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by Paul Celan

Stanza 3 Summary

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

Lines 20-22

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

  • The poem circles back again to the first musical theme. We're about to take another turn on the whirly-gig of the fugue.
  • "Black milk" has become a kind of rhythmic refrain. Notice the pounding sound of the subject-verb combination, "we drink…we drink…we drink."

Lines 23-25

a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margeurite
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers
He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland

  • The fugue form always follows the same general order. After the "black milk," the poem moves to the Nazi guard who lives "in the house."
  • In our translation (Felstiner's), the poem starts taking on more and more German words and phrases. Because we have heard these words before in English, and they look so similar, we don't have any problem with the meaning.
  • The guard wants the Jews to play the song of "death" more sweetly. This is ironic, because the idea of a violent death is anything but sweet for them.
  • "Play death" also literally means play the Deathfugue or Death Tango.
  • He is wrapped up in his Romantic ideas of art and music and completely ignores the suffering of the musicians.
  • A new variation in the fugue is the line: "Death is a master form Deutschland." Deutschland is Germany.
  • The word "master," or "meister" in German, has very important connotations for any German speaker.
  • First, we have the idea of a slave master. The Nazi guard is definitely a kind of slave master, so the guard is being compared with Death itself.
  • Next, we have the Nazi idea of the "master race." Rather than leading to the improvement of mankind, this idea actually leads to death and suffering.
  • Finally, the word "master" points back to the mixed legacy of the German musical tradition. For a German person, the world would likely bring to mind Richard Wagner's famous opera "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." Wagner was one of the most famous and brilliant Romantic composers of the nineteenth century, but he was also an anti-Semite who was beloved by Adolph Hitler. And the German city of Nuremberg was the site of some of the most notorious Nazi rallies, so Celan is linking the musical tradition with Nazism in a sense.

Lines 26-27

he shouts scrape your strings darker you'll rise then in smoke to the sky
you'll have a grave then in the clouds there you won't lie too cramped

  • The guard reverts to his "composer" mode again. Who does this guy think he is? It's not enough for him to order the Jews to play music, he has to critique their playing too.
  • He really sounds like the cliché of the Romantic personality, trying to wring every last bit of emotion out of the music.
  • He tells the prisoners that once they have finished playing the music, they will "rise…in smoke to the sky." Literally, they will be killed and their bodies burned.
  • Rising into the sky sounds nice, but rising as smoke, not so much.
  • Also, it seems that the guard has been the one saying all along that, "there you won't lie too cramped," referring to the imaginary grave in the sky. This makes sense, as it is an especially cruel thing to say.
  • The guard is stuck in "hyper-literary" mode, thinking in metaphors and fancy images, while the prisoners live in the brutal reality of the camps.

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