Sonnets to orpheus

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rilke wrote his 45 Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922, towards the end of a 12 year struggle with his Duino Elegies, which he’d been obliged to lay aside during conscription into the Austrian army. Rilke considered the Sonnets ‘perhaps the most mysterious … in the way they came up and entrusted themselves to me, the most enigmatic dictation I have ever sustained and fulfilled; the whole first part [26 poems] was written down in a single breathless act of obedience, between 2-5 February, without one word being doubtful or having to be changed.’

The trigger for this fountain of pœtry was the death of a teenage Russian emigrée, Vera Knoop. Rilke wrote of her that ‘qualities which might have lasted a lifetime had suddenly burnt up,’ and ‘there now arose this excess of light in the girl’s heart, and in it appear so infinitely illumined the two extremes of her pure insight: this, that pain is a mistake, [which] drives its stony wedge into the unity of heaven and earth—and on the other side a harmonious atonement in her heart’ that seemed to accept and transform everything that she suffered into a series of experiences that were at once ephemerally unique yet archetypally memorable. ‘Oh how, how she loved, how she reached with her heart’s antennæ beyond’ what mere mortals may know and touch, when ‘in those sweet hovering pauses in pain that, full of the dream of recovery, were still granted her …’

Rainer Maria Rilke himself was to die of leukæmia four years later at the age of 51. It is evident from the Elegies that questions of death and transcendence were never far the poet’s mind, and thus in the second set of 29 Sonnets, completed a mere fortnight after the first, there is a complete acceptance of the interpenetration of spirit and matter. These two great volumes of sustained in-spirit-ation show that Rilke had reached a point depth in himself where he could no longer, or no longer needed to, differentiate between his own creative personality and that of a mystical ‘otherness’ (the g/God if you will) whose reality was as vivid to him as his own physical existence. To him there was, and had only ever been, one poet in the whole of time, Orpheus, and this poetic spirit simply chose to inhabit certain individuals from time: thus for Rilke the only true poetry was one whose metre is the heartbeat of life—to which every poet in history has contributed according to hir ability to hear beyond hir own physical heartbeat to the primordial echo of the great gods themselves.

The stature of any poet is that we recognise in his poetry the full realisation of feelings which we had dimly cognised for ourselves and not been able to draw meaning-fully into consciousness. To experience the closeness of union and purpose with the poet Orpheus-Rilke that I have been privileged to reach in this project has felt to me like a direct encounter with some god-like or transpersonal force where I, like Rilke, had only to be a secretary to the ‘enigmatic dictation’ which wishes to makes itself heard in the world.

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