Greetings all —
Here up in the Northern Hemisphere, the year wanes speedily now with cold winds and lengthening nights. (Even in Florida, we get a sampling of it.) There are fortunate places and ones less so; recently British Columbia and Washington State have been rocked by torrential rains from an atmospheric river that have flooded infrastructure and caused landslides. Our heart and good wishes go out Sherry on Vancouver Island, where some of the hardest rains have fallen. We pray you stay safe and find a way to keep singing.
The twenty-first century continues to roll out in that wintry shade, even as elsewhere across the globe the seasons stroll toward summer. Much uncertainty and crisis in the second year of the pandemic, global supply chains snarled and governments increasingly unable to address the mounting climate crisis.
Here at earthweal, there is much to grieve—we have spent time recently with our extinct brethren —but we shouldn’t allow ourselves to freeze in the gathering shadows. Whatever the pent and fraught news of the day may be, step outside into the day and you’ll find there still is much to be grateful for. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, a grateful drunk will never drink again.
In the decade of the Great War, the Austrian poet Ranier Maria Rilke suffered deeply from a depression which kept him from writing. He had begun his great Duino Elegies, but the onset of the First World War and the turbulence in Europe had rendered him silent.
1921 he repaired to the 13th century Chateau Muzot in Switzerland (which belonged to a patron) and there began to source deep into his old roots. He attuned by translating works by Paul Valery and Michelangelo into German; and then, after learning of the death of young woman, a friend of his daughter Ruth, he suddenly found the frequency and in a brief creative burst which he termed “a hurricane of the spirit,” wrote in few days the first section of 26 sonnets for The Sonnets to Orpheus. He then turned his attention to the Elegies and finished them in five days; then returned to his Sonnets and completed the second section of 29 sonnets in two weeks. In a letter to a friend, he later called the burst “the most mysterious, most enigmatic dictation I have ever endured and achieved.”
Orpheus the ur-poet is the subject of Rilke’s sonnets, the Greek singer who (in Ovid’s telling) sang so beautifully he entranced beast and tree and even the stones; lost his beloved Eurydice on their wedding day and then failed to retrieve her from the land of death; and was in the end torn to pieces by the maenads of Dionysos, his soul finally joining his wife Eurydice in the afterlife. For Rilke, the master of poetry leads to a world entranced and alive — “the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang,” as he wrote in Sonnet 2.13.
Three of Rilke’s Sonnets I’d like to share here, for they resonate especially for me in this time of grieving and loss. In the United States we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, an American harvest festival with a dubious history. It is traditionally a time for a communal meal and offering thanks for the year’s blessings. Native Americans have a different take on this advent of white colonization, but let’s stay focused on the idea of giving thanks.
The first two sonnets are from early in the first sequence. In Sonnet 1.7, Rilke states that the very origin of song derives from the outward emotion of praise:
Praising is what matters!
He was summoned for that,
and came to us like the ore from a stone’s
silence. His mortal heart presses out
a deathless, inexhaustible wine.
Whenever he feels the god’s paradigm grip
his throat, the voice does not die in his mouth.
All becomes vineyard, all becomes grape,
ripened on the hills of his sensuous South.
Neither decay in the sepulchre of kings
nor any shadow that has fallen from the gods
can ever detract from his glorious praising.
For he is a herald who is with us always,
holding far into the doors of the dead
a bowl with ripe fruit worthy of praise.
(all translations by Stephen Mitchell, 1980)
As the embodiment of life, song is that very bowl of fruit, a passing mortal thing which is yet a deathless, inexhaustible wine. Can we praise this world, and by so doing, render it alive?
In the next sonnet (1.8), Rilke takes the song of praise toward its distant, darkest corners.
Only in the realm of Praising should Lament
walk, the naiad of the wept-for fountain,
watching over the stream of our complaint,
that it be clear upon the very stone
that bears the arch of triumph and the altar.—
Look: around her shoulders dawns the bright
sense that she may be the youngest sister
among the deities hidden in our heart.
Joy knows, and Longing has accepted,—
only Lament still learns; upon her beads,
night after night, she counts the ancient curse.
Yet awkward as she is, she suddenly
lifts a constellation of our voice,
glittering, into the pure nocturnal sky.
Our altars to grief: They are still learning what “Joy knows, and Longing has accepted.” A curious figure … They tend the purest water in the heart, and can weave a “glittering” “constellation of our voice.” But what of the leading line? “Only in the realm of Praising should Lament / walk …” Why is it essential that grief travel so?
The third sonnet is from the very end of the second series (2.29), and for me reads as a glorious benediction for our work to come:
Silent friend of many distances, feel
how your breath enlarges all of space.
Let your presence ring out like a bell
into the night. What feeds upon your
grows mighty from the nourishment thus offered.
Move through transformation, out and in.
What is the deepest loss that you have suffered?
If drinking is bitter, change yourself to wine.
In this immeasurable darkness, be the power
that rounds your senses in their magic ring,
the sense of their mysterious encounter.
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
I first encounted Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus about a decade after Stephen Mitchell’s translation was first published in 1980, and they are probably my most frequently returned-to poems, read in sequence as if pouring out from an inexhaustible source. Different sonnets have resounded at different hours, but for me they sum the poet’s living-ness in praise of this world.
For this challenge, share a poem in praise of this Earth, this life, the heart and its deep love for the world around us. Let’s give thanks, earthweal style.