Sonnet, in Iambic Pentameter
First of all, we have to be up front with a big-time complication: this section will be a little tough for you if you're not a skilled reader of German (yeah, sorry). Basically, because this is a poem in translation, there are some compromises that the translator, Stephen Mitchell, had to make, and thus, that you, the reader, also have to make. The tough thing about translating poetry (or anything, for that matter), is that it's not only content, but form that has to come through in the new version. And since every language has different rhythms and different rhyming words, it's very, very tough to make a translation that exactly replicates both the sound and sense of a poem.
In this case, we thought Mitchell did a beautiful job of communicating the essence of the poem—however, the form and rhyme scheme got lost along the way. Readers who just see the English version might think that it's a sonnet written in free verse, without a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, but that's just not the case. Some other, usually earlier, translations chose to work super-hard to maintain some semblance of the rhyme and meter, but, in our twenty-first century opinion, they lost some of the real feeling of the poem.
So, in order to give you a taste of the original sound of the poem (also check out "Sound Check" for more on that) and to add to your understanding of its meaning, here goes—we'll just give you a whirlwind tour of "Archaic Torso of Apollo"—in German.
First of all: the meter. Like all classic sonnets, this one is written in iambic pentameter. If you're a German speaker, you can hear that familiar daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM rhythm—remember, a line in iambic pentameter has ten syllables, divided into five iambs, or "feet," made up of a pair of unstressed (da) and stressed (DUM) syllables. This gives lines a sing-songy feel, like you're in a boat, being rocked by very consistent waves. For those of you who don't read German, this is how the first line breaks down:
Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt
Okay, so now on to form. This is a Petrarchan—a.k.a. Italian—sonnet. If you're familiar with Shakespearean sonnets (or if you've already checked out our absolutely fabulous literary glossary), you may already know that a sonnet is always fourteen lines. However, this format is a little different. Instead of having three quatrains (stanzas
of 4 lines) plus a couplet (a short stanza of two lines) added on to make up the required 14, the Petrarchan sonnet has a more complex structure, illustrated nicely by Rilke here. The poem is divided into two quatrains, followed by two tercets (stanzas of three lines). In the classic Petrarchan sonnet, these would actually be lumped together as an octave (8 lines) and a sestet (6 lines).
Mitchell's translation keeps this shape, so that his translation physically resembles Rilke's; however, rhymes being what they are, it's impossible for him to keep the same complicated rhyme scheme. In Rilke's poem, the two quatrains follow the same rhyming pattern (where each letter stands for that line's end rhyme): ABBA (then in stanza 2, CDDC). Even if you have no idea how to pronounce German, you can look at the German version and see how the end words match up—for example, in stanza 1, "Haupt" (head) goes with "zurückgeschraubt" (turned down, diminished), and "Aber" (but) with "Kandalaber" (candelabra, translated here as "lamp"). The same goes for stanza 2.
In the two tercets, however, things get a little crazy. The poem takes a turn in the first two lines of stanza 3, which form a couplet within the tercet (that is, the first two lines rhyme). After that, we take up an alternating rhyme scheme—so, it looks like EEF GFG. However, because of the rather odd way in which the FGFG rhymes are broken up, and because many of the lines have rather odd-sounding enjambments, or mid-phrase line breaks, it's hard to feel like this section has a clear rhyme scheme. But that seems to make sense, given that this is where things change in the poem. Unlike the more predictable, sing-songy, rhyming first section of the poem, this second half is unpredictable, like the "wild beast" described," and shifts surprisingly in tone. Rilke's rhyme scheme reflects the unsettling but exciting challenge of his final line: "You must change your life"—and your rhymes and beats, apparently, too.