Archaic Torso of Apollo

New Year’s is a time to look at where one’s been and to look anew, to make resolutions and changes. So, let’s look anew at a 110-year-old work by Rainer Maria Rilke.

That’s appropriate, because Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”  is about looking at something old, something that many others have looked at. And Rilke’s poem too has been read and listened to by many, both in it’s original German and in several translations into English. Each translation differs from the others as there are several problems of understanding and reconstruction into a new language that each translator had to solve. So I started by doing my own English translation, working with Rilke’s German words and trying to understand what he’s getting at.

What’s the over-riding observation about the statue that is Rilke’s subject? That it’s broken and incomplete. This is past obvious, but because Rilke spends some time in this brief poem talking about how drawn he is to it, I think it’s possible to misunderstand this point. He says wonder-filled things about it, and this leads many translators and readers to believe that he’s making a case that it’s artistically perfect in some talismanic way.

Torso of Apollo

Worst New Year’s party ever. Woke up without head, arms, legs…

My reading is that he’s making a contrasting case. This is a legless and headless statue. Rilke makes us see right off that the head is missing. Describing that missing head Rilke uses the German word “unerhörtes,” unheard—which we take in the sense of “unheard of.” Translators have translated it into “fabulous”, “legendary”, and so on. There are certainly good German words for those things, but Rilke chose otherwise. Does he want the double meaning that this statue of the Greek god of poetry and music is missing its ability to hear?

What do I make of the remarkable, surrealist-sounding image near the start of the poem that the missing head is surmised to have eyes ripened like apples? Everyone is struck by the audacity of it, but what does it mean? I don’t think Rilke means this in a René Magritte way, as even a small apple is too large for an eye socket. My wife had a suggestion: ripened apples eventually fall and rot, just as the head has been harvested or fallen from neglect.

Magritte Son of Man

Eyes ripened like apples, René Magritte’s way.

Another hard to translate line is the poems eighth, which dips down to the naked statue’s beltline and makes reference to genitals that should be there if we were to continue in the path of the gaze. I suspect the statue has been fractured above them. My translation breaks with most others on the following “beast’s pelt” reference. Some translate that fur as a wonderous quality of the entire remaining stone torso, which seems to make no sense imaginative or otherwise when referring to Greek statues of Apollo*. My translation reads the German as saying that the wild beast’s pelt is missing, that is to say that the statue ends above the pubic hair. So blind, deaf, headless, and also without his sex organs.**

What’s left after these amputations, this incompleteness? First, Rilke is drawn to this torso. He is a poet, and Apollo’s the god of poetry. He’s also spent a couple years working as a young assistant to the great French sculptor Rodin, so statuary is an interest. I think what he sees as still there is the soul, the heart, the essence, which he portrays as that mysterious flame-like glow in the marble and the remaining curves that smile at the damage.

Which brings us to the poem’s notable surprise ending, which I won’t spoil in my explanatory text if you don’t know it already. I think Rilke is drawn to this torso because he senses this soul, that which eternally remains, that which is without borders and broken places, can heal or transcend this: the lack of fulfilled desire, vision, mind, and music. Perhaps he is drawn to this broken statue so intensely because he feels he and his art are broken and incomplete too.

To hear my performance of a new translation of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo,”  with its conclusion that many readers/listeners find unexpected, use the player gadget below. And to all the brave readers and flexible listeners here: an exploring and improving New Year!

*Rilke may not have known it, but something else was missing on that statue. We have become accustomed to viewing classical Greek statues as glowing white marble, aesthetically we may have even absorbed the idea that this monochromatic paleness is the timeless ideal. However, the Greeks painted their statues, even the nudes got skin tones and hair color. Oh, and they were Southeast Mediterranean people with interchange with Africa and the Middle East, those skin tones weren’t pasty white, as examination of pigment remnants on classical Greek statues reveal.

**Of course, I must be modest. My knowledge of German (like my knowledge of French and classical Chinese which I’ve also translated here) is lacking, which can lead to translation errors. The only skill I can bring to this is that I read, perform and write poetry.

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from Tennyson’s Ulysses

Here’s a piece to celebrate the announced discovery of the oldest intact shipwreck, a 2,400-year-old Greek ship discovered in the Black Sea with its mast, rudder, and even a rower’s bench still in place. This can’t be fully romanced into being Ulysses’ ship—it’s centuries newer—but it does give us an object, beyond the stories, to remind us of ancient sea voyages.

“Tales of brave Ulysses, how his naked ears were tortured by the sirens sweetly singing.” This vase depicts a ship like the one in the shipwreck.

 

Tennyson’s Ulysses is one of his best-known shorter works, and one I was a bit surprised to find still survives on the seabed of modern teaching syllabuses. I expect that many will read “Ulysses”  as a complement to Tennyson’s American contemporary Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus”  which we’ve featured here, as a pledge from one who is old and past their expected prime to continue to strive. After all, the most quoted section, the one I used, starts right off declaring “You and I are old.”

Well for someone my age or Dave’s—that is to say, old—this understanding might seem natural.*   Indeed, as we recorded this last week, we too were not “that strength which in the old days.” But if one looks at Tennyson’s “Ulysses,”  both biographically and mythologically, there are some surprises to be found.

Would you be surprised to learn, as I was, that this was not some later work by a long-lived poet (as Longfellow’s “Morituri Salutamus” was),  but instead the work of a 25-year-old? Odd that in our modern times, where we often expect authenticity in our poets, were the poem is expected to be biographically true to the author’s own experience. But of course, it isn’t rare for younger people to feel old and to feel an age is past. Tennyson chose to make his poem’s speaker aged because it did represent something he felt after the death of his close friend Arthur Hallam (the same friend that his book-length epic elegy “In Memoriam A. H. H.”  was dedicated to).

If one looks at the poem and sets aside preconceptions, you may find, even in its oft-quoted concluding exhortations I used, an undercurrent from this inspiration. Not only is this Ulysses a hero well-past the age of his greatest physical vigor, he’s demonstrating in his concluding speech two other characteristics. He’s looking backward to look forward. He recalls his Homeric feats, acts that in that story literally had heroes that “Strove with Gods.” He reminds his crew, in effect, “Look, we are the generation that knew Achilles personally, not the modern folk who only read about him.” Which brings us to the subject of his crew, the men he’s addressing in this exhortation. Homer’s Odyssey  is clear on what happens to them, after deadly battle followed by deadly mistakes: they were all killed, long before this poem begins. Like Tennyson after the death of his friend, those who know, those who shared and could testify to Ulysses soul, are gone. So, when he asks to set sail in that boat, there will be no rowing soldiers on those benches sitting well in order, except in his soul.

So, he’s crazy? Deluded? After all, he’s plainly talking to those that aren’t there. Well this is a poem, a work of art. Ulysses might never have existed, or might not have existed in the way we know him if not for Homer, who also might not have existed. And Tennyson and his friend Hallam? We can pretty well know they existed, even if anyone who could say of the eventually long-lived Tennyson “who we knew” is now dead, and so closely equal to the imagined. This is a poem about the hereness of the not-here.

I was telling my son the other day, “Death is the leading cure for immortality,” but sometimes the cure doesn’t take. I can’t say that the LYL Band’s performance of this part of “Ulysses”  is immortal, but we do strive to seek to find and not to yield. Hear it here:

 

 

 

*An example of the waterworks potential for this poem when read by Helen Mirren, making Stephen Colbert cry.

The Pool

With a poem, mystery and ambiguity can be often served best alongside brevity. H. D.’s “The Pool,”  which supplies today’s words, is a fine example of this. It’s a condensed tale of an encounter that takes seconds to read, but longer to absorb.

We last met H. D. (Hilda Doolittle) here with her tiny but fierce poem “Oread.” In that case, the title let us start off the poem knowing the main character of the poem. “The Pool”  offers us no such clue with it’s somewhat generic title, and it throws us in the deep end by beginning with a question: “Are you alive?” Five spare lines later it ends still listing questions: “What are you..?” It’s called “The Pool,” but the unnamed thing in the pool seems the subject.

Hilda Doolittle Fashion

H. D. with a more timeless look than her spouse.

 

Go ahead, listen to the musical performance of “The Pool”  now (the player is below), because encountering it in mystery is important. The poem is so short and yet multi-faceted, I repeat some of its words, extending the listener’s experience of the words a bit longer, encouraging you to not let go of them too fast.

H. D. must have intended this to be mysterious. Various “solutions” have been suggested, though they would reduce the poem to a riddle. When I first read it, I assumed the object the poem’s speaker is questioning in the pool was a fish, taking the metaphor of it quivering “Like a sea-fish” literally—but would someone describe a fish as “like a fish?” Over at the always “Interesting Literature” blog a commenter suggested it could be H. D.’s unborn child, an ingenious solution, consistent with the quivering and the water and possibly with the “banded one” epithet for the object, if one thinks of the womb as a band. H.D. was pregnant for the first time in the year the poem was published, and if this is part of the poet’s intent, the opening question is achingly poignant, since that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. But if that is the largely intended experience to be drawn from the poem, H. D. has given us no internal clues in the words to lead us there without knowing now obscure biographical details regarding her life and the poem’s publishing date.

Is that meaning there unintentionally? That’s certainly possible. The New Criticism writers assumed intent, honoring the artist, but modern Deconstructionists would find this a moot point. It wouldn’t even matter to them if H. D. had written the poem a year or more before it was published, before her pregnancy, as a reader could choose to experience the poem as about pregnancy with no intent on the part of the author.

My second reading of the poem takes from another context, H. D.’s love for classical Greek lyric poetry. Any situation involving looking into a pool and becoming entranced with what one sees suggests strongly the myth of Narcissus. At the very least from H. D.’s other work, we can assume that H. D. would have recognized the likelihood of this reading. But if this was her intent, why not call the poem “Narcissus?”

In the tiny amount of words in this poem, the net and the “banded one” are all that lead us away from Narcissus. Is this poem in fact a representation of a modern experience stated directly with no excess words in the manner of the Imagist credo? If so, what could one see in a pool that is banded and is like a fish. Some crabs have banded leg markings, that possibility exists, and the “I touch you” line takes on a new context if one imagines the crustacean strangeness and pincher-claw danger of touching a crab in a tide pool to see if it is alive.

red banded hermit crab

“I touch you”—or not. A banded hermit crab.

 

Or the modern, direct experience could be intended as an echo of Narcissus, a moment when the speaker of the poem sees their reflection in water and assumes, as Narcissus did in the myth, that this thing in the pool is an entrancing other. And the net then, an expression of the inability to capture our selves. Interesting Literature suggests that the “banded” could be the net interrupting the reflection with its strands. An echo then of a Narcissus’ reflection, and Echo is the name of the nymph who tricked Narcissus into the reflection lock.

That would explain why the poem isn’t called “Narcissus.” In this modern encounter, the speaker doesn’t lock forever in contemplation of the unknowable reflection, spending five lines there, aware of Narcissus’s plight. The net becomes the thing that, this time, breaks the spell. And what of the “banded one?” Is there a pun there? I didn’t see it reading the poem on the page, but my overlapping voices in the performance made the phrase sound like “abandoned one.” Narcissus wouldn’t abandon the entrancing reflection, and by extension, is bound by his attraction to his perception of himself.

Perhaps H. D.’s “The Pool” is all of these things, perhaps even something else as well. Mystery and ambiguity is sometimes best served by brevity. Go ahead and listen to my performance of “The Pool” again, it may reflect something else.