Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 422

Perhaps, in the most general sense, “Evening Meal” is a poem about alienation—the alienation of the poet as an outsider looking in on the family scene, the alienation of the child from his parents, the alienation of “things eternal” from the realm of everyday life. Yet Rilke also seems to suggest that it is precisely because of this alienation that the poet is able to read the signs of the scene he witnesses. Paradoxically, one can only understand the true value of something by looking at it from the point of view of an outsider (and Rilke is careful to put the reader into this outsider’s role).

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The poem also touches on the almost infinite subtle forms that alienation can take. The poet is only a few yards away from the scene, yet he might as well be a thousand miles away, so impossible would it be for him to cross the boundary between himself and the scene he observes. Even more ironic is the situation of the child, who, while seated at the table with his oblivious parents, also senses an impenetrable boundary between himself and them. When the poet universalizes this sense of alienation in the third stanza, he suggests that such boundaries are not merely physical, but are psychological and spiritual as well.

In short, Rilke seems to be describing a world in which all things are simultaneously at home and lost. The religious allusion present in “last supper” and in “things eternal” suggests that the alienation the poet describes might have theological significance also. After all, the story of Christ is that of God’s attempt to “join” human beings by becoming human, and the biblical Last Supper is one of the central emblems of this attempt. By breaking bread with the disciples, Christ shows himself to be a human being subject to ordinary human needs.

This theological motif is definitely present in the poem, yet Rilke is a poet, not a theologian, and he might be concerned primarily with showing that division and a subsequent longing to be a part of something pervade every level of existence. “Things eternal” want to be part of humanity; meanwhile, the poet looks in on the meal, perhaps longing to be part of the family, and ironically sees a youth who (perhaps like the poet at an earlier time) only wants to escape. There is no way to resolve the dilemma, Rilke seems to be saying, between the need to stay at home and the need to go away.

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