Archaic Torso of Apollo

by Rainer Maria Rilke

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The Poem

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“Archaic Torso of Apollo” is a sonnet divided into four stanzas, the first two stanzas containing four lines each, the last two containing three each. In the original German, the first two stanzas follow an abba, cddc rhyme scheme, while the last two stanzas together follow an eef, gfg scheme. In the German version, each line averages ten syllables in length. As is characteristic of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke throughout the two volumes of New Poems, the title unambiguously states the poem’s subject matter, much as the title of a painted still life might refer the viewer directly to an object depicted therein.

In “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the poet depicts an ancient fragment of a statue of Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, of music, and of poetry. As one finds so often with the classical statuary now confined to museums, only the torso remains—the statue’s legs, arms, and head have long been missing, leaving the poet to conjecture how the whole statue once must have looked. In the first line of the poem, the poet begins to describe the torso before him by calling attention to what is now missing. Once the statue had a head from which Apollo’s eyes gazed forth brightly, “fabled eyes” about whose power the poet can now only wonder.

Yet the gaze that once must have been present in the statue’s eyes, Rilke suggests, still seems to shine from the surface of the torso. This now-absent gaze, in fact, will haunt the entire poem. Its light, “turned down low,” shines forth from the torso’s breast and turns the curve of the upper thigh into a “smile.” Although the statue is only a battered fragment, the now-absent light from the statue’s eyes invests the remaining torso with a startling potency. Paradoxically, the very loss of those features which gave the statue of the god a recognizably human form has turned it into something more than human and truly mysterious. Battered by time, the torso has shed its human qualities and come to seem almost godlike, as though it were indeed an expression of natural force. This sense of the torso as something extra-human leads the poet in the third stanza to make what on the surface seems a contradictory comparison between the smooth stone of the statue and a “wild beast’s fur.”

The poet’s perception undergoes its most radical transformation in the final stanza. There the vitality inside the statue seems to burst forth from its battered edges “like a star,” and the gaze that the poet had directed toward the statue now seems to return to him from the torso itself. The final line enacts an even more dramatic shift, as the poem moves from description to declaration. The concluding statement, “You must change your life,” is as forceful and uncompromising in the original German as it is in the English translation.

Forms and Devices

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“Archaic Torso of Apollo” opens the second of the two volumes New Poems (1907) and New Poems (1908): The Other Part ; a sonnet on the same theme, “Früher Apollo” (“Early Apollo”), opens the first. At this stage of his long and complex poetic career, Rilke was concentrating on writing short, intense poems that tended to focus almost exclusively on some particular object. While sometimes the poet focuses on an animal, a place, or, as in this case, an object of art, his aim is always to apprehend the object on its own terms, as something that stands apart fundamentally from his own nature. Often the subjects of the...

(This entire section contains 461 words.)

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poems seem almost banal (a ball, a sundial, a panther in the zoo, and an apple orchard are some other examples), yet inevitably the poet moves from what might seem an unpromising beginning into increasingly resonant and mysterious depths.

“Archaic Torso of Apollo” contains three instances of metaphor, but much of the real force of the poem comes from Rilke’s employment of the rhetorical device known as metonymy. Whereas in metaphor the poet’s thought jumps from one level of meaning to another, in metonymy the poet focuses his attention on a small part of an object as a means of communicating his sense of the object as a whole. In this poem the poet’s attention moves from the torso’s breast to its thigh and genitals to the “shoulder’s invisible plunge,” yet there is little attempt to forge these perceptions into a rationally coherent unity. The effect resembles that of a cubist painting, in which the painter forces the viewer’s perception to shift from one disparate glimpse to the next.

One might even argue that Rilke’s use of metonymy is of more than merely technical interest, since fragmentation and the complex interplay between the part and the whole are among the principle themes of the poem. Just as the torso is fragmented, the poet is driven to describe it in a language of fragmented perceptions.

Significantly, too, Rilke begins the poem in the first-person plural (“We”) and shifts to the second-person “you” in the course of the poem. By employing “We” in the opening line, Rilke creates a sense of identification between his sensibility and the reader’s: Both are regarding the statue together. With both poet and reader standing in common awe of the torso, the shift to “you” in the course of the poem creates the sense that the command imparted at its close comes not from poet to reader but from torso to both. This pronoun shift creates the illusion of directing the reader’s attention away from Rilke’s response and toward the torso itself, so that the final declaration seems almost completely impersonal.