John Rosenwald, a poet and activist, has published a book of translations of 20th century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Sonnets to Orpheus.” Rosenwald holds a copy of Rilke’s original German poems in the study of his Farmington home. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

FARMINGTON — Rainer Maria Rilke, a prolific 20th century German poet, wrote half of “The Sonnets to Orpheus” in four days and all 55 within two weeks.

John Rosenwald, a scholar, poet and activist living in Farmington, has dedicated a majority of his life to those sonnets. He’s pored over them, learning them inside and out since his college years.

He describes his relationship with Rilke and the sonnets, as a “marriage.”

“I’ve lived with this guy for 50 years,” Rosenwald said over a cup of cider and shortbread biscuits in his library.

To honor that marriage and his lifetime of dedication, Rosenwald has published a book of translations with a more melodic take among the countless number of translations from other authors. These translations, Rosenwald said, are decades of practice and repetition in the making.

Rilke wrote “The Sonnets to Orpheus” in 1922 after the death of a friend’s daughter as a “grabmal,” or grave marker.


Rilke’s work, Rosenwald writes in his prologue, “is one of the most extraordinary bursts of creativity in literary history” and “a gift.”

February marked the 100th anniversary of Rilke’s sonnets.

Rosenwald began studying Rilke while a college student studying poetry and German at the University of Illinois in the 1960s. He already been writing and studying poetry by the time he was introduced to the writer who would shape the course of his career.

In his second collegiate year, a professor assigned Rosenwald the task of translating one of Rilke’s works and everything changed.

Rosenwald still has the original copy of his first Rilke translation. It’s the most important item Rosenwald said he’d take if there was a fire in his house.

He went on to study at a German university with a Fulbright grant. There, he took some literature courses but “more importantly, I worked on Rilke.” He spent time learning more about him, reading all of his works.


Over the course of the 1960s, Rosenwald acquired his undergraduate degree, a master’s degree and a doctorate degree in English and German literature.

He is a man of many hats: a doctor of philosophy, a civil rights activist, a student, a professor and collector of Chinese philosophy, and an integral member of the Farmington community.

Ultimately, though, poetry and Rilke have been the consistent strings in Rosenwald’s life. He said he loves the “music” and “beauty” of poetry.

“I love the notion of expressing ideas in music,” Rosenwald said.

That love was what attracted him to Rilke and translating his poetry.

“My primary work in translating Rilke’s ‘Sonnets to Orpheus’ was to take the ideas and blend them with the music that somehow he possessed and created,” Rosenwald said. “That is missing in most of the many translations of ‘Sonnets to Orpheus.'”


Farmington resident John Rosenwald has devoted 50 years to his new book of translations of German poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s “The Sonnets to Orpheus.” Pictured is a side-by-side of Rosenwald’s very first translation of Rilke, right, and his translations published in 2021. Kay Neufeld/Franklin Journal

Rosenwald sees Rilke’s poetry, and most predominantly the sonnets, as a “hurricane of language.”

“He just writes and (the sonnets) come out,” he said. “There’s this magical gift that’s given to (Rilke when he wrote).”

The sonnets were inspired by the death of one of Rilke’s dear friend’s daughter, who got sick and soon after lost the ability to dance and then sing. In metaphors, they focus on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Britannica writes that the sonnets are thematically “concerned with the relationship of art and poetry to life.”

Rosenwald describes the form of Rilke’s “Sonnets to Orpheus” as “extremely complicated verse-form sonnets” — all in rhyme scheme and meters.

He also highlighted that much of Rilke’s work uses German words, phrasing that doesn’t have literal English translations.

This, Rosenwald said, is why so many translations have lacked the spirit, melody and powerful simplicity of Rilke’s original German voice.


“You have to be aware of the shifts of language historically,” Rosenwald said.

That complexity of Rilke’s sonnets makes Rosenwald’s translations all the more impressive. The translations are so melodic, smooth, beautiful and cohesive that upon a blind read, one might assume they were written in English to begin with.

“This was 50 years of nonstop work,” he said. “It was a very, very slow process of trying to understand, hear, duplicate and recreate the music, the ideas, the rhythms to get them more accurate.”

Rosenwald said for over a decade, he’d get up every morning at 4 and translate for two to four hours.

He has translated Rilke’s work over and over and over. But not to publish a book. Rather, it’s the love of translating them all that’s driven him for five decades.

The most recent set of translations, which are in Rosenwald’s 2021 book of translations, was modified and solidified during the the pandemic.

Rosenwald said it’s Rilke’s “wisdom and knowledge” that speaks to him most.

“(Rilke’s sonnets) are without any question, in my mind, the most extraordinary burst of creative energy and poetry that I know anything about,” Rosenwald said.

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