Apr 25, 2013

Rainer Maria Rilke, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," trans. Stephen Mitchell

Arp, Torso of a Giant, 1964, D.I.A.
I hadn’t read Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo” in a long while, and frankly I’d forgotten about it. That's shameful, but instead of leading vapid, jejune cheers about the poem and its perplexing conclusion, let me simply admire a few of its particulars.


First, let’s note that it’s an Italian (or Petrarchan) sonnet, fourteen lines that begin with a rhymed octave (8 lines) to which a 6-line, rhymed sestet responds in some way. So it’s a bit similar to an English (or Shakespearean) sonnet’s concluding with a rhymed couplet that responds to its preceding twelve lines.

How translators manage to preserve any kind of rhyme has always impressed me. I’ve read somewhere that a good translator often has to make the choice of what’s primary—the poem’s content, including literal translation, or its formal characteristics such as rhyme and meter. At any rate, that kind of intelligence is magic to me, so hats off to Stephen Mitchell.


Apollo was the god of truth and light as well as music, poetry, and some other good things, and as foil to that loosey-goosey, hell-raising frat boy, Dionysus. I think of Apollo as the god of reason and moderation.  So the figure of a decapitated Apollo might suggest an entirely physical, animal power (“like a wild beast’s fur”) with too little wisdom or soul to “burst like a star” “from all the borders of itself.” The thinking god has lost his head.

The danger of a god’s sexual power might feel menacing us, especially as we remember Zeus' rape of Leda, the mortal, who gave birth to the child who would become Helen of Troy, and be partially responsible for a ten-year war, as her Greeks tried to retrieve here. But in Rilke's Apollo, we perceive “a smile” running “through the placid hips and thighs /  to that dark center where procreation flared.” Even there, at the “dark” sexual center, which might be anarchic power in an animal or human, the god’s internal “brilliance . . . like a lamp” illuminates and “dazzles”; he's  empowered with the light to see everything we do, even without his head.

Here, I'm reminded of Yeats’ “Leda and the Swan,” another knockout sonnet, which concludes by wondering if mortal Leda takes on the rapacious Zeus’ “knowledge” with his power before “the indifferent beak could let her drop.” And there’s James Wright’s memorable, disturbing conclusion to “Lying in a Hammock”—“I have wasted my life.”  I wonder if Yeats and Rilke, as contemporaries, were consciously or unconsciously influenced by each other. And did the younger James Wright owe a debt to Rilke's  sonnet?

Here’s a little game to play:  put Rilke’s first and last lines together, and we get “We cannot know his legendary head. . . . You must change your life.”  Apollo’s “legendary head” is missing from the sculpture, so in both literal and figurative ways, we cannot know his inner life. 

More importantly, we cannot know it because we are mere mortal schmucks. Light does not explode from our torsos and make our dark crotches glow with smiling benevolence. Maybe most of us would rather come across as Darth Vader anyway. 

But how shall we change our lives—to be more like the god or to be more submissive to him? Shall we try harder to emulate Apollo’s light, though we know it’s a doomed effort? (Maybe Sisyphus thought so as he rolled his rock up the hill). 
Or, since we cannot be immortal or comprehend divinity, should we become more modest and submissive, accepting the limits of our puny knowledge and the sinister darkness of any power we have?

Are there third and fourth and twentieth ways to read Rilke’s last line?

My thanks to poet and professor Carol Muske-Dukes for returning me to Rilke’s sonnet, which she discusses from a different perspective in her essay, “What Is a Poem?” (in The Eye of the Poet: Six Views on Craft, ed. David Citino). 

We should remember that the purpose of literary criticism and scholarship is leading well-intentioned readers from one worthy poem, poet and idea to another. Too often the whole enterprise is debunked as academic charlatanism, the smelly alley to tenure, promotion, and ego-enlargement within The Academy. 

To be sure, some of it is that, but much of it consists of one well-lit head shining a light for others who want to know . . . and accept the fact that they need to know. 






10 comments:

altadenahiker said...

All my life, I've led the jejune cheers for Rilke. In this regard, no one can out-jejunest me.

Your interpretation, and most of all your associations, have never occurred to me before. Which makes them fascinating, and probably true.

I've always taken this particular poem as how one feels a great work of art.

And what language.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast's fur
would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you.

This language takes you on the trajetory of firecracker -- it goes up up up, bursts, and then the sparks form a picture, fall and dissolve.

Banjo52 said...

AH, I wouldn't argue against that--that it's about what art, not just a god, is and can do. The headless statue is, after all, art.

More importantly, I bet you, Wordsmith (which came out "wormsmith"), can appreciate how long I've wanted to use "jejune" and not be preposterous in the process. It's a preposterous word and can never be used well, but my frolic with it here is at least accurate in the literal sense, I think. I wonder if any other word in English is so inherently pretentious and stupid. I wonder now about the potential for a jejune schmuck.

Ken Mac said...

I had never been much for poetry, then there's Rilke. Always stops me cold, inspires me, takes me "there," like no other. Is it because he is mystical as they say? Timeless? Abstract yet soulful? I remember the first girl who gave me a book of his poetry. She got away.

Banjo52 said...

Ken, I know many, many people felt that way about Rilke in the 60s and 70s, but I don’t hear his name so much anymore. And when I do, it’s not spoken with the reverence it once was. Is that just my acquaintances, or has his halo faded lately? Your girl who got away—that’s a story I’d love to hear in more detail, but I bet you won’t share it here. Nor would I. Put it in an email if you care to. I’m interested.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Glad you gave an interpretation. I read through it with a "meh" attitude. Maybe because by the time I had come around to Rilke, he'd been relegated to the 60's boomer heap. Stained in a way that was not punk friendly (although I like Rumi). Waisting life in a hammock is more relatable to me.

I also remember the writer Alice Walker, when handed a literary award with a female torso on it that had been designed by Robert Graham, she said "you keep it, I've been fighting against this my entire life"

Banjo52 said...

PA, life in hammock, gazing at mostly beautiful pastoral objects vs. gazing at a headless statue that exudes light, sees all, dwarfs all . . . is that Rilke or you or me? Anyway, maybe it's a helluva question.

I didn't know Alice Walker did that. Impressive. I think the subject of female beauty (and all physical beauty?) is fraught with problems, actual or potential--a hugely complicated issue.

Stickup Artist said...

I wonder what Rilke, had he lived 8 years longer, would have made of Rene Magritte's torsos, especially the one entitled "Rape."

Personally, I've found it is not that "You must change your life," but it is that you must change how and what you think about (your) life.

Brenda's Arizona said...

I am so slow here...

The poem is full of imagery, from the first line to the last. You know, many of us will never read a poem again without making a sentence out of JUST the first and last lines!

I first got sidetracked reading with the cadence of the italian sonnet. Once I gave that up, the poem was a lot more interesting.
Banjo, your interpretations and discussion points are always INTERESTING! It is like you add the music to the words?

Eyes like ripening fruit - what does that denote? Bulging eyes or watery eyes or eyes that have been picked on by birds? Imagery rocks!

Thanks, Banjo, for the poem (I only know Rilke from his books) and your photos. Lovely.

RuneE said...

This was a very special one, to me at least (who usually do not read much poetry - except for this blog ...). Try as I might, I found no better solution that your suggestion about reading the first and last lines only. That solved it.

PS Thank you for the comment and E-mails! Much appreciated.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

^ ^ ^
good one SA

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