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Three sonnets to Orpheus by Rilke

Poet dedicated them to the memory of his daughter’s dead friend

1

There the tree rises. Oh pure surpassing!

Oh Orpheus sings! Oh great tree of sound!

And all is silent, And from this silence arise

New beginnings, intimations, changings.

From the stillness animals throng, out of the clear

Snapping forest of lair and nest;

And thus they are stealthy not from cunning

Not from fear

But to hear. And in their hearts the howling, the cry,

The stag-call seem too little. And where before

Was but the rudest shelter to receive these,

A refuge fashioned out of darkest longing

Entered, tremulo, the doorpost aquiver, —

There You have fashioned them a temple for their hearing.

21

But what offering can I consecrate to you, oh Master?—

You, who have bestowed hearing upon all creatures?

—My memory of one spring day,

In the evening, in Russia, —a stallion ...

Running alone from the hamlet across to us

The pale horse, a tethering-peg dangling from his fetlock,

To spend a night solitary in the meadow;

How he shook his tangled mane,

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Tossed in time to his haughty step,

Despite his clumsily impeded gallop.

How the fountains leapt up of his charger’s blood!

He intuited the vastnesses and, oh from that

He sang! He heard! —yes, your cycle of legends

Was embraced within him.

His image: that I offer.

25

And now I would remember you once more, show you forth,

Oh you whom I knew like a flower

Of which I didn’t know the name, oh spirited-away,

Exquisite playmate of an unascendable scream.

A dancer first who suddenly, her body wholly hesitating,

Set. As if one had cast her young being in bronze;

Grieving, alert for sounds. —Then, from the high suasion,

Into her altered heart sank the gift of music.

The illness was near. Already imprisoned by the shadows,

Her darkening blood pressed forward nevertheless,

Impelling itself as if suspiciously fugitive into its natural Spring.

Again and again, reprieved from darkness and from ruin,

It glistened, perishable. Until, after a dreadful rapping,

It entered the open, desolate door.

—Translated by Robert Temple

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was an Austrian poet and novelist who is widely considered one of the most significant writers in the German language. His poems offer a blend of mysticism and Romanticism written in an expressive and often idiosyncratic style. Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies are among his best-known works. The Sonnets were written after Rilke heard of the death of Wera Oukama Knoop (1900-1919), a friend of Rilke’s daughter Ruth, and he dedicated them to her memory.

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1

There the tree rises. Oh pure surpassing!

Oh Orpheus sings! Oh great tree of sound!

And all is silent, And from this silence arise

New beginnings, intimations, changings.

From the stillness animals throng, out of the clear

Snapping forest of lair and nest;

And thus they are stealthy not from cunning

Not from fear

But to hear. And in their hearts the howling, the cry,

The stag-call seem too little. And where before

Was but the rudest shelter to receive these,

A refuge fashioned out of darkest longing

Entered, tremulo, the doorpost aquiver, —

There You have fashioned them a temple for their hearing.

21

But what offering can I consecrate to you, oh Master?—

You, who have bestowed hearing upon all creatures?

—My memory of one spring day,

In the evening, in Russia, —a stallion ...

Running alone from the hamlet across to us

The pale horse, a tethering-peg dangling from his fetlock,

To spend a night solitary in the meadow;

How he shook his tangled mane,

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Tossed in time to his haughty step,

Despite his clumsily impeded gallop.

How the fountains leapt up of his charger’s blood!

He intuited the vastnesses and, oh from that

He sang! He heard! —yes, your cycle of legends

Was embraced within him.

His image: that I offer.

25

And now I would remember you once more, show you forth,

Oh you whom I knew like a flower

Of which I didn’t know the name, oh spirited-away,

Exquisite playmate of an unascendable scream.

A dancer first who suddenly, her body wholly hesitating,

Set. As if one had cast her young being in bronze;

Grieving, alert for sounds. —Then, from the high suasion,

Into her altered heart sank the gift of music.

The illness was near. Already imprisoned by the shadows,

Her darkening blood pressed forward nevertheless,

Impelling itself as if suspiciously fugitive into its natural Spring.

Again and again, reprieved from darkness and from ruin,

It glistened, perishable. Until, after a dreadful rapping,

It entered the open, desolate door.

—Translated by Robert Temple

Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was an Austrian poet and novelist who is widely considered one of the most significant writers in the German language. His poems offer a blend of mysticism and Romanticism written in an expressive and often idiosyncratic style. Sonnets to Orpheus and Duino Elegies are among his best-known works. The Sonnets were written after Rilke heard of the death of Wera Oukama Knoop (1900-1919), a friend of Rilke’s daughter Ruth, and he dedicated them to her memory.

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