"Archaic Torso of Apollo" is the single most famous poem by Germany's single most famous modern poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). In 1902, Rilke moved to Paris in order to write a book on the famous sculptor Auguste Rodin. To this end, he got himself a job as Rodin's secretary, and Rodin would give him various assignments - go to the zoo and watch a certain animal for an hour, go to the Louvre and look at this one painting for an hour, etc. One of his assignments was to look at a statue of Apollo in the Louvre where the head, arms, and legs were no longer extant and all that remained was the torso; this sonnet was the result.
"Archaic Torso of Apollo" has to be one of my favorite poems of all time. Of all the many poems I've read in my life, it's the one that's stuck with me the most, and probably the one I've re-read the most times. That last line gets me every time, like a punch to the gut. No matter how many times I re-read the poem, it always feels new and true.
"Archaic Torso of Apollo" is certainly Rilke's most translated poem, and one of the most translated poems of all time. I'm not the only one who has been so affected by it! As always, with Rilke, the original German is far better than any translation can capture, especially since the strict meter and rhyme scheme is almost impossible to recapture in another language without losing the sense. But for those who don't read German, I've appended my own original translation, humble though it may be. I haven't tried to replicate the rhyme or the meter - just to translate the meaning of German as closely as possible.
I leave the rest up to you.
Archaïscher Torso Apollos
Wir kannten nicht sein unerhörtes Haupt,
darin die Augenäpfel reiften. 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.
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his fabulous head,
nor his eyes, apple-ripe. But
his torso still glows like a candelabra,
from which his gaze, only slightly dimmed,
abides and shines forth. Otherwise the bulge of his breast
would not dazzle you, nor would the faint curve
of his loins carry a smile
toward that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem disfigured and stunted,
the shoulders descending into nothing,
and would not glisten like a predator's pelt,
or burst free of all confines
like a star: for there is no position from which
it cannot see you. You must change your life.