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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Number 194: Rainer Maria Rilke "Archaic Torso of Apollo"

Archaic Torso of Apollo

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.

--Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Hap Notes: Rilke (1875-1926) is one of those translation problems we speak of so often when looking at poetry originally written in a foreign tongue. I have nits to pick with Mitchell's translation of this poem but, in the final analysis, I still find his translation the most compelling so we will use this and I'll add a few notes which may or may not clarify the poem for you.

First off, I think the nicest thing one can say about Rilke is that he was consumed by art. He was sensitive, a bit sickly and he wandered Europe restlessly. He grew up in Prague, was sent to military school (which he hated so much he still reviled the experience as an older adult) and had what seems to be the European requisite love affair with an older married woman. He married a student of Auguste Rodin, Clara Westhoff. Here is where art joins once again with literature. Rodin becomes a mentor and friend to Rilke and this augmented his talents tremendously.

Rilke was asked to write a biography of Rodin. He studied him, wrote the biography and ended up being a secretary to the sculptor. Rodin taught Rilke how to observe. Rodin sent him to the zoo (hence the panther poem we'll get to another day), He sent him to museums. He stressed what we would call the "close reading" of objects. All this led Rilke to his "thing" poems, poems in which he tries to give the essence of something. This takes us directly to our poem.

Let's first remember something that rarely gets mentioned in explications and essays on this poem: Apollo was the sun god, the god of light, often called "born of the wolf." In Latin literature he is called Phoebus – radiant. Now let's go to the poem.

This statue that Rilke describes here does not have a head, it's been broken off and all that is left is the torso. If that "eyes like ripening fruit" thing bothers you, well, it bothers me, too. The German "augenapfel," means "eyeball" but is literally translated as "eye apple." Mitchell's translation at least avoids the mistake of putting too much emphasis on the apple part but my translation (of course, all of us who can read a little German translate this poem and mangle it; I'm one of many) of this phrase is not ripening (which makes a good pun with "eye-apple") but "maturing eyes." I can't say that I think Rilke is a jolly punster in this line with the ripening apples as some have suggested. If he is, it's much more of a pun like an English one on "creaking joints" on the body i.e. we don't usually associate hardware with the joints when we say that phrase (even though it's in there) anymore than the eye apples "ripening" are actually talking about fruit. It's implied without being too "punny."

Okay, the upshot of this is that the missing head is stone, just like the rest of him. Rilke is saying we cannot see the aged eyes of the sculpture. This is important to the impact of the poem. The poet says the torso is still full of light, even though Apollo's gaze is not literally present, the torso gleams, is incandescent with light and life, it is still as though Apollo is looking at you. The "smile" is the line on the lower midriff which goes down into the pubic area, it has the look of a calm smile.

Rilke is describing the luminous beauty of a thing that strikes your heart so vividly it seems as though it is looking at you, through you. You know the feeling of seeing a piece of artwork (or maybe hearing a song or reading a poem) and it slashes through you, makes you see things anew? It reveals something in you. You cannot take back your life from it because it has marked you with that initial feeling. It is an epiphany; this new experience changes you.

This all happens in a flash. And Mitchell's translation actually does this to you in the final two lines of the poem. It drops you onto a new plane of existence. Everything you are is transformed. Your life will never be the same. What do you do with this (pardon my pun) eye-opening inspiration? Your life is altered. You must change your life.

Here's the original German if you'd care to take a stab at translating it:

Archaischer Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfelreiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. Sonst könnte nicht der Bug
der Brust dich blenden, und im leisen Drehen
der Lenden könnte nicht ein Lächeln gehen
zu jener Mitte, die die Zeugung trug.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein enstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern.

Here's a good Rilke quote:

"Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love."

and another:

"Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write."

And one more (I could do this all day, sorry): "Things aren't all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life"

You can find more Rilke here:

1 comment:

  1. Love the poem -- always have, and your analysis.

    The opening pic on your blog, which I hope to be visiting more often, time permitting, is stunning. What is it?