Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus

by Bert Hellinger* 


      The Sonnets to Orpheus are the outcome of an unexpected storm of creativity that took hold of Rilke when he set out to complete his Duino Elegies.  The first part of the Sonnets, and a few weeks later the second part, were each written in a few days, as if taken down to inner dictation.  These sonnets are of such depth that it was only later and step by step that Rilke consciously grasped their meaning.

      To the reader and listener, the Sonnets to Orpheus are more than fulfilled poetry.  They unlock themselves only when we reach past their masterful form and their density of image and open to the experience of presence revealed within them, only when we allow ourselves to be touched by this experience of presence until it broadens our view of life and death, of happiness and suffering, of arising and decline.  By reading and hearing these sonnets, we then learn to willingly yield to the transformation which unavoidably awaits us, and which is necessary to our own fulfillment.

      The figure of Orpheus serves Rilke as the embodiment of this process of transformation.  His beloved Eurydice died at the height of his happiness, on the day of their wedding.  He followed her into the realm of the dead, hoping perhaps to bring her once more to life.  But near his goal he lost her a second time, and returned to the light without her.

      In her absence he now belonged to both realms, to both that of the living and to that of the dead.  To the living the other realm remained inaccessible, so his songs were now more than they could bear.  His songs now connected the two realms into a single whole.  They celebrated the whole: how it includes both arising and decline in equal measure, how both life and death and the living and the dead interpenetrate each other within it until both realms resolve into one great song.

     The maenads, the goddesses of revenge, who divided rather than united, wanted to tear this whole apart, and thus tore his living flesh apart. 

      But even this time, Orpheus did not remain in the realm of the dead, forever separated from the living.  As a representative of all the dead, he returns to life any time anything comes into being.  So we the living can see in everything that comes into being the work of those who came before us and with whom we are thereby connected.  Through them, Orpheus comes back for a while, and with them he disappears again.

      We who enter into this mystery, who are initiated into its secret, hear how Orpheus sings in everything that arises and passes on, how everything that arises and disappears transforms into a song in which the visible can be heard, and in which existence as a whole distills into a song of praise.

      The song of Orpheus is existence, the whole of existence, without purpose, to please no one, pure gathered expression of being.  Those who hear this song and open themselves to it will find their own existence becoming such a song as well.

*translated with permission from
Entlassen Werden Wir Vollendet (2001 Kösel Verlag GmbH & Co., München, Germany)
photo:  Rodin's portrait in marble of his wife
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