Translator's notes


By Rainer Maria Rilke

In 1922 Rainer Maria Rilke famously completed the Duino Elegies within a few weeks, a er a ten-year period in which progress on the great work had been very slow. Rilke being Rilke, he had produced dozens of other astonishing poems during this time, but he was rather dismissive towards them and didn’t bother publishing them. Simultaneously, he produced a second masterpiece: the Sonnets to Orpheus. He had four years left. In those four years he wrote hundreds of poems in German and nearly 450 in French – and this at a time when his health, never very good, was steadily deteriorating. The question of why Rilke began writing in French at this time has a racted much speculation. Reading Paul Valéry’s ‘Le Cimetière marin’ seems to have been one of the things that helped Rilke unlock the Duino Elegies, and he set to work translating it into German, so perhaps he found his French voice while doing so. Rilke’s French poems are far less emotionally intense than his work in German, and they have a settled, rustic, light, placid feel to them that reflects how he was living at the time (he wrote them at the chateau at Muzot where he lived from February 1921 until his death: Muzot was the closest he ever came to having a home). Rilke was aware that his French poems were work of secondary intensity – he likened writing the sequences ‘Les Roses’ and the ‘Valaisian Quatrains’ to ‘baking a little cake’ and said that writing in French was not like ‘work’ at all – but he seems to have had a li le more regard for the sequence he published (in what we’d call a limited edition) as Vergers. Here, I have translated the title sequence of that collection, ‘Orchard’.

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