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Thanks to a friend who lets the Spirit move her, I now own a volume of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry. I’m enjoying lots of lovely morsels from In Praise of Mortality, translated by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy. Rilke wrote these Sonnets to Orpheus after the First World War left him bereft of words. He was paralyzed by the horror and destruction, but turned a corner in the effort to reconcile it with his vocation. As he saw it, a poet is called to praise, to “grasp and give shape to” his world, to name the world in gratitude for the goodness shining through it.
Here, the mythological Orpheus, prefiguring Christ in a form of preparatio evangelium, overcomes the darkness with the gift of his own life, and with his song. These sonnets, like the psalms, bear, through the art of poetry the tensions of real life in a dark but hope-filled world. Rilke’s joy in and union with Creation gave me a sense of his return to hope through the naming of the world that is poesis. “Tell me, Orpheus, what offering can I make to you, who taught the creatures how to listen?” Clearly, the appropriate offering for God’s gift of Creation is gratitude.
Speaking of a galloping horse, Rilke tells Orpheus “He embraced the distances as if he could sing them, as if your songs were completed in him.” Of forest animals he says, “…it was not fear or cunning that made them be so quiet, but the desire to listen.” Of an apple he writes, “…this sweetness which first condensed itself so that, in the tasting, it may burst forth and be known in all its meanings…” What a beautiful refusal to let an apple become an empty mental construct, or an impotent label. For Rilke, creation is actively calling to us – a super-Reality, and not an inert stage set for a meaningless play.
It’s impossible to do justice to poetry with excerpted lines, though I have many juicy favorites in this book. Since we are, ourselves, accosted in this day by the darkness that threatened to overwhelm this poet, I’ll give just one of his poems, whole, so you can sense the beauty of the rest.
“Only he who lifts his lyre
in the Underworld as well
may come back
to praising, endlessly.
Only he who has eaten
the food of the dead
will make music so clear
that even the softest tone is heard.
Though the reflection in the pool
often ripples away,
take the image within you.
Only in the double realm
do our voices carry
all they can say.”
(IX in Part One of Sonnets to Orpheus, in In Praise of Mortality.)
I hope that you who weekly eat the food of the dead, the Eucharist of the risen Christ, will take his image with you in the pool that is your interior being. There, His voice will carry, and through you be carried into the world. He is the double realm in whom we may live, move, and have being, and He has overcome death so that we may be free to praise Him endlessly. The heart of Christ, seen through Rilke’s reflections on Orpheus, “is a winepress destined to break, that makes for us an eternal wine.”
There’s so much more to love in this little volume, but go find your own, or make friends with someone who will think of you in dusty bookstores.