Archaic Torso of Apollo

by Rainer Maria Rilke

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Themes and Meanings

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Apollo was the god of the sun, of music, and of poetry; consequently, he came to be associated with principles of order, rationality, and harmony. Certainly Rilke would have expected his readers to be familiar with these associations, yet, while nothing in the poem explicitly denies them, it is interesting to note that his presentation of the god comes wholly in terms of the torso’s immediate visual impact. Other than the “fabled eyes” mentioned in the second line, the poet apparently brings no preconceptions of Apollo to the torso. The message “imparted” by the torso seems to spring solely from the poet’s sensuous apprehension of it, and the degree to which Rilke’s presentation of Apollo coincides with the attributes traditionally assigned to the god is worth some consideration.

Rilke dedicated New Poems (1908): The Other Part “To my great friend August Rodin.” In the years preceding the publication of the book, Rilke had served as a secretary at the sculptor’s studio in Paris. Before meeting Rodin, Rilke had been chiefly a lyrical poet, writing poems focused primarily on his own inner moods. Unlike a poet, however, a sculptor cannot make his art solely from subjective feelings but must pay close attention to the materials with which he works. Being exposed to Rodin caused Rilke to consider a kind of poetry that dealt with the substantial qualities of things in much the way sculpture does. It follows, then, that in some of these poems Rilke would choose an actual sculpture for a subject.

Sculptors, carpenters, or others whose work involves actively making something recognize the importance of respecting and understanding their materials. For Rilke to explore this principle as a poet, however, especially to the profound degree he explores it in the two volumes of the New Poems, was a highly original conception. By making the simple yet fundamental shift of his attention outward to things, Rilke began to realize that the world outside human beings is every bit as interesting and meaningful as the world inside them.

For the sculptor or the carpenter, such attention might be a simple everyday habit, but for the poet of “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” such attention leads to the startling and mysterious conclusion that, in looking closely at things, the things one looks at somehow seem able to look back. This realization leads to what might be taken as the torso’s own concluding command, open-ended yet definite, for the reader alone to decipher.

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