The Poem

“Evening Meal” is a brief lyric consisting of sixteen lines broken down into four quatrains. The rhyme scheme in German follows the pattern abba, cdcd, efef, gghh. The lines average ten syllables in length. The German title “Abendmahl” may be translated both as “evening meal” and “last supper,” and the translator of this version, Edward Snow, employs both meanings in his translation. As Snow notes, in a letter Rainer Maria Rilke wrote to his wife in 1907, he described walking in Paris in the evening and seeing families seated at dinner in the back rooms of their shops. The families seated in the evening light behind the glass window reminded him, Rilke explained, of depictions of the biblical Last Supper.

Indeed, the opening lines of the poem refer the reader to this possible religious dimension, but with a characteristically Rilkean reversal. Whereas one typically thinks of religious feeling as an aspiration toward the transcendent, Rilke states baldly that “Things eternal want to join us,” that somehow eternal things might aspire to be part of a human reality.

Rather than attempting to explain this mysterious statement, the poet immediately draws the reader’s attention to the scene at hand, to the family seated at the table for their evening meal (it is here that the translator has chosen to translate “abendmahl” as “last supper”). The actual scene of the family at dinner is rendered with a minimum of...

(The entire section is 530 words.)

Forms and Devices

In the course of its sixteen lines, “Evening Meal” articulates an astonishing array of thematic variations, yet all of these arise from the basic figural situation of the speaker in the poem. While Rilke does not render this situation explicitly, one might imagine the poet standing in the city street, looking in on the family through a store window. The window frames the scene the way a painting would (consider, for example, Vincent van Gogh’s 1885 painting The Potato Eaters, in which van Gogh renders a scene of peasants eating with a simple clarity and grace). Rilke further emphasizes the tableau quality of the scene in line 3 when the poet asks “Can’t you see?” as though he were urgently pointing the scene out to the reader.

Thus, from the opening of the poem, the poet draws a distinct line between those (the poet and reader) who are outside the scene depicted and those (the family) who are inside it. The poet and reader on the outside are able to recognize the signs conveyed by the meal, while the family seems oblivious to the signs they enact. Yet by the end of the third stanza, Rilke gives this inside/outside division an ironic twist when he suggests that even those seated at the table might be divided within themselves. In the third stanza, this is conveyed in general, even universal terms when the poet suggests that “there is no one anyplace who isn’t/ secretly departing, even as he stays.”

In the concluding...

(The entire section is 434 words.)