Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Prior to writing “The Raising of Lazarus,” Rilke had gone to Toledo for several weeks to see more works by the famous Spanish painter El Greco. The poem has strong visual components and the feverish intensity of El Greco’s later works, even though El Greco is not one of the artists who painted the raising of Lazarus. The shocking moment Rilke captures so well is the moment of Christ’s uncertainty. There is so much tension in his hand that it clenches like a claw as he begins to work his miracle, unsure of how it will end. This is Christ the man, not the god. The terrifying uncertainty he experiences is something everyone feels when doing something dangerous or unfamiliar for the first time.

Rilke’s empathy with the figure of Christ, as he describes him, extends beyond the moment to Christ’s whole situation. Even those closest to him do not understand him. They force him to defy nature in order to prove his deity but are incapable of grasping the continuity of life and death so evident to him. At the same time, there is a conspicuous absence of communication from above, from God the Father.

Christ’s alienation in the poem is strikingly similar to that of the equally freely re-interpreted Prodigal Son in Rilke’s autobiographical novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. The final paragraph of the novel reads: “What did they know of him? He was now terribly difficult to love, and he felt that One alone was able for...

(The entire section is 407 words.)