Rilke regarded the Elegies as his magnum opus, and this and criticism’s readiness to adopt his judgement have not only obstructed appreciation of Rilke’s other work but made it hard to read the Elegies themselves. We need to learn to read them again, which to an extent means reading them against the grain. It is as a precarious structure, rather than as a monumental one, that they have their meaning. This chapter offers a reading of each elegy in turn, attending to the rhythms, movements, and poetic logic of the poems—in short, the language out of which they are made—more than to their ‘argument’. A focus and starting-point is the elegy itself: elegy as classical form points to art as what shapes life and attempts to give it meaning; elegy as lament points to life as what is resistant to art and in its transience always escapes its structures.
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