A Geometric Garden for Orpheus

“This woman who was loved so much, that from
one lyre
more mourning came than from women in mourning;
that a whole world was made from mourning, where
everything was present once again: forest and valley
and road and village, field, river, and animal;
and that around this mourning-world, just as
around the other earth, a sun
and a silent star-filled sky wheeled,
a mourning-sky with displaced constellations–:”

Rainer Maria Rilke

From Orpheus, Eudydice, Hermes


A Garden for Orpheus, Paul Klee, 1926


A rhythmic relation with the universe, like that expressed by Rilke, finds expression in Paul Klee’s series of garden pictures dating from 1926, which includes A Garden for Orpheus and Classical Garden. In these works a system of horizontal lines interwoven with ornamental arrangements of interlocking parallell bands is united in space by overlappings and interpenetrations.

Like his other garden and park pictures, Klee’s drawing A Garden for Orpheus reflects his search for rythmically coherent formal structure inspired by the orderly divisions inherent in the garden, as well as his attempt to reduce the plant kingdom to archetypal forms and recurring patterns that demonstrate the inner laws of nature, itself a skillful geometrician. Drawings such as A Garden for Orpheus demonstrate Klee’s sense of the interrelationship of nature, music and art.

Torso of an Archaic Apollo

Male torso, C. 480-470 BC.. Broken in antiquity, the piece was repaired in the second century BC and used to decorate a Roman theater at Miletus, where it was discovered. (possible inspiration for Rilke’s Poem)



“Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,
sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Neue Gedichte (New Poems)





“Never will we know his fabulous head
where the eyes’ apples slowly ripened. Yet
his torso glows: a candelabrum set
before his gaze which is pushed back and hid,
restrained and shining. Else the curving breast
could not thus blind you, nor through the soft turn
of the loins could this smile easily have passed
into the bright groins where the genitals burned.

Else stood this stone a fragment and defaced,
with lucent body from the shoulders falling,
too short, not gleaming like a lion’s fell;

nor would this star have shaken the shackles off,
bursting with light, until there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.”

Translated by C. F. MacIntyre


New Poems is a two-part collection of poems written by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). The first volume, dedicated to Elisabeth and Karl von der Heydt was composed from 1902 to 1907 and was published in the same year by Insel Verlag in Leipzig. The second volume (New Poems: The Other Part), dedicated to Auguste Rodin, was completed in 1908 and published by the same publisher.


To see more information related to this subject, please take a gander at The Genealogy of Style‘s Facebook Page:https://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Genealogy-of-Style/597542157001228

There Rose a Tree

Photo by George Platt-Lynes



„Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung!
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr.
Und alles schwieg. Doch selbst in der verschweigung
ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor.

Tiere aus Stille drangen aus dem klaren
gelösten wald von Lager und Genist;
und da ergab sich, daß sie nicht aus List
und nicht aus Angst in sich so leise waren,

sondern aus Hören. Brüllen, Schrei, Geröhr
schien klein in ihren Herzen. Und wo eben
kaum eine Hütte war, dies zu empfangen,

ein Unterschlupf aus dunkelstem Verlangen
mit einem Zugang, dessen Pfosten beben, –
da schufst du ihnen Tempel im Gehör.“

Rainer Maria Rilke

Die Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus)





“There rose a tree. O pure transcendence!
O Orpheus sings! O tall tree in the ear!
And all was silent. Yet still in this silence
proceeded new beginning, sign and transformation.

Creatures of stillness pressed out of the clear
unravelled forest from lair and nest;
and it came to pass, that not by cunning
and not out of fear were they made so quiet,

but simply out of hearing. Bellow, scream, roar
seemed small in their hearts. And just where
there was scarcely a hut to receive this,

a shelter of darkest longing
with an entrance, whose posts shook, –
you built for them a temple in hearing.”

Through The Narrow Lyre

Study from the ballet Orpheus, George Platt-Lynes, 1948-50. The thirty-minute ballet was created by choreographer George Balanchine in collaboration with composer Igor Stravinsky in Hollywood, California in 1947. Sets and costumes were created by Isamu Noguchi


Noguchi’s rendition of Orpheus’ lyre was adopted as and remains City Ballet’s official symbol.


“Ein Gott vermags. Wie aber, sag mir, soll
ein Mann ihm folgen durch die schmale Leier?
Sein Sinn ist Zwiespalt. An der Kreuzung zweier
Herzwege steht kein Tempel für Apoll.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Die Sonette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus)



“A God is able. But tell me, how shall
a man follow him through the narrow lyre?
His mind is divided. At the crossing of two
heart roads there is no temple for Apollo.”

The Apple Orchard

Adam and Eve, Albrecht Dürer, 1504


“Come just after the sun has gone down, watch
This deepening of green in the evening sward:
Is it not as if we’d long since garnered
And stored within ourselves a something which

From feeling and from feeling recollected,
From new hope and half-forgotten joys
And from an inner dark infused with these,
Issues in thoughts as ripe as windfalls scattered

Under trees here like trees in a Dürer woodcut –
Pendent, pruned, the husbandry of years
Gravid in them until the fruit appears –
Ready to serve, replete with patience, rooted

In the knowledge that no matter how above
Measure or expectation, all must be
Harvested and yielded, when a long life willingly
Cleaves to what’s willed and grows in quiet resolve.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

Hôtel Biron

Auguste Rodin photographed on the steps of the Hôtel Biron, Paris

First opened to the public on 4 August 1919, the Musée Rodin was housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras. Now known as the Hôtel Biron, it was built in the Rue de Varenne, Paris, between 1727 and 1732.


Elevation of the façade of Mrs. De Moras’s mansion on the garden side


 L’Hôtel Biron, côté jardin, Charles Berthelomier, circa 1910


The estate was put up for sale and while awaiting a buyer, tenants were allowed to occupy the Hôtel Biron from 1905. Among them were several artists, Jean Cocteau (1889-1963),  Henri Matisse, the dancer Isadora Duncan and the sculptress Clara Westhoff (1878-1954), future wife of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1921), who first told Auguste Rodin about the estate. In 1908, the sculptor thus rented four south-facing, ground-floor rooms opening onto the terrace, to use as his studios. The garden that had run wild probably made a strong impression on Rodin, encouraging him to place some of his works and part of his collection of antiques amidst its greenery. From 1911 onwards, he occupied the entire building.

Listed as a historical monument in 1926, the Hôtel Biron and its grounds have since undergone major renovation and restoration schemes, to better assert their role as a museum.


Even When We Don’t Reach It

L’Homme qui marche (The Walking Man), Auguste Rodin, 1907

Having eliminated all anecdotal details to focus on the sensation of movement, Rodin produced an unprecedented and powerfully expressive interpretation of it, reiterating the force that had so captivated him when standing before incomplete antique statues and Michelangelo’s unfinished works.



“Schon ist mein Blick am Hügel, dem besonnten,

dem Wege, den ich kaum begann, voran.

So fasst uns das, was wir nicht fassen konnten,

voller Erscheinung, aus der Ferne an—

und wandelt uns, auch wenn wirs nicht erreichen,

in jenes, das wir, kaum es ahnend, sind;

ein Zeichen weht, erwidernd unserm Zeichen . . .

Wir aber spüren nur den Gegenwind.”

Rainer Maria Rilke







“Already my gaze is upon the hill, the sunny one,

at the end of the path which I’ve only just begun.

So we are grasped, by that which we could not grasp,

at such great distance, so fully manifest—

and it changes us, even when we do not reach it,

into something that, hardly sensing it, we already are;

a sign appears, echoing our own sign . . .

But what we sense is the wind against us.”

Translation by Robert Bly

As Playthings of an Unknown Will

Les Saltimbanques (The Acrobats), Pablo Picasso, 1905

The Fifth Elegy is largely inspired by this Pablo Picasso‘s Rose Period painting, in which Picasso depicts six figures pictured “in the middle of a desert landscape and it is impossible to say whether they are arriving or departing, beginning or ending their performance.” Rilke depicted the six artists about to begin their performance, and that they were used as a symbol of “human activity … always travelling and with no fixed abode, they are even a shade more fleeting than the rest of us, whose fleetingness was lamented.” Further, Rilke in the poem described these figures as standing on a “threadbare carpet” to suggest “the ultimate loneliness and isolation of Man in this incomprehensible world, practicing their profession from childhood to death as playthings of an unknown will … before their ‘pure too-little’ had passed into ’empty too-much.'”



For Frau Hertha Koenig


Who are these rambling acrobats,

less secure than even we;

twisted since childhood

(for benefit of whom?)

by an unappeasable will?

A will which wrings, bends,

swings, twists and catapults,

catching them when they fall

through slick and polished air

to a threadbare carpet worn

ever thinner by their leaping:

lost carpet of the great beyond,

stuck like a bandage to an earth

bruised by suburban skies.


their bodies trace a vague

capital “C” for Creation…

captured by an inevitable grip

which bends even the mightiest,

as King Augustus the Strong

folded a pewter plate for laughs.

Around this center

the Rose of Looking

blossoms and sheds.

Around this pounding pestle,

this self pollinating pistle

producing petals of ennui,

blooms of customary apathy

speciously shine with

superfluous smiles.

There: the wrinkled, dried up Samson,

becomes, in old age, a drummer-

too small for the skin which looks

as though it once held two of him.

The other must be dead and buried

while this half fares alone,

deaf and somewhat addled

within the widowed skin.

There: the young man who seems

the very offspring of a union

between a stiff neck and a nun,

braced and buckled,

full of strength and

innocent simplicity.

O, you, children,

delivered to the infant Pain

as a toy to amuse it,

during some extended

illness of its childhood.

You, boy, discover

a hundred times a day

what green apples know,

dropping off a tree created

through mutual interactions

(coursing through spring,

summer and, swift as water,

fall, all in a flash)

to bounce, thud, upon the grave.

Sometimes, in fleeting glances

toward your seldom tender mother,

affection almost surfaces,

only to submerge as suddenly

beneath your face…a shy,

half-tried expression…

and then the man claps,

commanding you to leap again

and before any pain can

straddle your galloping heart,

your stinging soles outrace it,

chasing a brief pair of

actual tears to your eyes,

still blindly smiling.

O angel, pluck that

small flower of healing!

Craft a vessel to contain it!

Set it amongst joys not

yet vouchsafed us.

Upon that fair herbal jar,

in flowing, fancy letters,

inscribe: “Subrisio Saltat.”

…Smile of Acrobat…

And you, little sweetheart,

silently overslept by

the most exciting joys-

perhaps your skirthems

are happy in your stead,

or maybe the green metallic silk,

stretched tight by budding breasts,

feels itself sufficiently indulged.


displaying, for all to see,

the fruit which tips the

swaying scales of balance,

suspended from the shoulders.

Where…O where is that place,

held in my heart, before they’d

all achieved such expertise,

were apt still to tumble asunder

like poorly fitted animals mating…

where the barbell still seems heavy,

where the discus wobbles and topples

from a badly twirled baton?

Then: Presto! in this

exasperating nowhere:

the unspeakable space appears where

purity of insufficiency transforms

into overly efficient emptiness.

Where the monumental bill of charges,

in final arbitration, totals zero.

Plazas, O plazas of Paris,

endless showcase, where

Madame Death the Milliner

twists and twines the

ribbons of restlessness,

designing ever new frills,

bows, rustles and brocades,

dyed in truthless colors,

to deck the trashy

winter hats of fate.

Angel! Were there an unknown place

where, upon an uncanny carpet, lovers

could disport themselves in ways

here inconceivable-daring ariel maneuvers

of the heart, scaling high plateaus of passion,

ladders leaning one against the other,

planted trembling upon the void…

Were there such a place, would their

performance prove convincing to an audience

of the innumerable and silent dead?

Would not these dead toss down their

final, hoarded, secret coins of joy,

legal tender of eternity, before the

couple smiling on that detumescent carpet,

fully satisfied?

Rainer Maria Rilke

Translated by Robert Hunter

Under So Many Lids

Rainer Maria Rilke


A myth developed surrounding  Rainer Maria Rilke‘s death and roses. It was said: “To honour a visitor, the Egyptian beauty Nimet Eloui, Rilke gathered some roses from his garden. While doing so, he pricked his hand on a thorn. This small wound failed to heal, grew rapidly worse, soon his entire arm was swollen, and his other arm became affected as well”, and so he died


Grave of Rainer Maria Rilke at the Churchyard in Raron, Swizerland


Rilke chose both his own gravesite and epitaph. He is buried where one can see both German-speaking villages and land where the main language is French. Late in his life Rilke began writing in French, so this burial site at the edge of his German-speaking world suits his writing well. So does the blend of vastness and intimacy that so nearly reflects the quality of Rilke’s own poetic voice.

Rilke’s epitaph speaks on so many levels that the best translation I can offer is an excavation of its layers, admittedly a bit like trying to explain away a superbly nuanced joke. His epitaph is also an extraordinary feat of verbal condensation. The German word for poetry suggests that a poet’s task is to condense (‘Dichtung’ derives from the root ‘dicht’ meaning dense). Rilke’s epitaph does just that. It reads:

“Rose, oh reiner Widerspruch, Lust,
niemandes Schlaf zu sein unter soviel

(“Rose, oh pure contradiction, joy
of being no-one’s sleep under so many

Rilke here compares rose petals to eyelids, and remarks that unlike eyelids, the petals conceal no desire for sleep. But the word for eyelids (Lidern) happens to sound exactly like the German word for songs (Liedern), so this pun in sound also lets him say that beneath his many songs there is no desire to be anyone’s sleep.

the epitaph refrains from saying that the rose (or the poet) desires no sleep for itself alone. Instead it says it does not want to be anyone’s sleep. So Rilke’s desire may be for a general awakening, not just his own.

The Roses as Sentimental Despair


The Rose VI and The Rose V, Cy Twombly, 2008



“Infinitely at ease
despite so many risks,
with no variation
of her usual routine,
the blooming rose is the omen
of her immeasurable endurance.

Do we know how she survives?
No doubt one of her days
is all the earth and all
of our infinity.”

Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated from French by A. Poulin Jr.


The Rose series recall Cy Twombly‘s earlier cycle of paintings, Analysis of the Rose as Sentimental Despair (1985), which also referred to quotations by Rilke, as well as Rumi and Giacomo Leopardi, embracing conceptions of nature dominated by its inevitable demise. Twombly’s ardent, bold, and often flamboyant use of colour has other affinities — with Andy Warhol‘s Flower series, for example, or Henri Matisse‘s late paper cut-outs. But just as the rose recurs throughout Rilke’s work as a memento mori, so does Twombly employ the motifs and conditions of the natural world to allude to the pleasure and transience of life.

Towmbly and The Orphic Poet

Untitled, Cy Twombly, circa 1987


The poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke has inspired a number of Cy Twombly’s sculptures and paintings. Here the last line from Rilke’s Duino Elegies is scribbled onto a piece of card at the base of the work: ‘And we who have always thought of happiness, climbing, would feel the emotion that almost startles when happiness falls’. The sculpture itself resembles a slender tree that has broken in two. The broken section leans almost vertically against the still upright other half.

There is a felicitous symmetry in Twombly’s incorporation of Rilke’s elegiac prose, given the role of art in the poet’s work. Twombly’s Orpheus (Thou unending trace) draws its title phrase from a verse of Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke’s 1922 homage to his mythological forebear. The songs of Orpheus, the progenitor of poetry and music, could impel stones and trees to move, and his “unending trace” is the lyric art that lives on despite his death at the hands of the maenads.


The importance of the modern German poet Rainer Maria Rilke to Twombly includes the figure of the Orphic poet and their shared interest in the ancient River Nile. Twombly’s Egyptian series, Coronation of Sesostris, 2000, represents a late flowering of his remarkable graphic inventiveness.

Gravity’s Rainbow


Gravity’s Rainbow is a 1973 novel by American writer Thomas Pynchon. The plot  is complex, containing over 400 characters and involving many different threads of narrative which intersect and weave around one another. The recurring themes throughout the plot are the V-2 rocket, interplay between free will and Calvinistic predestination, breaking the cycle of nature, behavioral psychology, sexuality, paranoia and conspiracy theories such as the Phoebus cartel and the Illuminati.

The novel’s title declares its ambition and sets into resonance the oscillation between doom and freedom expressed throughout the book. An example of the superfluity of meanings characteristic of Pynchon’s work during his early years, Gravity’s Rainbow refers to:

*the parabolic trajectory of a V-2 rocket: the “rainbow-shaped” path created by the missile as it moves under the influence of gravity, subsequent to the engine’s deactivation;
the arc of the plot. Critics such as Weisenburger have found this trajectory to be cyclical or circular, like the true shape of a rainbow. This follows in the literary tradition of James Joyce‘s Finnegans Wake and Herman Melville‘s The Confidence-Man.

*The statistical pattern of impacts from rocket-bombs, invoked frequently in the novel by reference to the Poisson distribution.

*The introduction of randomness into the science of physics through the development of quantum mechanics, breaking the assumption of a deterministic universe.

*The animating effect of mortality on the human imagination.

Pynchon has brilliantly combined German political and cultural history with the mechanisms of paranoia to create an exceedingly complex work of art. The most important cultural figure in Gravity’s Rainbow is not Johann Wolfgang von Goethe or Richard Wagner, however, but Rainer Maria Rilke, Captain Blicero’s favorite poet. In a way, the book could be read as a serio-comic variation on Rilke’s Duino Elegies and their German Romantic echoes in Nazi culture. The “Elegies” begin with a cry: “Who, if I screamed, would hear me among the angelic orders? And even if one of them suddenly pressed me against his heart, I would fade in the strength of his stronger existence. For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of Terror that we’re still just able to bear, and why we adore it is because it serenely disdains to destroy us.”

These lines are hideously amplified in the first words of Pynchon’s novel: “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before, but there is nothing to compare it to now.” This sound is the scream of a V-2 rocket hitting London in 1944; it is also the screams of its victims and of those who have launched it. It is a scream of sado-masochistic orgasm, a coming together in death, and this too is an echo and development of the exalted and deathly imagery of Rilke’s poem.

Pynchon’s novel is strung between these first lines of the Duino Elegies and the last: “And we, who have always thought of happiness as climbing or ascending would feel the emotion that almost startles when a happy thing falls.” In Rilke, the “happy thing” is a sign of rebirth amidst the dead calm of winter: a “catkin” hanging from an empty hazel tree or the “rain that falls on the dark earth in early spring.” In Gravity’s Rainbow the “happy thing” that falls is a rocket like the one Blicero has launched toward London in the first pages of the book or the one also launched by Blicero that falls on the reader in the last words of the last page.

The arc of a rocket’s flight is Gravity’s Rainbow–a symbol not of God’s covenant with Noah that He will never again destroy all living things, nor of the inner instinctual wellsprings of life that will rise above the dark satanic mills in D.H. Lawrence‘s novel The Rainbow. Gravity’s Rainbow is a symbol of death: Pynchon’s characters “move forever under [the rocket]. . .as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children.”


Little Girl in the Big Ten, twentieth episode of The Simpsons‘ season 13 (May 12, 2002)

Lisa: You’re reading Gravity’s Rainbow?

Brownie: Re-reading it.


My Mother the Carjacker, second episode of The Simpson’s season 15 (November 9, 2003)

Mona Simpson read Homer Gravity’s Rainbow as a good night story. After Homer started to sleep Mona said “Thomas Pynchon you are a tough read”, before she also started to sleep


Gravity’s Rainbow is a song by the British band Klaxons, from the album Myths of the Near Future (2007). Pat Benatar also released an album called Gravity’s Rainbow after reading Thomas Pynchon’s novel


The novel inspired the 1984 song Gravity’s Angel by Laurie Anderson. In her 2004 autobiographical performance The End of the Moon, Anderson said she once contacted Pynchon asking permission to adapt Gravity’s Rainbow as an opera. Pynchon replied that he would allow her to do so only if the opera was written for a single instrument: the banjo. Anderson said she took that as a polite “no.”


New York artist Zak Smith created a series of 760 drawings entitled, “One Picture for Every Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow” (also known by the title Pictures of What Happens on Each Page of Thomas Pynchon’s Novel Gravity’s Rainbow)

When Happiness Falls

The Cat of La Méditerranée, Balthus, 1949


“…siehe, sie zeigten vielleicht auf die Kätzchen der leeren
Hasel, die hängenden, oder
meinten den Regen, der fällt auf dunkles Erdreich im Frühjahr. –

Und wir, die an steigendes Glück
denken, empfänden die Rührung,
die uns beinah bestürzt,
wenn ein Glückliches fällt.”

Rainer Maria Rilke
Duineser Elegien
Kapitel 10 (Excerpt)



“…And yet, were they waking a likeness within us, the endlessly dead,
look, they’d be pointing, perhaps, to the catkins, hanging
from empty hazels, or else they’d be meaning the rain
that falls on the dark earth in the early Spring.

And we, who have always thought
of happiness climbing, would feel
the emotion that almost startles
when happiness falls.”

Excerpt of The Tenth Elegy

Idiom of Improbability

“Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves”
Rainer Maria Rilke
Letters to a Young Poet


La semaine des quatre jeudis (The Week with Four Thursdays), Balthus, 1949

There are many idioms of improbability, used to denote that something is impossible or unlikely to occur. In French the expression “La semaine des quatre jeudis” is traditionally used to mean that the specified even “will happen (or not) during the week of the four Thursdays”, since thursday was the break in the school’s week.

As Something Never Described

The Room, Balthus, c. 1953



Das ist mein Fenster. Eben
bin ich so sanft erwacht.
Ich dachte, ich würde schweben.
Bis wohin reicht mein Leben,
und wo beginnt die Nacht?
Ich könnte meinen, alles
ware noch Ich ringsum;
durchsichtig wie eines Kristalles
Tiefe, verdunkelt, stumm.
Ich könnte noch auch die Sterne
fassen in mir; so groβ
scheint mir mein Herz; so gerne
lieβ es ihn wieder los
den ich vielleicht zu lieben,
vielleicht zu halten begann.
Fremd, wie nieberschrieben
sieht mich mein Schicksal an.
Was bin ich unter diese
Unendlichkeit gelegt,
duftend wie eine Wiese,
hin und her bewegt,
rufend zugleich und bange,
daβ einer den Ruf vernimmt,
und zum Untergange
in einem Andern bestimmt.

Rainer Maria Rilke

Der neuen Gedichte anderer Teil






“That is my window. A moment ago
I woke up so softly.
I thought I would float.
To where does my life extend,
and where does the night begin?
I could think that everything
were still me all around;
translucent as a crystal’s
depths, darkened, dumb.
I could also contain the stars
inside me still; so large
does my heart appear to me; so gladly
it released him away again.
whom I began perhaps to love,
perhaps began to hold.
Strange, as something never-described
my fate looks at me.
For what am I laid under this
fragrant as a meadow,
moved here and there,
calling out at the same time and afraid
that someone will hear the call,
and determined to find my downfall
in another.

Translation by L. Steve Schmersal

May 2003