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We never knew his incredible head
where the eye’s apples ripened. Yet
his torso is still glowing like a lantern
in which his gaze, turned down,
still holds and gleams. Or the bow
of the chest could not dazzle you so, nor a smile
pass through the softly curving loins
to the center that once was creation.
The stone would stand, deformed and short,
under the translucent fall of shoulders —
and would not glint like predator-skins;
and would not burst out of all its limits
like a star: there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Translation by Eva-Maria Simms
Archaischer Torso Apollos
Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. 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 entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;
und brächte nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du musst dein Leben ändern.
Rainer Maria Rilke‘s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” was published in 1908 in a collection called Neue Gedichte (New Poems). The title has a double meaning. Not only are these new poems in the sense of being poems recently written, but they are poems in which Rilke intended to make a new kind of poem.
Rilke attempted in this collection to write poems about objects, like statues or animals, which stand before the reader as things in their own right — concrete realities that are independent of the observer, but that also influence the observer by serving as models of what the reader might aspire to be. Rilke’s aesthetic agenda behind the poem is to make clear that the observer doesn’t define the object, but rather the object defines the observer.
It is clear from works like “Archaic Torso of Apollo” that some of the strongest influences on Rilke came from other arts, particularly sculpture. The artist Rilke most admired was Auguste Rodin, for whom Rilke worked as secretary from 1905 until 1906. From Rodin, Rilke learned the importance of things, that inert matter transformed by art can become spiritually alive.
Exactly which sculpture inspired Rilke to write this poem is unknown, but it may have been the beautiful marble piece shown below, a torso of a Diadumenus (“diadem-bearer”) at the Louvre. It is probably what is left of a second century AD Roman replica of a Greek bronze created by Polyclitus (c.440-430 BCE).
Translation copyright 2019 Eva-Maria Simms. Prose copyright 2019 Michael Simms. Rainer Maria Rilke’s original poem is in the public domain. Image of the Diadumenus at the Louvre is made available by Wikimedia under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License.