You Must Change Your Life

A turning point — a volta at the end of a poem — a sudden plot twist — a shift of perception from one vision abruptly to another. Rainer Maria Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo" (Archaischer Torso Apollos) concludes with the ultimate such:

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.

(translation by Stephen Mitchell)
Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfelreiften. 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.

(original German by Rainer Maria Rilke)
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.

(literal translation by Sarah Stutt)
We didn't understand that outrageous head, the eyes
whose irises actually flowered. But his torso
still stares like a chandelier turned low,
dimmed to illuminate just its own steady

flame. Why else would the crease
of the chest muscles blind you? And the slight
tensing of the loin — it's nothing if not a smile
traveling to his center on a journey to procreation.

If not, this would only be a fragment
of mutilated stone under the shoulders' transparent
slump. Wouldn't glisten, anymore than a predator's

fur, or leap like radiating star fire.
Because there isn't any single part of it that isn't
watching you. You have to live another life.

(translation by Art Beck)

And as James Pollock explains and explores:

... Thus, by the time the light of the sun god "bursts like a star" from the statue in the penultimate line of the poem—that is to say, by the time the god has fully re-entered the statue, the way Athena, as the ancient Athenians believed, continually re-entered the statue of the goddess in the Parthenon in response to the sacrifices of her devotees—a careful reader of the poem has already seen it coming.

It's worth recalling that for the ancient Greeks the word "theos," or god, meant primarily an event. And what this event precipitates here is a sudden awareness on the part, not of us (the "we" of the first line), but of "you": an awareness of being seen by the god. Earlier, his gaze was "turned down low," so that, notwithstanding that it "gleam[ed] in all its power," still one was not entirely conscious of being seen. Now, however, the direction of the gaze in the poem is reversed; one's privileged status as a visitor to an art museum, gazing at the blind statues with aesthetic detachment, has been obliterated by this sudden awareness, which is nothing if not a religious experience. The religious experience in turn produces the electrifying volta of the last sentence, the ethical imperative "You must change your life"—which here means, "you must be transformed, turned into something else, just like the statue."

Mark Doty has called this ending "the sharpest last-minute turn in sonnet history," and it's true; up to this moment the poem has been a description of the statue, and now suddenly it's a revelation inside "you." As the climax of the poem's plot, it deploys simultaneously both of the elements Aristotle insisted were indispensable to a good climax: reversal and recognition. (In the best plots, Aristotle added, these elements occur at the same time.) But for all its power to surprise, its greatest surprise for us today may be that it is not in fact disjunctive; there is no surreal or language-y non sequitur. Indeed, the imperative "You must change your life" follows logically from the statement that precedes it: "for here there is no place / that does not see you." It is a religious logic, to be sure, but then, this is essentially a religious poem.

Apollo is the god of poetry. And it is important to understand the role of this poem in Rilke's development as a poet. He had been working as Rodin's secretary in Paris, and visiting the art museums and the zoo nearly every day at Rodin's instigation. Rodin's advice ("one must work, always work") and the example he set of a disciplined artist who worked tirelessly to transform the perishable bodies of his human models into durable bronze statues with great spiritual power—all this had a profound effect on Rilke. It turned him from a poet who waited for inspiration to one who felt the responsibility of his art in a new and profound way. It made him change himself into a poet whose calling was to transmute the impermanent things of this world—a corpse, a black cat, the statue of Apollo—into a higher order of reality within himself. No wonder he placed "Archaic Torso of Apollo" first in the second volume of his New Poems, to mark this crucial turning-point in his career. ...

... yes! — and just now, here, so must we startle and awaken and flower ...

(cf. [1], Not Easy (2001-03-31), Live the Questions Now (2015-04-02), Rilke on Being Human (2015-04-22), ...) - ^z - 2019-02-01