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Sonnets to Orpheus

Sonnets to Orpheus

5.0 1
by Rainer Maria Rilke, Willis Barnstone (Translator)

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Written with astonishing rapidity in two weeks of February 1922, Sonnets to Orpheus is a series of fifty-five brilliant and affirmative songs.


Written with astonishing rapidity in two weeks of February 1922, Sonnets to Orpheus is a series of fifty-five brilliant and affirmative songs.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
With acclaimed versions of The Duino Elegies and Uncollected Poems already in print, Edward Snow's historic rendering of the Rilke oeuvre gets one step closer to completion with Sonnets to Orpheus. Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) composed the first set of 26 sonnets just before completing the monumental elegies, and the second 29 just after. Rendered here without rhyme and with German facing text, Snow makes clear why the sonnets are "Sayable only by the singer./ Audible only by the god." Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus (published 1923 in German) rank with the most distinguished works of modern poetry. Written in an extraordinary burst of inspiration, these poems reveal a vision of ``a mode of being in which all the ordinary human dichotomies (life/death, good/evil) are reconciled in an infinite wholeness.'' Stephen Mitchell's translations are masterful re-creations of the original, giving both precise renderings of Rilke's language and sensitive interpretations of his poetic intent. This fine dual-language edition is highly recommended. Ulrike S. Rettig, German Dept., Hervard Univ.
From the Publisher
“An undisputed masterpiece by one of the greatest modern poets translated here by a master of translation”—Voice Literary Supplement

Product Details

Shambhala Publications, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.40(w) x 8.42(h) x 0.60(d)

Read an Excerpt

Sonnets to Orpheus

By Rainer Maria Rilke, Edward Snow

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2004 Rainer Maria Rilke
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7267-7


Erster Teil / First Part


    Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
    O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr!
    Und alles schwieg. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung
    ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.

    Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren
    gelösten Wald von Lager und Genist;
    und da ergab sich, daß sie nicht aus List
    und nicht aus Angst in sich so leise waren,

    sondern aus Hören. Brüllen, Schrei, Geröhr
    schien klein in ihren Herzen. Und wo eben
    kaum eine Hütte war, dies zu empfangen,

    ein Unterschlupf aus dunkelstem Verlangen
    mit einem Zugang, dessen Pfosten beben, —
    da schufst du ihnen Tempel im Gehör.


    A tree arose. O pure transcendence!
    O Orpheus sings! O tall tree within the ear!
    And all was silent. Yet in that silence
    pulsed new genesis, new signaling, new change.

    Creatures of stillness thronged out of the clear
    disentangled forest, from nest and lair;
    and it wasn't cunning, wasn't heed or fright
    that put such softness in their step,

    but listening. Bellow, shriek, and roar
    seemed small inside their hearts. And where once
    there'd scarcely been a hut to take this in,

    a hidden refuge made of darkest longing
    with an entranceway whose braces shook, —
    you built temples for them in their hearing.


    Und fast ein Mädchen wars und ging hervor
    aus diesem einigen Glück von Sang und Leier
    und glänzte klar durch ihre Frühlingsschleier
    und machte sich ein Bett in meinem Ohr.

    Und schlief in mir. Und alles war ihr Schlaf.
    Die Bäume, die ich je bewundert, diese
    fühlbare Ferne, die gefühlte Wiese
    und jedes Staunen, das mich selbst betraf.

    Sie schlief die Welt. Singender Gott, wie hast
    du sie vollendet, daß sie nicht begehrte,
    erst wach zu sein? Sieh, sie erstand und schlief.

    Wo ist ihr Tod? O, wirst du dies Motiv
    erfinden noch, eh sich dein Lied verzehrte? —
    Wo sinkt sie hin aus mir? ... Ein Mädchen fast ...


    And almost a girl it was and came forth
    from this glad unity of song and lyre
    and shone brightly through her springtime veils
    and made herself a bed within my ear.

    And slept in me. And all things were her sleep.
    The trees I forever marvel at, these
    palpable distances, the deep-felt meadows,
    and an entire life's astonishments.

    She slept the world. Singing god, how did you
    so perfect her that she never once
    had need to be awake? Look, she arose and slept.

    Where is her death? Ah, will you introduce
    that theme before your song expires? —
    I can feel her drifting off ... to where? ... A girl almost ...


    Ein Gott vermags. Wie aber, sag mir, soll
    ein Mann ihm folgen durch die schmale Leier?
    Sein Sinn ist Zwiespalt. An der Kreuzung zweier
    Herzwege steht kein Tempel für Apoll.

    Gesang, wie du ihn lehrst, ist nicht Begehr,
    nicht Werbung um ein endlich noch Erreichtes;
    Gesang ist Dasein. Für den Gott ein Leichtes.
    Wann aber sind wir? Und wann wendet er

    an unser Sein die Erde und die Sterne?
    Dies ists nicht, Jüngling, daß du liebst, wenn auch
    die Stimme dann den Mund dir aufstößt, — lerne

    vergessen daß du aufsangst. Das verrinnt.
    In Wahrheit singen, ist ein andrer Hauch.
    Ein Hauch um nichts. Ein Wehn im Gott. Ein Wind.


    A god can do it. But how, tell me, could
    a man follow him through the narrow lyre?
    His mind divides. Where two heart-roads cross
    there can be no temple for Apollo.

    Singing, as you teach it, is not desire,
    not the courting of some end to be attained.
    Singing is Being. Easy, for a god.
    But for us, when are we? And when does he

    cast all the earth and stars upon our lives?
    It's not, youth, when you're in love, even if
    then your voice forces open your mouth, —

    learn to forget those songs. They elapse.
    True singing is a different breath.
    A breath serving nothing. A gust in the god. A wind.


    O ihr Zärtlichen, tretet zuweilen
    in den Atem, der euch nicht meint,
    laßt ihn an eueren Wangen sich teilen,
    hinter euch zittert er, wieder vereint.

    O ihr Seligen, o ihr Heilen,
    die ihr der Anfang der Herzen scheint.
    Bogen der Pfeile und Ziele von Pfeilen,
    ewiger glänzt euer Lächeln verweint.

    Fürchtet euch nicht zu leiden, die Schwere,
    gebt sie zurück an der Erde Gewicht;
    schwer sind die Berge, schwer sind die Meere.

    Selbst die als Kinder ihr pflanztet, die Bäume,
    wurden zu schwer längst; ihr trüget sie nicht.
    Aber die Lüfte ... aber die Räume ...


    O you tender ones, step now and then
    into the breath that takes no heed of you:
    it will part as it brushes your cheeks
    and then tremble behind you, united again.

    O you who are blissful, you who are whole,
    you who seem the beginnings of hearts.
    Bows for arrows and arrows' aim, through tears
    your smile will glow more eternal.

    Don't be afraid to suffer — take your heaviness
    and give it back to the earth's own weight;
    the mountains are heavy, the oceans are heavy.

    Even the trees you planted as children
    have long grown too heavy; you couldn't bear them.
    But the breezes ... and the spaces ...


    Errichtet keinen Denkstein. Laßt die Rose
    nur jedes Jahr zu seinen Gunsten blühn.
    Denn Orpheus ists. Seine Metamorphose
    in dem und dem. Wir sollen uns nicht mühn

    um andre Namen. Ein für alle Male
    ists Orpheus, wenn es singt. Er kommt und geht.
    Ists nicht schon viel, wenn er die Rosenschale
    um ein paar Tage manchmal übersteht?

    O wie er schwinden muß, daß ihrs begrifft!
    Und wenn ihm selbst auch bangte, daß er schwände.
    Indem sein Wort das Hiersein übertrifft,

    ist er schon dort, wohin ihrs nicht begleitet.
    Der Leier Gitter zwängt ihm nicht die Hände.
    Und er gehorcht, indem er überschreitet.


    Erect no monument. Allow the rose
    to unfurl each year on his behalf.
    For it's Orpheus. His metamorphosis
    in this, in that. We needn't bother

    with other names. Once and forever
    it's Orpheus, when there's song. He comes and goes.
    Isn't it grace enough when now and then
    he stays on a few days, outlasting the bowl of roses?

    But he must disappear for you to grasp it!
    Though he himself feared vanishing.
    Even as his word transforms the here and now,

    he's already in that other realm, where you can't follow.
    The lyre's snare doesn't trap his hands.
    And he obeys, even as he overreaches.


    Ist er ein Hiesiger? Nein, aus beiden
    Reichen erwuchs seine weite Natur.
    Kundiger böge die Zweige der Weiden,
    wer die Wurzeln der Weiden erfuhr.

    Geht ihr zu Bette, so laßt auf dem Tische
    Brot nicht und Milch nicht; die Toten ziehts —.
    Aber er, des Beschwörende, mische
    unter der Milde des Augenlids

    ihre Erscheinung in alles Geschaute;
    und der Zauber von Erdrauch und Raute
    sei ihm so wahr wie der klarste Bezug.

    Nichts kann das gültige Bild ihm verschlimmern;
    sei es aus Gräbern, sei es aus Zimmern,
    rühme er Fingerring, Spange und Krug.


    Is he native to this realm? No,
    his wide nature grew out of both worlds.
    They more adeptly bend the willow's branches
    who have experience of the willow's roots.

    When you go to bed, don't leave bread or milk
    on the table: it attracts the dead —.
    But may he, this quiet conjurer, may he
    beneath the mildness of the eyelid

    mix their bright traces into every seen thing;
    and may the magic of earthsmoke and rue
    be as real for him as the clearest connection.

    Nothing can mar for him the authentic image;
    whether he wanders through houses or graves,
    let him praise signet ring, gold necklace, jar.


    Rühmen, das ists! Ein zum Rühmen Bestellter,
    ging er hervor wie das Erz aus des Steins
    Schweigen. Sein Herz, o vergängliche Kelter
    eines den Menschen unendlichen Weins.

    Nie versagt ihm die Stimme am Staube,
    wenn ihn das göttliche Beispiel ergreift.
    Alles wird Weinberg, alles wird Traube,
    in seinem fühlenden Süden gereift.

    Nicht in den Grüften der Könige Moder
    straft ihm die Rühmung Lügen, oder
    daß von den Göttern ein Schatten fällt.

    Er ist einer der bleibenden Boten,
    der noch weit in die Türen der Toten
    Schalen mit rühmlichen Früchten hält.


    Praising, that's it! One appointed to praise,
    he came forth like ore out of the stone's
    silence. His heart, O ephemeral winepress
    for a vintage eternal to man.

    Never does his voice die or turn to dust
    when the divine moment seizes him.
    All becomes vineyard, all becomes grape,
    ripened in his sentient South.

    Not mold in the vaults of kings
    nor any shadow falling from the gods
    can give his songs the lie.

    He is one of the messengers who stay,
    holding far into the doors of the dead
    bowls heaped with fruit to be praised.


    Nur im Raum der Rühmung darf die Klage
    gehn, die Nymphe des geweinten Quells,
    wachend über unserm Niederschlage,
    daß er klar sei an demselben Fels,

    der die Tore trägt und die Altäre. —
    Sieh, um ihre stillen Schultern früht
    das Gefühl, daß sie die jüngste wäre
    unter den Geschwistern im Gemüt.

    Jubel weiß, und Sehnsucht ist geständig, —
    nur die Klage lernt noch; mädchenhändig
    zählt sie nächtelang das alte Schlimme.

    Aber plötzlich, schräg und ungeübt,
    hält sie doch ein Sternbild unsrer Stimme
    in den Himmel, den ihr Hauch nicht trübt.


    Only in the realm of Praise may Lament
    range, water nymph of the tear-fed stream,
    watching over our cascade to ensure
    that it strikes clearly on the same rock

    that supports the gates and altars. —
    Look, around her quiet shoulders dawns
    the feeling that among the siblings
    of the heart, she must be the youngest.

    Jubilation knows, and Longing has admitted, —
    only Lament still learns; with slender hands
    she counts for nights on end the ancient curse.

    Yet suddenly, maladroit and artless,
    she lifts a constellation of our voice
    into a sky not clouded by her breath.


    Nur wer die Leier schon hob
    auch unter Schatten,
    darf das unendliche Lob
    ahnend erstatten.

    Nur wer mit Toten vom Mohn
    aß, von dem ihren,
    wird nicht den leisesten Ton
    wieder verlieren.

    Mag auch die Spieglung im Teich
    oft uns verschwimmen:
    Wisse das Bild.

    Erst in dem Doppelbereich
    werden die Stimmen
    ewig und mild.


    Only he who has also raised
    his lyre among shadows
    may find his way back
    to infinite praise.

    Only he who has eaten with the dead
    from their stores of poppy
    will never again lose
    the softest chord.

    And though the pool's reflection
    often blurs before us:
    Know the image.

    Only in the double realm
    do the voices become
    eternal and mild.


    Euch, die ihr nie mein Gefühl verließt,
    grüß ich, antikische Sarkophage,
    die das fröhliche Wasser römischer Tage
    als ein wandelndes Lied durchfließt.

    Oder jene so offenen, wie das Aug
    eines frohen erwachenden Hirten,
    — innen voll Stille und Bienensaug —
    denen entzückte Falter entschwirrten;

    alle, die man dem Zweifel entreißt,
    grüß ich, die wiedergeöffneten Munde,
    die schon wußten, was schweigen heißt.

    Wissen wirs, Freunde, wissen wirs nicht?
    Beides bildet die zögernde Stunde
    in dem menschlichen Angesicht.


    You, who have never left my feelings,
    I greet you, antique sarcophagi,
    through which the cheerful water of Roman days
    flows like a meandering song.

    Or you others so open, like the eye
    of a happy awakening shepherd,
    — full of silence and flowering bee balm —
    from which flit ecstatic butterflies;

    all that's been wrested from doubt
    I greet, the mouths opened again
    after knowing well what silence means.

    Do we know, friends, do we not know?
    Both mold the hour of hesitation
    into the contours of the human face.


    Sieh den Himmel. Heißt kein Sternbild "Reiter"?
    Denn dies ist uns seltsam eingeprägt:
    dieser Stolz aus Erde. Und ein Zweiter,
    der ihn treibt und hält und den er trägt.

    Ist nicht so, gejagt und dann gebändigt,
    diese sehnige Natur des Seins?
    Weg und Wendung. Doch ein Druck verständigt.
    Neue Weite. Und die zwei sind eins.

    Aber sind sie's? Oder meinen beide
    nicht den Weg, den sie zusammen tun?
    Namenlos schon trennt sie Tisch und Weide.

    Auch die sternische Verbindung trügt.
    Doch uns freue eine Weile nun,
    der Figur zu glauben. Das genügt.


    Scan the sky. Is no constellation named "Horseman"?
    For this is strangely imprinted in us:
    this earthly pride. And another
    who spurs and reins it and whom it bears.

    Isn't it thus, pursued and then broken in,
    this sinewy nature of our being?
    Path and pivot. At a touch: understanding.
    New distances. And the two are one.

    But are they? Or does neither want
    the path they trace together? Table and trough
    ineffably divide them from the start.

    Even the starry union can deceive.
    Yet for now let's allow ourselves
    to believe in the figure. That suffices.


    Heil dem Geist, der uns verbinden mag;
    denn wir leben wahrhaft in Figuren.
    Und mit kleinen Schritten gehn die Uhren
    neben unserm eigentlichen Tag.

    Ohne unsern wahren Platz zu kennen,
    handeln wir aus wirklichem Bezug.
    Die Antennen fühlen die Antennen,
    und die leere Ferne trug ...

    Reine Spannung. O Musik der Kräfte!
    Ist nicht durch die läßlichen Geschäfte
    jede Störung von dir abgelenkt?

    Selbst wenn sich der Bauer sorgt und handelt,
    wo die Saat in Sommer sich verwandelt,
    reicht er niemals hin. Die Erde schenkt.


    Hail to the Spirit that can connect us;
    for truly we live our lives in figures.
    And with tiny paces the clocks march along
    beside our own, individual day.

    Without knowing our true place,
    we somehow act in genuine rapport.
    Antennae feel antennae,
    and the empty distance fills with ...

    Pure tension. Music of the Powers!
    Does not our endless commerce
    deflect from you each interruption?

    However much the farmer frets and labors,
    he never reaches where the seed
    turns into summer. The earth bestows.


    Voller Apfel, Birne und Banane,
    Stachelbeere ... Alles dieses spricht
    Tod und Leben in den Mund ... Ich ahne ...
    Lest es einem Kind vom Angesicht,

    wenn es sie erschmeckt. Dies kommt von weit.
    Wird euch langsam namenlos im Munde?
    Wo sonst Worte waren, fließen Funde,
    aus dem Fruchtfleisch überrascht befreit.

    Wagt zu sagen, was ihr Apfel nennt.
    Diese Süße, die sich erst verdichtet,
    um, im Schmecken leise aufgerichtet,

    klar zu werden, wach und transparent,
    doppeldeutig, sonnig, erdig, hiesig —:
    O Erfahrung, Fühlung, Freude —, riesig!


    Ripe apple, blackberry and banana,
    nectarine ... These all speak
    death and life into the mouth ... I feel ...
    Read it in the features of a child

    who's tasting them. This comes from far.
    Does all grow slowly nameless in your mouth?
    Where words once were, discoveries flow,
    set free from the fruit's flesh, amazed.

    Dare to say what you call "apple."
    This sweetness that first condenses, thickens,
    and then, finely sublimed in the taste,

    grows clear, awake, transparent,
    double-sided, sunny, earthly, native —:
    O knowing, feeling, happiness —, immense!


    Wir gehen um mit Blume, Weinblatt, Frucht.
    Sie sprechen nicht die Sprache nur des Jahres.
    Aus Dunkel steigt ein buntes Offenbares
    und hat vielleicht den Glanz der Eifersucht

    der Toten an sich, die die Erde stärken.
    Was wissen wir von ihrem Teil an dem?
    Es ist seit lange ihre Art, den Lehm
    mit ihrem freien Marke zu durchmärken.

    Nun fragt sich nur: tun sie es gern? ...
    Drängt diese Frucht, ein Werk von schweren Sklaven,
    geballt zu uns empor, zu ihren Herrn?

    Sind sie die Herrn, die bei den Wurzeln schlafen,
    und gönnen uns aus ihren Überflüssen
    dies Zwischending aus stummer Kraft und Küssen?


    We puzzle over flower, vine-leaf, fruit.
    They speak not just the language of the year.
    A thing of succor rises from the dark
    and its hues may gleam with the jealousy

    of the dead, those who strengthen the earth.
    What do we know of their share in it?
    It has long been their practice to enrich
    the loam with their own free marrow.

    The question is: do they do it willingly? ...
    Does this fruit, a work of sullen slaves,
    push through clenched to us, to their masters?

    Or are they the masters, sleeping among
    the roots and granting us from their profusion
    this hybrid of mute strength and kisses?


Excerpted from Sonnets to Orpheus by Rainer Maria Rilke, Edward Snow. Copyright © 2004 Rainer Maria Rilke. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

What People are Saying About This

Stanley Plumly
“An artful and sensitive translation of this most elusive of Rilke’s poetry…the thing that Rilke made is once again alive to us, all of it…Young has subtracted…the most persistent problem with other translations: he does not let the music of the form haunt the poem. There is no rhetorical ‘rounding-out,’ in either Pound’s fine phrase, emotional slither. The reader feels that Young has successfully ‘inhabited’ the form, found a correlative language.”
From the Publisher
"Willis Barnstone has been appointed a special angel to bring 'the other' to our attention, to show how it is done. He illuminates the spirit for us and he clarifies the unclarifiable. I think he does this by beating his wings."—Gerald Stern

"Willis Barnstone's versions of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus are daring, passionate, and beautiful. The choices he makes between beauty, song, and literalness serve a cause Rilke would approve. Of all translations of the sonnets, Barnstone's songs tame the animals while serving Rilke's great art."—Stanley Moss, author of A History of Color

Meet the Author

C.F. MacIntyre (d.1967) was well known as a translator. In addition to works by Rilke, he translated Goethe's Faust and many of the French symbolists: Nerval, Baudelaire,Verlaine, Corbière, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Laforgue, and Valéry. His volumes of original poems include The Black Bull, Cafés and Cathedrals, and Poems.

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Sonnets to Orpheus 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Go to the poetry section of any major bookstore and you will find numerous versions of Rilke¿s profound and captivating Sonnets to Orpheus, plus many other volumes of his. Besides Dante, Neruda, García Lorca and Rumi, he is one of the world poets most translated into English. Many good versions have been produced and I have bought and enjoyed reading most of them in the past, except some of the earlier, more crabbed versions from last century. The version I remember liking the most was David Young¿s, which, unfortunately, I do not have at hand for comparison. Since I don¿t know German and can¿t access the original, which must be a marvel, I have to trust my instincts concerning an English version, and my instincts tell me to trust Willis Barnstone, one of our foremost translators. This new volume, published by Shambala, includes a revision of Mr. Barnstone¿s earlier translation of the Sonnets published in To Touch the Sky, by New Directions Press, 1999. Mr. Barnstone has not made any major changes to that earlier translation, though he has gone through and made important fine-tunings which give some poems more fluency at certain points than they previously possessed, though the earlier versions read quite smoothly. These changes may not seem important or even that noticeable to the general reader, but they are to the translator and to the more specialized reader. Translation, especially literary translation, is always a work in progress, unless abandoned by the translator. Fortunately, Mr. Barnstone chose not to abandon this work yet, and so we have a newer, brighter version of the Sonnets to enjoy. Another benefit of this volume is the extensive, generous and compassionate introduction. Mr. Barnstone has over the years become a master of the introductory essay, besides being a master translator and poet. The introduction in this volume is the best I¿ve read to date about Rilke. Other introductions have been excellent and informative, but this one provides the most lucid overall picture of Rilke, his life and his art that I can imagine short of reading some of the book-length biographies Mr. Barnstone used as resources. For those interested in the art of translation, a small essay about the tradition of translating the Sonnets in English follows the Introduction. Initially, Mr. Barnstone generously acknowledges the fine work done in the past, starting with J.B. Leishman in 1936 and C.F. MacIntrye in 1940--those earlier 'crabbed' versions I mention above--which makes me want to seek them out again, if only to understand where they have been successful. He then goes on to explain his approach: making the 'literal literary.' This is vastly more difficult than it sounds, and calls for a craftsman of profound skill and experience. To be literal, but unmusical, which is what I understand Mr. Barnstone to mean when he uses the term 'literalistic,' is to deprive the reader of the poem, though it may give a more accurate understanding of the 'meanings' of the words. As Mr. Barnstone points out, when translating poetry, one must attempt the impossible: to make the translation sing in the target language while staying as accurate as possible to the original. It is an impossible task--a quixotic task, to say the least--,especially when attempting to approximate original meter and rhyme scheme, but like many attempts at the impossible, it can at times yield felicitous results, and one of these is Mr. Barnstone¿s Sonnets to Orpheus. If you or one of your poetry-loving friends haven¿t encountered this amazing, multi-layered and influential book yet, Mr. Barnstone¿s volume makes an excellent starting point. If you have read other translations, this one will serve to either re-kindle your interest or inspire you to do