Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Poetry week: Rilke's first Orpheus sonnet

Don Paterson's version:

A tree rose from the earth. O pure transcendence—
Orpheus sings: O tall oak in the ear!
All was still. And then within that silence
he made the sign, the change, and touched the lyre.

One by one they crept out of the wood,
emptying each set and form and lair;
and looking in their eyes, he understood
they’d fallen quiet in neither stealth nor fear,

but in their listening. Growl and bark and roar
died in their breast as each took to the clearing.
Before this day there hadn’t been a shack

that might have held the song, a plain earthwork
hollowed by their most obscure desire:
today the temple rises in their hearing.
I like the Scots rhyme ‘lair’ and ‘fear’. And I like the way the plain and (of course) perfectly comprehensible vocabulary of animal habitat carries within it something more abstract and even algebraic: the mathematic echo of ‘set’ and form, the quasi-Platonic ‘form’, the blue-vacant echo of ‘l’air’ in ‘lair.’

I like the way ‘growl and bark and roar’ traces a crescendo of bestial utterance that is then, as we step across the line-ending, silenced (‘died in their breast’)

The first four lines are wholly monosyllabic, save only the titular poet-magician Orpheus, the ground against which he works ‘silence’, and that which he achieves 'transcendence'. Monosyllables predominate in the sonnet as a whole in Paterson’s version, of course: but in a stately manner.

I like the way ‘a tree rose’ imports, spectrally, the bloom and beauty of a rose into the description of the tree’s growth. (A rose is a rose is a …)

Paterson even handles those potentially awkward vocatives (‘O pure transcendence—O tall oak in the ear’) deftly: for they seem to echo and play with the grand O at the start of Orpheus’s name, the wide-open mouth of the poet singing.

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