“Hearing Rilke” / Essay

The Tower of Muzot, where Rilke completed the Duino Elegies and wrote the Sonnets to Orpheus in 1922

An Essay on the Poet Rainer Maria Rilke

This essay appeared in the Easter 2021 issue of Zeitschrift Stil, a publication of the Sections for Beautiful Sciences (Literary Arts & Humanities), Visual Arts, and Performing Arts of the Free School for Spiritual Science; Dornach, Switzerland.

Follow this link for information about Stil. This quarterly magazine of literature, art, and the performing arts is published in German. Due to the high cost of production, it cannot be offered as a PDF at the present time.

A Buzz from the Garden
As promised in the earlier meeting update for April 10, 2021, I have translated my essay “Hearing Rilke” (“Rilke im Gehör”) into English, and I offer it to the community as a project arising from the work of the local Fair Oaks group of the Section for Literary Arts & Humanities.

As I worked on this translation, I sat on a bench in the backyard next to a beehive. A few days ago, much to our surprise and delight, a large swarm of honeybees settled in the garden. We put them in a hive, and now they are contentedly and visibly humming about. I told the beekeeper that I took this arrival of the bees as a favorable omen, considering the themes and interests of Rilke.


Hearing Rilke

By Bruce Donehower, Ph.D.

In recent decades, Rainer Maria Rilke has become one of the more popular poets in America. Many American poets have created translations of Rilke’s best-selling verse. Translated editions of his letters can be found among inspirational and New Age titles. That most European of modernist poets—a poet firmly in a secular humanist literary tradition that began with Petrarch—has found a home and a fresh expression in the current American idiom.

Rilke’s highly personal shaping of the German language is a challenge. As with all poetry, and especially with Rilke, much of the meaning lies in the music of language, in the magic of sound. In addition, Rilke often uses quite strict poetic forms, such as the sonnet, in which the rhyme scheme plays a demanding and defining role.

The Unborn Silence

In many ways, Rilke’s poetry attempts to transcend the boundaries of language and point us toward a still point of unborn silence. And such silence, as anyone might notice these days, is a rare “friend” indeed. The “many distances” that lie between our harried personalities and such silence feel vast. One of the strengths of Rilke’s verse, and perhaps one reason it survives the process of translation so well and why it “speaks” so intimately to strangers in a foreign language, lies, I think, in the proximity of that poetry to silence. And, by extension, to death. Rilke is a poet whose words lead back to a “Fruitful Darkness”—a phrase used by American Zen Roshi Joan Halifax as the title for one of her books. It is a term meant to point us to silence as the ground of being—a silence that precedes our coming into the world or our going out of it. The many readers, including those who love Rilke in translation and know him only in that guise, find Rilke’s poetry a spiritual gift. In reading Rilke, they come to a remembrance of themselves—that is to say, a remembrance of spirit and beauty similar to the experience Plato describes in the Phaedrus: they feel a greater sense of breath and beauty; they acquire wings. These wings of the soul are nourished on the silence that surrounds and inhabits Rilke’s poems and letters. It is a silence that many readers feel is sacred or spiritual, while at the same time it is, miraculously, a silence that is very much of this embodied world. It is not a holy silence of some imagined sacred place, metaphysical or “spiritually removed” from our earth. It is as deeply personal and authentic as breathing in or breathing out.

“Breath, you invisible poem! Back and forth, back and forth, exchanging in and out world space and Being. Balance of this and balance of that in which I happen. Wave on the waters of whom I am; the perfect amount of all possible oceans—you have it all. How many worlds within worlds are inside me? The many winds are like my son. Air, do you know me? So full of the many places that once were mine, you slippery rind.”
(Sonnets to Orpheus, Part 2, Sonnet 1; all poem translations to English in this essay are © by Bruce Donehower, 2021)

Many readers experience that the Sonnets to Orpheus surprise them, just as they surprised Rilke in 1922. This cycle of fifty-five sonnets, written down in a rush of inspiration, becomes even more surprising when we consider their intimate proximity to the Duino Elegies. Many of us know quite well the story of Rilke’s ten years of wandering and waiting that preceded the writing of the sonnets and the completion of the Elegies in Muzot. While much beautiful poetry was indeed produced during those prior ten years, Rilke found the decade barren. He endured it. He waited. Much like an ancient prophet, Rilke lived those years in anticipation of a voice. The Elegies famously begin with such a voice, which he first heard in the winter of 1911 – 1912 in Schloss Duino, a castle on the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic. Here is the famous description of that moment when silence spoke. This description of the moment comes from Marie von Thurn und Taxis.

“Outside a fierce bora [wind] was blowing, but the sun was shining, the sea shone blue, as if spun over with silver. Rilke descended to the bastions, which, facing east and west from the sea, were connected by a narrow path at the foot of the castle. The cliffs there drop steeply, probably about 200 feet deep, into the sea. Rilke was walking up and down, completely lost in thought, since the answer to the letter [he had just received] was occupying him very much. Suddenly, in the midst of his pondering, he stopped . . . For it was to him as if, in the roar of the storm, a voice had called out to him: ‘Who, if I cry out, will hear me from the orders of the angels? . . . ‘ Listening, he stopped. ‘What is that? ‘ He half whispered. . . ‘What is it that’s coming? ‘ He took his notebook, which he always carried with him, and wrote . . .”
(Rainer Maria Rilke: Briefwechsel mit Marie von Thurn und Taxi, 2 volumes, Frankfurt 1986)

Words like these touch on the mystical, and mysticism has become a much discredited and strenuously interrogated word these days, as perhaps it should be, given our historical context. Even those who call themselves practicing meditators recoil from the term “mystical.” The contemporary rhetoric of meditation has become more attentive to a technical terminology, and in a sense, it is more practical and utilitarian. It has gained much attention by all this—all to the good. But it has also lost something. From a literary point of view, the “lost” finds home in that broad category of literature we call romantic—also a largely discredited if not ridiculous term. Rilke, for example, has an affinity with the early-romantic poet of the blue flower Novalis—they have in common a poetry of silence, darkness, love, and death. And while Rilke certainly abides in the modernist period, his spiritual “mystical” moments are of an older vintage. I quote, as one example, from Erlebnis, written in 1912.

“It might have been little more than a year ago when something wonderful happened to him in the garden of the castle, which sloped rather steeply down to the sea. Following his habit of walking up and down with a book, he had come to lean into the shoulder-high fork of a shrubby tree, and immediately he felt so comfortably supported and so richly nestled in this posture that, without reading, he lingered completely immersed in nature in an almost unconscious contemplation. Gradually his attention awoke to a feeling he had never known before: it was as if from within the tree almost imperceptible vibrations passed over into him . . . At the same time, anxious to always account for the slightest thing, he urgently asked himself what was happening to him, and almost immediately found an expression that satisfied him, saying to himself: he had come to the other side of nature.”
(Rainer Maria Rilke: Briefe aus Muzot 1921—1926, edited by Ruth Sieber—Rilke and Carl Sieber, Leipzig 1940)

Orpheus Sings

“Da stieg ein Baum.” There can be no doubt that Rilke experienced the creation of the sonnets and the completion of the elegies in the three weeks of February 1922 as a spiritual event. In the silence of his self-isolation in Muzot, these sonnets were written down in a whirlwind “savage” rush of inspiration, one after the other, almost without correction. They were heard, or perhaps a better word but one more mystical, “received.” Rilke called them a “Sendung.” The “hearing” of these sonnets had been preceded by long years of patience, practice, discipline, and attunement. I use the word attunement now in its musical sense.

“Music comes from silence” is the title of a book by pianist András Schiff. It is an apt expression for the time in which the sonnets were written. Music comes from silence, but musical expression rests on ardor of discipline and sensitive patience and perseverance of craft. In Rilke’s moment of attunement to Orpheus, the preceding ten years had disciplined his mind to such a moment of hearing. The stages on Rilke’s path, such as his translation of Michelangelo’s Sonnets and The Sonnets from the Portuguese of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and his long study of Petrarch, Petrarch’s ascent of Mount Ventoux—all these were at hand, for example, when the “Sonnets spoke.” But it was silence, abiding in the fruitful darkness of isolation, that bore and made possible the advent of the orphic voice.

This revaluation of silence is a most significant experience for many Rilke readers today. Especially so, one might argue, in our Age of Universal Chatter. I believe it is an experience that makes Rilke’s poetry so compelling. We intuit that ground of silence in the German or in the many excellent translations of his poetry into English.

But no translation, no matter how masterful, can reproduce the unique word music and word magic of Rilke’s original poetic German. The sonnet form enhances this musical quality, actually. The sonnet, crafted through long tradition in the West, has proven sturdy for many themes, but most notably it often functions as a love poem of praise and personal reflection. Its rhyme, verse structure, and meter suit it to musical treatment quite well. It has affinities in many respects with the sonata, as a form whose limitation empowers artistic freedom in the humanist tradition. While the Elegies storm the heights of the metaphysical, the sonnets, as befitting the transparency of music, praise. Praise (“Rühmung”) is, of course, one of the leitmotifs in the sonnets. In an earlier poem Rilke spoke of the poet as one who rhymes and praises, first and foremost. Consider these lines from the following untitled poem, written about two months before the Sonnets in Muzot.

O tell me, poet, what do you do? “I praise.” But the deadly and the monstrous, how do you endure it? “I praise.” But the unnamed, the nameless, how do you name it, poet? Eh? “I praise.” What gives you right to do that, to speak the truth in costume and mask? “I praise.” And the silence and the days so ever-restless that befriend you like star and storm? How can that be? “Because I praise.”
(Sämtliche Werke, II, 249; 20 Dezember 1921; all poem translations to English in this essay are © by Bruce Donehower, 2021)

And now, with this poem in mind, listen again to Part 1 Sonnet 8 in the Orpheus sequence.

“Only in the realm of praising can lament go forth, the nymph of the weeping spring, watchful of our defeat, that it may shine clear on the rock that bears the gate and the altars. — See, around her calm shoulders comes soon the feeling that she be the youngest of the siblings in the heart. Jubilation knows, and yearning stands steadfast — only lament frets it yet; with maiden fingers she counts the old evils all night long. But suddenly, weird and unpracticed, she lifts into the sky, unclouded by her breath, our voice, as figuration of stars.” 

(Sonnets to Orpheus, Part 1, Sonnet 8; all poem translations to English in this essay are © by Bruce Donehower, 2021)

Rilke’s younger contemporary, the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal, also spoke of this problem of praising, which, as Hamlet famously lamented, is a problem of “words words words. ” Hofmannsthal made this complaint in his story “A Letter,” the looming backdrop of which is that magus so prodigal of words, Shakespeare. The dilemma, as Hofmannsthal put it in early 20th century Vienna:

“Everything fell apart for me into parts, the parts again into parts, and nothing could be encompassed by a single concept. The individual words swam around me; they ran into eyes that stared at me and into which I must stare again: Vortices they are, into which looking down makes me dizzy, which turn inexorably, and through which one comes into the void.”
(Hugo von Hofmannsthal: Collected Works. Volume II. Ed. by Herbert Steiner, Frankfurt 1976)

This void, however, is not silence. It is nullity. Nullity and silence are not identical. While nullity may be experienced as a death of language, as a sterile end game—this experience is not death in the spiritual sense that Novalis and Rilke use the word. Nullity is an experience of aridity. The intimacy of silence and death, for example in the poetry of Novalis, in Hymns to the Night, is a quite different order of spiritual experience, some might argue. Rilke stands close to Novalis in that respect, as I have said. Each poet has found a center point in the Orphic myth. It is this inward centering within the fruitful darkness of silence that paradoxically gives birth to song and builds that “temple in the ear” with which the sonnet cycle begins. The tree that arises so suddenly—that is so suddenly “there”—has resonances with the cross, certainly, but it is good to remember that Orpheus and the Redeemer have often exchanged roles in a cultic or theatrical way. In a pure poetic sense, they shape-shift mythic identities, as many inscriptions and talismans of the ancient world tell us.

Rilke had strong reservations about Christianity. These arose from what he perceived as historical Christianity’s antagonism toward and flight from our embodied world. He expressed these reservations in many letters, such as the Letters to a Young Poet written at the time of the Sonnets—and elsewhere. But the sonnets themselves are free of the polemics of theology. They are more original, musical, and pure. “O pure arising! O Orpheus sings!” In these sonnets, Rilke’s essential gesture is one of praise and transformation—“Wink und Wandlung,” as he says at the beginning in sonnet 1. Music is always arriving and departing, coming and going at the same moment in time. It “hovers.” (“Hovering” was one of Novalis’s favorite words, by the way.) Music must always already transform itself, die, and become continuously, to be the thing it is. It is always on the move; “for abiding is nowhere.” In our local Section meetings in Fair Oaks, we found the same intuition expressed by Hermann Hesse, Rilke’s contemporary, in The Glass Bead Game, where Hesse speaks about music’s “serenity and resolution, its quality of being constantly present, its mobility and unceasing urge to hasten on . . .” (Hermann Hesse, Richard Winston & Clara Winston. The Glass Bead Game. Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/the-glass-bead-game/id587475534)

Dying and becoming

Homelessness, many have suggested, is a characteristic experience on this path of dying and becoming. This shelter-less existential condition should be read in a poetic, literary sense. Rilke, as I said, lived his life as a wanderer. It speaks to the character of his poetic discipline that he was able to perdure. I don’t mean to put an overly polished, privileged late-romantic gloss upon this. The homelessness of which I speak (a term quite significant in 20th-century philosophical rhetoric and literature) is an admitted poverty of spirit that honestly confesses to things as they are at hand, that acknowledges a patience to sit and to wait. Or as one says in the current jargon of the American Zen tradition, in reference to meditation: it is the hopeful discipline to “sit down and shut up.” Such patience is a disciplined poverty of spirit that listens in respect to Being. It is a question, or expectation, or attitude of wonder or astonishment that anything “is.” Some have argued that this attitude of wonder and astonishment is the founding moment of philosophy, its essential Gemüt.

“Spring has returned. The earth is like a child who knows some poetry; quite a bit, actually. Lots . . . Complainers, rejoice. You can have your toys. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Those silver hairs in the old man’s beard – LoL, priceless! Now, if the test throws up the question: Green or Blue? She can do it! She knows! O lucky earth, free at last! Have fun with the kids. We’ll smooch you up, you silly earth. The silliest wins. O what the Teacher doth teacheth! – the many, in tiny tedious roots and corpuscular stems: she sings! She sings!”
(Sonnets to Orpheus, Part 1, Sonnet 21; all poem translations to English in this essay are © by Bruce Donehower, 2021))

Poetry and music

I titled this essay “Hearing Rilke”—as opposed to, say, “Reading Rilke” or “Writing Rilke” or “Translating Rilke” or “Thinking About Rilke”—because I have responded to the Sonnets to Orpheus primarily as a musician. I play and compose music for the classical guitar. Rilke’s musical treatment of the German language impressed me first and foremost—more so than any philosophies or literary histories hidden in the verse. When I tried to find a similar musical experience in the translated poems, I was almost always somewhat disappointed and unsatisfied—not always, but often. I began to wonder how I could transfer my experience of Rilke’s original musical language to the classical guitar, and so I made some attempts to “translate” the sonnets in this way. But, of course, the words need to be heard. I knew, however, that I wanted these words to be recited, not sung. That was very clear from the beginning. I felt that if the verses were sung, it would add a different architecture, and I wanted to stay in Rilke’s ““Unterschlupf . . . dessen Pfosten beben.” I am not a trained composer, but I am a poet, and I found that my familiarity with writing poetry was very helpful for this musical task. The two worlds of my artistic pursuits, poetry and music, came together.

For many years, my wife and I have hosted what we call “New Moon Salons” as part of our activities in the Section for Literary Arts & Humanities. Prior to Covid, these salons were intimate gatherings of friends at our home, supplemented by food and conversation. In the era of Covid, they continue in video and on Zoom. We have tried to host them several times a year. The salons often include poetry and music. I wanted to share my Rilke experiments with my salon friends, but there was a problem. Very few of my salon audience understand enough German to follow the recited text in the performance. (And even Germans have trouble understanding what Rilke is saying, I am told!) Therefore, my audience had only half an experience. On the one hand, I was happy about this because, as I said, I wanted first and foremost to emphasize the unique musicality of Rilke’s German. But on the other hand, most audience members also wanted to have an English translation in the program notes; they wanted to understand the meaning of the words, as in opera. So, to solve this problem, and to avoid copyright infringement for the performance videos I that I frequently post, I was forced to make original translations of the poems so that my audience could at least understand the English meaning of what my wife Marion was reciting. Involuntarily, then, I was thrown out onto the minefield of translation—that no man’s land of tremendous risk. I found, however, that in this way I was forced to make progress, to come closer to Rilke, at least on a personal level.

This solution seemed to work, at least for my listeners. The German recitation, along with the music composed for the sonnet and played on classical guitar, allowed my friends who don’t know German to hear the musicality in Rilke’s verse, and the program notes completed the experience intellectually. The guitar, of course, has Orphic connotations—the history of the guitar extends to ancient Greece—and I thought it was a good match for the sonnets. I’m not suggesting that my music does anything more than satisfy my personal desire to know Rilke’s poetry better, but the performances point people to the experience of “hearing” that I think is so important in the sonnet cycle—and, moreover, to the mystery of silence from which the music arises. With this experience of “Hearing Rilke,” the audience can read the sonnet in translation, and from there they can begin their own personal journey with Rilke and Orpheus. That was my hope.

Finally, in addition to these translations, I always include in the program notes quotations from Rilke’s letters and a short biography of the poet. And I always read the famous quotation from the letter he wrote in 1925 to his Polish translator Withold Hulewicz, in which we find these sentences with which I conclude this essay.

“We are the bees of the invisible. We frantically plunder the visible of its honey, to accumulate it in the great golden beehive of the invisible.”
(Rainer Maria Rilke: Briefe aus Muzot 1921—1926, edited by Ruth Sieber—Rilke and Carl Sieber, Leipzig 1940)


More About “The Rilke Project”

As mentioned in the essay, my wife Marion and I have been at work for a few years now to perform and record some of Rilke’s sonnets accompanied by my original music for the classical guitar. Here is the link to the ongoing Rilke Project, which began in 2018. We hope to expand this soon from recorded video to live salon performances offered via livestreaming technology.




“Wartet . . . , das schmeckt . . . Schon ists auf der Flucht.
Wenig Musik nur, ein Stampfen, ein Summen—:
Mädchen, ihr warmen, Mädchen, ihr stummen,
tanzt den Geschmack der erfahrenen Frucht!

Tanzt die Orange. Wer kann sie vergessen,
wie sie, ertrinkend in sich, sich wehrt
wider ihr Süsssein. Ihr habt sie besessen.
Sie hat sich köstlich zu euch bekehrt.

Tanzt die Orange. Die wärmere Landschaft,
werft sie aus euch, dass die reife erstrahle
in Lüften der Heimat! Erglühte, enthüllt

Düfte um Düfte! Schafft die Verwandtschaft
mit der reinen, sich weigernden Schale,
mit dem Saft, der die glückliche füllt!”


English Translation by Bruce Donehower

Hold it!
That tastes good.
Ah! Already on the wing . . .
Only a tune, some stamping, a little hum –:

Girls, warm bodied,
Girls, heavy tongued,
Dance the dance of the ripened fruit!
Dance the orange.

Who can forget her?
How she — drowning in flesh —
Teased such denial of her sweetness . . .

You own her!
She’s yours!
Dance the orange.

Let come from you the tropical landscape.
Shine in the ripeness.
Breathe! Bring it home! Glow!
Strip naked to scent —
Breathe it in all.

Bind the shy shuddering purity of skin
With the sap that overflows
And makes it good.


“Dance the Orange” Translation © Bruce Donehower, 2023