On February 2, 1922, Rilke began his Sonnets to Orpheus with the opening salvo- “Da stieg ein Baum.”
I believe that the sonnets were a spontaneous invasion of unconscious content that Rilke, because of his poetic discipline and years of experience, tamed and herded into the corral of the sonnet form.
This incredibly productive period was brought on by the death of a daughter of a friend, a death that, perhaps, provided him with a glimpse of his own mortality.
Rilke wrote, in a letter to Hulewicz, his Polish translator that “we are the bees of the Invisible. We are continually madly plundering the honey of the visible, in order to store it up in the great golden hive of the Invisible.”
In other words, we are the servants of the unconscious, gathering images from our conscious life to return those images to the unconscious that transforms those images into the greater images that flow from the unconscious in the form of archetypes, images and gods.
The unconscious brings us not a real tree but an ideal tree, a mythical tree, a symbolic, transcendent tree. A tree that rises up from the Invisible, the unconscious, becomes conscious.
Da stieg ein Baum. O reine Übersteigung. (There rises a tree. O pure transcending!).
Rilke wrote, once again to his translator, that “the fact that they [the sonnets] arose suddenly in the connection with the premature death of a young girl brings them nearer to their original fountain-head; for this connection is another point of contact with the centre of that kingdom whose depth and influence we share.”
For Rilke, the kingdom is the land of the dead or the land of the Invisible. However, it is a psychological place, a symbolic underworld that a singer such as Rilke can visit and return like Orpheus.
O Orpheus singt! O hoher Baum im Ohr! (O Orpheus sings! O higher tree in the ear!)
Accompanying the emergence of these images and sounds comes silence, a beginning, and transformation.
Und alles schweig. Doch selbst in der Verschweigung. (And all remains quiet. But even in the seclusion)
Ging neuer Anfang, Wink und Wandlung vor. (New beginning, sign, and transformation continued.)