Sonnets to Orpheus Questions and Answers

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what are the meanings of sonnet 12 of Rilke's sonnets to orpheus

Rilke wrote two sonnets 12 in his Sonnets to Orpheus. Both are optimistic about growth and transformation. In the first, the speaker advises us to take small steps and trust that these will lead to fruition: "The Earth gives forth." In the second sonnet, the speaker tells us that if we are rigid, we will shatter. Instead, we should seek to be fluid like water, open to change.

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Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus has two parts and therefore contains two sonnets 12.

The sonnet cycle as a whole was inspired by the death of Rilke's daughter's friend, Wera Ouckama Knoop, who passed away as a teenager. The poet imagines himself as Orpheus, using his poetic "music" to bridge the gap between life and death.

In sonnet 12 of the first cycle, the speaker calls out in hope to a divine spirt that "can unify us." He notes that is best to live life in small pieces rather than dwell on the "vast, empty distance" of eternity that separates us from the dead. We are created to experience the finite and so should understand that "obstacles" to happiness are removed in gradual steps.

In the last stanza, the speaker advises us to do what we are supposed to do today and trust the future to take care of itself. He uses the image of a farmer, who will get "nowhere" if he worries about how his grain will grow. He simply needs to trust that it will flourish: "The Earth gives forth."

Sonnet 12 in part II is also optimistic. Here, the speaker encourages us to embrace change. He states that what stays the "same" becomes "rigid" and is "easily shattered." He advises instead that we flow and adapt as water does. He writes:

Pour yourself like a fountain.
Flow into the knowledge ...

By embracing change, we survive separations (such as death) and come to happiness. The sonnet ends with an image of transformation from Greek mythology:

And Daphne, becoming a laurel,
dares you to become the wind.

Both poems advise us trust and go with the flow. Giving up the attempt to control and the temptation to become rigid, we experience growth and transformation.