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.

Aretha Franklin has died

This blog isn’t really a news source, even if poet Ezra Pound famously said literature (and this can be extended to art generally) is “news that stays news.” And given my age, I could make this elegies all the time,  and I don’t want that.

But I cannot let this horseman pass by, even though I never saw Franklin perform, even if I (like many record buyers) haven’t gone to the record store to purchase a disk with her face on the cover for decades. You could do that now I suppose, or you could open that glowing palm thing and press to search. What are  you searching for? If you’re searching, you must need something.

Maybe you know. Maybe you don’t. But what you will find, if commerce allows, is that  voice, and on some of her best records, perhaps her own gospely piano chords and her sisters singing along. Maybe there’s some small-town white guys, working, like her, on their shared art. What will you receive is, what? Energy, sublime expression, healing force—oh, you might as well just call it “soul.”

Fire and Sleet and Candlelight

Today’s piece, like my recent setting of Margaret Widdemer’s “When I Was A Young Girl”  reframes a folk song from the British Isles. Widdemer took a song traditionally about a life cut down by youthful excess and reformed it into a poem about finding love outside the realm of adventurous, romantic fantasy. However, today’s words are from Elinor Wylie, whose poetry retains its allegiance to romantic excess, even if it’s frank about the cost of that.

“Fire and Sleet and Candlelight”  takes its title from a transcription of an old English song, collected in the 17th Century, but likely much older: the “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  The “Lyke Wake Dirge”  is a striking song, even though its antique dialect is nearly as hard to understand today as Summer Is Icumen In.”  As this blog post recalls, you’d be hard pressed to make out the lyrics to “Lyke Wake”  in present-day English from hearing it, but the simple yet stately melody grabs you anyway. That is an illustration of a Parlando Project idea: the presence of music allows one to defer decoding a text’s meaning, to appreciate something before you understand it. The line Wylie extracted for her title, in fact, is likely a common misunderstanding of the line in the old song. “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight” makes an easily available winter image, and so that’s what some heard. Scholars are now of the opinion that the middle item is actually “fleet,” not sleet; fleet being an old word meaning floor, and by extension, standing for home. The line’s word-music is beautiful with either word in it, and Wylie was very good at word-music.

To summarize “Lyke Wake,”  once you’ve died your soul will be tested on an arduous journey, which will be made easier if you’ve lived a life of charity. In the long-standing Christian debate between salvation from faith or works, “Lyke Wake”  favors the works side. The soul’s journey may still be strange and testing, but charitable goodness in life is rewarded as a way through.

This is not the poem that Wylie writes however. There’s a soul on a journey in her poem, yes, but salvation is nowhere achieved or even promised. “Lyke Wake”  is foreboding, but it may only recount two or three tests on the soul’s journey, and the refrain reminds us every verse the possibility that “Christe receive thy saule.” Christina Rossetti wrote a jauntier, more modern version of “Lyke Wake”  with her Up-Hill,”  to give one example of how this could  have been restated in modern English.

Wylie’s poem instead piles on the soul-struggles until you lose track of the number depicted. Nearly every pair of lines is a fresh torment or test, some of pain, some of discouragement.

Wylie’s images for the soul’s tests are in general straightforward, nothing too esoteric. The only one that caused me pause was “trysted swords.” Tryst derives from a Middle English word for agreed hunting place. Imagery-wise I was reminded of the Tarot deck’s three of swords. What would be hunted, and injured, would be one’s heart here, and trysted puns to twisted, as in the intertwined piercing blades of the three of swords.

Three of Swords

Tired of clattering swords making a racket at your castle?
Use this easy idea to store them securely.

So, Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  presents a more arduous and unrewarded journey than even the spooky “Lyke Wake Dirge.”  As a 20th Century poet steeped in the Romanticism of Shelley, Byron and Keats, Wylie would hold that suffering is not to be avoided if it’s a cost for a passionate rush toward truth and beauty. I said at the start, Wylie was honest about the cost of such a journey—and in words she is—but in putting it into such singing word-music she makes the sufferings easier to bear while her word-music undercuts the real pain and danger.

Lonelysoul

Wikipedia uses this picture to illustrate “Lyke Wake Dirge,” calling it “Lonely Soul.” I can only think of it as the back cover of “Songs of Leonard Cohen.”

 

I therefore tried to emphasize the sorrowful experiences of the words somewhat when performing this. For music I went with a fairly full-fledged orchestral-folk setting this time. The vocal and acoustic guitar is actually a “scratch part,” a quick recording used to lay the blueprints for later finished tracks, but due to recent events my voice has been out of commission for a few days, so I had to leave those parts in. To hear my performance of Elinor Wylie’s “Fire and Sleet and Candlelight,”  use the player below.