Friday, May 4, 2012

New English Translation of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”—Learning from Rilke, Part 2

One of Rainer Maria Rilke’s most famous works is “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” In that short poem he solders together radical opposites. The Apollonian (pure abstract art) and the Dionysian (sensual, physical) are often thought of as opposites. But in his description of a statue of the god Apollo, Rilke uses Dionysian language to depict that artwork. He combines the cool energy of classic art with the hot energy of the body, and then Rilke pulls off one of the greatest endings in the history of poetry.
The word “archaic” in the poem’s title resonates in different ways. It refers specifically to the Archaic period in ancient Greek art from 600 to 480 B.C.E., when it was standard for sculptures of human figures to have a smiling face. In fact, that type of expression is called The Archaic Smile.

Greek statue with "The Archaic Smile"
But the word “archaic” is also partly ironic in the title of this poem, since nothing could be as immediate as this statue the way Rilke describes it. The poem is contemporary in its diction, but it’s a Petrarchan sonnet, another fusion of opposites. I’ve tried in this new version of Rilke’s most frequently translated poem to bring out the poem’s oddly indirect directness (almost every statement except the last is a negative). I’ve also tried to include the poem’s sensuality, often censored in translation. To emphasize the impact of the poem’s last phrase, I’ve brought it into contemporary English. Here’s my translation:

Archaic Torso of Apollo
by Rainer Maria Rilke

We’ll never know the incredible head
where his eyes ripen like apples. No,
but that torso is a lamp, and in its glow
his gaze does appear, turned down instead,

but hovering, glistening. Otherwise the arc of his breast
wouldn’t dazzle you, and in the slight
twist of his loins a smile wouldn’t alight
in the center, where the virile parts nest.

Otherwise this stone would be stunted, marred
under those shoulders that plunge hard,
wouldn’t flicker like a wild animal’s coat;

wouldn’t burst from its edges, knife
like a star: there’s nowhere on him so remote
it doesn’t see you: you’ve got to change your life.

(translation © 2017 by Zack Rogow)

            “Archaic Torso of Apollo” derives its force from a particular electricity generated when the directness of life collides with the distance of art. The one object Rilke describes in this poem, an ancient Greek statue of a male torso that he saw in the Louvre Museum in Paris, combines the vitality of the body and ripe fruit (the apple eyes) with the world of ancient art.
            To me it seems that Rilke is deliberately emphasizing the sensuality of this statue, drawing our attention to its breast and crotch, comparing its glow to the pelt of a predatory beast.
            The torso in Rilke’s poem may be buff, but it’s beheaded and de-sexed. It has neither the power of thought, nor the virility of its genitals, nor lips to kiss, nor arms to hold or legs to clench.

            Then why does this broken block of stone mean that we must change our lives—demand that we change our lives? Rilke begins by telling us we can’t see the statue’s eyes, but then reverses direction by saying the torso can see us, with its nipples like eyes and its pelvis curving upward in a knowing smile. The poem continually picks up momentum as it displays the miracle of a headless body that looks at us, smiles at us, even pierces us with its invisible glance. The poem tells us that art strips us bare, throws light on the deepest caverns of our souls, and only when we accept that are we ready to change our lives and begin the trek of our destiny. But that knowledge also produces a smile, even in the most unlikely place: a headless torso.


  1. I have been looking for a good English translation in vain. Thanks for finally delivering one! Thumbs up! The explication is equally valuable. Greetings from Hungary

  2. Thanks for your comment. I have to say my translation is not as close to the German as I might like. With translations, you always have to triangulate: look at one that is close to the original in meaning, another that is close in spirit, and another that is close in form. Other translations of this poem I'd recommend: Stephen Mitchell's and Galway Kinnell's.

  3. If possible, would you please tell me who sculpted the statue you pictured to illustrate
    the poem? Do you think this was the statue Rilke had in mind? Of course, in a way,
    it doesn't matter. But I would like to know as I love Rilke and I love sculpture.
    Thanks for considering this.

  4. The statue in the photo is the one that is thought to have inspired Rilke's poem, "Archaic Torso of Apollo." I don't believe the name of the sculptor is known, since the sculpture is from ancient Greece and dates from the 5th century B.C.E.

  5. thank you so much for this translation.after years of trying to elucidate

    the meanin of this sonnet you have opened my mind.

  6. Thanks so much for that comment, Victor. Much appreciated! Zack

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  8. Thanks for the post. There's some things in your framing of the poem and your translation that I'd like to discuss.

    It's interesting to frame Rilke's delving into the poem as his combining Apollonian and Dionysian elements. Brining up the 'archaic smile' seems at first relevant too--but I wonder whether these elements truly factor into the poem? In the original German, there isn't exactly a dance between logic and frivolity. The diction doesn't suggest that. It suggests that the narrator 'sieht ein', that he 'looks into' the thing of observation. That's consistent with Rilke's tendency to write 'Dinggedichte', or 'thing-poems'. They would meditate on a specific object to understand its thingness or whatness, somewhat in line with Heidegger's thinking on being and whatness. So in that sense, I would say that Rilke relies more on his own mental-creative architecture (and to an extent Rodin and Cezanne's) to create this poem.

    This poem is indeed a sonnet, but not exactly a pure Petrarchan. The original uses: abba cddc eef gfg. The 'eef' is most curious, as I've seldom seen that specific arrangement. Its weirdness also highlights that stanza, the first in which the statue becomes savage and gains its animalistic qualities, the 'Raubtierfelle'.

    Specific to your translation's diction, a few seem out of place. 'but that torso is a lamp' is not totally correct, because the original uses a simile instead of a metaphor, and that simile established an important distance between the narrator and the object and a mysteriousness about the animateness of the torso. The 'arc' of the breast is actually 'der Bug' in the German, which is the bow of a ship, aircraft, or in roofing. This diction implies that the torso itself is a kind of vessel. 'Dazzle' I bet may have been influenced by the Mitchell translation--the original German is 'sich blenden', a reflexive verb meaning 'to blind'. There's a sense of overwhelming in 'sich blenden' that can combine with physical blinding. And yes, dazzles captures some of that, but also has a connotation of vacant flashiness. Hence, I disagree with translating 'sich blenden' so. 'Twist' is kind of faithful to 'Drehen' but also lacks the physical momentum of the German. 'Where the virile parts nest' is a little wonky. With the phrase being 'die die Zeugung trug', it literally translates to 'which held procreation'. 'Knife / like a star' is a strange personification and verb to ascribe to a star. And finally 'You've got to change your life' does not have the same gravity as the conventional translation 'You must change your life'. It also sounds too much like copy from a 12-step program brochure.

    And I don't think the end portends a sunny destiny: I think the monstrosity revealed by looking deep into the heart of the torso is startling and troubling. The narrator is incensed by that--rather than some smile--to change his life.