The Raising of Lazarus

by Rainer Maria Rilke

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

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 task. But He was not yet willing.” Both Christ and the Prodigal Son are misunderstood. Both contend with the excruciatingly difficult task of being true to their own natures, which place them quite apart from the average person. Rilke’s extraordinary accounts of these biblical characters result from his identification with aspects of them, and they become representations of elements of himself. He was convinced that he must write and became frustrated when he could not do so. His works were produced at great personal cost. He could not live with other people for any length of time but needed human contact, and this led to a most unsettled lifestyle. Rilke’s life is testimony to the difficulty of living with a creative gift that consumes the artist. His portrayal of Christ in “The Raising of Lazarus” focuses on the agony that accompanies the possession of exceptional powers.

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