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Originally Taught: Unknown

Rainer Maria Rilke wrote Sonnets to Orpheus, a book of 55 sonnets, in just three weeks following his completion of The Duino Elegies in 1922. In Sonnets to Orpheus, Rilke turns to Orpheus, the god of music, to work out how to be a poet – and how to live – in modernity. According to the myth, Orpheus’ music is so powerful it allows him to enter the realm of death, overcome his own death, and cross the boundary between nature and culture. Rilke uses Orpheus’ godly music to explore the “invisible” – what is disavowed in the scientific era following the death of God.

In this course we will consider in the Sonnets to Orpheus in terms of technological and social developments of the early 20th Century as they relate to sound and voice. We will read Rilke’s essay “Primal Sound,” which explores the invention of the phonograph, as well as psychoanalytic writings by Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. At the same time that early recording technologies were capturing the human voice, the psychoanalytic technique of free association – discovered by Freud and his hysterics – freed it. Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus will be read as a celebration of poetry within this particular historical context.

The first hour of each seminar will be dedicated to a lecture, and the second hour to a close reading of the Sonnets. We will use the material in the lecture as well as secondary readings – and your own research if you wish – to analyse the sonnets. In the final week there will be a lecture followed by a discussion of texts everyone can bring along to discuss.

Week One

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus - Part 1, Sonnets 1 – 13

Week Two

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus - Part 1, Sonnets 14 – 26

Week Three

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus - Part 2, Sonnets 1 – 15

Week Four

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, Sonnets to Orpheus - Part 2, Sonnets 16 – 29

Week Five

Please bring your own poetry or music works for discussion.

Secondary Readings

  • Rainer Maria Rilke, “Primal Sound”
  • Ovid, excerpts from Metamorphoses
  • Sigmund Freud, “On transience”
  • Jacques Lacan, excerpts from The Ethics of Psychoanalysis