Orphic Listening: Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus, a New Translation

Orphic Listening

Author: Nancy Billias

Immediately after completing the Duino Elegies, in a massive burst of creative energy Rilke composed the 55 Sonnets to Orpheus in three short weeks. Orphic Listening presents a lyrical translation of these sonnets in their original sonnet form, revealing their lush, strange music.

While Rilke continually plays with the form, the sonnets are extremely tightly crafted. And yet, paradoxically, the overall effect of the rigidity of form is liberating. The silent interstices between rhymes or between metric feet open out into fathomless space—that Weltinnenraum, or infinite interior space, that Rilke loved to contemplate. Like fireworks, at times the words explode into fragments of meaning. Such explosions are tremendously Orphic. They disturb the reader, engendering and inspiring thought, causing one to turn and look back in wonder, as Orpheus does at the threshold of Hades. In this way, as in many others, Rilke remains faithful to what he considers the “vocation” of a poet: as seer and as interpreter for the gods.


This recent translation of Sonnets to Orpheus is absolutely dazzling; having read many previous translations of this masterwork, I can say that Ms. Billias' approach to this material summons these poems to life on the page in a way that I had not previously experienced. I can only hope she has decided to turn her attention to a translation of Rilke's Duino Elegies.

Mark Armen, San Francisco (Amazon review)

This volume adds something new to the canon of Rilke in English: a readable, modern, creative rendering of the Sonnets to Orpheus in sonnet form. To attempt such a thing (Rilke in English in sonnet form) is a difficult task (to say the least) that the author, by really listening to the poems, performs here without ever tipping into triteness or over-embellished poetics. The images dazzle because they are allowed to just "be" in the poem. Each poem presents another creative solution to the problem of translating Rilke while being as true as possible to the sound, meaning, and spirit of the poems. If you are interested in Rilke or just a person with some interest in poetry, this is an essential volume for you!

Jonathan Gourlay (Amazon review)

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