Notes on Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo

Rilke refers to the headless sculpture of Apollo and Dionysus is not mentioned, but we see him all over — the fact that this is just a fragment of bigger sculpture, the references to the darkness, the wild beast, and the bursting of a star, all elements of the Dionysus, and yet Apollo shines through. And this recognition of the beauty that appears in this torso of Apollo is the moment that moved the persona to declare, “you must change your life.”

 

torso

Torso by Rodin from pinterest

Archaic Torso of Apollo

Rainer Maria Rilke, 1875 – 1926

Translated by Stephen Mitchell

 

We cannot know his legendary head

with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso

is still suffused with brilliance from inside,

like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise

the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could

a smile run through the placid hips and thighs

to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced

beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders

and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,

burst like a star: for here there is no place

that does not see you. You must change your life.

 

NOTES:

1. This is a tricky thing, a poem about a sculpture. Rodin himself, Rilke’s favorite sculptor, evaluates his work with light from a candle by hovering a piece’s curves and edges with the candle in a dimly-lit room, finding out how the smoothness and roughness of its parts respond to the play of light and shadows, before proceeding to chisel away or declaring the work is done. It is the master’s method of appreciating a sculpture, not exactly recommended for all, especially as these days candles are considered fire hazards. Yet, in this poem, Rilke, as he has done many times, uses poetry to describe a sculpture. And so, the question is posited, what do we appreciate here, the sculpture, the poem, or both?

2. In this poem, the persona is not showing us the sculpture, albeit one can imagine how it would look like as described by every line. Yet, the poem also shows how the persona is affected by the sculpture, which makes for interesting subject; the reader is now witness to the persona viewing the sculpture — a complex of elements: the poem, the persona, the sculpture, and the reader.

3. The sad thing about poetry in translation is the loss of the music of the original language of the poem. But we’re not interested in that here; it’s beyond what can be achieved. As a translated poem, we have to assume as a given that the original poem had intended a meaning, and the meaning has been achieved in the translated poem. In other words, to keep this enterprise worthy, we have to assume Rilke wrote this in English, as we’re reading an English text, and English is Rilke’s tongue — a rather wild proposition, but we have to take it as it as otherwise the dialogue of world cultures would not be possible.

4. The poem starts with the head (which is not there) and moves downward as if to follow a streak of light, to the brilliance of the “torso” and when the imaginary eye sees the bottom, it points to the “dark center where procreation flared” — as if there is an explosion from nothingness like a star. But the last two lines, take on metaphysical heights, “For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.”

5. The persona is saying this encounter with this sculpture, which is just a piece of probably a bigger sculpture, is a life changing moment for the persona. And by this time, we already know the poem’s focus is not the sculpture nor the poem nor the reader — but that exact moment when the piece of art has bestowed upon the consciousness of the persona that his life is now different because of this sculpture, which appears to be enveloped in light rapturing like a star.

6. In Nietzsche’s The Birth of A Tragedy, he speaks of the Apollonius and Dionysus  forces, the duality of order and disorder that animate life and give birth to music and art. And here, Rilke refers to the headless sculpture of Apollo and Dionysus is not mentioned, but we see him all over — the fact that this is just a fragment of bigger sculpture, the references to the darkness, the wild beast, and the bursting of a star, all elements of the Dionysus, and yet Apollo shines through. And this recognition of the beauty that appears in this torso of Apollo is the moment that moved the persona to declare, “you must change your life.”

7. Follow how the persona describes the light, much like the one from Rodin’s candle, and the missing head, the torso suffused with brilliance, the lamp, the gleaming power, the dazzling curved breast, “the dark center where procreation flared”, the translucent cascade of the shoulders, the  (un)glistening wild beast’s fur, the bursting of a star, and the second to the last line that functions like a platform —  “for here there is no place that does not see you”  — from which leaps the line “You must change your life”. The systematic play of light and the image of the torso is teeming with meaning as it is in itself an exemplification of the experience of artistic illumination — thus, the last line “You must change your life” is an inevitable conclusion. And with this poem, Rilke cements the common ground that links poetry, sculpture, and all arts for that matter —  the cognitive  experience of the truth. And while we’re at it, it is also what links science, art, and religion as a human endeavor.

8. Let’s stop here and just think, light and darkness. Read the poem again. Indeed, we must change our life.

 

Author: Leon de Pola

Semiotician by profession. Philosopher by vocation.

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