Today I want to talk about a poem.
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. 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.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), trans. Stephen Mitchell (see the original German)
I read this poem in my first year of literary study and was struck first and foremost by the stark insistence of the last line: ‘You must change your life.’ At first it seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the poem – a meditation on the strange living power of a damaged piece of art. (The technical term is ekphrasis, a verbal description of visual art.) But the bluntness of that last phrase is designed to make us consider its relevance to the rest of the poem.
The experience which Rilke describes here is not inspiration, pleasure, or quiet reflection – any of the states of mind we might want to associate with looking at art. Instead, it is obligation. You must change your life – it is required of you, even inevitable. We are not looking at the statue: it is looking at us. ‘Here there is no place/ that does not see you.’
How can a damaged statue of a pagan god require anything of us? I have been thinking on and off about this poem ever since I read it, and it has become something of a challenge to me as I have pursued my literary studies. As with all good ekphrastic poems, the technique of describing a piece of (usually visual) art allows the poet to explore the nature of his own art as well. Reading the poem, we don’t physically see the archaic torso, but Rilke conjures it for us, depicting in his own medium the life and ‘brilliance’ he describes. He then demands a response. He demands we consider ourselves in the light of the statue and of the poem which revives it for us.
The challenge, I think, is to take art seriously, and act accordingly. Rilke forces us to recognise the living power of an object centuries out of its time, jolting us out of our self-centred preoccupation with the present moment. Art can do this if we let it: push us out of ourselves and remind us of the existence of a world beyond us, of wild beasts and legends and stars, or simply of the inner lives of others.
Apollo (the god of the arts) is not an especially comforting figure here. All the poem’s metaphors are full of contained energy, the sense that all at once there may be an explosion of movement, in what direction we don’t know. The demand for us to change our lives is the natural extension of the realisation, inherent in all good art, that there is powerful agency outside us in the world, and so human self-sufficiency is only ever partial and temporary.
Academics in particular have good reason to heed this truth, given the strong temptations towards idolatry of the self in the pursuit of knowledge. I regularly face the danger, as a literary scholar, of denying the agency of the writers I read by focusing only on what I want to find, rather than accepting what they have to say on their own terms. You will know your own specific temptations, from abstract problems of methodology to the everyday desire to hoard credit and resources for yourself.
The Christian scholar seeks, above all, to acknowledge and work under the supreme agency of God in the world. Art like Rilke’s can help us to look away from ourselves long enough to do so.