by Rainer Maria Rilke
Orpheus was the legendary singer and lute-player, taught by the Greek god Apollo himself, who could enchant everyone who listened to him. Birds and animals would gather round him to listen to the beauty of his music. Orpheus’s mother was Calliope, the chief Muse of Greek Mythology, who also presided over Greek epics, which originally were sung to the lyre, before books existed. Orpheus represented everything that was uplifting and inspirational about poetry, music, and song. The other side of the Orpheus legend, about his descent into the Underworld to retrieve his deceased wife Eurydice, which has been the basis of several operas, is not dealt with by Rilke. Rilke’s interest is to celebrate the power of poetry and music and inspiration in human life. He does this with his series of 52 ‘sonnets’. They were not written in sonnet form, but instead in free verse. They are thus more like odes which celebrate the magic and beauty which can be found in the world around us. One of them even celebrates the taste of fruit. And sadness enters into them too, for Rilke was still grieving for the death of an angelic teenage girl who died young and whom he had known during her long illness. He thus tries to deal with the mystery of death and to reconcile death with joy in living. He considers what hides in the depths of mirrors when we are not in the room, he celebrates acrobatic flying, he looks for beauty in all of its forms. This collection of his poems is considered one of the masterpieces of twentieth century poetry. And there are many who think of Rilke as the finest poet of all those who have appeared in our modern times. Above all, Rilke’s aim was to be life-enhancing, and to celebrate beauty, joy, and love of all that is good in the world.