to sing as a human is not to sing as a bird sings

I'd summarise the informing insight of the Sonnets [to Orpheus] as follows. Man is probably unique amongst the mammals in that he has a conscious foreknowledge of his own death. Knowing he will die means he acts, in part, as if he were already dead, already historical - having conducted the imaginative exercise so often it is engraved on his mind by the time he is five or six years old. From a young age, then, this knowledge consciously or unconsciously leads the future-producing mechanism of his mind to construct his life as an authentic and intelligible narrative - i.e one possessive of meaning, one whose meaning he can overview, and one whose meaning will survive his physical death. He has become so accustomed to living in death's shadow that it is wholly natural for him to do so; he barely notices that, while contingency and fate might shape his life, it is death that drives its plot. Like Orpheus, he too has descended to the land of the shades, and then done what no beast has until now had the permission to do: return to the living present. His condition is therefore existentially transgressive (another factor that feeds into his great capacity for self-loathing), but his ghosthood status - his ability to send his mind ahead of him, flying through walls, through skin and fur, over interstellar distances, into alien elements - informs his behaviour in positive ways too: for one thing, he is the only animals capable of imaginative empathy with any other species, and for all his monstrous rapacity, perhaps the first Earth has known that can operate against the Darwinian imperative of blind self-interest. Nonetheless his condition is more riven than dual, and more than one philosopher has described human consciousness as a crime against nature.

Rilke had a vision of Orpheus as the ideal resolution of this potentially intolerable schism. Orpheus was a man who had found the perfect balance between death and life, eternity and the living present, by singing across the gap and inhabiting both at once. The Sonnets imply that how well a man or woman deals with their twin citizenship determines the degree of their authenticity; and in Orpheus, Rilke sees the ideal possessor of the 'double realm.' He knows that the answer is to live in the heart of the paradox itself, to form a stereoscopic view of the world with one eye in the land of the living and one eye in the land of the dead, in the breathing present and in atemporal eternity. 'But he can raise the dead / and conjugated through his half-transparent lids / confuses their dark land in everything.'

Both evidence and celebration of this state of ghosthood is our singing. To sing as a human is not to sing as birds sing; as birds sing, humans talk. For a human, to sing is to do something unique and with no analogue in other species. It is to unite the discrete quanta of passing time through music and lyric. These things offer a stay against time's passing. Music weaves a line through the discontinuous present (we now have some proof that our brains appear to measure out time in three-second sections - approximately to the default human line-length of poetry, being the perfect 'mnemonic slot'); lyric unites the time-based events of our words by recalling them back into the presence of one another through the repetition of their sounds. By continually returning us to the previous moment, the lyre cheats that time which carries us to our deaths, and insists that time also has a cyclical aspect. 'Is there really such thing as time-the-destroyer?' The endless river rolls on, but through song we can row against the current and arrest, for a little while, our own progress. Time is a little collapsed into no-time, and we lose some sense of its passing; through the song, we are reunited with our truest state of being, that of serene ghosthood.


- Don Paterson, in his Afterword to Orpheus: A Version of Rilke (Faber and Faber, 2006). 

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