The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 499 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.


(The entire section is 560 words.)