The Poem

“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...

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Forms and Devices

“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 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...

(The entire section is 461 words.)