Archaic Torso of Apollo

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Archaic Torso of Apollo




Rainer Maria Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" was published, in German, in 1908, in a volume of his poems called New Poems. Not only are these new poems in the sense of being (at the time) poems recently written, but they are poems in which Rilke intended to bring something new to poetry, to in fact make a new kind of poem.

Rilke attempted in New Poems to write poems about objects, like statues or animals, which stood before the reader like concrete things in their own right, realities that were independent of the observer. "Archaic Torso of Apollo," a poem written about an encounter with a sculpture, ought to exist itself for its reader like a piece of sculpture or a painting. Both the sculpture and the poem serve as models for the reader, defining how the reader might be or, in fact, ought to be. That is the creative agenda behind the poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo." The observer does not define the object. The object defines the observer.

It is clear from works like "Archaic Torso of Apollo" that some of the strongest influences on Rilke came from other arts, particularly sculpture and painting. The sculptor Rilke most admired was Auguste Rodin, for whom Rilke worked as secretary from 1905 until 1906. From Rodin, Rilke learned the importance of things, that inert matter transformed by art can become spiritually alive. The painter Rilke most admired

was Paul Cézanne. Following Cézanne's influence, the art Rilke favored tended to present objects to the beholder in such a way that the beholder experiences the object (a poem, a sculpture, a painting) anew, as if it had never been seen or understood before.

"Archaic Torso of Apollo," in a translation by Stephen Mitchell, alongside the original German, can be found in the 1989 edition of The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell, and published by Vintage International.


René Karl Wilhelm Johann Joseph Maria Rilke was born on December 4, 1875, in Prague. His father, Joseph Rilke, was a minor railroad official. His mother, Sophia Entz, was thirteen years younger than her husband, and separated from him when Rilke was nine years old.

Born prematurely, Rilke was a sickly child. His delicate health was cause for concern to his mother, especially because a daughter, born a year before Rilke, died a week after her birth. To compensate for the loss of that child, Rilke's mother dressed Rilke in long dresses, despite her husband's objections. Joseph Rilke, however, gave his son dumbbells for exercise and toy soldiers to play with. Rilke's mother, again in opposition to her husband's wishes, encouraged Rilke, beginning when he was seven, to write poetry. Joseph nevertheless supported Rilke as a young man. Rilke's biographer, Ralph Freedman, reports that Rilke wrote that his mother was "a pleasure-loving, miserable being." Of his father, Rilke wrote: "Only my papa bestowed upon me love combined with care and solicitude."

After his parents' separation, Rilke was sent, at the age of ten, to a military boarding school, where he spent the next four years. When he left St. Pölten's in 1890, Rilke had two ambitions, to be a soldier and to be a poet. He had a notebook full of poems; many of them were about soldiering, but he was hardly successful or happy as a practicing soldier in the gymnasium (or high school) and on the drilling field. He enrolled in the Mahrisch-Weisskirchenn Military Academy but left in 1891 before obtaining his commission. Rilke then attended the Handelsakademie, a business school in Linz, Austria, but he left in 1892 without completing a degree. From 1895 to 1896, Rilke attended the University of Prague. In 1897, Rilke changed his name to Rainer Maria Rilke.

In 1901, Rilke married Clara Westhoff, a sculptor who had been a pupil of Rodin. Rilke and Westhoff had a daughter, but separated after a year, leaving Ruth in the care of Westhoff's mother, as they each pursued their respective careers. Rilke had by this time published many lyrics, lyrical stories, and essays. He was particularly interested in painting and sculpture, and as part of a project to write about Rodin, he became Rodin's secretary in 1905. Working with Rodin taught Rilke to think of his own poetry as an attempt to represent spiritual and psychological conditions through the re-creation of concrete things in his lyrics. "Archaic Torso of Apollo" is one of the poems that emerged from his period of apprenticeship to Rodin, as it appeared only a few years later in New Poems in 1908.

In 1910, Rilke published The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, his most important work of prose fiction. That year, too, Rilke began the Duino Elegies, verse meditations on beauty, solitude, and terror, written at a castle called Duino, in Switzerland. The onset of World War I interrupted the work, and Rilke returned to Germany to serve in the War Department in 1916. Afterwards, he spent most of his time in Switzerland, tending his rose garden. In 1923, he finished the ten Duino Elegies, which are considered to be his masterwork. That same year, he composed the Sonnets to Orpheus. Rilke died of leukemia in 1926. It is said that in his last weeks he told friends that the specific cause of his dying was an infection he got pricking his finger on a rose's stem. Since his death, Rilke has come to be regarded as one of the greatest German lyric poets. Rilke also garnered a reputation for existential wisdom after the publication of Letters to A Young Poet, a series of letters written throughout the first decade of the twentieth century.


This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.


Stanza 1

"Archaic Torso of Apollo" begins with a statement of fact: since the head of the statue is missing, "we" do not know what it looked like. The rest of the poem explores the torso, which is what remains of the ruined statue. The poet finds that the trunk, which ought to be a mute and meaningless piece of stone, contains the life force and the meaning that might have been found in the head. Thus, the absence of the head does not diminish the expressive power of the statue. The qualities that existed in the incomprehensible head—incomprehensible because it is absent as well as because it is a rendering of an unseen divinity—may still be found in the body itself. The absence of the head signifies a hole in "our" knowledge, not a defect or deficit in the statue. This is the thing "we cannot know," but it is something "we" can imagine. The speaker imagines the eyes as "ripening fruit," in Mitchell's translation, or "apple-eyes" (the German augenäpfel) in the original. In either case, the image suggests the eyes are growing into ripeness and are glowing with that ripeness, full with roundness and rich with light and life. The poem's transition from the imagined head to the actual body, which still exists, comes with the abrupt "and yet" towards the end of the second line. It is a transition that is even sharper in the original German.

In the original, the word "but" (aber in German) stands alone as the last word on the second line. "But," the speaker says, even if "we cannot know" his head, the body of the statue remains and is, in Mitchell's translation, "suffused with brilliance from inside, / like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, / gleams in all its power." This can be confusing. The headless body can gaze, and that gaze is "like a lamp." And, though the sculpture's gaze is dimmed ("turned to low"), it still shines brightly ("gleams in all its power"). If the lamp is dim, how can it "gleam"? In the original German, however, the lines roughly translate as "his Torso yet glows like a candelabra, / in which his gaze, only turned back / shines and gleams." William H. Gass, in his book Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, quotes J.B. Leishman, an early translator of Rilke's verse, in order to explain that "in Germany and Austria the word Kandelaber ‘was the usual word for a streetlamp: not for the comparatively short post with a single square lantern, but for the much taller and more elegant sort with two globes, each suspended from either end of a wide semicircular crosspiece.’" In Gass's translation, then, the image that Rilke created becomes clear and can be pictured: "his Torso glows as if his look were set above it in suspended globes that shed a street's light down." The missing eyes are now not like apples, but like two street lamps suspended on each end of a curved crosspiece atop a pole, hanging above the street. The way they cast light back down onto the pavement is the way the invisible, no longer present eyes they represent cast light down onto and into the torso. In this way, the torso is illuminated and is also illuminating.

Stanza 2

Although there is a new stanza, there is not a new sentence. Line 4 in stanza 1 flows into line 5, the first line of stanza 2. This blurring of boundaries provides an indication of Rilke's belief in the unity of perception that exists despite the formal separations art makes (i.e. the separate stanzas) in conveying perception. The speaker, then, concludes that the source of light, the eyes, although apparently missing, must be illuminating the torso because, "otherwise / the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could / a smile run through the placid hips and thighs / to that dark center where procreation flared." The poet is describing not only the unity of vitality that the trunk reveals, but also the effect of viewing that vitality; he is, in a word, "dazzle[d]." He also attributes this impression to several things about the art work: the way the curve of the breast has been sculpted, the gentle fashioning of the hips and thighs that move the eyes of the viewer to the center of the body, to the genitals. The pleasure the poet experiences because the sculpture guides his eyes in a graceful movement becomes an attribute of the torso. In the original German, there is no corresponding adjective for the "dark center." There is only a suggestion of awe at the delicately carved masculinity in the stone; awe at the artistry that transforms the torso from inexpressive rock to the repository and source of the essential spirit of a primary life force. The poet does not interpret the trunk; he beholds it. In doing so, the speaker realizes that the force of life, with which the god he perceives in the torso is imbued, is his as well as the torso's. The speaker sees, and the poem shows, that the torso is a commentary on him (and on "us") showing him what he (and "we") might be.

Stanza 3

The third stanza continues by repeating the word "otherwise," to explain that the light of the staue's gaze is actually a property of the ruined torso and not only of its missing eyes. "Otherwise this stone would seem defaced / beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders," the speaker explains. "Defaced" in Mitchell's translation, signifying mutilated or deformed, by a play of language, also suggests the part of the statue that is missing—the face. This word play does not exist in the original. The words enstellt and kurz signify "deformed" and "shortened," as indeed the statue ought to look, being a trunk without the upward sweep of a neck meeting a face. But something about the craftsmanship of the body prevents it from appearing stunted. There is a "translucent cascade of the shoulders" that gives length to the torso, and the body "glisten[s] like a wild beast's fur." With the strange image comparing marble to an animal's pelt, the poem does not compare visible surfaces but rather compares the qualities suggested by visible surfaces. This work of art, an ancient representation of the trunk of a god, confined in a museum, has in it the same element of vital energy that radiates from a living wild animal because of the artist's skill.

Stanza 4

If the life of the eyes were not somehow glowing in the trunk, the trunk would not have the power to fascinate the observer. It would not seem like the representation of something vital. Nevertheless, the vitality of the trunk is so intense that it "burst[s] like a star" beyond the "borders of itself." The effect that the torso has on the poet/observer of the torso makes it seem to him that he is the observed, that "there is no place / that does not see you." The speaker is indeed in the presence of a god. He is watched, seen, by the thing he is looking at. Then, the tone of the poem changes abruptly. The lyrical description of the torso gives way to a realization and an exhortation: "You must change your life."

How does looking at a marble torso, no matter how artfully crafted, lead to such a conclusion? One wonders to whom the word "you" actually refers. Does it refer to the poet or to the reader, and who is speaking, the poet or the statue? Is the poet, speaking to himself, being overheard by the reader? Or is the poet addressing the reader just as the torso addresses the poet? If so, then the poem has become the torso—a work of art that demands change of its viewer (i.e. the reader).

What about the torso or the poem leads to such an exhortation? The torso contains a life power, it is something that "burst[s] like a star" beyond the "borders of itself." The torso in its vibrancy is a critique of the observer and a revelation of a primal human force, a force that the viewer senses is lacking in his own being. Seeing the torso, the speaker is overwhelmed by this insight. If "we,"—the "we" that opens the poem (meaning all humanity, including the poet)—see the torso through the poet's eyes, then we are obliged to realize that we are not who we ought to be. That is to say, we are not our true selves; we are instead the selves constructed, and thus curtailed, by our society. The trunk is authentic. "We" are not. Although the Apollo is decapitated, it is still whole. Thus, the presence of the headless, yet vibrant, torso reveals that "we," who seem to be whole, are far more "defaced" than the faceless statue.


The Ability of Matter to Represent Spirit

The speaker is clear in "Archaic Torso of Apollo" that the object looked upon is stone, something that exists entirely in the realm of matter. Yet, at the same time, the speaker is looking at something immaterial that is revealed by the stone. The poem is not about the material object that he stands before in contemplation. The poem is about the spirit invested in that stone and its intangible effect on the beholder. That spirit is represented in the stone through the sculptor's art. Through the poet's contemplation of the physical object, that spirit breaks out of the stone ("from all the borders of itself, / burst[s] like a star") and is reconstituted as an idea in the poet: "You must change your life."


Implicit in "Archaic Torso of Apollo" is a critique of a life led without authenticity. This critique is the result of a revelation achieved through artistry, which the torso imparts. The physical beauty of the statue is a metaphor for an authentic aspect of humanity that the poet senses is lacking in both his body and his spirit. The poem does not reveal what authenticity is. Finding or defining that is another pursuit. The poem, rather, only forces awareness on the poet, the understanding that he is missing something that the statue, fragmented as it is, still possesses.


  • Using a German-English dictionary and other translations of the "Archaic Torso of Apollo," make a translation of your own and write a set of notes, at least two notes per line, explaining the choices you made in composing your translation.
  • Visit a museum near you and select one particular work of art—a painting, a sculpture, or an installation—that interests you. Do not be judgmental about your response, as you may choose a work that you either like or dislike. In a poem, describe the work and its effect upon you. During the process, see if you can or cannot discover why the work intrigues you.
  • Ask the following set of questions of six people that you know, and try to interview people in varying age groups: Have you ever had a life-changing experience or an experience that made you realize "you must change your life"? If so, what was it? Describe in detail the cause of the experience, the nature of the experience, and the nature of your response to the experience. Next, write up the individual responses. Discuss, as well, what differences and similarities you find when you compare and contrast responses.
  • After researching the works and the aesthetic ideas of Rodin and Cézanne, imagine a conversation between them in which they discuss Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo."
  • "Archaic Torso of Apollo" touches upon philosophical ideas that can be attributed to Modernism and Phenomenology. Prepare a short lesson to present to your class in which you define and explain these two schools of thought. Note any similarities you perceive between Modernism and Phenomenology, and the ways in which they do or do not relate to the poem.


"Archaic Torso of Apollo" begins with the poet's awareness that the statue he is observing has been changed by time. It is now a decapitated ruin. The poem ends by returning to the idea of change, but this time as a deliberate act that "must" be undertaken. The speaker's awareness of change comes from an understanding that the torso possesses a force of life within it that negates the change that ruin has wrought upon it. The change that "must" be made by the poet, and by the reader, is the kind that will restore the unchanging power the torso embodies.


"Archaic Torso of Apollo" speaks first of what "we" do not know. The idea of knowledge is thus introduced into the poem as an absence. The lines that follow constitute an attempt at knowing, at discovering a way through ignorance to knowledge, past what is missing towards what is present. First presented as intuition (the poet intuits what the eyes of the statue were like), knowledge then becomes a matter of deductive reasoning, as the repeated word "otherwise," indicates. The light from the eyes is still in the trunk, "otherwise" the torso would be rubble rather than art, a ruin rather than an icon. The accumulation of details, revealed by the images they suggest, whether a street lamp, a missing set of genitals, or a beast's pelt, coalesce into a sudden configuration, into the conclusive insight of the poem, the poet's realization that "You must change your life."

Mind-Body Connection and Opposition

Implicitly, Rilke confronts the idea of the connection and opposition between the mind and the body. The head of Apollo no longer exists. There is only the body. Yet, in the torso, there seems to be nothing lacking. The power of the head, which is supposedly achieved in the intensity of its gaze, feels somehow present in the remaining trunk. The mind-body split, however, results from the conflict of two forces or tendencies—intellectual apprehension of the world in conjunction with repression of deep rooted currents of being, which together seem essential for civilized society. This physical, emotional, or intuitive aspect of human beings results in a connection to the world that is immediate and that overrides the intellect. Perhaps it is this mode of being that the speaker becomes aware of, and wishes to emulate, as he contemplates the ruined statue.

The Relationship between a Work of Art and the Observer of the Work of Art

Rilke breaks down the subject-object, observer-observed duality. Instead he postulates a reciprocal unity of perception between the observer and the thing perceived. Each becomes a part of the other; each, the object of the other's gaze. The poet himself becomes aware of being the statue's object of contemplation and as such is vulnerable to the statue's critique of him, which is inherent in its formal perfection—a perfection that, although it is his birthright, the poet realizes he lacks.


Conversational Tone

"Archaic Torso of Apollo" is a difficult poem. In complex images and telescoped metaphors (apple eyes; street lamp; beast's fur) it expresses a strong critique of how people construct themselves in civilized society. In the original German it is, also, a formally well-constructed sonnet. It is a fourteen-line poem with an exemplary rhyme scheme (abba, cddc, eef, gfg), which Mitchell does not try to reproduce in the English. Nevertheless, the tone of the poem is conversational in both languages. The poet seems to be talking to someone or to a group, as if he were a guide leading a group through a museum and stopping to explain the exhibits. He begins the poem with the word "We" and continues as if lecturing with a pointer, exploring the surface and the notable aspects of the torso of Apollo.


Technically, polysyndeton refers to the repetition of a conjunction, usually "and," for the creation of an overwhelming effect: tables and chairs and sofas and mirrors and beds and desks and lamps and bookcases. In "Archaic Torso of Apollo," Rilke does not repeat the word "and" in this manner. He does, however, strategically repeat the word "otherwise," as the introduction to a counter statement. Moreover, "otherwise" follows the use of the word "but" in order to serve the same function of contradicting what might be expected. The effect of this kind of repetition is to endow the poem with the feeling that it is a logical argument, that it is a kind of discourse with premises and a conclusion that follows from those premises. In actuality, the poem is not an intellectual diagram but the diagram of an insight the poet experiences following intellectual contemplation.

Sensuous Imagery

The curved breast of the statue, the turn of the hips, the absent genitals, the fur of an animal, a starburst—these are all sensuous images. Because there are several such images over the course of fourteen lines, they combine to present the object the poet observes as a tangible thing and to suggest the climactic response the poet has to the object. Thus, the poem seems to indicate that sensuous experience is what teaches, not intellectual activity. The torso, by means of what it can only suggest because of its mutilation, as well as by what still remains of it, exists as the distillation of these images.



A god of the ancient Greeks, Apollo represented many functions. Primarily, he was the god of medicine and the healing arts. As such he also represented light (the sun) and truth, and, by extension, Apollo was the god of poetry and music. He was always represented as a handsome young man. In Rilke's poem, all the identities or functions of the god coalesce. The ruined, but still handsome, statue of Apollo inspires Rilke's lyric through the higher implications of physical or artistic beauty.


  • 1900s: Rilke lives in a time when great cultural transitions in Europe are occurring, ways of seeing, understanding, and representing the world are changing, and even governments and national empires are changing or crumbling.

    Today: Geopolitical arrangements are undergoing significant change, as the European and North American domination of culture, thought, and politics is being challenged by Islamic cultures, and American technological supremacy is being superseded by advances made in Japan, China, and Korea. Additionally, recent theories put forth by physicists, such as String Theory, have again changed the way people view their experience of the world.

  • 1900s: For Rilke and those of his generation, Paris is the center of the artist's universe, where poetry, sculpture, and painting are being reinvented.

    Today: Artists find Paris to be a museum of past achievement, and they view New York City and Berlin as centers for innovative art.

  • 1900s: Philosophers, psychologists, and artists challenge accepted notions of perception, asserting the inadequacy of objectivity and arguing that reality is a creation of individual perception.

    Today: Cultural conservatives challenge the idea that reality has a basis in subjective experience determined by individual perceptions. Cultural progressives defend a multi-dimensional idea of reality that acknowledges the interplay of individual experience with external events as forces that work in combination to define reality.

Modernism and Phenomenology

Modernism was a movement in the arts that arose during the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth century as a reaction to what its practitioners considered the excesses of the nineteenth century, particularly in the way nineteenth-century artists proposed a strictly objective experience of reality. Modernism destroyed such objectivity and instead favored the subjectivity of perception as the defining element of reality. In her essay, "Modern Fiction," the English novelist, Virginia Woolf, 1878-1941, succinctly set forth the aim of Modernism. "Let us," she wrote, "record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon consciousness."

Phenomenology is a philosophical system developed by Edmund Husserl over the same period of time. It is an attempt to study the observation of things as they are, which means as they are perceived, ignoring pre-existing ideas about them. Phenomenology argues that the natures of the thing perceived and of the person perceiving are interdependent, and thus concludes that subjective perception is the only true perception. Things do not have objective existence independent of any perception of them, so the thing that is perceived takes its identity from the perceiver, and the one perceiving takes identity from the thing perceived. In "Archaic Torso of Apollo," the poet and the torso derive their identities from each other.

Rodin and Cézanne

A sculptor and a painter, not another poet, exerted the greatest influence on Rilke. The French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, 1840-1917, changed the course of sculptural representation, presenting the art of sculpture at a level of heightened realism that had previously been lacking. Sculpture had been a formal and decorative art, often taking ancient and monumental figures for its models. Rodin celebrated the actual human body (as opposed to the ideal) in complex yet common positions, often showing the embrace of lovers, in an attempt to evoke a more spiritual effect. This sensitivity is at the heart of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo."

French, Post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, 1839-1906, drew on the work of the Impressionists like Claude Monet, 1840-1926, building even further upon their ideas. Like them, he used the visual subject of his paintings to explore the art of painting itself, the underlying spirit of the visual subject, and the psychology of perception. This approach reinforces the idea that the visual subject exists not in itself but as the object of perception.


Acknowledged in Jeffrey Hart's National Review article as "one of the most important poets of the European modernist movement," Rilke has come to represent the archetypal poet as an inward-looking lyricist. In his poetry, Rilke defines himself by his relation to the world about him. His is a poetry that gathers images from the world, absorbs and reflects them, and extracts their spiritual meanings through verse. "Rilke's most immediate and obvious influence has been upon diction and imagery," and he was able "to express abstract ideas in concrete terms," the poet W.H. Auden argues in a New Republic article. "With a romantic naivete for which we may feel some nostalgia now, and out of a precocity for personality as well as verse, Rilke struggled his entire life to be a poet—not a pure poet, but purely a poet," William H. Gass asserts in his Nation review of Rilke's Uncollected Poems. Lee Siegel, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, comments that "Rilke was one of the most gifted and conscientious artists who ever lived. … His poetry, fiction, and prose embody a search for a way to be good without God." Rilke was a poet, according to Mark Rudman in the Nation,who "raid[ed] the knowable through the visual." Judith Ryan observes, in Rilke, Modernism, and Poetic Tradition, that "the radiance that emanates from the sculpture is not an effect of wholeness, but rather of its fragmentary nature." Rudman argues, that, influenced by Cézanne, "Rilke insists that we should learn to look at things as if no one had ever looked at them before." Rudman notes, too, that Rilke said of Cézanne's paintings: "It's as if every place were aware of all the other places." Rudman adds that "one hears this insight amplified, transformed, in the poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo.’" Jeffrey Meyers, writing in the National Review, objects to the general admiration surrounding Rilke. Meyers also objects to the assessment that Rilke is a poet who exemplifies profound human sensitivity. He argues that Rilke missed a "meaningful connection with the outside world and [was incapable of] either friendship or love." These alleged failings, Meyers concludes, "led to an exquisite and ethereal poetry that lacked human emotion." But Rudman, discussing Rilke's inward quest, sees the poet differently: "His work tells us that we are solitary by nature but that absence is not loss, that in forever taking leave, we encounter being." Gass calls Rilke "a priest of the poet's art," and asserted that Rilke "takes the European lyric to new levels of achievement."


Neil Heims

Heims is a writer and teacher living in Paris. In the following essay, Heims discusses Rilke's belief in the reciprocal, linked relation between an object and the person who beholds it. Heims asserts that this belief is not only defined in "Archaic Torso of Apollo," but that the poem itself is an invitation to the reader to experience this reciprocity.

Rilke is a difficult poet, especially for readers who must approach him in translation. Often, in translation, the lyricism of his German turns into slightly awkward, intellectualized, and out-of-focus English. His subject, moreover, is, in large part, the sudden perception of philosophical realities. Indeed, although these realities shape and define our responses to the material world, and although they arise as the result of our encounters with the material world, they are not material in and of themselves. They are something like unseen electrical or spiritual currents running through us and connecting us to the objects and events of the surrounding material world that confront us and that we confront. These currents give matter its vitality. They are available to be perceived when we see beyond matter, when we look with an inward gaze and attempt to perceive the world with the sensitivity of a poet; i.e., when we experience the world through our spirituality. For Rilke, a poet is defined less as the practitioner of a craft than as the possessor of an exceptional sensibility that informs the craft.

"Most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered," Rilke wrote on February 17, 1903, in a letter to Mr. Kappus, a young poet who had written to him for criticism and guidance. In their correspondence, written over a period of five years, Rilke suggested that there is a depth of silence within each person and that a fundamental, personal truth resides in that silence. Rilke also indicated that the closer a person approaches to that silence, the closer he or she comes to approaching their own particular and fundamental nature and, consequently, their own truth. Thus, there is not one truth that is universally applicable. There are innumerable personal truths and it is the existential burden of each person to discover the truth by which he or she is formed. Because of the multiplicity of human beings, multiple perspectives and points of view determine truth. Truth is embodied and embedded in each individual. An object of art, like a poem or a sculpture, for Rilke, is a particular expression of a particular truth.

A work of art, rather than being an object, is an encounter that produces a revelation. It is the product of an encounter between two silences, the silence of the person in quest of truth or authenticity and the silence of the inner, underlying self. This revelation is illustrated in "Archaic Torso of Apollo." According to Rilke, an artist is a person who can emerge from such an encounter between two silences with something new, an object of art—a poem or a sculpture or a musical composition. A reader of a poem, or the viewer of a sculpture, provides a third silence contemplating the silence of the art work, of the poem or the sculpture, as if it were his or her own silence. Thus, "Archaic Torso of Apollo" is not only an illustration and product of this phenomena, it also perpetuates the phenomena each time it is read.


  • Sigmund Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900. In this revolutionary study, Freud postulates the idea of an unconscious, a hidden part of ourselves that, despite being hidden from us, or because it is hidden from us, exerts strong power over us without our knowledge. According to Freud, the unconscious can be revealed through the study of dreams.
  • John Keats's poem "Ode on A Grecian Urn" was first published in 1820. The poem contemplates the scene of an ancient celebration engraved on an ancient urn and considers the art's ability to reveal truth.
  • Rilke's Duino Elegies were written from 1912 to 1922. In this series of ten poems, Rilke grapples with the problems of describing the human experience from the point of view of an inner-directed, subjective consciousness as it encounters the pleasures and terrors of being alive in the world as an isolated individual.
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem "Ozymandias" was published in 1818. Shelley's sonnet tells of an encounter with a traveler who speaks of the ruined statue of an ancient king, and of the lesson that is derived from that encounter.
  • Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of the Jar" was published in 1923. In this puzzle of a poem, Stevens meditates on the function of art in bridging the distance between wild and cultivated nature.
  • Spring's Awakening was published in 1891 by Frank Wedekind. Spring's Awakening is a play that concerns the sexual awakening and sexual torment of teenagers. It is set at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when the forces of repression and the forces of desire were about to come into cultural conflict.
  • Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse was published in 1927. Woolf's tale of a family in conflict with itself, told from subjective points of view, is a principal work of Modernism, as is Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo."

An encounter with art is complex not just because it is an encounter with another silence but because it is an encounter with one's own silence as that silence is represented within a given work of art. According to Rilke, art is a thing outside oneself that startles one into realizing his or her essential inwardness represented in an apparently external thing. An external thing, according to the principles of Phenomenology (of which Rilke was an adherent), is not really external at all. The archaic torso of Apollo (the thing, not the poem) is nothing other than the poet or person who is looking at it. In the poem, the torso represents the hidden body of the poet that the poet discovers in the sculpted marble form—which is itself really nothing more than a piece of ruined stone—but that is also dazzlingly alive with a revelation of the truth of life because of the poet's gaze upon it. The poet's discovery of the silent part of himself in the silent part of the statue embodies the narrative of "Archaic Torso of Apollo."

The ideas of mutuality and interdependence (the linked relationship between the viewer and the object) are primary for Rilke's understanding of the experience of art. The artist, in Rilke's understanding of art, embodies a sensitivity that can enter into the silence of another sensitivity, and then merge with it. By doing so, the artist discovers something essential about himself, and if he is a very great artist, presents those who encounter his work with something essential about themselves. This is why "Archaic Torso of Apollo" ends with a revelation. The "You must change your life" is a statement that is not meant as a command or entreaty. It simply expresses the poet's epiphany, and perhaps it invites the reader to experience this epiphany as well.

What is there in the Greek statue that speaks to the poet? In a short essay called "Concerning Landscape," which Rilke wrote in 1902, he addresses the difference between the way the Greeks saw people and the way people were viewed after the introduction of Christianity.

It is safe to assume that [Antiquity] saw people as later painters have seen landscape. In the scenes of their vases … the surroundings … are only mentioned … but the naked human beings are everything, they are like trees bearing fruit … and like springs in which the birds are singing. In that age the body, which was cultivated like a piece of land, tended carefully like a harvest … was the thing looked upon, was beauty, was the image through which all meanings passed in rhythmic movements, gods and animals, and all life's senses. … Christian art lost this connexion with the body.

The Greek representation of the body in art shows the way the Greeks saw and thought about the body. When the poet looks at the torso of Apollo he sees and understands the Greek point of view. Additionally, the poet is made aware that his own persona has been shaped by the societal concepts and beliefs of his day, and that this is what he must change or transcend. In other words, the formative Christian culture must be changed. Seeing the statue reveals to the poet that the culture has devitalized the body and consequently robbed it of the spirit that turns matter into vitality. This realization is brought about by viewing art, and by creating art, Rilke attempts to represent this. The torso in "Archaic Torso of Apollo" stands for both the human ideal and the decay of that ideal, but even the decay itself is viewed as authentic. What is required of the artist, or even of the life that "must" be changed, is a sensitivity that can probe the artifact and discover its undisturbed essence, a sensitivity that can allow the observer/poet to fuse his consciousness with the consciousness discovered within the artifact.

Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on "Archaic Torso of Apollo," in Poetry for Students, Gale, 2008.

William Waters

In the following excerpt, Waters explores the similarities of the theme in "Archaic Torso of Apollo" and the theme in Rilke's Sonnet 2.12 from Sonnets to Orpheus. Both poems exhort the reader to change or transform, and both, Waters posits, are successful because they do not indicate how to effect that change. The poems thus become ethically ambiguous and this, Waters concludes, is where their resonance lies.

If there is a theme pervading the Sonnets to Orpheus as a whole, it is that of transformation. One poem in which this theme is explicit (2.12) moves from stanza to stanza as a progress through the four elements of fire, earth or rock, water, and air:

Wolle die Wandlung. O sei für die Flamme
drin sich ein Ding dir entzieht, das mit
    Verwandlungen prunkt;
jener entwerfende Geist, welcher das
    Irdische meistert,
liebt in dem Schwung der Figur nichts wie
    den wendenden Punkt.
Was sich ins Bleiben verschlieβt, schon ists
    das Erstarrte;
wähnt es sich sicher im Schutz des unscheinbaren
Warte, ein Härtestes warnt aus der Ferne
    das Harte.
Wehe—: abwesender Hammer holt aus!
Wer sich als Quelle ergieβt, den erkennt die
und sie führt ihn entzückt durch das heiter
das mit Anfang oft schlieβt und mit Ende
Jeder glückliche Raum ist Kind oder Enkel
    von Trennung,
den sie staunend durchgehn. Und die verwandelte
will, seit sie lorbeern fühlt, dass du dich
    wandelst in Wind.
(Rilke 1997:92)
[Want transformation. Oh be inspired for
    the flame
in which a thing eludes you that bursts into
    something else;
the spirit of re-creation that masters this
    earthly form
loves most the pivoting point where you are
    no longer yourself.
What tightens into survival is already rigid;
how safe is it really in its inconspicuous
From far off a far greater hardness warns
    what is hard,
and the absent hammer is lifted high!
He who pours himself out like a stream is
    acknowledged by Knowledge;
and she leads him enchanted through the
    cheerful creation
that finishes often with starting, and with
    ending begins.
Every fortunate space that the two of them
    pass through, astonished,
is a child or grandchild of parting. And the
    transfigured Daphne,
as her feeling turns laurel, wants you to
    change into wind.
(Rilke 1985: 95; modified)]

The "pivoting points" in this poem are many, as from the "swing of the figure" we turn to the hardness of rock; when the rock is shattered by the "absent" hammer (Mörchen 1958: 289 proposes that this hammer is Time), water breaks forth from it; and as the water passes, riverlike, through "fortunate space," the poem returns to the you of its opening lines: it is you who are asked to become the airy element. Beginning with the moth-and-flame metaphor, which had concluded Goethe's famous poem "Blessed Longing" with the injunction "Die and become," Rilke's sonnet likewise turns to the imperative form as a way of expressing the relentless urgency of the task it names: transformation is work that never stops, work that takes the place of the agent who undertakes it. The one who pours herself out like a spring (recalling Ovid's nymph Byblis in Metamorphoses 9:454-665) is recognized, known as herself, when she has acquiesced to having no fixed identity that could be known. "The way of life is wonderful," writes Ralph Waldo Emerson (1983: 414); "it is by abandonment"; and Rilke's poem serves this same wisdom, as what you pursue withdraws from you (lines 2, 13-14) like your own solid identity and as parting (line 13) governs also your relation to yourself.

The command "Want transformation" is paradoxical. Philosophers of ethics have noted "the importance of our capacity to have second-order desires—desires to have certain desires" (Williams 1985: 11) if we are to act or reflect ethically. But Rilke's command may mean even "want to make yourself open to having other wants that you may not specify." Furthermore, in the imperative form, the verb "wolle" urges a desire, though a desire is not something acquired at urging; and the next command repeats these contradictions with "oh be inspired for the flame" (where sei begeistert should be as absurd a command as wolle). The absurdity begins to resolve as the mention of being loved (in line 4) anticipates a revealing transformation at the end of the poem: the same desire (wollen) for your transformation is there said not to come from you but to come back at you from the fleeing object of your desire. The poem urges you (in the first line) to want to become not-you, and then, as if restating the same thing, it says (in the last line) that the thing you already do want (but cannot have) is what wants you to become not-you. The apparently impossible urging that opened the poem turns out, in other words, to be the urging of the voice of love, and what seemed to be your impossibly bootstrapping act of will is, instead, a response (and therefore completely possible). The laurel feeling of Daphne asks you to become its invisible complement, passing through it in a possession-less caress on the way to somewhere else. This is, in turn, a figure for what it is like to be the reader of a poem.

The sonnet also recalls, in two ways, a point that Bernard Williams makes about the nature of a first-person ethical disposition (how a virtuous person thinks about what to do) as opposed to a third-person description of a virtue (how others might describe the way the virtuous person thinks about his or her actions, for example with words like brave or modest): "The deliberations of people who are generous or brave, and also the deliberations of those who are trying to be more generous or braver, are different from the deliberations of those who are not like that, but the difference does not mainly lie in their thinking about themselves in terms of generosity or courage" (Williams 1985: 11). The trait of doing without these self-conscious thoughts brings to mind the cheerful (heiter, line 10) accommodation to not-having that sums up Rilke's sonnet. In addition, I would develop Williams's point by saying that the impulse to do a generous or brave act is first of all a response to something outside oneself rather than the enactment or demonstration of a first-person characteristic that one owns. This quality of responsiveness is the leading principle of Rilke's sonnet, as each stanza's images emerge from and answer to what has preceded, and as the evasiveness and disappearance of the object of desire turn out to be not just enticement but the beckoning of love.

Rilke's poem knows nothing of the futile coerciveness of any simple injunction to virtue. The command "Want transformation" recalls, instead, that most celebrated exhortation in Rilke's verse, the closing half line of the 1908 poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo": "You must change your life." How you must change your life is not specified, since the poem is not, and even you yourself are not, in a position to specify what your life is, still less to name the respects in which you do not see it whole. In "Archaic Torso of Apollo," as in our sonnet 2.12, the ethical content of the exhortation is left blank for each recipient to fill in with her own life circumstances and feeling as they are evoked by her own readerly reception of the poem. This blank would become empty in a different, pointless way were the command taken to be something detachable from the poem that voices it. Instead, the content of the imperative belongs to the total experience of trying to be the reader on whom nothing of the poem is lost. This attentiveness, if one could attain it, would be like being the wind that feels, and is felt by, each leaf of the laurel at the same time. To read, to be played upon, to give up what we are holding back and to be carried somewhere we did not design to go, is one way we can be transformed in the hands of another. The aesthetic effect of the poem is its ethical force, but to know what that means, we must surrender ourselves and become, instead, the poem's reader.

Source: William Waters, "Rilke's Imperatives," in Poetics Today, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter 2004, pp. 711-30.

Shimon Sandbank

In the following excerpt, Sandbank compares "Archaic Torso of Apollo" to Italo Calvino's poem "The Birds of Uccello." Both poems are inspired by an external work of art and both, according to Sandbank, focus predominantly on what is physically missing from the artwork at hand. Thus, Sandbank concludes: "Rather than engaging exclusively in carrying the forms of art over to poetry, they concentrate on the absences of art to the advantage of poetry."

A salient case in point is Rilke. His Dingdichtung, inspired by Cézanne and Rodin, is often seen as a heroic attempt—perhaps the heroic attempt beside Gerard Manley Hopkins's—to subject poetic language to the physical "inscape" of things (Hartman 95). His famous sonnet on the "Archaic Torso of Apollo," with all its seeming glorification of a purely physical presence, insistently dismisses the physical …

This poem throughout focuses on absence, on what the torso lacks: its lack of head, of genitals, of arms. Rilke attributes the statue's impact to these gaps in the visual, to what is invisible and non-physical—the mysterious interiorization of the gaze. The poem's end, with its famous moral call to a change of life, is altogether beyond the physical.

Formally, this sonnet is miles apart from Calvino's "The Birds of Uccello." Nevertheless, they share a certain deep structure. Rilke's starting point, like Calvino's, is absence. Though the two absences are different in kind—Calvino's absence of birds derives from an inherent limitation of the visual medium, its inability to present time—sequentiality, while Rilke's absence of head, arms, and genitals is contingent, a result of the ravages of time-both serve as springboards to a destruction of the physical presence of the work of art concerned. Both Rilke's defaced stone and Calvino's painted soldiers are destroyed by the imaginative extensions of absence: the eyes that owing to the head's absence have been interiorized into the body; the birds that, having been scattered and absent, now swoop down in counteroffensive. Both writers have deleted their visual objects so as to clear imaginative space for themselves, as Harold Bloom would put it.

In addition, they have reaffirmed the traditional topos of the resilience of poetry, in contrast to art. "You shall shine more bright in these contents," Shakespeare assures the beloved, referring to his sonnets, "than unswept stone besmeared with sluttish time." Rilke shows how the statue's physical deterioration results in an enduring spiritual resilience, like poetry; it has become a eunuch, but, as Hopkins puts it in a letter to Bridges, "it is for the kingdom of heaven's sake." Now as immaterial as a poem, the statue has overcome art's inability to deal with spiritual matters and actually become a poem.

One is reminded of Gertrude Stein's frivolous but profound "pictures," described in a lecture she delivered during her 1934 American tour. "I always … liked," she says, "looking out of windows in museums. It is more complete, looking out of windows in museums, than looking out of windows anywhere else." But then, during a long hot summer in Italy, she "began to sleep and dream in front of oil paintings." She still looked out of the windows of the museums, but it was no longer necessary. "There were very few people in the galleries in Italy in the summers in those days and there were long benches and they were red and they were comfortable at least they were to me and the guardians were indifferent or amiable and I would really lie down and sleep in front of the pictures. You can see that it was not necessary to look out of the windows."

Is that not what Calvino and Rilke are doing? They look out of windows or sleep and dream, but they must do it in a museum in front of paintings. Uccello and the torso must be there for Calvino and Rilke to turn their backs on and dream. Even in a time of "physical poetry," ekphrastic poets thus half turn their back to the physical painting. Rather than engaging exclusively in carrying the forms of art over to poetry, they concentrate on the absences of art to the advantage of poetry. An ekphrastic poem therefore remains what M.J. Kurrik, in an entirely different context, calls "a presence based on absences." It is "from the perspective of what it excludes" that the ekphrastic poet reads his visual object, and "the perception of absence" is what "institutes [his] creative act" (1,x,5).

Source: Shimon Sandbank, "Poetic Speech and the Silence of Art," in Comparative Literature, Vol. 46, No. 3, Summer 1994, pp. 225-39.


Auden, W.H., "Rilke in English," in the New Republic, Vol. 100, No. 1292, September 6, 1939, pp. 135-36.

Freedman, Ralph, Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996, p. 11.

Gass, William H., Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation, Alfred A. Knopf, 2000, pp. 90-1.

———, Review of Uncollected Poems, in the Nation, April 1, 1996, pp. 27-32.

Hart, Jeffrey, "The Best of Rilke," in National Review, November 10, 1989, p. 67.

Meyers, Jeffrey, "A Ringing Glass: The Life of Rainer Maria Rilke," in National Review, August 29, 1986, p. 46.

Rilke, Rainer Maria, "Archaic Torso of Apollo," in The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, translated and edited by Stephen Mitchell, Vintage International, 1982, p. 61.

———, Letters to a Young Poet, translated by M.D. Herter Norton, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1963, pp. 17, 20.

———, Selected Works: Volume I, Prose, translated by G. Craig Houston, Hogarth Press, 1954, pp. 1, 3.

Rudman, Mark, "New Poems: The Other Part—1908," in the Nation, September 26, 1987, pp. 6-9.

Ryan, Judith, Rilke, Modernism, and Poetic Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1999, p. 80.

Siegel, Lee, "Life of a Poet: Rainer Maria Rilke," in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 277, No. 4, April 1996, pp. 112-16, 118.

Woolf, Virginia, "Modern Fiction," quoted in, "Recomposing Reality: An Introduction to the Work of Virginia Woolf," by Neil Heims, in Bloom's BioCritiques: Virginia Woolf, edited by Harold Bloom and Neil Heims, Chelsea House Publishers, 2005, p. 67.


Buber, Martin, I and Thou, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958.

In I and Thou, originally published in German in 1923, Buber presents a religious and philosophical meditation on the varieties of relationships that are possible between people, and between people and things.

Flores, Angel, ed., An Anthology of French Poetry from Nerval to Valery in English Translation, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1958.

This excellent anthology is predominantly a collection of nineteenth-century French poetry, one of the significant literary influences on Rilke.

———, An Anthology of German Poetry from Hölderlin to Rilke, Anchor Books, 1960.

This companion volume to the anthology of French verse offers a clear indication of the poetic context and tradition from which Rilke's verse emerged.

Freud, Sigmund, Civilization and Its Discontents, translated from the German by James Strachey, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1961.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud examines the opposition between the fundamental human instincts, which crave expression, and the forces of civilization, which seem to depend on curbing or repressing those instincts.

Malinowski, Bronislaw, Sex and Repression in Savage Society, Meridian Books, 1959.

Malinowski was an anthropologist whose fieldwork among the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea involved him in the study of a culture unlike that of Europe and other civilizations. The force of repression of bodily instincts, he observed, was not a primary, defining force in the formation of that culture.

Mann, Thomas, "Death in Venice," in Death in Venice and Seven Other Stories, translated from the German by H.T. Lowe-Porter, Vintage Books, 1989.

In "Death in Venice," Mann presents the story of an artist who encounters such beauty that all the values of his past are challenged and undermined.

Rilke, Rainer Maria, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, translated by M. D. Herter Norton, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1992.

Published in 1910, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Rilke's only novel, is a semi-autobiographical account of Rilke's life as an artist in search of his calling in an age of religious doubt, including themes about personal anxiety and the deterioration of industry.

Tolstoy, Leo, Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude, edited by John Bayley, Harper & Row, Perennial Library, 1967.

Tolstoy was one of Rilke's heroes. In stories like "Farther Sergius," "Master and Man," "The Death of Ivan Ilych," "The Devil," and "The Kreutzer Sonata," Tolstoy's particular genius for expressing ideas in concrete images and in the narration of actual events is clearly evident.