The archaic torso lesson

Rainer Maria Rilke’s apprenticeship under Auguste Rodin


The relationship between Rodin and Rilke is an exceptionally intriguing conjunction between two artists—a sculptor and a poet—working in radically different media. It was not a relationship of equals. When they first met, on 1 September 1902, Rilke was still an obscure, unsuccessful writer. His first major volume of poetry, the Book of Hours, was partly written but would not appear till 1905. Meanwhile, he had a wife and infant daughter to support. Since for him taking a regular job was not an option, he was living by occasional journalism and publishers’ commissions. Rodin, 35 years older, had after many years of struggle, rejection and unpopularity attained such fame that at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 the authorities allowed him to display his sculptures in his own pavilion, provided he paid for it himself.

Commissioned to write a monograph on Rodin, Rilke secured an introduction through his wife, Clara Westhoff, who had been among the first students at the Institut Rodin in Paris. Lengthy conversations with Rodin led to the monograph, published in 1903 and reprinted several times with additions. Despite its awestruck tone, it is a fine appreciation of Rodin’s work. No doubt it helped to encourage Rodin, in September 1905, to offer Rilke a post as his personal secretary.

Rilke handled Rodin’s extensive correspondence with enthusiasm, polishing his French in the process. But Rodin was notoriously unpredictable. In April 1906 he flew into a rage on finding that Rilke had written a (perfectly innocuous) personal letter to William Rothenstein, one of Rodin’s London patrons. Rilke was humiliatingly dismissed. Rachel Corbett relates this experience, in You Must Change Your Life, to Rilke’s poem The Departure of the Prodigal Son, written in June 1906; if so, the poem’s last line (“Is this the beginning of a new life?”) testifies to Rilke’s resilience. Fortunately their estrangement lasted little more than a year, ending with a conciliatory letter from Rodin.

So how did Rilke’s acquaintance with Rodin change his life? The phrase that supplies Corbett’s title comes from Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, which opens New Poems, Part Two (1908), a collection dedicated to Rodin. To answer this question, the most revealing document is Rilke’s letter of 8 August 1903 to his former lover Lou Andreas-Salomé. In it, Rilke first praises Rodin for his organic strength, groundedness and self-sufficiency: “O what a solitary being is this old man, who, immersed in himself, stands full of sap like an ancient tree in autumn.” Then he describes Rodin’s creations as artistic objects: “The thing is definite, the art-thing must be still more definite: removed from all chance, remote from all unclarity, withdrawn from time and given to space, it has become lasting, fit for eternity.” For a poem to become what Corbett calls a “sculpturally composed work”, it had to be self-contained with a clear internal structure, as in the sonnet form, which Rilke often uses in both volumes of New Poems.

But there is another element, which Corbett interestingly explores: empathy. Having attended lectures at Munich University by the aesthetician Theodor Lipps, Rilke knew the theory of empathy or Einfühlung, “feeling one’s way into” another being. But the practice of empathy was dangerous for someone so sensitive. Other people’s feelings, as with the sufferer from Tourette’s syndrome whom Rilke followed compulsively through the Paris streets one day, could invade his emotional space and cause him acute anxiety.

Rodin’s sculptures could explore the essential nature of their object, as with the monstrous Balzac memorial (commissioned in 1891, completed and rejected in 1898, publicly displayed only in 1939). Rilke felt his way into the essential being, first of animals, then of things. In his poems, animals and statues—even, paradoxically, the torso of Apollo—gaze back at the beholder; but empathy is controlled, and kept from invasiveness, by the sonnet form.

Corbett’s book is engagingly written. She has a gift for short, well-composed sentences, which carry the reader along, although the copy-editor has failed to notice that some French expressions are misspelled or garbled.

Her book is essentially two parallel biographies, leading up to and away from the period when both lives intersected, with much enjoyable information about artistic life in 1900s Paris. It can be warmly recommended to the general reader, who may well be inspired to visit the Musée Rodin or to read Rilke’s early Letters to a Young Poet, a work from his Rodin period to which Corbett pays an attractive personal tribute.

• Ritchie Robertson is a professor of German at the University of Oxford. His most recent book is Goethe: a Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2016)

You Must Change Your Life: the Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin

Rachel Corbett

W.W. Norton and Company, 320pp, $26.95 (hb)