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Rilke’s Duino Elegies: what are poets for?

Lecturer: Eva Birch

Originally Taught: Summer School 2022

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote the Duino Elegies between 1912 and 1922 at the Duino Castle on cliffs overlooking the Gulf of Trieste in Italy. While out walking he claimed to hear a voice calling to him the first lines of the first Elegy: ‘Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the hierarchies of angels?’

In this course we will study the relationship between tradition and modernity, and what Heidegger calls the ‘trace of the holy,’ in the Dunio Elegies. Rilke suffered from the new conditions of modernity, moving between between the city and the country, and questioning whether he should stop writing poetry and begin psychoanalysis. Ultimately, with the Duino Elegies, he achieved his aim of finding meaning in his suffering and providing, as he describes it, ‘peace’ and ‘safety’ to the readers of his poetry.

We will read selections from Rilke’s novel, art writing, and letters, to contextualise the Duino Elegies and to consider more broadly the role of the poet in modernity.


Week One

  • The First Elegy and The Second Elegy

For all primary readings we will refer to this version:

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Duino Elegies: A Bilingual Edition. Trans. Edward Snow. Northwestern University Press, 1998.

Further Reading:

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Week Two

  • The Third and the Fourth Elegy

Further Reading:

  • Martin Heidegger, ‘What are poets for?’

Week Three

  • The Fifth Elegy and the Sixth Elegy

Further Reading:

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Auguste Rodin

Week Four

  • The Seventh Elegy and The Eighth Elegy

Further Reading:

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge

Week Five

  • The Ninth Elegy and The Tenth Elegy

Secondary Reading:

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus