In a world of poetry filled with serious and brooding emo-types, Rainer Maria Rilke stands as one of the emo-iest. We mean, who else's name was taken as a tribute by an emo band in the late '90s. Don't hate, though. There's a good reason that Rilke has inspired sensitive types in black turtlenecks for about a century now. His work offers up an intense focus on life, meaning, beauty, death—all of the big picture stuff—in a way that remains approachable and inviting at the same time.
Take "Archaic Statue of Apollo," for instance. At first glance, this poem may not seem like anything special: all that "happens" is that a guy stands in a museum looking at a fragment of a statue. However, even the most skeptical reader out there has to be shaken up by the last line: "You must change your life." It's this powerful ending that has reached out and grabbed readers ever since Rainer Maria Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" was first published in 1908.
This urge for change is one that Rilke himself was enacting when he wrote this poem, which first appeared as part of his collection entitled New Poems. They came out of a period of intense productivity in the poet's life, when he was consumed by his passion for the visual arts, particularly sculpture (he was a big fan and, incidentally, a friend of the French sculptor Auguste Rodin—he of "The Thinker" fame). Rilke wrote tons of poems inspired by works of art he saw in the Louvre Museum while living in Paris, and his work is characterized by this mingling of different art forms.
Beyond that, this poem is characteristic of the poet's intensity and attraction to the power of art. And if a broken statue can have such a life-changing effect, it's worth giving this fully-formed poem a shot.
Whether you realize it or not, you've had this experience. Okay, sure, maybe it wasn't with an archaic torso of Apollo. Instead, maybe it was with a great book, or a great movie, or a spectacular sunset, or a solar eclipse, or the love of your life. Or, maybe it was at a Justin Bieber concert (though, to be honest, we really hope not). Whatever it was, we have all had those moments when we're so struck, so utterly bowled over by beauty that we feel like everything has changed. The world stands still—you can't breathe—and you just know, in your gut, that you'll never be the same again. You must change your life.
That's the amazing thing about Rainer Maria Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo." Even though many of us may not identify with the object the speaker describes (a broken, classical statue), we're still willing to go with it when the poem pulls us in by talking right to us ("we cannot know," "would not dazzle you"). Why do we do it? Well, the answer is simple. We may not all respond to ancient Greek sculpture, but we do all respond to beauty. We know instinctively what it feels like to be confronted with something that wallops us over the head with its perfection and purity, and this poem, more than just describing some sculpture of some dude, summons up that heart-stopping feeling.
So when you read this poem, take a deep breath and summon up whatever your vision of beauty is (sigh, even if it's a digitized Bieber torso). Hold that image with you as you read, and feel yourself give in to the imperative of the poem, feel that you must react somehow. Go on. Give in. "You must change your life."
Here's Rilke's profile at Poets.org.
…and here's his extensive bio at The Poetry Foundation.
In case you're wondering who Rilke hung with and who he wrote about, here's a cool collection of those connections at biography.com.
This film is watching you—creepy, but cool.
Care to study a torso? This video's for you.
Paul Muldoon's Version
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Paul Muldoon offers his take on Rilke's poem.
Und Jetzt, Auf Deutsch!
And now, in German! In case you were wondering what it would sound like in the original.
An Archaic Torso of Apollo
We're not totally sure which torso of Apollo Rilke was looking at in the Louvre, but a lot of readers speculate that it's this one.
A Less Archaic Torso (and Head) of Rilke
Here's what the young Rilke looked like—unlike the statue, including his legendary head and admittedly somewhat protuberant eye-apples.
Another Take on the Poem…
Here's an awesome interview with poet Mark Doty about the poem, courtesy of Poets.org.
Found in Translation
Ever wonder what's so important about different translations? Here's a cool article from The Guardian about two different translations of the poem, by the same translator.
Lost in Translation?
Here's another take on translating Rilke (and the untranslatable) from Jacket magazine.
In celebration of Edward Snow's translations of Rilke that came out in 2009, the Wall Street Journal gave this brief profile of Rilke for American readers.
Letters to a Young Poet
Here's a book the Rilke's perhaps best known for—philosophical explorations of life, addressed to a potential poet.
This well-known collection was penned by Rilke in a seaside castle.