Robert Hunter’s Translations of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus: In Memoriam

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. …live in the question.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

September 23 the music world lost a friend. As lyricist for the Grateful Dead and occasional collaborator with Bob Dylan, Robert Hunter witnessed much and was no doubt grateful himself for this platform from which his creative energy could shine.

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Photo by the author. A carpet in Las Vegas.

It was my intention to write a memoriam that day, but other things crowded out that aim. This is a belated tribute, re-sharing some lines I wrote about Hunter’s translations of some of the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke.

It’s often been remarked how the Internet is like a giant labyrinth, with each explorer ending up in different places based on choices one makes, following links, or as Robert Frost in his poem “The Road Not Taken” suggests, “way leads on to way” so that we sometimes know not how we arrived in these various places and spaces within this seemingly infinite hypercard deck.

Robert Hunter was such an integral part of the Grateful Dead magic that when the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1994, he was included with the band, even though he’d never actually performed with them. Robert Hunter was the first, and maybe only, non-performer inducted in this manner.

Hunter’s interests stretched beyond the bounds of contemporary songwriting. So it was that quite by accident I discovered his translations of Rainer Maria Rilke’s poetry, specifically Rilke’s Duino Elegies and The Sonnets to Orpheus, which features some of my own favorite Rilke verses.

It’s intriguing how Rilke resurrected Orpheus, a character from Greek mythology endowed with superhuman musical skills, to become a symbol in the modern world.

According to the Brittanica, “Orpheus was the son of a Muse, (probably Calliope, the patron of epic poetry) and Oeagrus, a king of Thrace (though some sources cite Apollo). According to some legends, Apollo gave Orpheus his first lyre. Orpheus’s singing and playing were so beautiful that animals and even trees and rocks moved about him in dance.”

This was Jerry Garcia’s mandate: “Boogie.” If they — the fans, including the rocks and trees no doubt — didn’t boogie then the Grateful Dead were not doing their job.

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By the author.

I myself first discovered Rilke through his first and only novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The vivid, haunting imagery moved me deeply.

Then I discovered his poems. “The Panther” is probably his most famous, only because it was popularized in the film Awakenings (Robert DeNiro, Robin Williams). In 2008 I learned that the poem has been translated more than two dozen times from the original German.

What each translator strives for is to find an approach to the work that is consistent and authentic. Translation work is fraught with challenges, as literal word-for-word translation can sometimes be stiff, or miss the meaning behind the words. Robert Hunter’s aim, he states, was to “approximate the original rhythm and rhyme of The Sonnets to Orpheus.”

Here I have reproduced two of the early sonnets as translated by Hunter. A link to the complete translation can be found at the end of the second passage.



Tree arising! O pure ascendance!
Orpheus Sings! Towering tree within the ear!
Everywhere stillness, yet in this abeyance:
seeds of change and new beginnings near.

Creatures of silence emerged from the clear
unfettered forest, from dens, from lairs.
Not from shyness, this silence of theirs;
nor from any hint of fear,

simply from listening. Brutal shriek and roar
dwindled in their hearts. Where stood a mere
hut to house the passions of the ear,

constructed of longing darkly drear,
haphazardly wrought from front to rear,
you built them a temple at listening’s core.

-2 -

Something akin to a maiden strayed
from this marriage of song and string,
glowing radiant through veils of spring;
inside my ear a bed she laid.

And there she slept. Her dream was my domain:
the trees which enchanted me; vistas vast
and nearly touchable; meadows of a vernal cast
and every wondrous joy my heart could claim.

She dreamed the world. Singing God, how made
you that primordial repose so sound she never
felt a need to waken? Upon arising she fell straight to dream.

Where is her death? O, will you yet discover her theme
before your song is eclipsed forever? —
Abandoning me, where does she go? — something akin to a maid.

When I built my first website in 1995 I also created a Labyrinth, akin to the hypercard concept I’d been introduced to several years earlier when I got my second Mac. The Labyrinth starts here, and if you make a wrong turn you might run into a Rilke poem, or a page with prose by Jorge Luis Borges.

Meantime, life goes on all around you… Listen to the music, and keep on truckin’.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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