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4.34 of 5 stars 4.34  ·  rating details  ·  1,404 ratings  ·  51 reviews
Sonnets to Orpheus is Rainer Maria Rilke's first and only sonnet sequence. It is an undisputed masterpiece by one of the greatest modern poets, translated here by a master of translation, David Young.

Rilke revived and transformed the traditional sonnet sequence in the Sonnets. Instead of centering on love for a particular person, as has many other sonneteers, he wrote an e
Paperback, 127 pages
Published February 9th 1993 by Shambhala (first published 1922)
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I have no words to adequately describe this cycle, just open-mouthed awe.

Art. Death. Essential identity. The possibility of Being. I am blown away.
Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus were written, remarkably, in a few weeks in a kind creative overflow after finishing The Duino Elegies, a group of ten poems that took Rilke ten years to write. Hearing these poems in German is a memorable experience (even if you don't know the language). They are little technical masterpieces, with very strong rhythmic structures, and the rhyme of a classical (Petrarchian) sonnet. Of course, all the structure and form is lost in translation, but they still read remark ...more
In A Portrait of the Artist, Joyce (or the stand-in for his youth, at least) says that art should invoke a stillness in one’s being. This collection of poetry exemplifies such an invocation. It’s occasionally almost Emersonian in its description of nature and sensuous life, but far more serene, gentle, inclusive. Its effect is cumulative, rather than based on the power of individual verses, but I’ll toss up a favorite quote anyway:

…A few notes of music, a tapping, a faint
hum—: you girls, so wa
Sara Berger
I found the second part to be particularly beautiful.

As sometimes the hurriedly nearer leaf
catches the
authentic stroke from the master's
hand: so mirrors often take into themselves
the sacred single smile of girls.

However it killed me to look at the German on the left and not be able partake in the rhyming. Damn my latin ear! I found German so difficult to learn I gave it up for Italian. Now I think I have a reason to take it up again.
This book was bought for me on one of the most romantic and fulfilling evenings of my short life. Fresh from the Met's "Orfeo ed Euridice" wandering into a bookshop in the East Village, and returning home to a mind-gasm of reading aloud with someone I care dearly for. This collection is perfect for anyone who has loved or lost. "She slept the world..." This collection will continue to delight and haunt me for as long as I live.
A more literal, sparer translation than the Stephen Mitchell, good for students of German and, if less beautiful, truer to the succinctness of the original. Especially recommended is Sonnet #2, though there is plenty of heart-crushing material to be found here.
I haven't stopped reading this book since I received it as a gift in the spring of 2006. Rilke is arguably the greatest poet of the 20th century. He confirms Holderlin's great words that poetry points to being itself.
A classic, certainly. But I always feel like I'm missing out on most of the music when I read poetry in translation.
There is this cemetery I used to go for a walk. It never felt like a cemetery, but a huge park full of tall trees and bizarre and beautiful sculptures and lazy cats. One day I came back there with a friend and accidentally we crashed into a funeral. A hearse, a woman crying, my friend saying that we better go, we better go, but he was too cold to feel any of that. I just felt guilty to be there, to be here, to be alive. I still wash my hands compulsively as to remove the scent of a candle and th ...more
Korin McGinty
I really enjoyed this a lot. It's one of those books to pull out during the in-between-times when nothing else is quite working reading or writing wise and you just want something else to focus on because that's the thing that'll jog everything else back into place. I'm definitely going to read "Letters to a Young Poet" at some point.
Oh, this is strange, passionate, poetry that is concerned with music, death,love, life, ecstacy--but trying to get at those things thru language. You have to read this before you die.
I'm writing this primarily for myself, apologies.

Orpheus as 'recipient' of the works can be considered quite literally, and the lyric form acting upon such originary and definitive musical identities as well. Yet music here flexes beyond its traditional boundaries, in that (natural) sound is constitutive of said music (sort of a John Cage avant la lettre, except -- and a major exception this is -- we are dealing with the forest and its animal denizens, not the city and its occurrences).

I don't know German, but I love bilingual editions (and not because I believe the translation is inferior or some such nonsense). I've at least heard enough German to approximate some of the sound, and the recurrent words/themes help. I like that mund (mouth) is similar to the Spanish mundo/mundial (world). I also in general like how grammar structures from the source-language translate into novel juxtapositions of words in the target-language. It's hard for me to say if it's Rilke or the langua ...more
Upon rereading Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus in a one hour sitting, well, except for the two midnight breaks, both being rather heroically flawed attempts to rock my little one to sleep, I found new appreciation for the pure music of the singing parts (the flowing sequence of the sonnets) in relation to the spirited, transforming whole. Here are my highlights this second time around as the child continues to cry into the night:

(from Part One)

Sonnet 21

Spring has come again. The earth
Wow, just wow. I started off thinking that this collection of sonnets paled in comparison to the Duino Elegies, but reading the last nine poems this morning really drove the entire point home. The whole book builds towards the final sixth of its length, and when you put it all together, it's like magic. Seriously powerful and quite heady -- it's just about the most engrossing poetry I've ever read. I even came in late to work because I got so into it and had to finish reading the whole thing thi ...more
Wolfgang Price
The poems were very enjoyable to read; but this edition was just awful. The translator was not the finest, and his notations were snarky and sometimes just plain mean about the works themselves. After he stated of one poem "If fact it was stupid to have written this for this series of poems" I stopped reading his notes, having gotten fed up. I've read better translations of some of these works, and enjoyed them much better without the sarcasm and insults being hurled at the author left and write ...more
J.M. Hushour
I read quite a bit of poetry but I started working backwards which means that I have some pretty stark gaps in my well-roundedness. One of these gaps was Rilke's Sonnets: owned for years, never cracked open. Now, after having inundated myself with what should probably be rightfully seen as heirs to his poetic legacy (a good deal of latter 20th century poetry!) I was not particularly taken with his work.
Yes, there is a certain stylistic charm, probably unusual for the time, but not unusual by cur
The introduction suggests these poems were all produced in a matter of days,but the notes reveal there's more to the story. These were ideas and experiences simmering within Rilke over many years, finally boiling over as he concentrated on the death of a young acquaintance.

But the achievement is no less astounding. To produce one good sonnet is no mean feat ... to produce 55 good sonnets -- some of them great --in such a short time is astounding.

As usual, I regret that I'm unfamiliar with the l
In his notes on translating the Sonnets to Orpheus (I skipped the 90-page introduction, thanks all the same), Willis Barnstone claims his rendering of the Sonnets lets Rilke "sing". If that's true, it's the kind of drunk and desperate singing that Bobcat Goldthwait's character does at the end of Scrooged. I know that translating poetry is an excruciating and often thankless job, but having recently finished Will and Mary Crichton's version of Duino Elegies, I know it can be done better.

4 stars f
Coming back to this volume has been interesting. It has a magical force to it--the speaker and the presumed audience seem to shift in delicate ways, although the presumed structure is Rilke writing to Orpheus, and there is a sense that Rilke is channeling some deep and wise force in the universe, with surprising and delightful incantations resulting: "Dance the orange. Who can forget it,/ drowning it itself, how it struggles against its own sweetness." "The water is strange and the water is your ...more
William S.
I read this over about a month in German as an exercise. I don't read much poetry, so I don't know how well my judgement goes and my german is not perfect, but definitely good enough to get enough of an understanding of some of these poems. Some were absolutely shocking and breathtaking for me, some were meh. I might come back and change my rating system as I usually rate in my mind in comparison, and I have little to compare, not knowing poetry well, and not knowing much in German literature we ...more
I knew I wanted this book as soon as I read the introduction and the first two sonnets. I bought the Kindle edition, and then of course removed the DRM encryption and converted it to EPUB format. After finishing it, I'll say this: While there were a few verses I really loved, I was overall a bit disappointed with it. Rilke deserves my admiration for his talent and for the inspiration from Beyond which he obviously had in order to write these sonnets.
I have skipped around a lot with this one. I have received mixed opinions about whether or not to read them in order so I went for the skipping. The ones I have read I have liked very much.

A guest poet who visited my college read a few of them in German which is what inspired me to read them in the first place. If you can find a reading of the sonnets in German, the difference in sound is quite interesting. English rhyme versus German rhyme.
Sonnets, sonnets, sonnets, how you sing to me...
I admit, right off the bat, that I am not a fan of poetry. I try and try, but I just can't get in to it.

This book was a gift from someone special who wanted me to enjoy poetry. Instead I find some of the most absurd comparisons and metaphors for love and lovers that I've come across.

I'll read it again, to try to find what makes this sing, but I have little hope for me and my reading of poetry.

Wandelt sich rasch auch die Welt
wie Wolkengestalten,
alles Vollendete fällt
heim zum Uralten.

Über dem Wandel und Gang,
weiter und freier,
währt noch dein Vor-Gesang,
Gott mit der Leier.

Nicht sind die Leiden erkannt,
nicht ist die Liebe gelernt,
und was im Tod uns entfernt,

ist nicht entschleiert.
Einzig das Lied überm Land
heiligt und feiert
i would give this 4.5 stars if it was a choice but if i knew german and read it in german i would probably have given it 5 stars so w/e. rilke mentioned a column that lasted after the building it had supported no longer existed, and as i read that part i happened to be sitting on a column of exactly that sort. funny stuff.
D. E.
I'm reading the Norton 1962 bilingual edition.


...O wie unfasslich entfernt.

Schicksal, es misst uns vielleicht mit des Seienden Spanne,
dass es uns fremd erscheint;
denk, wieviel Spannen allein vom Madchen zum Manne,
wenn es ihn meidet und meint.
i tried my best to read this in german, but well, i reverted to the english. rilke is somewhat out-there for me. there are places where his language is really beautiful. more often than not, it seems ordinary in these sonnets.
The introduction in the version I read was almost as long as the poems. I quite liked the poem about the tree. Many made me reflect. I realized it's been quite a while since I have read poetry.
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  • Harmonium
  • The Selected Poems
  • Praise
  • Poems of Paul Celan
  • Averno
  • Poems of Akhmatova
  • Poet in New York
  • Collected Poems, 1912-1944
  • Selected Poems and Fragments
  • If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
  • Selected Poems
  • Illuminations
  • Selected Poems
  • Hymns to the Night (English and German Edition)
  • The Shadow of Sirius
  • Renascence and Other Poems
  • Personæ: The Shorter Poems
  • Men in the Off Hours
Rainer Maria Rilke is considered one of the German language's greatest 20th century poets.

His haunting images tend to focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety — themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets.

He wrote in both verse and a highly lyrical prose. His two mos
More about Rainer Maria Rilke...
Letters to a Young Poet The Selected Poetry Duino Elegies The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to God

Share This Book

“Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower

Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,

what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.

In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.

And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.”
Sonnets To Orpheus, Part Two, XII

Want the change. Be inspired by the flame
where everything shines as it disappears.
The artist, when sketching, loves nothing so much
as the curve of the body as it turns away.

What locks itself in sameness has congealed.
Is it safer to be gray and numb?
What turns hard becomes rigid
and is easily shattered.

Pour yourself like a fountain.
Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking
finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.

Every happiness is the child of a separation
it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, becoming a laurel,
dares you to become the wind.
More quotes…