The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 499

Rainer Marie Rilke wrote his only novel, Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, 1930, 1958), in Paris in 1910. It left him emotionally drained and unable to write much in the ensuing years. He traveled to North Africa and Egypt, then to Italy and Spain. From Toledo, where he studied the art of El Greco (1541-1614), Rilke moved further south for the winter to Ronda. It was there that he wrote “The Raising of Lazarus.” Surrounded by beautiful landscape, he enjoyed six weeks of prolific writing in early 1913. The poems he wrote in Ronda are among his best but were not published together during his lifetime. Rilke had come to the conclusion that only cohesive groups of poems should be published, and he was already working on his Duineser Elegien (1923; Duino Elegies, 1930) at the time, which would eventually become a cycle of ten complex poems. In June of 1913, he would publish his cycle on the life of Mary, Das Marienleben (The Life of the Virgin Mary, 1951), which he had written in January of 1912.

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Rilke was raised in the Roman Catholic Church, and much of his poetry shows a deep Christian influence. Das Stunden-Buch (The Book of Hours, 1941) was a major early work, written in 1899, 1901, and 1903 and published for Christmas of 1905. Its three books, Vom mönchischen Leben (Monastic Life), Von der Pilgerschaft (Pilgrimage), and Von der Armut und vom Tode (Poverty and Death), treat Christian themes in a traditionally devout manner.

Something happened to change Rilke’s outlook. “The Raising of Lazarus” is so boldly secular that it hardly seems to have been written by the same poet. Rilke had, in the interim, read the works of the Danish philosopher and religious thinker Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who was critical of conventional Christianity and emphasized the importance of individual choice.

To see just how far removed Rilke’s poem is from the only account of the miraculous raising of Lazarus from the dead in the Bible, it is helpful to read John 11 for comparison. Verse 25 is the one most often quoted, where Jesus said: “I am the resurrection, and the life.” Rilke has chosen to cast the event in a different light, with a post-Freudian focus on how Christ felt about what he was doing. And he leaves out God the Father altogether.

Much remains unsaid in “The Raising of Lazarus.” Rilke assumes the reader will recognize the unnamed main character as Jesus Christ, who has already amply demonstrated his ability to heal the sick. It is useful, when reading the poem, to recall, from John 11, what happened before the scene Rilke portrays and the consequences of that scene. Christ deliberately delayed coming any earlier, and his raising of Lazarus was the ultimate provocation for the Pharisees, who then were determined to have him put to death. Rilke is fascinated with the individual who, following the dictates of an inner necessity, avoids an easier route and subjects himself to the stress of a supremely challenging task.

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

The poem itself deals only with the actual raising of Lazarus in Bethany. Narrated in the third person, it elaborates greatly on the Biblical observation that Christ “groaned in the spirit, and was troubled” (John 11:33). His reluctance is evident from the start, as is his critical detachment from humanity: “people need/ to be screamed at with proof.” He briefly entertains the hope that at least his friends Martha and Mary, Lazarus’s sisters, will believe in advance that he can bring Lazarus back to life. But not even they see his arrival in Bethany as the solution. Rilke effectively uses direct quotation so that one may hear, with Christ, what he has to contend with: “you come too late.”

The next step is essentially a violation of nature and goes against Christ’s own inclinations. Two extremely short sentences describe his intensely emotional reaction: “In anger” and “He wept.” Even on the way to the grave, he has serious reservations. But as Christ begins to walk, Rilke’s sentences begin to flow: eight verses before the full stop at “Move the stone!,” then through to the end of the poem without a break. Since English sentences tend to be shorter than German ones, the contrast in Rilke’s sentence lengths is not always retained in translation. In the original German, the syntactic units mirror the content. They show Christ stop and gather his energy, then set in motion a process that even he is unable to stop.

In the Bible, Christ talks briefly with God, then calls Lazarus to come out. Rilke’s dramatic poem relies more on gesture than on words for its effect. He introduces the silent and suspenseful raising of Christ’s hand, then the tightening into a claw, which in the German literally applies suction to the grave (“ansaugen”). Then he creates tension in the reader by revealing that Christ fears he might accidentally be raising many more than Lazarus, that “all the dead might return/ from that tomb.”

Rilke keeps readers in suspense and expands his rhyme scheme as the tension builds. The basic scheme of the poem is rhymed quatrains, but, at the last, Rilke makes readers wait for a fifth verse before the rhyme, before Christ has the reassurance that he has raised only one and the life of the common people can go on as usual. The nightmarish elements of uncertainty and doubt make reading the poem an emotional experience.

Rilke’s interest in existential questions places him outside expressionism in literary history, yet “The Raising of Lazarus” has much in common with the work of Rilke’s expressionist contemporaries, whose influence cannot be ruled out. It was written in 1913, during a period of protracted inner crisis for Rilke that coincided with the unrest felt by many artists, particularly the expressionists, prior to the outbreak of World War I. Its unique approach to the familiar Bible story concentrates on Christ’s inner feelings, giving precedence to subjective reality, as did the expressionists. Rilke’s poem shows Christ strongly resisting what he must do, an attitude in keeping with the father-son conflicts in expressionist literature. And finally, in common with the innovative expressionists, Rilke uses the form itself as a means of expression: A basic pentameter propels the poem, and the lack of division into stanzas mirrors the inexorability of Christ’s undertaking.

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