Rainer Maria Rilke

Sonnets to Orpheus

“Seek transformation. O be eager for that flame
in which something escapes you, proud of change.”

In her forty-fifth year Patti Smith, a gem of independent soul and melody went into melancholy and pulled from it wafted tufts of truth and harmony. The act of writing, “drew me from my strange torpor” Smith later reflected.

At the same age but fifty years earlier, Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875 – December 29, 1926) sought similar peace. In July 1921, overwhelmed by the urban pulse, Rilke retreated to a chalet in the Swiss Alps where he explored that coveted inner self he so commended.

Michigan forest road featured in "The Deep, Aching Longing for the Impossible.".
“When the rippling began I took it for a sea-wind, coming to our valley with rumors of salt, of treeless horizons. But the white fog didn’t stir; the leaves of my brothers remained outstretched, unmoving.” Lines from Denise Levertov’s “A Tree Telling of Orpheus.” Full poem here. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Seven months later, Rilke began to exhale this collection of fifty-five lyrical Sonnets to Orpheus devoted to the myth of Orpheus.

There upped a tree. O absolute outstripping!
O Orpheus singing! O tall tree in the ear!
And all things hushed. Yet even under cover
came a new start, a sign, a transforming.

From their stillness, creatures of lair and nest
pushing forward through the clear-lit forest
so quietly and this – not out of cunning,
not silenced by fear – but coming

rather to listen. Bellow, shriek and roaring
shrank in their hearts. And where there stood
no more than a shed to receive them,

a shelter in response to their darkest need
with its entrance, its door-frame shaken,
there you built them this Temple of Hearing.

This collection, born in a thunderclap of creativity, from a soul sluiced by silence and inspiration, is a riot of creation.1

Orpheus is a complexity, even for Greek gods. Son of the muse Calliope and Sun-God Apollo, Orpheus commanded the entire natural world with his sublime music. When he falls in love with a nymph Eurydice and then loses her to Hades on his wedding day, his story turns tragic.

Orpheus, eager to set things right, ventures to Hades to claim his bride and seduces the subterranean despot with – what else – music. So Orpheus can reclaim his bride but only if he does not look back as they emerge to the living once again.

Of course Orpheus looks back and loses Eurydice forever.

Never absent from my thoughts for long,
you – I greet you, ancient sarcophagi –
through which waters from Roman times
have cheerfully played their shifting song.

And you lie there, wide open as the gaze
of a herdsman as he wakes contentedly
to the rich silence of bee-drunk days,
weaving round him, delighted butterflies.

All of you – snatched away from doubt –
I welcome you, mouths gaping once more.
Already you know the meaning of silence.

Do we know it, friends, or do we not?
Either way, it shapes the hesitant hour,
there, in the human countenance.

At this point Orpheus went on a bit of a tear while the world wept.

At his desperate request Orpheus is violently killed so he can rejoin Eurydice. Here Orpheus’ tale ends, but they say trees and flowers and birds and bees mourn him still.2

As sometimes the master’s genuine stroke
will find the nearest, hurried page,
so often in the same way a mirror will take
to itself the smiling, sacred, unique face

of a girl as she tries on the morning alone,
or sits in the lamplight’s flattering gleam.
And before the breath of faces more real,
later she lets slip only a counterfeit glow.
What did we once glimpse with our eyes
staring at the hearth, its slow-burning coal?
Visions of life – forever lost to us.

O earth, who can enumerate your loss?
None – or only he who still sounds praise,
singing his heart out, born to the whole.

Rilke draws on this particular tales’ heartache and longing as a deep metaphor for our own dance with death and longing for life, literally and spiritually.

“He came still closer, leaned on my trunk: the bark thrilled like a leaf still-folded. Music! There was no twig of me not trembling with joy and fear.” Lines from Denise Levertov’s “A Tree Telling of Orpheus.” Full poem here. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Erect no memorial stone. But let the rose
come into bloom each year on his behalf.
That is Orpheus – each metamorphosis
to this, to that. We need not be troubled with

other names. Once and for all, Orpheus
is where there is singing. He comes and goes.
Is it not enough that on such occasions
for a few days he outlasts the bowl of roses?

O yet he must vanish so you comprehend!
And even though he fears this disappearing.
In this, his word out-strips our being –

already he’s where you cannot follow him.
Strings of the lyre do not constrict his hands.
And he obeys just as he out-plays them.

The bounty of beauty and flower, “At times, overwhelmed by such bounty till come the signal of declining day.” A declining day that we all must face and all know is coming.3

On proximity to a conceptual death as a state of mind, as a space we inhabit, Rilke turns and turns. Do thoughts of death creep in when you are alone?4

"Rainer Maria Rilke" (1906) by Paula Modersohn-Becker, a critical Expressionist painter and great friend of Rilke. Rainer Maria Rilke by Paula_Modersohn-Becker_016 featured in Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet" in The Examined Life Library.
“Rainer Maria Rilke” (1906) by Paula Modersohn-Becker, a critical Expressionist painter and great friend of Rilke.
Again with death, the signalling end of the day, the decline of beauty.

With vine leaf, flower and fruit we journey.
They speak more than the language of years.
From the dark, a bright revelation appears
which has perhaps a glimmer of jealousy,

in fact from the dead who feed the soil. O
But of their part in this, what do we know?
It has been their role for such a long while
to lard the clay with their free marrow.

Only now we ask: do they gladly do this?
Do they thrust it up, this concentrated fruit,
the heavy labour of slaves for masters?

Or are they masters, asleep at the root
yet granting us, out of their excess, this inter-
mediate thing between brute force and kiss?

But there is also a waking pulse. The American poet of extraordinary tenderness and clarity, Wendell Berry, writes of the wild lurking at the edge of the field, trees uprooting, all laying claim to our thoughts of control.

From Berry’s “The Apple Tree”: “The tree lifts itself up in the garden the clutter of its green leaves halving the light, stating the unalterable congruity and form of its casual growth.”

"The Dance." by Ellen Vrana.
“Yet the rippling drew nearer — and then/my own outermost branches began to tingle, almost as if/fire had been lit below them, too close, and their twig-tips/were drying and curling./Yet I was not afraid, only deeply alert.” Lines from Denise Levertov’s “A Tree Telling of Orpheus.” Full poem here. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

That loneliness of Orpheus, the endless solitude of a single man, doomed to sing of his heart’s pain “O earth, who can enumerate your loss?” threatens to uproot one and all. But Rilke, as he always does, in his warm, generous way, pushes us back out the door into the dialog of difficult things.

Seek transformation. O be eager for that flame
in which something escapes you, proud of change.)
In overcoming the earthbound, that designing spirit
loves the zest of a figure at its turning point.

Whatever locks itself shut has already petrified.
Does it feel safe and secure in inconspicuous grey?
Wait – the hard warned by the hardest far away.
Woe betide – a distant hammer’s lifted high!

Whoever pours himself like a spring, realisation
realises him, will lead him joyful to calm creation
that in opening closes, often ceases by starting.

Each happy place is a child or grandchild of parting,
passed in amazement. And Daphne transformed,
in feeling herself laurel, wants you changed to wind.

“Then as he sang it was no longer sounds only that made the music: he spoke, and as no tree listens I listened, and language came into my roots out of the earth, into my bark out of the air, into the pores of my greenest shoots gently as dew and there was no word he sang but I knew its meaning.” Lines from Denise Levertov’s “A Tree Telling of Orpheus.” Full poem here. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

“The things we want are transformative” writes Rebecca Solnit in a collection of deep ruminations on being lost and found; “And we don’t know or only think we know what is on the other side of that transformation.”

Seek transformation, Rilke tells us, be not afraid. Seek transformation.

Photograph by Ade Parker, featured in Peter Wohlleben's "The Secret Life of Trees" in the Examined Life Library.
“I’ve known of this tree for a long time but because it’s quite close to where I live I’ve never been to see it, for some strange reason….what a mistake! It’s a beautiful old tree, full of character. Probably about 350-400 years old and about 6m girth.” Photograph and notes by ancient tree tracker Adrian Parker.
Accompany this rhythmic elegy for the land, life, death, endless aliveness with David Attenborough’s life-affirming statement of being; Robert Macfarlane’s collection of places yet untouched by humans, Nan Shepherd’s love letter to the mountains and above all, Walt Whitman’s anthem of self born from a deep oneness with nature.

Illustration of Rainer Maria Rilke.