Archaic Torso of Apollo by Rainer Maria Rilke is a short four stanza poem, the first stanzas of which contain four lines, and the second two, three lines. Rilke chose to format this poem so that the reader would move quickly through the stanzas. He pauses in the middle of thoughts to create new lines, and creates cliff hangers from one stanza to the next.
The poem has no defined rhyme scheme but the syllabic meter stays fairly constant, with no fewer than nine beats per line, and no more than twelve.
Summary of Archaic Torso of Apollo
Archaic Torso of Apollo details the remaining beauty and power of a damage sculpture missing its head and legs. The piece begins by making clear that neither the speaker, nor the reader, know what the head of the sculpture looked it, but that it must have been majestic. The remaining torso more than makes up for what the sculpture is lacking. In fact, it still seems complete.
The sculpture seems to radiate a light that give it it’s beauty and power. It is this light that tells the speaker and any viewers, that the head must have been gorgeous, otherwise, how could the piece have such brilliance?
The poem concludes with the speaker alluding to a feeling he has. That the sculpture is able to observe him and judge him for the life that he has been leading. The speaker tells his readers that the sculpture will make “you” want to change “your” life. It has power in its beauty, strength, and persuasion. You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Archaic Torso of Apollo
The speaker that Rilke crafts within “Archaic Torso of Apollo” is both relatable and curious. He speaks, perhaps with Rilke’s own voice, to the reading audience, and together, reader and speaker, discover the wonders of the torso of Apollo.
He begins the poem by stating that neither he, nor the reader, or other observers, can know what the “legendary” head belonging to this sculpture looked like. He suspects Apollo to have had “…eyes like ripening fruit.” The fact that the facial features and head are unknowable, is of course to due to the unfortunate state of the statue. It has degraded over time, whether due to the elements, war, or years of vandalism, and it no longer has a head or completed legs.
The following lines are used to say that, even if “we” cannot see the head, the torso more than makes up for it as it,
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp,
The sculpture seems to radiate light, there is a power within the piece of art that is brilliant. The speaker is inferring, from the beauty of the remaining parts, that the “gaze , now turned to low” would have gleamed “in all its power.”
In this stanza the speaker is seeking to substantiate the claims he made about the lost head of the statue. He states that, if the head did not once glow with power,
the curved breast could not dazzle you so,
The two parts of the body should be equal in their brilliance. The speaker continues, saying that if these parts of the body are powerful, so too is the “smile that run[s]” through the hips, thighs, and groin of the sculpture, where the speaker states, “procreation flared.” This description portrays Apollo as being powerful in both his strength and beauty.
The third stanza of “Archaic Torso of Apollo” speaks on what this statue would be like if it did not have this powerful glow that the speaker is entranced by. It would seem instead to be “defaced,” due to the fact that it’s head is missing, rather than constant in it’s power. It would not feel solid and beautiful, but “translucent” as if something vital was missing. Although it would be different, it would still be beautiful as the shoulders as still described as “cascade[ing].”
If this powerful glow was gone, the piece of art would not
glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
It would not strike fear, awe, and reverence in the viewer as it does now. The brilliance of the piece, the glow, is everything.
The fourth stanza continues where the second left off and begins by saying that the statue would not, from “the borders of itself,” or more simply, within itself,
burst like a star:
Once more the speaker is referencing the power of this God, and his statue. He is both beautiful and dreadful.
The poem concludes by expressing what the speaker is now feeling after seeing this sculpture, and what he believes the reader, or other viewers, should be feeling as well. The image of this sculpture will make one feel as if it “sees” them. That is is able to watch “you” and judge “you” for “your” life choices.
It is this feeling of judgment that should inspire a viewer to make some kind of fundamental change to their life. One may feel as if up until now they were living a life less than they are capable of and say to oneself,
You must change your life.
About Rainer Maria Rilke
Rainer Maria Rilke was born the only child of a German family living in Prague. When his schooling began he was sent to a military boarding academy but discharged, after transferring to second school, for health reasons. He published his first book, Leben und Lieber: Bilder und Tagebuchblatter the year after he enrolled at Charles-Ferdinand University to study philosophy. This did not last long though, as he soon left for Munich to study art. While there we had a number of his plays put on and published two additional collections of poetry.
His work during this time of his life is characterized by its romanticism and lyrical nature. He would later be considered the most skilled of the German lyric poets. Rilke took a pivotal trip to Russia in 1897 that is seen as the beginning of his more serious work. Eventually Rilke would settle in Paris and marry Clara Westhoff. It was there that he enjoyed his greatest success including his most well known work, Das Studen Buch or The Book of Hours. Throughout his life, his skill at crafting lyrical poetry would only increase and at the beginning of World War I Rilke was forced to leave France and return to Munich. He died of leukemia there in December of 1926.