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Sonnets to Orpheus
How life and death transform each other
By Steven Martinovich
Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus was one of those unintended masterpieces that came out of nowhere and surprised even the artist. Living in Switzerland since mid-1921 Rilke had been struggling to complete another of his great works, Duino Elegies, one that had been begun nearly a decade earlier. It was the death of his daughter's childhood friend that threw the poet the following year into a tempest of inspiration. In a month he described as an "indescribable storm, a hurricane in my spirit" he completed the Elegies and produced the Sonnets.
The latest translation of Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus from his native German comes courtesy of Rice University English professor Edward Snow. With six Rilke translations under his belt, Snow may be the finest living English translator of the poet's work. His Elegies translation have justifiably pronounced "radiant" and a "worthy poetic" achievement and with Sonnets Snow's reputation as Rilke's foremost English translator should be permanently cemented.
Orpheus was the greatest musician and poet of Greek myth, making music with his lyre so beautiful that even inanimate objects would be enchanted. When his wife Eurydice was killed he traveled to Hades in an effort to bring her back. Thanks to the power of his music he was allowed to retrieve her but was told he was not to look backwards during the journey to the upper world. Unfortunately Orpheus does so and Eurydice was once again lost to him.
Like many poets before him, Rilke used the myth of Orpheus to explore death, a constantly changing world and the human condition. For Rilke, humanity simultaneously was a part of and transcended the Earth and that the entire range of human existence, whether pain or pleasure, life or death, spoke to our connection with what he referred to as the Whole. They are inextricably tied to each other. As Snow points out in his introduction to the work, "praise and lament (and by extension love and parting, desire and loss, life and death) are not in opposition but internal to one another, the latter not the negation of the former but in its matrix, the space in which it intensifies."
As skilled as Rilke was in exploring those grand metamorphosing experiences of humanity, Snow's translation shows he was also able to touch on those small intimacies of our lives. Rilke demonstrates that in the first half of Sonnet II.20:
Although Snow would argue otherwise, the Sonnets are not reader-friendly. Unlike those quoted above, much of Rilke's stanzas are thickets of symbolism. A reader could quite easily be led astray by some of the sonnets, including one notable example where a meaning changes when one learns that it is a dog being addressed, not the reader or some other third party.
Snow's translation unveils the transcendent beauty of Rilke's final masterpiece, a work carried out so skillfully that it could easily stand as a work of art on its own. Although Sonnets to Orpheus can be a difficult work for the reader to interpret, thanks largely to Rilke's habit of often making who is being addressed and who is doing the addressing a matter of conjecture, Snow has still managed to make the work largely accessible. This new translation, by which all others will surely be judged, not only celebrates the original vision of Rilke but the skill of Snow in capturing it.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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