“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, 1908
Turn of the twentieth-century poet Rainer Maria Rilke’s verse often exists on the margins of both modernist abstraction--that strained reach for meaning in the seemingly meaningless material world--and the spirituality of Christian theism. Infused with the transcendent, poems like “The Panther” and “The Swan” and “Autumn,” to name a very few, present the reader with the converted quotidian, a paradoxical reality that leads the reader through the world-that-is into the world-beyond. This poetic world-beyond’s laws are constituted by beauty, truth, and the morally good. And without the presence of a spiritual reality within and beyond their empirical worlds, Rilke’s poems lose a vitally important interpretive key, namely, artistically-derived, theologically-animated morality.
The suffusion of artistically-generative morality--an absolute morality produced by art that speaks authoritatively into the moral life of the partaker--is at the heart of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Here, through the marbled chest of ancient deity, Rilke exhibits a broken statue of Apollo, god of music, poetry, art, and religious oracle. The statue sits broken, an amputee of decaying time. The poem begins in a sort of agnosticism, with onlookers refusing the god’s glorious head. The fruitful life of Apollo’s eyes is cut off, and the old god sits in blind decapitation.
And yet, the poem declares, the dismembered god’s power is but dimmed, not diminished. The headless Apollo’s is now a lamp turned low, but a lamp all the same. To see the statue--and by extension, to read the poem--is to bask in the dimmed divinity of broken beauty. The quadriplegic torso presents a paradigm of an emptied beauty that imposes a transformative power on the expectations of viewer. If, Rilke intimates, the statue were whole, if it kept head and arms and legs, then observers would miss the dazzling curved breast, the grinning placid hips, and its thighs like inroads to the god’s life giving center. It’s not the god himself that need be seen, but the beauty housed within his now shattered frame. The reader now finds himself before an incarnation. The self and the god’s otherness meet in an encounter of artistic beauty and mortal life.
The second stanza’s “otherwise,” refrained in the third, calls our attention back to what is, not to what is not. What faces the onlooker is the “translucent cascade of the shoulders” wildly glistening from borders that “burst like a star.” Here art, and theology, and morality collide in fragmented form of broken marble an apologetic emerges from the incarnation of the divine. In the artistically inanimate, Rilke gives us a form for animate morality. The amputation of the god’s members paradoxically proves the regeneration of the onlooker, and an omniscient affinity bursts forth in the star of moral awareness. Here, before the marbled god, you are seen and known and revealed. It is not the statue that stands exposed, but you. It’s not the broken bust being watched, but your very morality. And the apologetic conclusion of the matter, the poet’s argument from the torso’s beauty, is that “you must change your life.”
Rilke reminds us of what other writers have testified to: that when truly known, artistic truth and beauty birth the good. Irish writer Iris Murdoch explored the connection between art and morality, concluding along with Rilke, that, “Art and morality are, with certain provisos . . . one. Their essence is the same. The essence of both of them is love. Love is the perception of individuals. Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love, and so art and morals, is the discovery of reality.” So in calling readers out of themselves and into a state of awful love of the beautiful, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” calls us into moral change. One can’t stand in the gleam of beauty long before seeing the good.
Photo: "Apollo" by N. Thompson. CC License