The Poem

“Roman Sarcophagi” is a sonnet consisting of four stanzas broken down into two quatrains followed by two tercets. In the original German, the rhyme scheme follows a pattern that runs abab, cddc, efe, efe, and the lines average ten syllables in length. The title refers unambiguously to the poem’s subject, ancient stone coffins, often ornamented with carvings, in which the Romans buried the dead.

Two pieces of information are crucial to a proper understanding of this poem. First, the word “sarcophagus” comes from two words in the ancient Greek that together mean “flesh eater.” As the Oxford Universal Dictionary (3d ed.) notes, “sarcophagus” originally referred to a kind of stone that was supposed to devour decaying flesh. Eventually, it came to refer to coffins made from this stone. Second, in the years preceding the publication of New Poems, Rainer Maria Rilke made several visits to Italy. Always attentive to the historical and cultural details of the places he visited, Rilke at one point discovered, as Robert Bly explains in Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke (1981), that “In the middle ages, Italian farmerswould knock the ends out [of the sarcophagi] and line them up so that they became irrigation canals, carrying water from field to field.” Between these two pieces of knowledge, Rilke will weave his poem.

The opening stanza begins abruptly, as though the poet were speaking with some...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

Forms and Devices

Rilke’s subject matter is conducive to a rich exposition. In his intertwining of the etymological history of the word “sarcophagus” with the actual history of the sarcophagi, he is able to generate a series of surprising images and transformations. In a certain very real sense, “Roman Sarcophagi” was a poem waiting to be found, and Rilke seems happy to let the inherent poetic richness of his subject reveal itself. As is clear from the first-person-plural “we” of the opening stanza, the poet here, as so often in New Poems, gives the reader the impression that he is merely pointing to some meaning already present in the world. For Rilke, it would seem, the task of the poet is not so much to make meaning for the reader as it is to recover and share a communal meaning that is already “out there,” waiting to be found.

Yet the reader should not be seduced too easily, for one can argue that Rilke’s ability to see the potential buried within his subject, along with his apparently effortless ability to render this shared meaning, is precisely the measure of his mastery as a poet. A close reading of “Roman Sarcophagi” reveals that the poet carries a few selective details and figures through a series of imaginative transformations from stanza to stanza.

Most notably, the etymology of “sarcophagi” suggests to the poet an image of the coffins as mouths. In the first stanza, the one ostensibly least focused on the story...

(The entire section is 485 words.)