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The Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke; translated by Stephen Mitchell (Simon & Schuster: $13.95; 183 pp.)

December 15, 1985|Ursula Hegi | Hegi grew up in Germany, where she studied Rilke's work. She is the author of "Intrusions" (Viking).

"When life occurs at this level of intensity, biography turns into myth," writes Stephen Mitchell in his sensitive introduction to Rainer Maria Rilke's "The Sonnets to Orpheus," an edition that includes the original German text.

Rilke (1875-1926), a major German poet, perceived Orpheus as someone who let go of all desire and became totally free while--at the same time--achieving the ultimate connection to the universe. The sonnets carry within them a sense of being centered--in harmony with the self--and of perceiving sensuous experiences with the curiosity and abandon of a child.

Even the leaves of wintered-through oaks

seem in the twilight a future brown

Breezes signal, then signal back.

Black are the bushes. Yet heaps of dung

lie more intensely black on the ground

Every hour that goes by grows younger.

In his letters, Rilke wrote that the sonnets came upon him unexpectedly, and that he had to "surrender, purely and obediently, to the dictation of the inner impulses. . . ." He accepted the mystery of the gift, writing the poems as quickly as they came to him in February of 1922 in passionate bursts of inspiration. Although they came too fast for him to understand their meaning, he had faith that, in time, he would comprehend most of them except those with the kind of darkness that "requires not clarification but surrender." Rilke saw two innermost experiences connected to their creation: his resolve to "hold life open upon death" and his "spiritual need to place the transformations of love into this expanded whole."

Where, inside what forever blissfully watered gardens,

upon what trees,

out of what deep and tenderly unpetaled flower-cups,

do the exotic fruits of consolation hang ripening? Those

rare delicacies, of which you find one perhaps

in the trampled meadows of your poverty. Time and again

you have stood there marveling over the sheer size of the

fruit,

over its wholeness, its smooth and unmottled skin,

and that the lightheaded bird or the jealous worm under

the ground had not

snatched it away from your hands ....

These brilliant and passionate sonnets reflect Rilke's trust in emotional truth and a collective subconscious. For him, spiritual experience was centered within the individual--not dictated from the outside by the rules of a church. "Couldn't the history of God be treated as an almost never-explored area of the human soul?"

As with many obsessive writers, Rilke's private life was dominated by his poetry. During and after the war, he wandered across Europe, leading a restless existence, "holding to his certainty and his despair." To live alone, he realized, was essential for his writing, and he finally was able to retreat to the Swiss chateau de Muzot. Whenever his chosen solitude became oppressive, he'd travel to Italy or to Paris, a city he loved and knew very well. As a young man, he'd lived there for two years, working as a secretary for the French sculptor Francois Auguste Rodin who, in his approach to form and vision, greatly influenced the young poet.

Unfortunately, Mitchell's translation of the sonnets frequently changes the meaning of Rilke's words. He translates "List" with "dullness" though it means "cunning," something entirely different. Occasionally his translation of an entire line has little or no connection to Rilke's original text. "Unter den Geschwistern im Gemuet" ("Among the siblings in the mind") is interpreted by Mitchell as "among the deities hidden in our heart." Even a less complicated line such as "Voller Apfel, Birne und Banane," (plump apple, pear and banana") is changed by adding a couple of other fruits: "Plump apple, smooth banana, melon, peach." Mitchell's introduction, however, is well written, and he is absolutely right when he describes Rilke's writing of the sonnets as "the most astonishing burst of inspiration in the history of literature. . . . These poems were born perfect; hardly a single word needed to be changed."

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