There is no such thing as the greatest anything. Greatness is subjective. But if, for the sake of argument, or fun, or obsession, or whatever, we choose to at least toy with the concept of greatest modern novel, James Joyce's Ulysses is considered by many to be the frontrunner. And were one to attempt the hopeless task of choosing the greatest book of modern poetry, Rainer Maria Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus would be a strong contender.
Well, 90 years ago, on February 2, 1922, Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare and Company published the first edition -- one thousand copies -- of Ulysses in Paris, France, and Rilke began writing Sonnets to Orpheus at the Château de Muzot in Switzerland. These works are linked by more than a date; both draw heavily on Greek myth/legend, and both were written by self-exiled authors.
Joyce -- whose birthday was February 2, and who had a thing for having his books published on that date -- had begun writing his novel per se in 1914, but it developed from earlier efforts: a 1906 short story which grew into a novella and eventually expanding so far in both size and ambition that it became 18 chapters of roughly 265,000 words total, with each chapter related to an episode in Homer's Odyssey and each also written in a different style, often parodic. It was the first book in English to prominently and extensively feature "interior monolog," also called (though not by Joyce) "stream of consciousness."
Its intricate techniques and ground-breaking originality of conception and style were matched by its daring insistence on the importance of the most mundane activities and thoughts, including defecation and masturbation, which would lead to the book being banned for many years. He had had individual chapters published in the U.S. from 1918 until a 1921 ban; it was not officially published in its entirety in the U.S. until after a 1933 court decision declaring it not to be pornographic was upheld the following year, and England did not consent to its publication until 1936. With its drastic style shifts, its vernacular, its wordplay, and its sometimes deliberately obscuring techniques making it a difficult read, it became an iconic example of art for art's sake.
Rilke had been battling a decade-long writer's block, attempting to finish his Duino Elegies, a cycle of ten long poems; he had written the first two in a flash of inspiration in 1912. Then mental depression, World War I, and the upheaval of Austrian society that came with the end of the empire threw Rilke's life and creative philosophy into disorder. He left his homeland and went to Switzerland in 1919 to find a calmer atmosphere where he could reconnect with his muse, but had difficulty securing a place to live. Then in late 1921 he was fortunate enough to be allowed by a Swiss philanthropist to live at his estate. It was still slow going on Duino Elegies, but then Rilke experienced a sudden and intense burst of creativity that brought forth a separate and perhaps even greater cycle of 55 poems: Sonnets to Orpheus. The bulk of was written at a fever pitch in the space of just four days, Feb. 2 through 5, and the whole book was finished by the end of the month.
Its immediate inspiration was the death at age 19 of a former playmate of Rilke's daughter. Vera Knoop had been a dancer and then a pianist; while she is only a character directly in one poem (indirectly in many others as Eurydice), her life of creativity figures strongly throughout, and it's tempting to think that the poet identified with her fate somehow and that Orpheus, the poet/singer of Greek myth who ventured into the underworld to reclaim his lost love, able to charm that forbidden regions guardians with his great art, is both Rilke himself and, on a level too deep to be explicated, the part of himself that he identified with the ill-fated woman. Or as Stephen Mitchell, the great translator of Rilke, has written, "singing is being, or song is reality, the moment when the pure activity of being consciously alive is sufficient to itself." In his identity with her, or at least in the confluence of pondering death and loss and life and music all at once, Rilke relocated his muse, and took his art to a more profound level both in poetic elegance and philosophical understanding. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based editor, poet, and composer who, since 1985, has been setting Sonnets to Orpheus for soprano and piano. Excerpts have been performed by Naomi Itami with Howard Liu and by Kate Leahy with the composer.