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Dharma Poetry: Rilke and Rodin

Rilke, like Rumi or Gibran, wrote almost exclusively about the spirit.  Or course I feel in over my head trying to say something new and insightful about Rilke’s works–“A god can do it.  But tell me how a man / is to follow through the narrow lyre?”–but I do want to take a moment to discuss Rilke’s process, particularly how Rodin influenced and shaped Rilke’s singularly contemplative process.

For the dharma poem of the week, I’ve chosen one of Rilke’s famous object-poems, “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, a poem about this statue:


Archaic Torso of Apollo

We never knew his stupendous head
in which the eye-apples ripened.  But
his torso still glows, like a lamp,
in which his gaze, screwed back to low,

holds steady and gleams.  Otherwise the curve
of his chest couldn’t dazzle you, nor a smile
run through the slight twist of the loins
toward the center that held procreation.

Otherwise this stone would stand mutilated and too short
below the translucent fall-off of the shoulders,
and wouldn’t shimmer like a predator’s fur;

nor shine out past all the edges
like a star: for in it is no place
that doesn’t see you.  You must change your life.

(translation by Galway Kinnell and Hannah Liebmann)


(For Stephen Mitchell’s popular translation of the original German, click here.)

So where’s the dharmic connection here?

The dharmic connection lies in Rilke’s process.  In 1902, Rilke joined his mentor Rodin in Paris for what was to become a formative 12-year artistic apprenticeship.  In other words, Rilke found his teacher.  The sixty-ish Rodin initiated the 26-year old Rilke into the esoteric art of clear-seeing.  If that slippery Buddhist term–clear-seeing–has any meaning for me, it is precisely in how I understand what Rilke is saying in this poem. 

Rodin told Rilke to stop writing about his childhood and to stop writing about love.  He said, Pay attention to everyday objects, and let these be your subject.  He gave Rilke explicit contemplative exercises; he said, Go to the zoo, look at the animals, or, Stare at this tree for six hours.  Rodin endeavored, like any good dharmic teacher, to point out to his student the luminosity of the natural world, and encouraged him to make this world his subject. 


Rilke responded with his famous series of object-poems, in which he sought to see the object clearly.  I imagine he stared at the Apollo statue for a long time before he dared write a word about it.  Notice the preponderance of light words in this short poem: “glows,” “lamp,” “gleams,” “dazzle,” “translucent,” “shimmer,” “shine,” “star.”  The torso is exploding into pure light before Rilke’s meditative eyes.  Moreover, in the poem’s bewitching last line, the statue speaks to Rilke, saying, “You must change your life.”

Professor Bernd Jager writes, “Rilke’s poem explores that precise and pregnant moment when an object of scientific investigation, aesthetic contemplation or historical analysis suddenly breaks free from the constraints imposed upon it by a workaday perspective and transforms itself into a subject who beckons us to enter another world.”  For a further discussion of the poem from a poet’s perspective, read Mark Doty’s thoughts here at


Or, for more on the Rilke-Rodin fall-out and how Rilke felt completely abandoned–echoing a textbook guru-student relationship–see Ruth Walker’s review of Rilke’s monograph of Rodin.

What do you think?  Obviously Rodin wasn’t teaching Rilke about yidams or mahamudra practice.  But do you think Rilke’s process or resultant poem is dharmic?  Was Rodin a kind of sculptor-guru?

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posted June 5, 2009 at 10:22 am

Ich liebe Rilke!!
Thanks for this great post. I found it inspiring, as a writer-artist-meditator.

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posted June 5, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Paul, I don’t know much about the Rilke and Rodin in terms of biography because I would rather look at the work directly. Instead of reading about the artist intention, I have found that if the work is good, it’s speaks for itself.
With that said. I’ve read Rilke and found him to be cerebral and romantic. I wished I would have read him when I was younger because I know for sure I would have related to him deeply. He seemed to me a a recluse.
As for Rodin I’ve seen his work many times and found him to be quite the opposite. It seems to me that his life was more experiential. As a figure artist, I’m of course more drawn to his work. Looking at his sculptures I see that he too sees the inner light (that’s the only way to describe what I see) of his models. They are rich with information and beautiful in a fecund kind of way (it’s hard to describe it).
By the look of the work you can tell he had a fantastic memory and that he has slept with some of the female models or maybe they where the women in his life. I don’t know.
I can see why a young intellectual man like Rilke would be interested in Rodin. His work shows a lush life.
As for whether or not he was a guru, perhaps yes but not with an exact intention but just through the natural process of an mature and outgoing artist communicating to a younger shy artist. With that personality set up there is bound to be a rub somewhere.

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