Many people have translated Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus over the years taking varying degrees of liberties with the text. Over the next several months I am going to attempt my own versions of The Duino Elegies and The Sonnets. I make no claims to be able to carry rhythm or rhyme from one language to another. My goal is to try to capture the meaning of the original in as simple a manner as possible without lapsing into revisionism.
Sonnets to Orpheus, First Series
There a tree ascends. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear!
And all was silent. But even in that concealment
a new beginning, hint and metamorphosis preceded.
Animals gather out of stillness from the clear,
disentangled forests, out of dens and nests;
and it was apparent their inner silence
arose not from cunning or fear,
but out of listening. Roar, cry, growl
seemed small in their hearts. And where before
hardly a hut stood to take this in,
a shelter built from their darkest desire
with an entrance of trembling timber,—
there you erected for them temples in hearing.
And barely yet a girl, and stepped forth
from this united bliss of song and lyre
and shone clear through her veil of spring
and made herself a bed in my ear.
And slept in me. And everything became her sleep.
The trees, which I always admired, this
tangible distance, the felt meadow
and every amazement which filled me with awe.
She slept the world. Singing god, how did
you perfect her so that she did not desire
to be awake first? See, she arose and slept.
Where is her death? O, will you invent
this motif further before your song consumes itself? -
Where does she sink to from me?… barely yet a girl …
A god can do it. But, tell me, how can
a man follow him through the narrow lyre?
His mind is forked. At the junction of two
heart arteries stands no temple for Apollo.
Singing, as you teach him, is not desire,
not the touting of another achievement.
Singing is Being. Easy for a god.
But when do we exist? And when does he
turn the earth and stars toward our being?
Young man, it means nothing that you love, even
if your mouth is pushed open by your voice,-- learn
to forget that you sing out. It trickles away.
True singing is a different kind of breath.
A breath around nothing. A gust in god. A wind.
O you tender ones, step at times
into the breath that is not meant for you;
let it part at your checks,
behind you it trembles, then joins again.
O you blessed ones, o you who are healed,
in whom the beginning of hearts appears.
Bows for arrows and the arrow’s targets,
your tear-stained smile always glistens.
Don’t be afraid of suffering, the weight,
give it back to the earth to lift:
the mountains are heavy, so are the seas.
Even as children you planted trees
that before long became too heavy for you to bear.
But the air… but the spaces….
Erect no monument. Just let the rose
bloom each year to remind us of him.
Because it’s Orpheus. His metamorphosis
to this and that. We should not strive
after any other name. Once and for all
it’s Orpheus if there’s song. He comes and goes.
Isn’t it enough that now and then he can
outlive the bowl of roses by a few days?
O how he must pass away so you’ll understand!
And even he too was afraid of his passing.
While his word transcends the moment,
he’s already there, where you can’t accompany.
The lyre’s lattice does not constrain the hands,
And he obeys, even as he trespasses.
Is he a native? No, out of both
realms his vast nature grew.
The expert who wants to bend willow branches
must first know the root of the willow.
When you go to bed, don’t leave bread and milk
on the table; they attract the dead—
But under the meekness of the eyelid
let him, the conjurer, mix
their looking into all that’s seen;
and let the magic of fumaria and rue
be as true to him as the clearest chord.
Nothing for him can spoil the genuine image;
be it from graves, be it from rooms,
he praises ring, bracelet and jug.
To praise, that's it. Called to praise
he emerged like ore from the stone’s
silence. His heart, o perishable wine press,
one of man’s inexhaustible wines.
Never does the voice break down into dust
when seized by the divine example.
All becomes vineyard, all becomes grapes,
ripened in his sensitive south.
Neither mold in the crypts of kings,
nor a shadow that falls from the gods,
punishes him for the praising lie.
He is one of the enduring messengers
who still hold bowls of praiseworthy fruit
far into the doors of the dead.
Only in the space of praise may the lament
walk, the nymph of the weeping spring,
watching over our rainfall
so that it will be clear on the same rock
which supports the gates and the alters. -
See, around her tranquil shoulders the feeling
dawns that she was the youngest
in mind among the siblings.
Rejoicing knows, and longing allows, -
Only the lament still learns; with girlish hands
she counts the ancient evils nightlong.
But suddenly, askew and unpracticed,
she holds a constellation of our voice
in the heavens, unclouded by her breath.
Only he who already raises the lyre
may anticipate repaying
the endless praise.
Only he who ate the poppy
of the dead
will never again forget
their softest tone.
Though the reflection in the pond
may often blur before us:
know the image.
Only in the double realm
do voices become
eternal and meek.
You, who never leave my senses,
I salute you, antique sarcophagi,
whom the happy waters of Roman days
flows through like a meandering song .
Or those so open like the eye
of a gladly awakening shepherd
- inside full of stillness and honeysuckle -
abuzz with enraptured butterflies;
all who are spared doubt,
I salute you, the reopened mouths
who already knew the name of silence.
Do we know it, friends, do we not?
Both shape the indecisive hour
in the face of man.
Look at the heavens. Is there no constellation called "Rider?"
Because this notion is strangely ingrained in us:
this earthly pride. And another one,
whom he drives and reins in and that carries him.
Is it not so, pursued and then restrained,
this sinewy nature of being?
Way and turning. Yet just a nudge instructs.
New expanses. And the two are one.
But are they? Or don't both believe in
the way they take together?
Nameless they separate for table and pasture.
Even the starry joining deceives.
Still, let’s be happy for a while
to believe the figure. That’s enough.
Hail the spirit which may connect us;
for we live truly in figures.
And with tiny steps the hours pass
alongside our actual days.
Without knowing our true place,
we act as if we actually interacted.
Antennae feel antennae,
and the empty distances borne...
Pure tension. O music of the powers!
Isn’t it through casual interchange
that each disturbance is diverted from you?
Even when the farmer cares for and works
where the seeds transform themselves into summers,
he never does enough. The earth just gives.
Plump apple, pear, and banana,
gooseberry... All of these speak
in the mouth of death and life... I guess...
read it in the countenance of a child
who tastes them. This comes from far.
Do they slowly grow nameless in the mouth?
Where otherwise words existed, find discoveries
from of the flesh of fruit, astonishingly freed.
Dare to say what you name the apple.
This sweetness which first concentrates
around, in tasting gently intensifies,
to become clear, awake, and transparent,
double meaning, sunny, earthy, native: -
O experience, feeling, joy, - immense!
We’re involved with flower, grape leaf, fruit.
They don't speak just the language of the years.
Out of darkness a colorful display rises
and perhaps has the gloss of jealousy
of the dead, who strengthen the soil.
What do we know of their part in this?
It has long been their way to fertilize
the clay with their free marrow.
Now ask yourself only: do they do it gladly? …
Does this fruit, a work of heavy slaves,
thrust up clenched to us, to their masters?
Are they the masters, who sleep beside the roots,
and grant us out of their abundance
this hybrid between brute strength and kisses?
Wait ... that taste ... it's already flown.
... just a little music, a stamping, a humming:
girls, in their warmth and silence,
dance the savor of fruit experienced!
Dance the orange. Who can forget,
how drowning in itself, it struggles
to deny its sweetness. You’ve possessed it.
It deliciously transforms itself into you.
Dance the orange. The warmer landscape,
cast it out of you, so it ripely lights up
in the air of home! Radiant, reveal
fragrance after fragrance! Create a kinship
with the pure, resistant rind,
with the juice that happily fills!
You, my friend, are alone, because ...
With words and pointing fingers, we
gradually lay claim to the world,
even its weakest, most precarious part.
Who points to a smell with fingers? -
But of the powers which threaten us,
you feel many ... You know the dead,
and are frightened before their spell.
See, now we must bear the bits
and pieces together, as if they were the whole.
To help you will be hard. Above all:
don’t plant me in your heart. I would grow too fast.
But I'll guide my master's hand and speak:
Here. This is Esau in his fur.
At bottom the ancient, tangled
root of all things
that have grown, the hidden source
they’ve never seen.
Helmet and hunter’s horn,
sayings of elders,
men in brotherly rage,
women like lutes ...
Pressing branch on branch,
not one of them free ...
One! o ascend ... o ascend ...
But still they break.
However, this one at the top
bends itself into a lyre.
Do you hear the New, Master,
droning and throbbing?
to extol it.
No hearing's much good
in all this ruckus,
but still that machine part
wants to be praised now.
See, the machines:
how they spin and avenge,
and disfigure and weaken us.
Their power also comes from us,
they, without passion,
operate and serve.
The world also changes rapidly
like the shape of clouds,
all perfect things finally
fall back to the oldest.
Over the flux and change,
wider and higher,
your prelude still endures,
god with the lyre.
We don't understand suffering,
love hasn’t been learned,
and what's veiled to us in death
is never revealed.
Only the song above the land
blesses and celebrates.
But you, Master, o what should I dedicate to you?
Say it, you who taught the creatures to hear.
My remembrance of one spring day,
it’s dusk, in Russia -, a horse...
Across from the village the white horse came,
a rope on one front fetlock,
to be alone at night on the meadow;
how the curls of his mane beat
in time with his high spirits
during the crudely restrained gallop.
How the fountains of stallion blood leaped!
He felt the vastness, and whether!
he sang and he heard - the cycle of your myth
was sealed in him.
His image: I consecrate.
Spring has returned again. The earth
is like a child who knows poems;
many, so many! ... For the discomfort
of long study she wins the prize.
Her teacher was strict. We liked the white
in the beard of the old man.
Now, when we ask her what blue
and green are called: she knows, she knows!
Earth, on vacation, you’re lucky, play
with the children. We want to catch
you, happy earth. The happiest win.
O, which teacher taught her all those things,
and what’s long been imprinted on the roots
and entangled stems: she sings, she sings!
We’re the drivers.
But the measure of time
seems like a trifle
in what always remains.
All that hurries
will be over already;
unless the Lasting
initiates us first.
Boy, don’t spend
your courage on speed,
not in the pursuit of flight.
All is at rest:
darkness and light,
bloom and book.
O only then, when flight
will no longer rise
into the silent heavens
for its own sake, self-reliant,
so that in unobstructed profile,
like a successful instrument,
it may play darling of the winds,
confidently swaying and slim -
not until a pure Where
of swelling machines
prevails over youthful pride
will that one, overhasty from victory,
closing in from the distances,
be what he alone flies.
Should we reject our age-old friendship,
the great undemanding gods, because
the hard steel we produce doesn't know them,
or seek them suddenly on a map.
These enormous friends, who receive the dead,
do not mingle anywhere near our gears.
We hold our banquets far away -, our baths,
secluded, and we always outdistance
their slow messengers. Lonelier now, one completely
dependent on the other, without knowing each other,
we no longer blaze a trail with beautiful meandering,
but as straightness. Only in boilers
do the former fires burn and lift the ever larger
hammers. But we dwindle in strength, like swimmers.
But you, now you, I knew you like a flower
whose name I can’t recall, still I’ll remember
once more and show you to them, wrested from us,
bright playmate of the unconquerable cry.
Dancer first, who suddenly paused, body full
of hesitation, as if her youth were cast in bronze;
mourning and listening -. Then, from the great creators
music fell into her transformed heart.
Sickness was near. Already seized by shadows, the blood
pulsed, darkened, but like a fleeing suspect,
it burst forth in its natural spring.
Again and again, interrupted by darkness and collapse,
it gleamed earthly. Until after terrible throbs
it stepped through that hopelessly open door.
But you, divine one, still resounding to the end
when the swarms of spurned maenads attacked,
drowned out their shrieks with Order, you beautiful god,
as amid the destroyers your edifying song ascended.
None could demolish your head or your lyre,
despite how they wrestled or raged;
and touching you, all the sharp stones they hurled
at your heart became gentle and gifted with hearing.
Finally they tore you apart, driven by vengeance,
but your sound lingered in lions and cliffs,
in trees and birds. You still sing there.
Oh you prodigal god! You infinite clue!
Only because hatred finally scattered your dismembered body
are we now hearers and a mouth for nature.
© 2007 by Jim Doss