In Rainer Maria Rilke's Fourth "Duino" Elegy, as translated by Stephen Mitchell in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, the speaker relates to the reader a scene where he sits before "his heart's curtain" (Mitchell 169) in anticipation of what seems to be a metaphorical review of his life. In the unveiling of the curtain, one may ascertain that life itself is a play, and that the life of the artist-poet is analogous to that of a puppet, where one is subject to external influences, and seldom able to maintain complete sovereignty over one's self. In Rilke's other piece, "Puppet Theatre," or "Marionettentheater," translated by W.L. Graff in Rainer Maria Rilke, Creative Anguish of a Modern Poet, puppets are personified and given human-like characteristics. As in the "Fourth Elegy," here they are also used to portray the idea that puppets are perfect in that they are able to fulfill the one ideal that is required of them. The puppets in both pieces symbolize a completeness that humans are unable to attain and are blatant criticisms of the controlling forces that influence and shape our lives, whether they come in the form of the self, one's environment, or that of a higher being.
In "The Fourth Elegy," the speaker wishes that he has been relegated to the inferior role of the puppet, we witness that he is turning into a bystander in the play that is his life, influenced by the actions of those around him as he submissively sits and waits for what is coming to reveal itself. The puppet, as simple as it is, at least has its one set purpose in life, to fulfill whatever mask that was chosen for it to the fullest extent. The speaker, however, states that even if someone tells him: "That's all"; even if emptiness floats toward me in a gray draft from the stage;
even if not one of my silent ancestors stays seated with me, not one woman, not the boy with the immovable brown eye I'll sit here anyway. (Mitchell 169)
His unwillingness to yield to a being outside of himself is an adamant refusal to submit to the influence of another. He desires autonomy but is blind to the fact that there is no such thing. Anything that remotely resembles autonomy is a façade, not unlike the dancer who the speaker denies as, "However lightly he moves, / he's costumed, made upan ordinary man / who hurries home and walks in through the kitchen" (Mitchell 169), like the speaker himself. Instead of being someone who changes masks, desires to be a puppet instead, stating that, "It at least is full" (Mitchell 169). He recognizes the futility of the faces that he portrayed to his father and the women that he had loved, for he feels as though no matter what side of him he displayed to them, it was enough. He refuses to play the game any longer. Despite his refusal to submit to these forces, he is compelled to see them through, as he eventually cedes to them by insisting on staying seated, and continues to "wait before the puppet stage" (Mitchell 171). He seeks for some type of affirmation that his life has not been a waste, feels that he is due some sort of retribution for his efforts, and is desirous to know that the pain that he has experienced in the past will result in the fruition of something, as his greatest fear is that his life has been lived in vain. This can be seen in the questioning of his father, as well as the women in his past that he had loved, when he repeatedly asks, "Am I not right?" (Mitchell 171). The speaker continues to stubbornly wait at the stage, in hopes of witnessing an angel's arrival, wherein the angels may finally infuse the puppets with life. Graff believes that the elegy is Rilke's attempt at self-vindication, and that the questioning of "Am I not right?" is...
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