by Paul Celan
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Black Milk

Symbol Analysis

The first three lines are a repetitive invocation to "black milk" that forms the first musical theme of the poem's fugue (see "Form and Meter"). Black milk symbolizes the unwholesome and bitter quality of the camp experience. Everything else in the poem, from digging graves to executions, is an example of figurative "black milk." Imagine people forced to drink oil or sludge. The image has specific connections to the Hebrew scriptures, because in the scriptures the "land of milk and honey" is referred to as a kind of paradise. In fact, this phrase is still in use today – maybe you've heard it. In "Deathfugue," of course, there is nothing sweet or paradise-like about the camp, so the reference is very ironic.

  • Lines 1-3: Black milk is a symbol for the toxic, death-haunted atmosphere of the camps. The repetition of "we drink" symbolizes the endless and repetitive suffering of the prisoners. It also mimics the musical sound of a dance. Finally, it alludes the "land of milk and honey," a description of paradise from Hebrew texts.
  • Lines 11-13: The "black milk" is personified as "you," as if it were a central character in the poem.
  • Lines 20-22: The repetition of the same lines about black milk is a musical refrain, like the chorus of a pop song.
  • Lines 28-30: The insertion of the phrase "Death is a master from Germany" into the refrain is an example of juxtaposition.