A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Tuesday, 14 April 2015


Here's one of Rilke's most striking poems. The imperative in the last line to 'change your life' still has the power to surprise, shock and challenge every time I read this magnificent sonnet.

Apollo's Archaic Torso

We cannot know his incredible head,
where the eyes ripened like apples,
yet his torso still glows like a candelabrum,
from which his gaze, however dimmed,

still persists and gleams. If this were not so,
the bow of his breast could not blind you,
nor could a smile, steered by the gentle curve
of his loins, glide to the centre of procreation.

And this stone would seem disfigured and stunted,
the shoulders descending into nothing,
unable to glisten like a predator's pelt,

or burst out from its confines and radiate
like a star: for there is no angle from which
it cannot see you. You have to change your life.

(Looser translation)

We will never know his magnificent head,
the ebb and flow of his youth —
an orchard of ripening fruit,
yet his fire has not diminished,

incandescent light radiates
from his torso, and in the curve
of his loins, a smile turns
towards the centre of creation.

Or else this body would be disfigured —
a lump of rock with no vision,
unable to glisten like a lion's mane.

It would not burst out of its skin
like a star: for its searing gaze
penetrates your soul, the way you live.


Translated by SARAH STUTT 

Archaischer Torso Apollos

Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augäpfel reiften. Aber
sein Torso glüht noch wie ein 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 enstellt 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.

(Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of Apollo.)


Anonymous said...

Those fragments of statues startle because they so symbolize our relationship with the past - representations of what it is to be human fragmented but tantalizingly recognizable.

If you keep smashing them there will be a point at which they become simply rock again. Didn't I hear somewhere that one day we'll be no more than a 2cm thick stratum in the earth's crust, recognizable only by a slight blackening (carbon from all the stuff we've burnt)?

Your Bohr quote got me looking for others. Favourite so far: “A physicist is just an atom's way of looking at itself.”

am said...

This morning I returned to look at your post with the photo of Apollo's torso and had a startling delayed reaction after reading sackerson's comment which directed me to the Bohr quote that I had missed. I suddenly remembered Joe Bonham from Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo:


This is the week that my Richard died in 2008. As he lay dying in the VA hospital, he was a Joe Bonham and a broken Apollo, and he was a whole man. Reading the poem gave me that vision.

"A deep truth is a truth so deep that not only is it true but its exact opposite is also true." (NB)

"The truth was obscure, too profound and too pure. To live it you have to explode." (BD)

I thought I knew this poem, and that it had no more to say to me. Thank you for posting it just when I needed to read it again. I do have to change my life.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, fragmented, Dominic — but glowing, gleaming, smiling, radiating.

Vagabonde said...

I like the second, looser translation as you said – I think it flows better.
Looking at the torso of Apollo, from when? About 400 BC or so maybe – it made me think about ISIS’ appalling destruction of historic 2000 years old Assyrian artifacts. Lately I have been reading my books on the Armenian Genocide, but this ISIS destruction is cultural genocide. When it comes on TV I just can’t watch it. It is hard to understand this type of destruction in 2015.

The Solitary Walker said...

I love Rilke, Amanda, and would probably take him to a desert island if I had but one poet to choose.

And I love your comment here: it made me sad and happy at the same time. What a wonderful pairing of quotes!

So good — your remembrance, your emotional intelligence.

This is such a fabulous poem. 'You have to change your life'! I kind of feel I'm changing my life all the time, even if in tiny micro ways — sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Each new book you read, each new painting you see/create, each new sculpture (however fragmented and whole) has the potentiality to change your life.

Life IS change, IS flux — it's inescapable. And to be embraced, I think. (Those people we visit again after years and are EXACTLY the same!) Sometimes we change in minuscule, hardly-felt ways. Other times we are commanded to change — radically.

But it's also important to recognise our necessary and good UNchanging qualities, those fundamental substrata of our existence: perhaps positive moralities, perhaps personal (and universal, one always hopes) beliefs about love, peace, equality etc.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, that cultural genocide is heartbreaking, Vagabonde.