Rainer Marie Rilke | Sonnets to Orpheus

Erect no monument. Allow the rose
to unfurl each year on his behalf.
For it's Orpheus. His metamorphosis
in this, in that. We needn't bother

with other names. Once and forever
it's Orpheus, when there's song. He comes and goes.
Isn't it grace enough when now and then
he stays on a few days, outlasting the bowl of roses?

But he must disappear for you to grasp it!
Though he himself feared vanishing.
Even as his word transforms the here and now,

he's already in that other realm, where you can't follow.
The lyre's snare doesn't trap his hands.
And he obeys, even as he overreaches.
Only he who has also raised
his lyre among shadows
may find his way back
to infinite praise.

Only he who has eaten with the dead
from their stores of poppy
will never again lose
the softest chord.

And though the pool's reflection
often blurs before us:
Know the image.

Only in the double realm
do the voices become
eternal and mild.
Mirrors: no one who's tried to solve you
has yet unlocked your true being.
You, openings in time, its course filled
as if with endless sieve holes.

You, perpetual spendthrifts of the empty hall-,
when dusk approaches, deep as woods ...
And there the chandelier, like a sixteen-pointer,
leaps your unreachable divide.

Sometimes you are full of painting.
A few seem to have passed straight into you-
others you shyly sent away.

But the one loveliest woman will remain
before you,-till across into her untouched cheeks
the clear released Narcissus penetrates.
Rose, enthroned there, for the ancients
you were a cup with a simple rim.
But for us you are the full multifaceted flower,
the inexhaustible object.

In your opulence you are like garment on garment
round a body made of only light;
yet each single petal is at once the shunning
and the denial of all attire.

For centuries your fragrance has called
its sweetest names across to us;
suddenly it floats in the air like fame.

Still, we can't find the word, we grope ..
And memory betrays us, goes over
with all we've begged from the responding hours.

Poems from : Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, April 2004

Sonnets to Orpheus, series of 55 poems in two linked cycles by Rainer Maria Rilke, published in German in 1923 as Die Sonette an Orpheus. The Sonnets to Orpheus brought Rilke international fame.

The Sonnets to Orpheus are concerned with the relationship of art and poetry to life. In them Rilke sought to show poetry’s power to transmute problems of existence and to justify reality. Some of the sonnets deal with aspects of the life and art of Orpheus, the legendary musician of ancient Greece. Source

(Text down here is composed in majority (unless linked otherwise) of excerpts from the introduction of the book : Sonnets to Orpheus, Rainer Maria Rilke translated by Edward Snow, North Point Press, April 2004)

The fifty-five poems addressed to Orpheus were written in two weeks in February, 1922, after the completion of the Duino Elegies, themselves the work of ten years.Source Rilke himself regarded these sonnets with amazement. They seem genuinely to have taken him by surprise. Since July of 1921 he had been living in the Château de Muzot, a tiny medieval castle-tower near Sierre in the Swiss Valais. This meant gradually divesting himself of human contact and conversation, “gathering himself” into an absolute solitude (one wondrously efficient housekeeper excepted). If he could not will the Elegies to completion, he could at least try to turn himself into a core of undistracted readiness. Meanwhile serendipity was at work, scattering the most diverse influences (at least in retrospect they seem so) into this scene of attempted concentration. For Christmas 1920, Rilke’s lover, the painter Baladine Klossowska (“Merline”), had given him a French prose version of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which prominently features the story of Orpheus. When she departed from Muzot at Rilke’s urging in November 1921, she left pinned to the wall opposite his writing table a postcard reproduction of a Renaissance drawing of a youthful, almost carefree Orpheus (though his expression could be anguished) sitting at the base of a tree, singing and playing a stringed instrument, while a gathering of animals (one bird, two deer, and a pair of rabbits) listens attentively. The image would remain in place throughout the winter months of 1922, a token of Merline’s absence. Increasingly, Rilke translated. Source : Book

By the end of 1921 he had finished a version of Michelangelo’s Sonnets, which left him thinking about the strictness of the sonnet form and the extent to which it might be freed. He immersed himself in the work of Paul Valéry (by 1921 his most important artistic “other”), a poet who had remained silent for almost twenty-five years, studying mathematics, and who had only recently resumed writing.(…) Source : Book “I was alone, I waited, my life’s work waited,” Rilke is remembered as saying. “One day I read Valery, and then I knew my waiting was over.”Source

Château de Muzot

But the decisive influence came in the form of the record of a young girl approaching death. Rilke knew Vera Ouckama Knoop, the daughter of friends from his pre-war Munich days and the playmate of his own daughter Ruth, when she was still a child and already a dancer of great promise. He had learned in 1919 from Vera’s mother, Gertrud, of her daughter’s recent death at age nineteen from leukemia, but it was not until November 1921, on the occasion of Ruth’s engagement, that he chose to write in consolation. A heartfelt correspondence ensued between these two people who only casually knew each other, and one of Rilke’s letters culminated in a wish for some keepsake by which he might remember Vera (“some little thing that was dear to Vera, if possible something that she often had with her”). Gertrud complied with a gesture whose very extravagance could almost be construed as a protest against the sentimentality in Rilke’s request. On January 1, 1922, he received from her a package, without any cover letter, containing sixteen closely written pages on which Gertrud had chronicled, day by day, the last stage of Vera’s leukemia, with “its torturous alternations of pain and despair, remission and hope.” The effect on Rilke was overwhelming, and Vera took on an almost hallucinatory reality: “Now it is about Vera.” he wrote her mother, “whose dark, strange, vivid loveliness is so hauntingly unforgettable and so prodigiously evocable that in the very moment of writing this I am afraid to close my eyes, lest I should suddenly, in my own here and now, feel myself completely overwhelmed by it.” (…)Source : Book

On February 2 the door finally opened. Only a day earlier Rilke had been complaining (again) about the difficulty of concentration, and when he sat down at his appointed time to write, his hope as usual was to coax the Elegies out of hiding. Instead, he began writing sonnets. One followed another, and suddenly Rilke was in the midst of a creative release so extraordinary that he felt himself transcribing, not composing. He wrote continuously, “letting the stream of the sonnets gush over me like a deluge,” and by February 5 he had completed, in order, without altering a line, all but one of the twenty-six poems that would form the First Part of the Sonnets to Orpheus. “It was the most enigmatic dictation I have ever undergone,” he would say later. And though the source of the poems was a mystery to him, he understood them as inspired by Vera.Source : Book

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