Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the great lyric poets of the twentieth century, wrote Sonnets to Orpheus in memory of Vera Ouckama Knoop, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a Dutch friend. When she was about seventeen, the girl was stricken with an incurable glandular disease. As her body became heavier and more massive, she stopped dancing and began to play music, and when her body became still heavier, she began to draw. Although Rilke barely knew the girl, he was touched by her story and shaken by the news of her death. At the time Sonnets to Orpheus were written, Rilke was staying at a château in Muzot, Switzerland, where he took refuge during several periods in his life after World War I and where he found the solitude he needed to work. It was here that in 1923 Rilke, in a burst of creative genius unlike any that he had ever before experienced, completed Duineser Elegien (1923; Duino Elegies, 1931) and Sonnets to Orpheus (a complement to the Duino Elegies).
In Greek mythology, Orpheus, the son of Apollo, was the master magician, able to animate nature with his song. When his wife Eurydice died, he obtained her release from the underworld on the condition that he would not look at her until they reached the upper world, but he could not resist glancing back at her at the last moment. Legend had it that he was subsequently dismembered by Thracian women and scattered throughout the universe until all of nature became his song. This introduced a second phase, during which Orpheus became the religious center of a Dionysian sect (Dionysus was the god of uninhibited desire, vegetation, and wine) and presided in his magical divinity over the ancient religious mysteries of Greece. Sonnets to Orpheus incorporates this second, magical, aspect of the god.
Rilke’s Orpheus symbol is the culmination of a number of themes and motifs dating back to the poet’s earliest writing, which coalesce into the figure of the singing god who redeems out of time into space. His function links him with Duino Elegies through the principle of transformation. Orpheus is also equated with the poet, and by alluding to his special role as a singer of both realms, Rilke reiterates the need to unite life and death through song and praise. Orpheus literally sings among the dead. The mortal poet is to do the same.
The two main attributes of the Orpheus symbol are openness toward all experience—a fullness that includes both life and death—to an extent that Rilke refers to as an “overflowing”; and the ordering or forming of this experience through music, that is, art or poetry. The elevation of music as the final court of appeal, after suffering, love, and death have individually failed to reveal their secret, is declared in sonnet 1.
Sonnets to Orpheus speaks of “we,” “you,” and “I” interchangeably and is thus directed toward no particular person but to humanity in general (the exceptions are the two Knoop sonnets and the one addressed to a friend of Knoop). Rilke maintains a certain distance by the sparing use of the first-person pronoun. Although the poems cannot be arranged in any unified metrical scheme, Rilke adheres to a thoroughly symmetrical sonnet composition, with divisions into quatrains and tercets; the individual metrics are flexibly varied. He seems to have set himself the challenge of modifying the sonnet form while at the same time not destroying it altogether.
A kind of metaphorical primitivism may account for the simplicity, grammatical and otherwise, of most of Sonnets to Orpheus. In Rilke’s later poetry, words are used as signs, and images become “points” or “cosmic configurations.” Only in such a pattern, endorsed by Orpheus, can the totality of forms be preserved, a totality no longer viewed in isolation but adapted to the requirements of a universal myth.
Both part 1, which consists of twenty-six sonnets, and part 2, with its twenty-nine sonnets, form a cycle. Rather than forming thematic or chronological groups, the poems may be loosely characterized as the Orpheus sonnets, the sonnets incorporating poetic memories, and the sonnets of a didactic, reflective nature. Twelve poems (all but one in part 1) deal with the Orphic legend. Sonnets, 1, 7, and 26 in part 1 contain the main elements of the Orpheus theme, which opens the series and, as the circle widens to include other motifs, gradually disappears, to resurface finally in part 2, sonnet 26. The initial sonnet of part 1 is pure myth making: At the beginning of the world (or of the...