Orpheus: A Version of Rilke's Die Sonette an Orpheus
Rainer Maria Rilke was one of the twentieth century's great lyric poets. Born in Prague in 1875, he was educated in Germany and later in his life moved to Switzerland, where he wrote his two last works, the Duino Elegies and Sonnets to Orpheus, both published in 1923. For poets, Orpheus represents the ultimate journey into life and death - the mythical poet who could enchant any living thing - even the beasts and the trees. In this, his fifth collection of poems, Don Paterson, himself a master of the sonnet form, offers a radiant and at times distressing version of the great work. Since his work was translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender in the 1930s, Rainer Maria Rilke(1875-1926) has never lost his significance for English-speaking poets. In their various acts of translation, poets such as Auden, Lowell and Randall Jarrell or - more recently - Jo Shapcott, Michael Hofmann and Seamus Heaney, have all testified to Rilke's continuing and primary importance. Don Paterson now joins this company with an entirely new complete translation of the Sonnets to Orpheus. Published in 1923, near the end of his life, the 55 Sonnets to Orpheus were completed in less than a month and famously described by Rilke as 'perhaps the most mysterious - in the way they arrived and entrusted themselves to me - the most enigmatic dictation I have ever received: the whole first part was taken down in a single breathless act of obedience, between the 2nd and 5th of February 1922, without one word being in doubt or having to be changed'. The result was both a masterpiece of German literature and a landmark of modern poetry, pondering the dismembered fate of Orpheus in a belated world - the mythical poet and son of Apollo who could enchant beasts and birds and spirits with his song, and who might have brought his Eurydice back from the dead, had he not turned to look before she set foot in the world of the living. Don Paterson's translation is an act of intensely sustained creative attention, which has produced new poems of remarkable independence. At the same time - and for the first time - the lucidity of this great sequence has been honoured, as well as Rilke's intuition that 'it was the task of transforming the sonnet, of picking it up and, as it were, taking it along on the run, without destroying it, that was in this instance my particular problem and my project'.
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