The Sonnets to Orpheus
Simon & Schuster 1985
Out of Print
Rilke’s The Sonnets to Orpheus represents one of the most amazing outpourings of concentrated poetic achievement in world literature. Written in conjunction with the great Duino Elegies, the cycle of sonnets was completed in less than a month. “These strange Sonnets,” wrote Rilke in 1923, “were no intended or expected work; they appeared, often many in one day (the first part of the book was written in about three days), completely unexpectedly… I could do nothing but surrender, purely and obediently, to the dictation of this inner impulse.”
The result was both a masterpiece of German literature and a landmark of modern poetry. As Mr. Mitchell writes in his introduction, “these poems were born perfect; hardly a single word needed to be changed. The whole experience seems to have taken place at an archaic level of consciousness, where the poet is literally the god’s or Muse’s scribe… Who can respond to it without a shudder of awe?”
Now Stephen Mitchell has rendered the entire cycle of 55 Sonnets into magnificent English poetry. Mr. Mitchell has emerged as the preeminent translator of Rilke for our time. His work is distinguished, sensitive, authoritative— and as close to the original German poetry as we are ever likely to get. “Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s most demandingly difficult and loveliest work,” said William Arrowsmith, “instantly makes every other rendering obsolete. No doubt about it, Rilke has at last found, in Mr. Mitchell’s version, the ideal poetics and the perfect translator.”
The present edition includes the original German text of each Sonnet facing its English translation; an introduction placing the poems in the context of Rilke’s life and exploring the imagery of the cycle; extensive notes to the poems; and translations of nine auxiliary sonnets and other fragments, which have never before appeared in English translation with the main text.
Although The Sonnets to Orpheus is out of print, the complete Stephen Mitchell translation can be found in Ahead of All Parting.
— William Arrowsmith
The gifts Mr. Mitchell brought to his earlier book he also brings to this one — an eye for a strong line; a sympathetic tact that allows him to supply a word from what is only suggested or to swell one of Rilke’s almost subliminal, one-word metaphors into a whole English phrase; the ability to reproduce the tone of common speech in Rilke; a knack for ingeniously simple versions of certain crucial Rilkean terms; and the use of off-rhymes to solve the formal problems of translating these “conjugated” sonnets. At times, Mr. Mitchell’s versions actually enhance the original… This is a beautifully designed, elegant and spacious volume, and it is splendidly annotated.
— Michael Hofmann, The New York Times Book Review
Stephen Mitchell’s translations are masterful re-creations of the original, giving both precise renderings of Rilke’s language and sensitive interpretations of his poetic intent.
An undisputed masterpiece by one of the greatest modern poets, translated here by a master of translation.
—Village Voice Literary Supplement