The sonnets to Orpheus

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The sonnets to Orpheus are a cycle of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke . He wrote down the 55 sonnets in February 1922 as in the "dictation" after he had finished the many years of work on the Duinese elegies . Both volumes of poetry are closely related to the author. The sonnets are divided into two parts, but the order of the poems does not always follow the order in which they were composed.

Rilke describes his work in the subtitle as "a tomb for Wera Ouckama Knoop ". Except for two sonnets (I, 25th and II, 28th), which are obviously addressed to the young dancer, it is difficult to find references to the early deceased, with whose mother Rilke was on good terms. Even the myth of Orpheus , to which the poems are addressed, is invoked again and again in allusions and forms the basis of the sonnets, but does not play the major role that the title suggests.


A sonnet consists of four stanzas. Two quartets are followed by two thirds. The sonnet tradition is not as pronounced in German literature as, for example, in English and Italian. A model for Rilke could have been The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire . Dressing poems in whole cycles was quite a contemporary phenomenon. Works by Stefan Georges , Arthur Rimbaud and Stéphane Mallarmé would be comparable . Rilke hardly adheres to formal criteria such as those formulated by August Wilhelm Schlegel . The rhyme structure, like the metric and cadence system, is constantly varied. By frequently using enjambements , Rilke even breaks through the structure of the verse. Difficulties in understanding the text cause pronouns that are not always clearly related. This is how the third sonnet begins in the first part:

A god can do it. But how tell me to / man to follow him through the narrow lyre? / His meaning is dichotomy. There is no temple for Apollo at the intersection of two / heart paths .

It is left to interpretation whether “his mind” relates to God or man.


The work is founded on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice . The main sources for this are the Metamorphoses of Ovid and, to a lesser extent, Virgil's Georgica . The principle of the Ovidian metamorphoses can also be found in and especially between the sonnets. While the first sonnet speaks of the Orphic song, the forest and the animals, in the second sonnet this "transforms" into a girl ( and it was almost a girl and emerged from this one happiness of song and lyre ). In the course of the second sonnet, the focus shifts from the girl to the world ( she slept the world ).

By referring to the original singer and poet Orpheus, Rilke also implies a poetological self-reflection. Often it is about the conditions of poetry, the character of art: song is existence. Easy for God. / But when are we? (I, 3). A solution to this problem can be found in the fifth sonnet of the first part, where it says: once and for all it's Orpheus when he sings (I, 5). This means that poetry always has a divine character, since the poet is in direct succession to the Son of God.

Reception, literary classification

Rilke's sonnets were criticized from an early age. As early as 1927, Robert Musil named Rilke as the poet who “made the German poem perfect for the first time”, but limited himself to the Duinese Elegies as the pinnacle of Rilke's artistic work and stated that the sonnets to Orpheus were “lowering [...] that his work […] suffers ”. What Wolfram Groddeck describes in his epilogue to the Reclam edition as the “dilemma of a critical reading” results from the resistance of the text, which does not allow a simple interpretation. At the same time, the quality of the lyrical expression undoubtedly represents a high point in German poetry history. Criticism of the sonnets, for example, often fluctuates between the assumption of tonal primacy over the semantic level and the unconditional affirmation of the cycle.

Poems included

Text examples

I, 1

Then a tree rose. O pure exaggeration!
O Orpheus sings! O high tree in your ear!
And everything was silent. But even in the silence
, a new beginning, hint and change took place.

Silent animals emerged from the clear,
detached forest of camp and genist;
and it turned out that they
were so quiet in themselves, not out of cunning and not out of fear,

but from hearing. Roar, scream, roar
seemed small in their hearts. And where there was
hardly a hut to receive this,

a shelter from the darkest desire
with an entrance, the posts of which tremble, -
there you created temples in their ears.

I, 5

Do not erect a memorial stone.
Just let the rose bloom in his favor every year.
Because it's Orpheus. Its metamorphosis
in this and that. We shouldn't bother

for other names. Once and for all
it's Orpheus when it sings. He comes and goes.
Isn't it a lot if he
sometimes survives the rose bowl by a few days?

Oh how it must dwindle for you to understand!
And even if he himself feared that it would fade.
As his word surpasses being here,

is it already there where you don't go with it.
The lyre grid does not force his hands.
And he obeys by exceeding.


Primary text

  • Rainer Maria Rilke: The sonnets to Orpheus. With an afterword by Ulrich Fülleborn. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt am Main 1955.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke: Duinese Elegies. Sonnets to Orpheus. After the first prints from 1923 critically edited. v. Wolfram Groddeck. Reclam, Stuttgart 1997, ISBN 3-15-009624-3 .

Secondary literature

  • Jochen Schmidt : Poetry as an esoteric creation of meaning. Rilke's sonnets to Orpheus. In: Olaf Hildebrand (ed.): Poetological poetry from Klopstock to Grünbein . Poems and interpretations. Böhlau, Cologne et al. 2003, ISBN 3-8252-2383-3 .
  • The sonnets to Orpheus. In: Ariane Wild: Poetology and Décadence in the Poetry of Baudelaires, Verlaines, Trakls and Rilkes. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2002, ISBN 3-8260-2214-9 , pp. 300-318. (Diss. Univ. Freiburg (Brsg.), 2000) (Series Epistemata. Literary Studies. Volume 387)
  • Beda Allemann: Time and figure with the late Rilke. A contribution to the poetics of the modern poem. Pfullingen 1961.
  • Manfred Frank : God in exile. Lectures on New Mythology. Part II, Frankfurt / M. 1988.
  • Peter Pfaff: The transformed Orpheus. On Nietzsche's and Rilke's “aesthetic metaphysics”. In: Karl Heinz Bohrer (Ed.): Myth and Modernity. Concept and image of a reconstruction. Frankfurt am Main 1983.
  • Paul de Man : Allegories of Reading. translated by W. Hamacher and P. Krumme. Frankfurt am Main 1988.
  • Wolfram Groddeck: Cosmic Didactics. Rilke's "Reiter" sonnet. In: Ders .: Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Interpretations. Reclam, Stuttgart 1999.
  • Sandra Pott: Rainer Maria Rilke Sonnets to Orpheus (1922). cosmogonic poetics. Poietic reflection. In: Dies .: Poetics. Poetological lyricism, poetics and aesthetics from Novalis to Rilke. Berlin 2004.
  • Seon-Ae Eom: Death Familiarity. Interpretations of the figure of Orpheus in Rilke's poetry. Frankfurt am Main 1988, ISBN 3-8204-1411-8 .
  • Annette Gerok-Reiter: Wink and change. Composition and poetics in Rilke's 'Sonnets to Orpheus'. Dissertation. Tübingen 1996, ISBN 3-484-18140-0 .
  • Gertrud Höhler: Rainer Maria Rilkes Orpheus. In: Helmut Koopmann (Hrsg.): Myth and Mythology in 19th Century Literature. Frankfurt am Main 1979, ISBN 3-465-01317-4 , pp. 367-385.
  • Ernst Leisi: Rilke's sonnets to Orpheus. Interpretation, commentary, glossary. Tübingen 1987, ISBN 3-87808-693-8 .
  • Hermann Mörchen: Rilke's sonnets to Orpheus. Kohlhammer, 1958.
  • Barbara Neymeyr : Poetic Metamorphoses of the Orpheus Myth in Rilke. In: Journal for German Philology. 118, 1999, special issue, pp. 25-59.
  • Gerhard Oberlin : Being in decline. Rainer Maria Rilke's writer's block and his last poetological poems. In: New German Review, Vol. 20 / 2005−6, pp. 8–40.
  • Walter Rehm: Orpheus, the poet and the dead; Self-interpretation and the cult of the dead in Novalis, Hölderlin, Rilke. Düsseldorf 1950.
  • Hans Jürgen Tschiedel: Orpheus and Eurydice. A contribution to the topic: Rilke and the ancient world. In: Görner Rüdiger (Ed.): Rainer Maria Rilke. Darmstadt 1987, pp. 285-318.
  • Mario Zanucchi: Rilke's sonnets to Orpheus. In: Transfer and Modification - The French Symbolists in German-Language Poetry of the Modern Age (1890-1923) . De Gruyter 2016, pp. 517-580, ISBN 978-3-11-042012-8 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Rilke to Countess Sizzo, April 12, 1923, in: Rainer Maria Rilke: The letters to Countess Sizzo 1921–1926 , ed. v. Ingeborg Schnack, Frankfurt am Main 1977, p. 60.