The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

“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 urgency in the midst of an ongoing meditation. Addressing the reader in the first-person-plural “we” form, the poet refers to a general condition that both presumably share. Referring to the ruins of the antique sarcophagi, the poet affirms that, like them, reader and poet alike “are scattered out and set in place.” Yet, unlike the sarcophagi, human beings also share common negative emotions that the poet identifies as “thirst,” “hatred,” and “confusion.” All these qualities “dwell in us,” and taken together they indicate that being human is somehow to be lacking, is somehow synonymous with being unfinished.

The notion of “dwelling” leads gracefully into the second stanza, in which the poet shifts from describing the shared human qualities of the living to depicting the actual sarcophagi and the contents they once held. The poet names the accoutrements that once accompanied the dead into their coffins, the “rings, glasses, ribbons, and images of gods,” which, in their reality as things, strike a vivid counterpoint to the negative, amorphous human qualities described in the first stanza. Among these distinct and definite things a human being once lay, a “slowly loosening something” that in death perhaps acquired a completeness that it lacked in life.

In the third stanza, the poet plays specifically on the etymological origins of “sarcophagus,” describing the bodies as “swallowed by those unknown mouths.” Rilke further plays on this image by making an imaginative leap from the “mouths” of the coffins to the “brain that one day will make use of them,” a reference that perhaps on the most literal level refers to the farmer who eventually will invent a new use for them.

In the concluding stanza, the poem becomes starkly literal as the sarcophagi complete their transformation from ritualistic vessels for the dead to practical vessels for irrigation of the farmers’ fields. The poem closes with an image of moving water rendered with a simple and sensuous clarity.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

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 of the coffins themselves, the poet describes the “unfinished” nature of human life in terms of “thirst.” In the second stanza, he draws a comparison between the confusion or thirst of living humans and the “slowly loosening something” of the Romans in the coffins—it is as though the confusion of life only slowly vanishes after death as the indefiniteness of the human body gradually dissolves among the definite objects placed alongside it. Finally, in the third stanza, the body is completely swallowed by the coffin-mouths, and in the fourth, fresh, shining water runs through the coffins.

Through this developing cluster of images, the poet has shown how “thirst” might “dwell” in people, just as the decaying body dwells in the coffin. With the movement of water through the transformed coffin, the human “thirst” of the first stanza finally has been quenched.

On the surface, it would seem that Rilke is attempting a direct, almost objective presentation of his subject, but further reflection demonstrates that the poem works by means of a chain of details selected from the subject at hand in order to present the reader with a startling, almost miraculously ironic transformation as the human “thirst” of the opening stanza is eventually quenched by the water the farmers use for irrigation. Rilke presents the objective history of the sarcophagi but does so through selective images that emphasize processes of death, decay, and eventual rebirth.

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