‘The Last Supper’ by Leonardo Da Vinci
My choice of a Poem for Lent this Maundy Thursday morning is ‘The Last Supper,’ by Ranier Maria Rilke.
Rilke’s haunting images focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety: themes that tend to position him as a transitional figure between the traditional and the modernist poets. He wrote this poem after seeing Leonardi Da Vinci’s ‘Last Supper’ in Milan in 1904, and this translation of the poem is by Albert Ernest Fleming.
René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke (1875-1926), better known as Rainer Maria Rilke, was a Bohemian-Austrian poet, and is considered one of the most significant poets in the German language.
He was born in Prague on 4 December 1875 in Prague, which was then the capital of Bohemia, which was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
He wrote in both verse and a highly lyrical prose. He is probably best-known to English-language readers for his Duino Elegies. TS Eliot says, reading Rilke’s ‘Duino Elegies,’ it is not important that we agree with the muddle of his life-philosophy – but only see into the poetic rhetoric he exhorts and exults in.
Rilke’s two most famous prose works are the Letters to a Young Poet and the semi-autobiographical Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge
He also wrote more than 400 poems in French, dedicated to his homeland of choice, the Swiss canton of Valais, although he called two places his home – Bohemia and Russia. He died on 29 December 1926 in Montreaux, Switzerland.
The Last Supper ... an image from Bridgeman’s workshop in Quonian’s Lane, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Last Supper, by Ranier Maria Rilke
They are assembled, astonished and disturbed
round him, who like a sage resolved his fate,
and now leaves those to whom he most belonged,
leaving and passing by them like a stranger.
The loneliness of old comes over him
which helped mature him for his deepest acts;
now will he once again walk through the olive grove,
and those who love him still will flee before his sight.
To this last supper he has summoned them,
and (like a shot that scatters birds from trees)
their hands draw back from reaching for the loaves
upon his word: they fly across to him;
they flutter, frightened, round the supper table
searching for an escape. But he is present
everywhere like an all-pervading twilight-hour.
Here they are gathered, wondering and deranged,
Round Him, who wisely doth Himself inclose,
And who now takes Himself away, estranged,
From those who owned Him once, and past them
He feels the ancient loneliness to-day
That taught Him all His deepest acts of love;
Now in the olive groves He soon will rove,
And these who love Him all will flee away.
To the last supper table He hath led.
As birds are frightened from a garden-bed
By shots, so He their hands forth from the bread
Doth frighten by His word: to Him they flee;
Then flutter round the table in their fright
And seek a passage from the hall. But He
Is everywhere, like dusk at fall of night.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.