Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) is one of the twentieth century’s greatest poets, and probably the greatest German poet since Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Rilke bridged the gap between traditional and modernist periods, with his move towards, and focus on, difficulty of belief, anxiety about the condition of man, and the inevitable solitude of life. Figures from Greek Mythology are often represented in his works (see his Sonnets to Orpheus). The Duino Elegies is probably his best known work among English readers. The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christoph Rilke, though written in the course of one night in 1899, was first published in 1906. It was republished in 1912, and became a huge hit, selling out within weeks. It eventually sold well over a million copies. So while not his greatest work, it is his most popular.
This prose poem follows eighteen year-old Christoph Rilke on his trip from Germany to Hungary, to fight against the Turks in 1663. With his company, of which Rilke is the standard bearer, he spends the night in a castle across the river from where the decisive battle will take place. That evening he has intimate relations with the countess of the castle and wakes to find the castle being attacked and on fire. He rushes from the burning castle, carrying his flag which is on fire, in order to join his already defeated company. He fights valiantly before meeting his death. As Stephen Mitchell describes in the afterword, the story is a tale of initiation into the male adult world, where mysteries of danger and sex reside. It is a romantic tale of love and death.
One of the great things about collecting books from fine press publishers like Arion Press and the Limited Editions Club, is they opened my eyes to a realm of literature that I had previously ignored. Despite his stature as one of the most significant poets of the last 150 years, I had never bothered to read Rainer Maria Rilke, but the beauty of this Arion Press edition, along with the Selected Poems of Rilke published in 1981 by Limited Editions Club (LEC), as well as LEC’s spectacular 1997 edition of Sonnets to Orpheus, illustrated by the great artist Balthus, changed all of that.
The Arion Press edition from 1983 is simply marvelous. The book is very classic is design. The full cloth binding is of dark brown with an ever so slight purplish tinge, with nicely done two-color titling labels. The uncut English mouldmade paper is beautifully thick, soft and light-cream in color, allowing the Rudolf Koch designed type for the German text (Wilhelm Klingspor Schrift) and the Warren Chappell designed type for the English text (Trajanus), both handset, to display in magnificent glory. The types marry together wonderfully, the English appropriately scaled down in size and complexity. Chappell’s many three-color illustrations blend artfully into the story and, like Rilke’s text, are traditional in concept with inklings of modernism that pair perfectly with the overall design. Stephen Mitchell, whose translations of Rilke are the standard, provides a useful commentary. As you can tell, I really do think this production from Arion Press is top-notch. The fact that it can be occasionally found in fine condition for under $300 is amazing to me (I think I picked mine up for $175!).
About the Edition
- Translated and with an explanatory note by Stephen Mitchell
- Illustrated with 29 two-color drawings by Warren Chappell
- The illustrations were printed from photo-engravings; Black, red, and brown inks throughout
- The types are handset Trajanus and Wilhelm Klingspor Schrift, with Trajanus and Zierschrift initials
- The type for the translation, Trajanus Antiqua, was designed by Chappell, who studied with Rudolf Koch, designer of the black-letter types used for the first Insel Verlag edition and Arion’s German text
- The paper is T. H. Saunders mouldmade from England
- The binding, done by Schuberth Buchbinderei in San Francisco, is full cloth, with titling labels on front cover and spine
- Edition of 300 copies
- 12 by 9-1/2 inches, 72 pages
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