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Sonnets To Orpheus
Translation/Introduction by David Young

Rainer Maria Rilke

ARJ2 Chapter: Reading for Enjoyment
Published by Wesleyan Press/CT in 1987
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2005


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This is the first book of poetry that I have read cover-to-cover in several decades. Each poem is presented in German on the left page and English on the right page. This makes it easy to cross-check the translation with the original. Many of the passages allow word-for-word translation into English, and others are re-arranged to accommodate the preservation of meter and rhyme as much as possible. David Young has done an outstanding job of translation, and none of my comments about alternate translations should be taken as suggesting otherwise.

This is a book which one can open and read at any point and find a treasure. Or one can read it as a continuous paean to Orpheus sung by Rilke. Orpheus was the minstrel who sang so sweetly as he played his lyre that, after his beloved wife died, he was allowed to leave Hades with Eurydice on the condition that he not turn to look at her until they were safely home. He does turn, and she is pulled back into Hades. One must know at least this much to appreciate the sonnets that Rilke sings to Orpheus — how he conjures up Orpheus’ trek into Hades and back in the course of the book.

[page 3, Sonnet 1]
A tree stood up. Oh pure uprising!
Orpheus is singing! Oh tall tree in the ear!

Thus Rilke begins. And from these beginning lines, David Young was introduced to these sonnets by a German teacher who had trouble grasping the metaphoric flights of Rilke. One show not expect a teacher of German to be a poet simply because some Germans were poets. But, poet or not, to that teacher we owe in some way this book, this translation of Rilke. Viel Danke!

[page ix] I first heard about these poems, I realize, as an undergraduate in the nineteen-fifties, when my German teacher told us that there was a modern German poet who actually talked about having a tree inside his ear. How was one supposed to understand that? The teacher's literal-mindedness shows how slowly poetry sometimes makes its way in this world, but it also illustrates the way in which Rilke confronts his reader immediately with a breakdown of the normal distinctions between inside and outside, self and world. One can rather uneasily write off the tall tree in the ear as a figure of speech for Orpheus's majestic music, but the second sonnet, in which a sleeping girl "made a bed for herself inside my ear," leaves us no choice but to abandon our normal distinctions between the subjective and the objective. Somehow the god and the girl are both within and without the poet-speaker. In taking all of existence inside himself, or distributing himself across all of existence, he jeopardizes his identity and coherence, but he promises us a magical pilgrimage, a time of heightened awareness and personal liberation. It is a promise the sequence makes good on.

Young gives us the structure of the poem by detailing the common subjects which certain sonnets focus on:

[page ix, x] There are "groups" that take up a common subject and lead into each other: a "fruit" group, 12-15 of Part One, and a "flower" group, 5-7 in Part Two. There are sonnets dealing with the season of spring that linked together (24 and 25 of Part Two) and that in turn echo sonnets with the same topic from earlier in the sequence (21 of Part One and, in a sense, 20 as well). Since the sequence has two main parts, a natural consequence is the pairing of sonnets from the first part with sonnets from the second. Rilke avoids excessive symmetry, but one of his most interesting pairs are the sonnet about the Roman sarcophagi (I, 10) and the one about the ancient fountain (II, 15). The three sonnets that deal satirically and rather nervously with the human infatuation with machinery in Part One (18,23 and 24) are matched with a more confident treatment of the subject in II, 10. And so it goes. Again and again in Part Two the reader will find deliberate and felicitous echoes of Part One.

This tells us more than we really want to know and borders on doing at another level what Young's German teacher did to him — got him to focus on concrete objects instead of the lyrical flights of imagination which fills these songs to the proto-poet and lyricist, Orpheus. Rilke portrays the spiritual and physical worlds as coequal realities which meet as one in these sonnets.

[page x] Indeed, the entire poem can be said to find a surprising unity in the essential duality of existence. The spiritual and the material worlds, the divine and the human, togetherness and separateness: these facts of existence are again and again pointed out in these poems, and the two-part structure seems to confirm a fundamental duality in existence.

Now to let the poetry sing for itself. First Sonnet 7, one of my favorites. Rilke sings of Orpheus and his mission.

Praising, that's it! Praise was his mission,
and he came the way ore comes, from silent
rock. His heart, a wine press that couldn't last
made us an endless supply of wine.

Even in the dust his voice won't fail him
once the godhead has him in its grip.
All things turn vineyard, all things turn grape,
in the ripening South of his feelings.

Nothing can contradict his praise,
not mold in the royal burial vault
nor the fact that a shadow will fall from the gods.

He's the messenger who stays,
who carries his bowls of praiseworthy fruit
across the thresholds of the dead.

Young does a fine job of translating the verse from German, but I did a bit of snooping in the original and would like to offer some alternate translations, which while they do not fit the meter and rhyme as well, offer a more lyrical vision of Rilke's intent. First note the paradoxical image of the human heart, which though it dies with the physical body, while alive it presses out the wine of feelings which pulsates from lifetime to lifetime through our immortal spirit.

For the first two lines I would offer this:

With a mission of praise he sparkled
like a vein of gold in the unspeaking stone wall.

And for the final six lines of the "volta"(1) sestet I offer this:

Nothing in the vaults of kingly decay
and mustiness gives lie to his praise
not even a shadow falling from the gods.

He is one of the eternal heralds
who carries fruitful praise
through the portals of death.

What was a solid tree in the first stanza of the First Part has become an invisible breath in the first stanza of the Second part. It reminds me of A Poem Without Words which I wrote about a year ago about the communication which happens at a silent and invisible level when people begin to breathe together. Breathing is the invisible power of poetry.

Breathing, you invisible poem!
Worldspace incessantly having its pure
traffic with our own being. Counterweight system
in which I rhythmically occur.

In this next passage from Sonnet 6 (page 67) we catch a glimpse of a rose as petals surrounding radiance.

In your opulence you seem like clothing around clothing
around a body that's nothing more than brightness

We who have arranged flowers will find a perspective in the next one Sonnet 7 (page 69) from the view of the very flowers we have arranged.

Flowers, kinsfolk at last to arranging hands,
(Hands of young women, long ago and now), you
who lay on the garden table, often from rim to
rim, weary and mildly wounded

awaiting the water that would revive you
from death, already begun — , and now
lifted again between the streaming poles
of feeling fingers, that have even more power

to do good that you guessed, weightless ones,
when you came to in the jug, cooling slowly
and giving off the warmth of young women

life confessions, like thick, fatiguing sins
the act of plucking brought on, relating you again
to those who ally themselves with your blooming.

Then there's Sonnet 15 on page 85 which speaks of a fountain pouring forth its bounty into a bowl as if the Earth itself were speaking into its own ear, and treating the pitcher which intervenes between mouth and ear to grab some water as it were ewer-interrupting.

One of earth's ears. So that she's talking
just to herself. Push a pitcher in between,
she'll think you're interrupting.

Or his definition of God in Sonnet 16, page 87, where he writes:

The place we rip open again and again
that always heals — that's God.

Like Rilke did, I have saved the best for last. This one is worth reading in German (left) first for the meter and rhyme and then in English (right) for the lyrical stretches of verse and images.

[page 112, 113] Sonnet 29

Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen, fühle,
wie dein Atem noch den Raum vermehrt.
Im Gebälk der finstern Glockenstühle
lass dich läuten. Das, was an dir zehrt,

wird ein Starkes über dieser Nahrung.
Geh in der Verwandlung aus und ein.
Was ist deine leidendste Erfahrung?
Ist dir Trinken bitter, werde Wein.

Sei in dieser Nacht aus Übermass
Zauberkraft am Kreuzweg deiner Sinne,
ihrer seltsamen Begegnung Sinn.

Und wenn dich das lrdische vergass,
zu der stillen Erde sag: Ich rinne.
Zu dem raschen Wasser sprich: Ich bin.

Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath is enlarging space.
Among the rafters of dark belfries
let yourself ring. What preys on you will

strengthen from such nourishment.
Come and go with metamorphosis.
What's your most painful experience?
If what you drink's bitter, turn to wine.

In this huge night, become
the magic at the crossways of your senses.
Be what their strange encounter means.

And if the earthly forgets you,
say to the quiet earth: I flow.
Speak to the rushing water — say: I am.

Poetry is like a secret code which must be deciphered, but unlike crossword puzzles which consist only of deciphering codes, poetry has a lyrical aspect which can evoke deep feelings in us if we allow its metaphoric flushes to infuse our being. May each of us remember the immortal wine which carries us between lifetimes so that we may come to say, in our last breath in this lifetime, "I am."

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Footnotes ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Footnote 1. Volta is an Italian word meaning “to turn” and in Rilke’s sonnets there is a turning that occurs at the beginning of the last six lines or sestet.

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. [foot note text]

Return to text directly before Footnote 1.


Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


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