Thoughts on Rilke’s Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus
A small copy of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and his Sonnets to Orpheus has been a constant companion on my travels for many years. I have read it again and again –they are inexhaustible to me. I have also had thoughts about them and have written these down. Here are some of them.
In the Duino Elegies and in the Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke’s experience of being breaks through with such power that if we open ourselves to it, it sweeps us along into the meaning of what he went through. For he broke into these great songs after many years of being nearly silenced, and after having to entirely let go of his desired priorities and of the calling he had understood as his task. The storm that swept with it both the completion of the Elegies and the completely unexpected creation of the Sonnets was thus not a storm intended just for him. More powerful forces were at work here, forces relevant to us that both intend and are capable of leading us to similar experiences and insight.
In what follows, I touch on this experience at levels that we too can access. In doing so, I am aware that in the end the poems remain unfathomable, as Rilke himself admitted they were to him. I merely want to draw connections that make it easier to find entrance into these great song cycles, without claiming to really plumb their depths.
The Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus form a single whole, for they erupted out of Rilke in the same storm. Hence once can at times pass seamlessly from the Elegies to the Sonnets and back again. For both great cycles are concerned more with the experience of being that sings from them than they are with individual poems. Their song is our presence, wrapped up in creation and decline, and thus in a process of transforming toward what is final.
The Duino Elegies and the Sonnets to Orpheus only became possible after Rilke’s carefully built “tree of jubilation berries” was shattered. In these poems, Rilke wanders among both the living and the dead and incorporates both realms with deepest affirmation into his song. He refrains from celebrating what transcends the human world, for example from celebrating angels, and turns his listening, devoid of all intention, toward what is transient. For it, he is simply there.
Thus the tree within the ear at the beginning of the first sonnet is a hearing that turns entirely inward and by doing so abandons all externally directed desire. It is a hearing of a song that can only be sung by one who has assented to all being.
In the second sonnet, Rilke takes into his ear a girl who has died young; with her, he listens to the fulfilled song of Orpheus, who includes the sleeping girl in his singing, so that in the listening her death merely becomes background melody to life. If this song should complete itself by being swallowed into silence, then the dead girl will vanish from Rilke’s ear into pure presence.
Only Orpheus can sing a song like this. His song is pure presence. He sings in truth. This song does not seek to persuade and is without desire: a breath about nothing, a breeze in the god, a wind.
Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.
This is a further poem that moves us toward an inkling of how being dead brings completion. It brings completion in a way that leaves life behind as a temporary event, and it shows the dead to be removed from and beyond reach of life and the living.
The Duino Elegies
Rainer Maria Rilke’s Duino Elegies are lamentations, but of such a peculiar sort that the loss they bewail proves in the end to be progress and fulfillment. Within them, Rilke faces the ultimate realities – death, transformation, meaning – and submits to them, yet in a way that still celebrates and cherishes what remains for us here.
In the first and second Elegies, Rilke hesitantly takes leave of an overly inflated image of human existence: that of the angel. And he takes leave of mourning for those who have died young. We stand between these two. That which promises, like love, to allow us to endure is so elusive that our heart must temper itself. It must understand how leaving loss behind can turn into the very musical momentum that now entrances us and gives us help.
The third Elegy leads those who love into an older lineage, back to the fathers and mothers of antiquity, and down into powerful origins where dread lurks. When we love, a sap beyond what we can anticipate rises into our arms, and forestalls the lover and his beloved.
The fourth Elegy bemoans that we are conscious of blossoming and withering at the same time, and that our life proceeds like a drama full of excuses. Only when an angel intervenes in this drama does that which we always divide become united. The angel here is an image of death. Holding that image gently and without rancour, as if holding a child before its life, is indescribable.
The fifth Elegy describes the fleetingness of our life and its always newly attempted forms by using the example of four itinerant jugglers in a public square in Paris: an old man, a boy, and man, and a girl. But then it leads us to another drama at another gathering place, in front of countless silent dead souls, where lovers at last succeed in bold high leaps of their vaulting hearts.
The sixth Elegy celebrates the hero as a contrast to the limitations of our existence. Just as death does not assail those destined to pass on early, it does not assail the hero, for he seized his destiny when he was still barely in bloom, then stormed his way through the stages of love, and now stands at the end of smiles, turned away and transformed.
The seventh Elegy extols what is here, in the song of the lark, in summer’s abundance, in the happiness of love, and even in technology that submits to the earth. If what was projected outward disappears from our outward view, it will be reconstructed invisibly within, and will in this way be rescued and preserved.
The eighth Elegy laments that we keep death in view and are always taking leave, and are not simply present as animals are. Only when close to death do people no longer see death; they stare past it, the same way an animal calmly stares through us. While we look to the future, the animal sees everything and sees itself in everything, healed forever.
The ninth Elegy acknowledges the earth, acknowledges living only once and what this accomplishes even if it passes away. Through us, what is transient seeks to transform itself into what is invisibile. Nothing is lost. Nothing is diminished. On the contrary, excess of presence wells up in our hearts.
At the end of grim realizations, the tenth and last Elegy leads us down a path taken by a deceased youth through a landscape of lamentations. In his first stage of being weaned from life, he follows a young lament. Then he is led by one of the older laments through the soundless landscape as far as the fountain of joy, and then even further, to the foot of a mountain range. Here she bids him a tearful farewell, and he climbs in solitude into the mountains of first grief, where he completes his dying.
The Sonnets to Orpheus: Part I
The Sonnets to Orpheus breathe the released clarity of fulfillment. What Rilke achieved in his Duino Elegies only after long inner struggle, he affirms and celebrates here without regret: the whole of existence, how it transforms through arising and decline, and how it encompasses the living and the dead in equal measure. The figure of Orpheus serves Rilke as the symbol of this whole: through him both realms distill into music and song.
Sonnets 1 through 3 describe how the singing of Orpheus reaches beyond us. He makes wild animals become quiet, allows a deceased girl to resurrect through his songs, and sings in truth.
Sonnets 4 through 10 extend the theme of the winds of change further, as well as the theme of arrival and departure, and of community with the dead. In everything that blooms, the dead return to life, so that their realm and ours always interpenetrate. Part way through these sonnets, Sonnet 8 describes how Lamentation slowly learns to praise even what is evil without clouding it with her breath.
Sonnets 11 through 15 show how that which we connect to each other remains wrapped up in a play of forces that is both independent of us and that serves and exhibits greater things: the rider and his horse, sending and receiving through antennae, the cares of the farmer, the workings of the earth, and what is hidden in apples, flowers, and oranges.
The sixteenth Sonnet speaks of a master and his dog. The man follows words and finger pointing, the dog follows a smell, but both can feel. Then the man leads the hand of his own master toward blessing the dog, as Isaac blessed Jacob, who hid himself in front of his father under the pelt of his brother Esau.
The seventeenth Sonnet describes roots and branches of the tree of life, the last branch of which on top bends itself into a lyre of praise.
Sonnets 19 through 21 celebrate in song the breaking free that foretells fulfillment: the horse that has freed itself, and the earth that sings of springtime.
Sonnets 22 through 24 have in common that they contrast technology’s haste and attempts at flight with the quiet of repose. While repose may get left behind, it is what outlasts.
The twenty-fifth Sonnet, just like the second one, is addressed to a deceased girl to whom Rilke dedicated the Sonnets to Orpheus as an epitaph. Just as Orpheus was not lost when the maenads tore him apart, but sang on in the trees and birds, so the girl who was taken from us into death remains the playmate of an unconquerable cry.
The Sonnets to Orpheus: Part II
Sonnets 2 through 4 are mirror poems. They describe how a mirror’s image, although not real, still gives something real to a glance, how a mirror only retains an image as long as no one attempts like Narcissus to unite with it, and how an imagined animal, the unicorn, becomes so real when we love it that is appears in a virgin’s mirror, as it did in a picture Rilke was familiar with.
Sonnets 5 through 7 are flower poems. They describe the anemone that opens itself to the light of the sky, the rose which to the ancients was a simply-rimmed goblet but to us blooms forth fully, and the flowers that keep their bond with the girls who pick them, whether they blossom or wilt.
The ninth Sonnet contrasts cramped deliberate mercy with the god of real mercy, whose children eternally unite severity with mercy.
The eleventh Sonnet affirms within the whole both hunting and killing, both with trap and net and with a strip of sailcloth a hunter uses to frighten pigeons from a cave so as to kill them.
Sonnets 12 through 14 are poems about transformation. Only when we have decided to perish, as if into flames, only when we have fallen so deeply into sleep with
things that we return from them transformed to the day, can we change our ways and can we count ourselves with joy to be among the vast sums of nature’s fullness.
The fifteenth Sonnet describes a fountain’s water that flows through a stone face into the ear of a marble basin before it, and that speaks into this ear from far away.
In the sixteenth Sonnet, the dismembered Orpheus is both a spring and a vessel. The dead drink in silence from this spring, while we, the noisy ones, only hear it.
The eighteenth Sonnet is addressed to a girl who is a dancer. It describes her tree of movement, its blooming crown of silence, its fruit in the form of a jug and a vase, and how its spinning momentum preserves the dark streak of her brow for a time, as if in a drawing.
The twentieth and twenty-first Sonnets describe how things widely separated from one another appear in the end to be interwoven, like the individual silken threads in the images on a bright carpet.
Sonnets 22 through 27 deal with time. They describe how franticness dissipates, how stability withdraws, how we are increasingly filled by the coming god, and how what is transient passes through those who are receptive as if it were smoke.
The twenty-eighth Sonnet turns once more to the deceased girl to whom the Sonnets to Orpheus are dedicated. Together with the twenty-ninth and final Sonnet, it also turns to her friend, which is Rilke himself.
Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus
The Sonnets to Orpheus are the outcome of an unexpected storm of creativity that took hold of Rilke when he set out to complete his Duino Elegies. The first part of the Sonnets, and a few weeks later the second part, were each written in a few days, as if taken down to inner dictation. These sonnets are of such depth that it was only later and step by step that Rilke consciously grasped their meaning.
To the reader and listener, the Sonnets to Orpheus are more than fulfilled poetry. They unlock themselves only when we reach past their masterful form and their density of image and open to the experience of presence revealed within them, only when we allow ourselves to be touched by this experience of presence until it broadens our view of life and death, of happiness and suffering, of arising and decline. By reading and hearing these sonnets, we then learn to willingly yield to the transformation which unavoidably awaits us, and which is necessary to our own fulfillment.
The figure of Orpheus serves Rilke as the embodiment of this process of transformation. His beloved Eurydice died at the height of his happiness, on the day of their wedding. He followed her into the realm of the dead, hoping perhaps to bring her once more to life. But near his goal he lost her a second time, and returned to the light without her.
In her absence he now belonged to both realms, to both that of the living and to that of the dead. To the living the other realm remained inaccessible, so his songs were now more than they could bear. His songs now connected the two realms into a single whole. They celebrated the whole: how it includes both arising and decline in equal measure, how both life and death and the living and the dead interpenetrate each other within it until both realms resolve into one great song.
The maenads, the goddesses of revenge, who divided rather than united, wanted to tear this whole apart, and thus tore his living flesh apart.
But even this time, Orpheus did not remain in the realm of the dead, forever separated from the living. As a representative of all the dead, he returns to life any time anything comes into being. So we the living can see in everything that comes into being the work of those who came before us and with whom we are thereby connected. Through them, Orpheus comes back for a while, and with them he disappears again.
We who enter into this mystery, who are initiated into its secret, hear how Orpheus sings in everything that arises and passes on, how everything that arises and disappears transforms into a song in which the visible can be heard, and in which existence as a whole distills into a song of praise.
The song of Orpheus is existence, the whole of existence, without purpose, to please no one, pure gathered expression of being. Those who hear this song and open themselves to it will find their own existence becoming such a song as well.
Note to this Introduction by Bert Hellinger
This Introduction is a translated sampling of Mr. Hellinger’s many writings on Rilke. It has been assembled from three separate sources. The first section is from his recent book Gedanken Unterwegs, the entire middle section (beginning with “The Duino Elegies”) is taken from his spoken commentary on his first CD recording of the poems, and the last section (“Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus”) is from Entlassen Werden Wir Vollendet.