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by Paul Celan

Stanza 2 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 11-13

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink

  • Huh? Is this déjà vu? The poem repeats the first lines over again almost word-for-word.
  • Actually, now we are beginning to see the "fugue" form unfold. In classical music, a "fugue" is a piece that starts off with some kind of theme, and then returns to that theme several times.
  • Often the theme is played in different voices and with new variations along the way. We expect to see new variations in this poem.
  • The repetitive, drone-like nature of the "Black milk" lines mirrors the endless cycle of misery and labor in which the Jews are trapped.
  • The pattern of life in the camps is not linear – it's circular. It never advances toward a purpose of goal. It's just a daily struggle for survival.

Lines 14-16

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margeurite
your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped

  • The same musical theme from the first stanza continues to unfold, but we start to see those variations that are typical of a fugue.
  • If you've never heard a fugue by the way, we recommend you Google, "J.S. Bach" and "fugue" right away. You'll hear some of the most beautiful and complex music ever created by man.
  • The guard is still thinking about Marguerite, but now the poem brings in a contrasting female figure: Shulamith.
  • Shulamith is a princess who figures in the important Hebrew text called the "Song of Songs." Like Marguerite, she is an erotic literary ideal of womanhood (source).
  • But Shulamith belongs specifically to the Jewish tradition, not the German tradition. She is set apart from Marguerite by a line break, as if the two were competitors.
  • Her hair is dark or "ashen." She does not fit in with the Nazi racial ideal. Also, the word "ashen" calls to mind the ashes of Jewish bodies that were burned in Nazi crematoriums.
  • All the while the prisoners keep digging graves, and the ironic voice continues to lure them towards death with the promise of freedom from their confinement.

Lines 17-19

He shouts jab this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

  • The guard continues to threaten and intimidate the Jews, as he did in the last stanza.
  • He is almost like a circus master or a conductor, ordering the different groups of prisoners to do this and that: jab! sing! play!
  • The power has gone to his head, and maybe he even considers himself a kind of artist.
  • He beats the prisoners with a "rod," like a policeman's nightstick.
  • The guard's "blue eyes" are another coded symbol of the Nazi racial ideal. The Nazis like people with blond hair and blue eyes. But something about the guard's eyes is particularly menacing.
  • The guard's cruelty really comes across in these lines. He asks the prisoners to work beyond their endurance. He always wants more, more, more. And he seems to be mocking them with the mention of "dancing," as if anyone would want to dance upon orders from a concentration camp guard.

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