“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.)