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.


In the summer of 1908, the sculptor Auguste Rodin told Rilke to stop writing about his childhood and use the world around him as the subject for his poetry. 

Rilke did just that, writing about the panther at the Paris zoo, the carousel at the Luxembourg gardens and Chartres Cathedral. He also visited the Louvre and saw this fragment of a Greek statue of Apollo, and it inspired one of his most celebrated poems.

In this translation, I've tried to convey the immediacy and sense of wonder of Rilke's poem in German.



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