Among what I consider the three most stunning books from my recent visit to Jeanne Shiff of the Limited Editions Club (LEC) is their 1997 edition of The Sonnets to Orpheus, by Rainer Maria Rilke. Like the recently reviewed Sight and Touch, this LEC is simply at the pinnacle when it comes to the design and crafting of fine press books. Everything from the look and feel of the marvelous paper, the spacing and readability of the type, the stunningly beautiful illustrations, and the understated elegance of the binding is simply top-notch. Yes, an edition like this is not inexpensive. However, it is worth every penny. Well maintained, owning an edition like this is akin to owning a great work of art, where cost is quickly forgotten, overwhelmed by the beauty and sense of awe the work bestows upon the eye of the beholder.
The Sonnets to Orpheus, by Rainer Maria Rilke, describe Rilke’s relationship to every aspect of creation, including his view of death as a continuation, not a termination, of life. He wrote these 55 sonnets as a funeral monument to a gifted young dancer he knew. It was published in 1923. The sonnets are addressed to Orpheus, whom mythology tells us was able to enchant animals and birds with his song and lyre, but could not rescue his wife from the world of the dead.
Rilke (1875-1926) is considered one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century and the greatest writer of poetry in German since Goethe. His best-known work is probably the Duino Elegies, while Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge are his two most famous prose works.
The illustrations by the great twentieth century artist Balthus (1908-2001) in The Sonnets to Orpheus were done as a tribute by Balthus to his childhood friend and mentor, Rilke. Rilke had encouraged Balthus to dedicate his life to the arts and sponsored him for sometime. Like his work in Sight and Touch, Balthus creates art for this edition that is very classical in influence, and stunningly beautiful (as you will see below).
If you are a collector of fine press works, you simply owe it to yourself to save up in order to own something of this quality. The combination of one of the greatest twentieth century poets, one of the greatest twentieth century artists, and one of the greatest twentieth century producers of fine books results in one of the greatest fine press productions still available in new condition today. My understanding is that Limited Editions Club does have a few copies of The Sonnets to Orpheus still available to order. You can call Jeanne Shiff at 212-737-7600 or 800-701-8870 to inquire about price and to order, if interested. Alternatively, one can usually find a copy or two available on the secondary market (such as Abe’s).
About the Edition
- Two water-color drawings by Balthus, who signs the edition
- Woodblocks cut and editioned by master Japanese blockmaker Keiji Shinohara on handmade Kozu Uwazen paper
- Designed and printed by Michael and Winifred Bixler on imported hand-moulded paper
- Set in Monotype Bembo (set by hand) 18 pint size with six points of leading space between the lines
- In original German, with English on facing page
- Translation by Stephen Mitchell
- Binding by Carol Joyce at her Academy Bindery in Stockton, New Jersey
- Book and box bound in beige linen, overlapped with red Nigerian goatskin
- 13″ x 16″
- Limited to 300 copies