demonstrates his belief in the limitations of human perception. “Only our eyes are as though reversed and set like trance around themselves, keeping us inside” (Rilke, lines 1-2). This phrase meets the reader from the first line, discourages its transparency, but requires explanations of such an unusual and complex concept. The author uses the image of inverted eyes to emphasize his further words about the clogged and limited human vision. Eyes, locking a person inside, become the first symbol of the complexity and deceptiveness of perception. The contrast between the organ that serves for understanding and hinders appreciation simultaneously is vivid and becomes even more obvious as the poem proceeds.
One of the readings of the quote is the absorption of a man by the nature of understanding. People capture reality with their eyes and try to explain it based on their vision and awareness. It follows that consciousness limits a person’s existence to a certain extent. The following lines will confirm this reading, contrasting with the world of understanding the animal, which concentrates only on understanding itself. Another reading of this quote maybe not so much the unconscious but the intentional desire of a person to adjust the environment to human perception. The eyes only look like traps, but the person gives them significance. Consciously choosing not to go beyond the limits of understanding, people remain within their vision and build obstacles for themselves to get closer to what is around them.
Either way, both concepts of quotation lead to the same outcome. Whether a person does it intentionally or subconsciously, perception is limited by the ability to understand the world. Even if, in the quote itself, where the eyes are shown as an instrument of perception, any other organ with which a person learns the world was presented, the result would remain the same. Rilke perceives this as a tragic loss of human connection with nature and the world and further contrasts this human tightness with the ability of animals to see wider. This quote, reflecting the unfreedom of people, looks dramatic and sets the motive for the rest of the work.
In the next line worth mentioning, the author shifts the focus of attention from a person to an animal that has not yet had time to experience the tragedy of self-knowledge. “For the animals, their death is, as it were, completed” (Rilke, line 10). The very concept of life for an animal is not difficult to understand. It exists because it exists, while the past and the future constantly haunt a man. This line vividly shows the contrast between the animal and the human, putting people a few steps lower when it comes to unity with their innate nature. For both man and animal, death is inevitable, but only for man, time and fate create problems and distract from the true vision of the world.
Even though the line is about animals, one of the readings is aimed directly at humans. It shows that people can be closest to their natural origin either at the stage of birth or at the stage of death. In other words, a person lives in a world that operates according to the laws of modern materialism. The end prevents a person from knowing, but the closer people are to death, the closer they are to understanding. Another reading draws the attention of the reader to the world of animals and shows that they live in the so-called immensity. For them, the world does not have such constructions and restrictions that a person builds. Their world is open, and they are not caught by the trap of personification, trying to know themselves.
Man and animal, in Rilke’s understanding, are radically opposite beings. While one lives openly, the other is closed in its consciousness. While one knows the world, not through the prism of perception, the other is limited by it. The author elevates the ability of animals to live in harmony with the world but does not humanize them since this would contradict the basic concept of the work. Such a view of animals is rarely found in the literature, but it is necessary to reveal the topic of humans freezing inside consciousness.
Special attention should be paid to the quote, which shows the essence of the influence of human understanding. “Never, not for a single day, do we let the space before us be so unbounded that the blooming of one flower is forever” (Rilke, lines 13-15). It supports the general mood of the poem, does not contradict the previous quotes, and continues to reveal the theme of the limitations of human vision. It reinforces the author’s decadent moods and regrets about losing touch with the world. The author uses the image of a flower blooming and creates a fast, ongoing process that opens in the reader’s imagination. The way the author claims that a person does not allow a flower to bloom forever shows that it is the person who is responsible for separating from the natural essence.
One of the readings of this line may be considered symbolic and hide deeper processes in the image of a flower. If the awareness of people’s consciousness prevents them from seeing the world in its beauty and naturalness, then surely there must be more difficult obstacles at the next stage of development. The feeling of regret, which can be traced in the line, demonstrates a person’s doom in this matter and the inability to move in the direction indicated by the author. Another reading may be the fundamental idea of people influencing nature in more natural ways than they are doing it now. The nature of reality is eternal and infinite, and man builds a barrier in the way of understanding. It emphasizes the continuity of the mental and physical spectrum, where self-conscious human processes prevent reconnecting with nature.
Both readings of this line do not contradict each other but complement and reveal the author’s main idea. Consciousness is a barrier, and understanding is a weakness from which a person is unlikely to ever escape. The quote demonstrates isolation from nature, from the starting point where man began development. In this development and consciousness, man has already reached the stage when it is impossible to go back to nature, and the author grieves for this loss. In it lies the true sorrow for that other world, where a person’s capabilities could develop to the fullest.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. 8th Duino Elegy. Echo Point Books & Media, 2019.