The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.)