Paul Celan had a difficult – you might even say tortured – relationship with the language and culture of Germany. He grew up speaking German, and he clearly admires the great literary achievements of artists like Wolfgang von Goethe and Bach. But the fact remains that the Nazis often used German culture as evidence of its supposed superiority. In the poem, the Jews are excluded from this culture – they are represented by Shulamith from the "Song of Songs," while Germany is the sweet, blond-haired Marguerite from Goethe's Faust. The guard's love of Marguerite and Romantic music symbolizes the tainted legacy of German culture. Even the beauty of the fugue form becomes associated with death and suffering.
- Title: "Deathfugue" is a dark and unexpected title. The fugue form brings to mind the great composer Bach, who wrote some of the most famous fugues. Celan creates a new word that ties this form to death.
- Line 6: Marguerite is a character from the epic poem Faust by the nineteenth century writer Wolfgang von Goethe. She symbolizes both the greatness of certain parts of the German literary tradition, and also the racial ideal of the Nazis, where blue eyes and blond hair were highly valued.
- Lines 15-16: These lines consist of phrases repeated from earlier in the poem, mimicking the form of a musical fugue. Celan is imitating one artistic medium (music) within another (poetry).
- Line 16: Shulamith is a princess from the Hebrew "Song of Songs," an erotic poem that makes up part of what Christians call the Old Testament. Her "ashen" hair symbolizes the ashes of cremated Jews, and she is contrasted with the blond-haired Marguerite.
- Line 25: The word "master" has several meanings. It alludes to the ideology of the "master race," to slavery, and to Richard Wagner's opera "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." Wagner was an anti-Semite whose music was loved by Hitler.