Study Guide

Archaic Torso of Apollo Identity

By Rainer Maria Rilke

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Identity is in flux in "Archaic Torso of Apollo" (see our "Speaker" section for more on that), and not just in terms of the "characters" we find here. In fact, there really aren't any clear identities here—even the speaker is complicated by the fact that he-she-it never uses an "I." Our super-deep question of the day is this: without an "I," can you really have an identity? The speaker uses "we" and then, more puzzlingly, "you" instead. So… what does that mean? Is this a kind of full-immersion poetic experience, in which we are supposed to dip ourselves into the speaker? Or is the speaker trying to insinuate him-her-itself into us? Eek! We-You-I just don't know.

Questions About Identity

  1. It's a little surprising to see a lyric poem without a lyric "I." What do you make of this curious lack?
  2. How do you think the "you" here should be interpreted? Is it just a rhetorical device, or does it actually, seriously address you?
  3. What do you think the line "You must change your life" means here? Why does personal identity suddenly pop up in this poem about a work of art? That is, what does art have to do with identity?

Chew on This

The ending of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo" suggests that responding to art plays a fundamental role in personal development. In that way, art is necessary to our lives both as a species and as individuals.

Part of the lure for our speaker is the puzzle of the sculpture's spiritual identity. He'd like to know just who, or what, is responsible for this overwhelming effect on him.

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