The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

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“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 descriptive detail. One can imagine the poet glancing in the shop window through the “twilight of the shops” now closed and darkened, and seeing the family seated at the table as though in a framed tableau. It is worth noting too that the poet can only see the family from a distance, that he has no personal knowledge of the people he describes but sees them as representative of all families.

In the second, stanza, the poet describes the gestures of the family and affirms that such gestures have symbolic significance, that they are in fact “signs,” even though the participants in the meal do not realize this. Only the poet (and by extension the reader), as one who stands outside the scene and looks on, is capable of recognizing the significance of these simple, everyday acts. While these might be as simple and ordinary as passing plates of food, in the third stanza the poet states that each gesture nevertheless “establisheswhat one shares.” In other words, with each participant’s gesture the bonds between the members of the family are renewed. Yet simultaneously, with each renewal of the family bonds, there is also the threat of a family member “secretly departing,” secretly breaking the bond that joins the family together.

In the concluding stanza, the threat to the family bond becomes clear. One of the children at the table, the poet imagines, has already “cast off” his parents, even though the parents themselves are unable to recognize this. At this point, the poet reasserts the “last supper” allusion with an ironic twist: The child’s need to “give away” his parents resembles Judas’s betrayal of Christ, yet the child need not “sell” his parents as Judas, after the Last Supper, sold Christ.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

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 stanza, Rilke reinserts this figure of division into the scene at hand. It is possible that a child sitting at the table has already figuratively gone away from his parents, “given them away,” while the parents continue in the rituals of everyday life, oblivious to the child’s “departure.” By this point in the poem, poet, reader, and child now share a common alienation from the everyday ritual; all three, in one sense, look in on the scene through the glass.

When Rilke closes by alluding to the child as a Judas figure, one probably ought to take this with tongue in cheek, since such “betrayal” is only part of the natural course of things. Yet if one returns to the opening statement of the poem, it would seem that the poet considers the division he finds in this scene emblematic of a greater division marking all things—a division between “things eternal” and the things of this world. Turning back to the poem’s title, one sees that this same division is also present in the two meanings of “abendmahl.”