We Squander Our Sorrows

Orpheus and his Lyre

Orpheus and his Lyre

As I was searching for a document in my computer files recently I came across something I written to a friend a few years ago. It echoes some of what I tried to write in my recent blog on sorrow: Grief Struck Remedies. But even better it took me back to the poetry of the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 – 1926) considered one of the acknowledged giants of twentieth century poetry.

Rediscovering Rilke’s poems is like stumbling into a cave of so many hidden treasures that they make one sightless. Each lost within the other. Here is a gem taken out of the beginning of his Tenth Duino Elegy as translated by the American novelist and literary critic William Gass:

We squander our sorrows. How we look along their bitter
searching for an end, and see not their secret.
but they are our serious winter trees, our dark evergreens,
one season of our inner year – not just a season,
but soil, place, village, storehouse, home.

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. William Gass from Reading Rilke,  Alfred A. Knopf, 2000

When I think of all the ways I distract myself from my deep sorrows, and do so, so well, that at times I forget them, Rilke’s line pulls me up short. We squander our sorrows. Ouch. How much I rely on fine poets like Rilke to turn my conventional thinking inside out. To make me reconsider how I see my life and its so-called coping habits. My ways of staying safe.

And then Rilke goes on to call our sorrows our dark evergreens and I am thrown back to a poem I have written countless times in many versions about finding the bones of a calf buried inside a forest of dark evergreens, in a cedar swamp near my house, just east of Toronto, where I spent most summers and weekends as a boy. That was one of the most scary experiences of my boyhood. Would we get back out without sinking up to our necks in muck? And what were these stained bones we found there? The ones buried and just something strange, I can’t even remember, catching my eye. But it was enough. I sunk the length of my arm down in the muck to see what was there and one by one pulled out the bones of a calf. The skull came out first.  Click here to see an early version of this poem published in the Antigonish Review in 2009.

I don’t like going back to that place in my mind. The place I first encountered death in such a real way. But Rilke tells me I must. And most particularly as an artist, as a poet. And he does that clearly in one of his Sonnets to Orpheus, written at the same time he wrote the Tenth Duino Elegy.

In February 1922 Rilke composed the last four of the Duino Elegies and the fifty five  Sonnets to Orpheus. Some literary critics say these remarkable poetic outpourings have no, or few, equals in literary history. Translator Stephen Mitchell says: The Duino Elegies are widely acknowledged to be the greatest poem of the twentieth century. The Sonnets to Orpheus are at least as great.

When I read these poems especially the Sonnets and, in particular, Sonnet Six I am reminded that the role of the poet is to go down into the dark places. To not stay just in the light.  Rilke seems to be using Orpheus as an example of what an artist or poet at his or her best must do. They must go into down into the dark, deathly places but still return and turn the experience into song, a tune played on a lyre.

Is he someone who dwells in this single world? No:
both realms are the source of his earthy power.
He alone who has known the roots of the willow
can bend the willow-branch into a lyre.

From Sonnet Six of The Sonnets to Orpheus, trans. Stephen Mitchell, Vintage Books, 2009

Both realms. Those are realms Rilke calls us to live in. And I have seen the  power of this in my own life but also in the lives of addicts and their family members who participate in my Recovering Words poetry workshops in treatment centres. When they write their sorrows and memories, from the place of the dark evergreens they can transform those memories into something that doesn’t harm them but heals them. But how easy this is to forget. We squander our sorrows.


  1. Somae Osler
    Posted August 3, 2013 at 6:15 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this dear Richard,

    the line about “squandering our sorrows”, hits home on this almost grey day after all the light in July. Rilke’s line reminds me of something I read this morning in “When things fall apart” by Pema Chodron. She writes:”Our whole world falls apart and we’ve been given this great opportunity. However, we don’t trust our basic wisdom mind to let it stay like that.” I think this is the “squandering” Rilke refers to.
    Thank you for this gentle reminder of opportunity!

  2. Richard
    Posted August 4, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Dear S: Hard wisdom! SO glad you enjoyed the Rilke. R

  3. Posted August 5, 2013 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    Thanks Richard for you returning me to Rilke’s beautiful work. Who would you say is the best translator of Rilke? I have a Penguin “selected” translated by J.B. Leishman, that lies flat on the page. A couple of the same poems, translated by Seamus Heaney in “District and Circle” are superb.


  4. Richard
    Posted August 5, 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Now this is a great question! And one that William Gass tries to answer in his superb book – Reading Rilke – Reflections on the Problems of Translation. I think many agree that Leishman doesn’t do it. For me I love the Bly translations but Gass feels they are too extravagant and not close enough to the originals. For me it changes poem to poem. Translations are such a challenge. They almost need to be seen as their own poems! That’s why some translators will call them versions! One of my favorite Rilke poems is Autumn Day. I have found at least 15 translations! I will send then to you to give you sense of the nuance of it all!

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