Rilke's encounter with Ancient Greece


We did not know the incredible head

in which his wide eyes ripened. Yet even now
his torso is gleaming like a lantern,
and there his gaze, dimmed only a little,

holds fast and shines. If it did not, the surge
of his breast could not blind you, and that smile
in the slight twist of the thighs would not run
to the center, where procreation flared.

Then this stone would be deformed and blunted
under the luminous plunge of the shoulders.
It would not be glistening like lion’s fur;

it would not break out from all its edges
like a star. For there is no place here
that does not see you. You must change your life.

"Archaischer Torso Apollos" by Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by Frank Beck

At a time when Rilke was having trouble writing poetry, Rodin told him to stop writing about his childhood and use the world around him as his subject. Rilke did just that, writing about the panther at the Paris zoo, the carousel at the Luxembourg Gardens and Chartes Cathedral. He also visited the Lourve and saw this fragment of a Greek statue of Apollo, which inspired one of his most celebrated poems, written in the summer of 1908. I've tried to convey the immediacy of Rilke's poem in German.

Julius Feldmeier as Rilke in Lou Andreas-Salome


  1. I like your translation, and I'm glad you didn't try to fit it into rhyme.

  2. Thanks for your kind words. Whether a translation can duplicate the rhymes of a poem depends a lot on luck. If English can supply the original rhymes without distorting the sense of the individual lines, that's great. In this case, I didn't see a chance to do that.

    Here's a translation of mine from Russian that does replicate the rhymes in the translated poem:


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