Sonnets to Orpheus Summary


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sonnets to Orpheus comprises a series of fifty-five poems. Vera Knoop, the friend and dancer whose early death is commemorated in the dedication of the Sonnets to Orpheus, assumes the same mythological status as the “singing god” at whose side she appears. Many of the poems in the cycle are sonnets only in the broadest definition of the term. All have fourteen lines, and all are divided, in the style of the Petrarchan sonnet, into an octave (two quartets) and a sestet (two tercets). The rhyme scheme and line length, however, are extremely varied. Some lines seem purposely constructed to defy scansion, to defy the established order.

In the third poem of the first set, the speaker asks how a mere mortal can achieve the clarity and distance demanded by poetry. One hears reiterated the underlying complaint of the Duino Elegies: humanity’s ambivalence, ineptness, and inability to grasp the essence of things. In the second quartet, the speaker suggests that poetry is not mere experience or emotion; experience must first ferment within the individual before it can reemerge as truth or as poetry.

Orpheus exercises his symbolic function in various guises in the Sonnets to Orpheus. He charms the beasts out of the forest with his singing and represents the sought-after union of life and death. Orpheus is familiar with death from his descent into Hades to retrieve Eurydice, and from his own death at the hands of...

(The entire section is 569 words.)