Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Often in Rilke’s New Poems it seems as though the poet in observing his subject is attempting to look into a mirror. Yet the thing that is regarded throws back an image not of the poet’s self but of all that the self is not. In other words, the striking otherness of the observed subject provides the poet with a way of understanding what it means to be human, precisely because the subject itself is something beyond the human. In “Roman Sarcophagi,” the poet describes human life as confused and unfinished. As is clear from Rilke’s other work, to be incomplete is a source of both great pain and great joy, for if one is incomplete this means merely that more life is to come; in short, one’s very lack of completion is simply the negative side of one’s potential for growth. Continually throughout his career, Rilke’s poetry explores the ways in which people grow and change over the course of a life. For Rilke, growth is always synonymous with life itself, and failure to grow is a kind of death.

Hence, in Rilkean terms, the Romans buried in the sarcophagi become fully completed human beings only as they gradually dissolve among the artifacts buried with them. Hundreds of years later, when the farmers break the ends out of the coffins and place them end to end as irrigation canals, any trace of the bodies the coffins once may have contained has disappeared as the coffins are transformed from ritualistic vessels for the dead into wholly practical vessels for bringing water and life to the crops. Whereas once the coffins contained the dead, they now bring water—bright, shining, animate—the most elemental of life-giving substances.

In telling the story of the transformation of the sarcophagi, it seems that Rilke has hit upon the perfect image for describing a metamorphosis from life to death to new life again, a new life figured in the image of the flowing water with which the poem closes. Such a passage seems all the more vivid and believable because of the strikingly literal terms in which Rilke renders it.