If There Is Much In The Window There Should Be More In The Room

Sunday, February 23, 2014


Male torso, marble (perhaps Parian), from the island of Miletos, "Severe" early classical style. c 480-470 BC. The Louvre, Paris. Photo © R.M.N./H. Lewandowski

            Rainer Maria Rilke’s ARCHAIC TORSO OF APOLLO

We never knew his head and all the light
that ripened in his fabled eyes. But
his torso still glows like a gas lamp dimmed
in which his gaze, lit long ago,

holds fast and shines. Otherwise the surge
of the breast could not blind you, nor a smile
run through the slight twist of the loins
toward that center where procreation thrived.

Otherwise this stone would stand deformed and curt
under the shoulders' transparent plunge
and not glisten just like wild beasts' fur

and not burst forth from all its contours
like a star: for there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Translated by Edward Snow


Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie en Kandelaber,
in dem sein Schauen, nur zurückgeschraubt,

sich hält und glänzt. 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.

Sonst stünde dieser Stein entstellt und kurz
unter der Schultern durchsichtigem Sturz
und flimmerte nicht so wie Raubtierfelle;

und bräche nicht aus allen seinen Rändern
aus wie ein Stern: denn da ist keine Stelle,
die dich nicht sieht. Du musst dein Leben ändern.

“Dedicated to my great friend, Auguste Rodin”
from Neue Gedichte, 1908

Rainer Maria Rilke arrived in Paris in 1902 as a young man of 26, and within his first two days in the new city sought out the sculptor Auguste Rodin. 

Three years later, he had become Rodin’s secretary, and a devoted student of the great artist’s work. 

His observation of Rodin’s method led Rilke to write what he called Ding-Gedichte: “thing poems,” hard and definitive. Everyday selfhood would be transformed into the fiercely conclusive world of things. In the fall of 1907, Rilke also discovered the paintings of Paul Cezanne. “Making real,” in the manner of Cezanne and Rodin, became for him the task of art.

Rilke published the first book of his Neue Gedichte (New Poems) in 1907. He wrote the second volume, which contains “Archaischer Torso Apollos” (Archaic Torso of Apollo), in about a year, beginning at the end of July 1907; the book appeared in November 1908. (We give the sonnet in German at the end of this essay.) Both books of New Poems draw on objects, people, and creatures that Rilke saw on his walks through Paris; a panther at a zoo, the cathedral of Notre Dame, a blind man in the street. 

The poet fixes his imagination, with great concentration, to the physical world. In “Archaic Torso,” Rilke directs his gaze toward a powerful but fragmentary artwork, the Torso of Miletus in the Louvre. The statue looks back at the poet, and at us, with tremendous intent: the artwork itself guides the poet’s awareness. Rilke’s earlier work depended on his sensibility; his shifting, exploratory moods gave rise to memorable poems. Here, by contrast, the poet claims to inherit insight from the object he describes. In “Archaic Torso”, Rilke’s insistence on the objective is, as his translator Edward Snow comments, “disconcerting” and “almost ruthless.” A near-compulsive force drives the sonnet to its urgent, surprising conclusion.

Shortly after his arrival in Paris, at the time of Rodin’s first overtures, Rilke caught this opposition between life’s feelings and artifice in a mythical figure that left its distinctive stamp on the second part of New Poems. It was the celebrated poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” with its command “You must change your life.”

It is not known with certainty which torso Rilke used. For years he scanned the Louvre for a suitable model in Greek myth or art. In his haphazard way of reading, he also examined tomes of art criticism. A number of figures presented themselves, among them a seated headless statue by Michelangelo (the Torso del Belvedere), described by the eighteenth-century art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann – an intriguing possibility because of Rilke’s admiration for Michelangelo. The more usually assumed model is a youth’s torso from Miletus, displayed at the Louvre. The model might even have been the little figurine the young Rilke had observed decades before, along with the rose bowl, in the study of Hedda Sauer’s father in Prague. 

Whatever the model, Rilke wrote this poem not as an art critic, or even as a connoisseur of art, but as a maker. He made this extraordinary icon with the head and hand of his imagination:

We did not know his unheard-of head,
with eyes like ripening apples. And yet
his torso still glows like glows like a candelabrum
in which his gaze, though turned down low,
holds steady and gleams.

From the very first line, everything in the poem turns on absence, the reflection of past life illuminating a lifeless resent. The transformation of sensuous qualities --- like seeing and hearing --- into nonsensuous art becomes a compilation of negatives. The “unheard-of-head” ----- originally unerhortes Haupt (unerhortes can mean shocking, outrageous and impudent) --- is also a head “unheard” in the sense of not being heard by God.

…. Otherwise the bow
of the beast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the loins’ gentle curve
To that center which bore procreation.

Paradoxically, with denials and subjunctives, a sense of presence is created that continually clashes with the hard fact of a lifeless trunk enlivened only by the absent light, the putative “smile” running through hips and thighs to the missing genitals, the source of passion asserted while being denied. 

Illumination from an absent source irradiates the body’s form. Rilke artfully juxtaposes the rigid --- “dead”--- form of the headless body with the overflowing light ---- “shimmering like furs of beasts of prey”--- filled with the possibility of sensuous motion. Gingerly, always in the subjunctive, the sculptured form is dissolved. Overflowing its special mold, the figure resembles the picture passing through the mirror, which Rilke evoked for Sidie Nadherny. For on the torso so perceived, “there is no place that does not see you.” As the figure of Apollo keeps its self-contained unity even as it expands in its conversation with the viewer, it elicits the famous exhortation You must change your life.

Auguste Rodin
Here Rilke found a precedent in Rodin. Sensuality, he wrote to Clara, quoting Rodin, must spread out and transform itself “until it becomes equally strong and sweet and seductive in every place and every thing.” And he added: “As each thing surmounts the sexual state, it turns, in its most sensuous fullness, into a spiritual state, a presence with which one can only lie in God.” Recorded some months after the poem had become a fact, Rilke visualized how such an overflowing from a sensuous and, in the end, sexual source is denied its living flow to be embedded in the work of art.

The poet had reached a sea change. He created this poem, and the poetics it contains, as a more sophisticated version of his continuing exchange with Rodin, which also contains the passion and horror of his life: the close relationship of sexuality, death, and art; the act of freezing desire into art and its eventual release through the created object that demands of everyone--- reader and poet alike--- a new orientation.

Rilke’s poems provide a kind of mirror for his readers, one that confirms their inwardness. The poet addresses us directly with pure, primordial integrity, or so we feel. Instantly drawn in, we consent to the poem’s authority over us, the authority of (as critic Sven Birkerts puts it) “a world comprehended.” Rilke’s poems, both soothing and rigorous, answer our need. Rilke’s continuing popularity is proof that our appetite for transcendence, a legacy of Romanticism and high modernism, remains with us. His words suggest a saving possibility: a reconsecrating of one’s life.

We see this possibility in “Archaic Torso.” Attention leads to urgency; the pressure of occasion rises and breaks loose into a command. Beauty, the lightning bolt of transcendence, somehow sees into us. In “Archaic Torso”, Rilke produces a paradoxical conjunction of what is most deeply inward, and “what feels furthest away and inhospitable” (as Michael Andrei Bernstein comments). Transcendent beauty shocks us: we are forced out of our usual defensive, possessive stance. We suddenly have a task: the world waits for us to realize it, and wants this realization. This world stands forth, a presence both intimate and alien.

Rilke begins with a lack of knowledge: we never knew the torso’s head. The German phrase is “unerhortes Haupt”, “unheard -of -head” ---- and the adjective “unerhortes” is often used for something unbelievable, astonishing, or absurd. The missing head remains beyond our ken. This is another realm, invisible to us. But the fragmentary sculpture itself, what remains of it, glows like a lamp that has been turned low. “Kandalaber”, Rilke’s word for the lamp, probably means a chandelier with gas flames that can be turned up or down. 

Edward Snow
The word Edward Snow translates as “dimmed” is in German, “screwed back” (zuruckgeschraubt”), and a term that images the statue’s dense, curved core of meaning. The light of the statue’s torso, Rilke continues, “holds fast and shines.” Its power stays contained, a tight source.

The octave of “Archaic Torso” spirals downward. Rilke descends from the mechanical (the gas light chandelier, associated with the figure’s unknown head) to the sexual center, depicted in harshly biological terms. The German “Zeugung” (“procreation”) is a recondite scientific term. Rilke’s choice of words implies that creation is purely instrumental, technical. But Rilke, at the same time, refuses the bristling scientific vocabulary he invokes. He reminds us that the statues genitals are actually broken off. Whatever was there is now an absence--- so the glow of imagination stes in and supplies the missing center. The artist’s subtle, slow ripening of his work appears in the work itself. And so the reference to procreation is mitigated by the soft turning, the “slight twist of the loins” (“leisen Drehen”). The perfect economy of Rilke’s German is notable in the octave, and is brilliantly reproduced, so far as is possible, by Snow.)

The Statue itself makes the oracular statement at the end of “Archaic Torso”: the force outside us breaks in. The statement sounds oracular as in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn (“Beauty is truth, truth beauty….), another poem about an artwork. But in contrast to Keats’s line, Rilke’s does not promise an integral world. Rather, it sounds like a reproach, Art reaches across the gap that separates it from life and finds that life falls short. Like the statue it describes, Rilke’s poem has a jagged edge; it jolts our minds. The statue’s command transports us away from our ordinary habits and into an unexplored realm --- perhaps a frightening one.

Rilke’s “Archaic Torso” has had a lasting impact on American poets, from Randall Jarrell to Robert Lowell to Louise Gluck. But the New Poems (which contain several other remarkable sonnets) were not his last contribution to the sonnet form. In February 1922 Rilke wrote, in a few weeks, his Sonnette an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus). Unlike the New Poems, these sonnets locate themselves not in an object or an experience of contemplation, but in a far-reaching transitive power: the might and precision of poetry itself. Their intricate dance of words is unique to the original German; it cannot be reproduced in translation. Implacable, taut, and wild, these poems have been freed from the things of this world.



Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke, Ralph Freedman

The Art of the Sonnet Stephen Burt, David Mikics



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