Archaic Torso of Apollo
by Rainer Maria Rilke
I have read and taught Rilke’s Petrarchan sonnet “Archaïscher Torso Apollos” many times — that is, in Stephen Mitchell’s beautiful and powerful English translation— and I even have some things to say about it in an essay in my latest book. But it wasn’t until I sat down just now to think anew about the famous volta in the final line that I quite realized how Rilke prepares the way with two earlier images of turning.
The first is to be found in lines four and five, where he compares the statue’s torso to a candelabrum (“ein Kandelaber”), or, in Mitchell’s version, “a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, // gleams in all its power.” The image is of a candelabrum in which the candles have just now been blown out, and whose wicks are therefore still glowing. But the German phrase is “nur zurückgeshraubt,” literally “only screwed back,” or “merely turned down low,” an idiom more proper to a kerosene or gas lamp than the afterglow of a candelabrum. This suggests that Rilke wanted particularly to convey an image of light turned down rather than blown out, to give it the power to be turned up again at the end of the poem.
The second image of turning, in the next sentence, is lost in Mitchell’s translation:
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark corner where procreation flared. (5-8)
Rilke wrote this:
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. (5-8)
Here’s my literal, word-for-word, crib: “Else could not the curve / of the chest blind you, and in the slight twist / of the loins could not a smile go / towards that center, that procreation bore.” That turning of the body so characteristic of ancient Greek sculpture is registered here in “im leisen Drehen / der Lenden,” “that slight twist / of the loins,” a movement deftly enacted in the enjambment after “Drehen” which turns the verse precisely on the word “twist.” Rilke calls our attention to this image of turning with internal rhymes, too: “blenden . . . Drehen . . . Lenden . . . gehen,” that is, “blind . . . twist . . . loins . . . go.” And it is this very twist in the loins that produces the smile; the slight crease of flesh between abdomen and thigh makes a shape like that of lips turned up at the corners. Moreover, this smile “go[es] / towards that center” of procreation, the physically missing but somehow still present genitals of the god. In turning toward the genital center, the knowing smile suggests that its procreative, or at any rate creative, powers are still intact, and again, this is borne out, figuratively speaking, at the end of the poem.
Taken together, these two tropes of turning—the gaze like a candelabrum “turned down low,” the stone loins “twist[ed]” into “a smile”— make a kind of chiasmus or crisscross structure of transformation. (Justus George Lawler, in his book Celestial Pantomime: Poetic Structures of Transcendence calls chiasmus “primarily representative of the intersection of the infinite and the finite,” and this is clearly the case here, too.) In the first trope, the god’s gaze is transformed through metaphor into something inanimate, a mere candelabrum, the way the characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses keep getting turned into something inhuman. (Think of Daphne who, chased by the lustful Apollo, turns into a laurel tree). But in the second trope, the stone loins become animate again, and smile toward those divine genitals; it’s an Ovidian transformation in reverse, in which the dead stone is turned back into a living god. In fact, the latter constitutes the most fundamental turn in the poem, without which the more famous volta at the end would be impossible.
Thus, by the time the light of the sun god “bursts like a star” from the statue in the penultimate line of the poem—that is to say, by the time the god has fully re-entered the statue, the way Athena, as the ancient Athenians believed, continually re-entered the statue of the goddess in the Parthenon in response to the sacrifices of her devotees— a careful reader of the poem has already seen it coming.
It’s worth recalling that for the ancient Greeks the word “theos,” or god, meant primarily an event. And what this event precipitates here is a sudden awareness on the part, not of us (the “we” of the first line), but of “you”: an awareness of being seen by the god. Earlier, his gaze was “turned down low,” so that, notwithstanding that it “gleam[ed] in all its power,” still one was not entirely conscious of being seen. Now, however, the direction of the gaze in the poem is reversed; one’s privileged status as a visitor to an art museum, gazing at the blind statues with aesthetic detachment, has been obliterated by this sudden awareness, which is nothing if not a religious experience. The religious experience in turn produces the electrifying volta of the last sentence, the ethical imperative “You must change your life”—which here means, “you must be transformed, turned into something else, just like the statue.”
Mark Doty has called this ending “the sharpest last-minute turn in sonnet history,” and it’s true; up to this moment the poem has been a description of the statue, and now suddenly it’s a revelation inside “you.” As the climax of the poem’s plot, it deploys simultaneously both of the elements Aristotle insisted were indispensable to a good climax: reversal and recognition. (In the best plots, Aristotle added, these elements occur at the same time.) But for all its power to surprise, its greatest surprise for us today may be that it is not in fact disjunctive; there is no surreal or language-y non sequitur. Indeed, the imperative “You must change your life” follows logically from the statement that precedes it: “for here there is no place / that does not see you.” It is a religious logic, to be sure, but then, this is essentially a religious poem.
Apollo is the god of poetry. And it is important to understand the role of this poem in Rilke’s development as a poet. He had been working as Rodin’s secretary in Paris, and visiting the art museums and the zoo nearly every day at Rodin’s instigation. Rodin’s advice (“one must work, always work”) and the example he set of a disciplined artist who worked tirelessly to transform the perishable bodies of his human models into durable bronze statues with great spiritual power—all this had a profound effect on Rilke. It turned him from a poet who waited for inspiration to one who felt the responsibility of his art in a new and profound way. It made him change himself into a poet whose calling was to transmute the impermanent things of this world—a corpse, a black cat, the statue of Apollo—into a higher order of reality within himself. No wonder he placed “Archaic Torso of Apollo” first in the second volume of his New Poems, to mark this crucial turning-point in his career.
James Pollock is the author of Sailing to Babylon (Able Muse Press, 2012), which was a finalist for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Award in Poetry, runner-up for the Posner Poetry Book Award, and winner of an Outstanding Achievement Award in Poetry from the Wisconsin Library Association; and You Are Here: Essays on the Art of Poetry in Canada (The Porcupine’s Quill, 2012), a finalist for the ForeWord Reviews Book of the Year Award for a collection of essays. His poems have been published in The Paris Review, AGNI, Poetry Daily, and other journals, and appear or are forthcoming in anthologies including The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology 2013, Heart of the Order: An Anthology of Poems about Baseball, and The Poet’s Quest for God: 21st Century Poems of Spirituality. His critical essays and reviews have appeared in Contemporary Poetry Review, Canadian Notes & Queries, Arc Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. He is an associate professor at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, where he teaches poetry in the creative writing program. He lives with his wife and son in Madison, Wisconsin.