‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan is a poem in the German language. In German, the title of the poem is ‘Todesfuge’. It was translated by Pierre Joris. This surrealistic poem contains several important images and the mix of voices in the poem, brings out an unorthodox lyrical flow of the poem. Pain, the essence of the poem, gets a different manifestation in the text. Moreover, the title of the poem is significant concerning the theme of the poem. Lastly, the realistic elements in the poem depict the condition of Jews in the sordid concentration camps of Germany.
Summary of Death Fugue
‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan presents a speaker who is not alone in the poem. The person represents his co-sufferers and expresses his thoughts about his mental state. There is nothing coherent in the poem. Each thought comes and goes, mixed with different kinds of emotions. One emotion is love for a family member who was either killed or confined in another concentration camp. The other emotion is fear for the commandant who metaphorically “plays with the snakes”. And the last but foremost emotion is pain. The insurmountable pain, that breaks the heart into pieces not even leaving the soul apart. Moreover, there was not a “day” in their lives. Each day revolved as an unending night that began from the evening and ended in the darkness of night. The only thing that helped them to somehow survive such a living death was the “Black milk of dawn”.
You can read the full poem Death Fugue here.
Meaning of Death Fugue
‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan in German named as ‘Todesfuge’. Fugue is a type of musical composition in which two or more voices are occurring simultaneously throughout the verse. The subject of the musical theme in the introduction section gets repeated frequently in the work for the sake of emphasis. Here, it is simply not a musical composition. It is a death song that arises from the heart of a sufferer who longs for it. However, it also seems that the song represents the mental state of the confined men in the concentration camps. This death song voices those who knew they were going to die sooner or later.
Themes in Death Fugue
‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan consists of several themes like suffering, death, inhumanity, surrealism, and authoritarianism. The most important theme of the poem is death. Here, the reference to death isn’t the normal one. It is the “living death” of those who suffered inside the concentration camps. Moreover, the theme of suffering is present throughout the poem. Each line says what a Jew was going through in such a horrific environment of the camp. Apart from that, the depiction of the commander in the poem presents how the mind of a dictator works. Such men have blue eyes, either reflecting the pacification in killing his fellow human beings or representing their unsympathetic hearts.
Structure of Death Fugue
‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan is a composition that appears like a string of thoughts that interplays in the body of the text to represent the state of a Jewish man’s mind. This form of writing is also known as the “stream-of-consciousness” technique. The poem presents the stream of thoughts that appears and fades away organically in the mind. However, in the translated version of the text, there is no such rhyme scheme or metrical scheme but in the actual version, there are some instances of slant rhymes. Moreover, the lines of the poem don’t end anywhere in the middle. It flows from one part to another like a slow-moving river near the sea.
Literary Devices in Death Fugue
‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan contains some important literary devices that reflect the mental happenings of the speaker. In the poem, there are several repetitions, refrains, and alliterations that represent the dominating thoughts that come up in the speaker’s mind. However, in the first line of each section, “Black milk of dawn” is a metaphor that portrays the daily suffering of the speaker and others living in the camps. In “he plays with the snakes”, there is a synecdoche. Here, the reference is made to the mischievous or unprecedented nature of snakes. Here, the speaker refers to the mischief-making commander of the concentration camp.
Moreover, “his eyes are blue” presents the metaphor for the cold-blooded nature of the commandant. There is a simile in “scrape those fiddles more darkly then as smoke you’ll rise”. Apart from that, the poet also uses palilogy in this poem.
Analysis of Death Fugue
Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
he commands us play up for the dance
‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan presents not a person but the mind of a Jew living in a concentration camp. The speaker in the poem talks about the treatment that the jews received from Germans. As an example, they were deprived of food. Milk was the only resource that they had to drink throughout the day.
Moreover, the commander in the poem treated them like dogs. He drove sadistic pleasure from seeing them suffering. Likewise, he directed them to dig their graves and others to “play up for the dance”. That was the degree of ruthlessness that the Germans showed to innocent jews.
Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
men continue to play for the dance
In the next section, the main idea of the poem gets repeated for the sake of emphasizing the dominating thoughts of the speaker. Like a man just before death visualizes the pictures of his loved ones, the speaker also sees the images of “Margaret” and “Shulamit”. Those images appear in his mind and quickly fade away.
In the last few lines of this section, the speaker again comes back to the thoughts of the commander and reminds how he pointed his gun towards them for getting the job done quickly. Here, the job refers to the killing of Jews by burying them alive.
Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds there you’ll lie at ease
In this section, the main thoughts reappear in the first few lines. Thereafter, the speaker talks about the unsympathetic nature of the Germans as a whole. The commander representing the German side told them to play their violins in a manner that can inspire others from their community to accept their death quickly. Otherwise, the Germans were there to do that. So, there was no way out for the jews. In the last line, the ironical reference of having “a grave in the clouds there you’ll lie at ease”, depicts the animistic pleasure that the Germans got from seeing jews suffering and then dying.
Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit
In the last section, the sense of the first few lines remains the same. However, in the last lines, the speaker expresses his fear of getting killed. The unfeeling lead bullets dashing out of the dictator’s gun can do it at any moment. In the end, the speaker says that the commander, at last, frees them from the suffering by setting his dogs on them.
Moreover, the line “death is a master from Deutschland”, occurring frequently in the poem, presents how Germany had become the land of death for the jews in the 1940s. The last two lines end like the last few words of a dying person.
Historical Context of Death Fugue
‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan was written around 1945 and first published in 1948. It is one of the most anthologized holocaust poems. The poet Paul Antschel, popularly known by his pen name Paul Celan was Jewish and lived in Romania. His parents died in a concentration camp during World War II. Moreover, Paul Celan was also a prisoner for a time in a work camp. So, in the poem, the poet in the guise of his poetic persona, talks about what was going inside his mind while living in the Nazi concentration camp.
‘Death Fugue’ by Paul Celan is a holocaust poem. Here is a list of some other poems revolving around this theme.
- First They Came by Pastor Martin Neimöller – In this poem, Pastor Martin Niemöller talks about the duties of a true citizen during World War II.
- Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep by Mary Frye – Here, Mary Frye illustrates the plight of a Jewish woman from Nazi Germany.
- September Song by Geoffrey Hill – In this poem, Geoffrey Hill refers to the tragic death of a child in the holocaust.
- Fear by Eva Picková – Here, Eva Picková talks about her fear of the ruthlessness of the Nazis.
You can read about 9 Famous Holocaust Poems here.