We can think of no better way to describe the sound of this poem than to call it a circus carnival gone terribly wrong. Think of a merry-go-round that people are forced to ride, on which you see the most horrible sights imaginable. As the poem goes on, the merry-go-round swings faster and faster, until it finally comes apart and the pieces fly everywhere…
The sound is defined by the "fugue" form. A fugue is a musical piece that begins with some theme and then returns to rework that theme a bunch more times. One of the most well-known classical music pieces, Pachabel's Canon, is similar to a fugue. In "Deathfugue," the first theme is "Black milk of daybreak" and the second theme is "A man lives in a house." Each of the four cycles of the fugue return to both themes. All of this repetition is like a dance. Indeed, the Nazi guard orders the prisoners to "play on for the dancing" (line 19). But it's not a happy dance, more like a "Dance of Death." The "Dance of Death" is a genre of classical music that usually has an upbeat rhythm but scary melodies.
The poem has no standard rhythm, but it was originally written in German so the rhythm we hear in the English translation is only an approximation. Still, you can get a sense of the choppiness of the language and of the disorientation. Celan doesn't use a lot of big or fancy words. In fact, his favorite motif in this poem is a simple subject-verb combination: "we drink," "he writes," "he shouts," "he jabs," "we shovel," and so on. This pattern reminds us that the prisoner's lives have been reduced to a series of unrelated, largely meaningless actions. What's more, the total lack of punctuation and the frequent use of run-on sentences (your English teacher would be so mad!) create a fragmented sound, as in line 16: "your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped." There is never a time to catch your breath in this poem. In all, reading "Deathfugue" aloud is a draining experience – emotionally and physically – that reproduces in language the exhaustion of the Jews in the camp.
The title is so central to the poem that English translators of the poem can't quite agree on what it should be. Some people prefer a translation of the original title in Romanian, "Death Tango." According to one critic, at a concentration camp near Celan's birthplace, "Jewish musicians were ordered to play a 'Death Tango' during marches, grave-digging, tortures, and executions" (source). But when he translated his own poem into German, Celan changed the title to "Todesfuge." In English grammar this would be "Death Fugue," but the translation we prefer uses "Deathfugue" to capture more of the essence of the German language.
A fugue is a musical piece that begins with a theme and then restates that theme several times with variations. The fugue is most closely associated with J.S. Bach, a German musician who was one of the greatest composers who ever lived. Bach's fugues could get crazy-complicated, to the point that he embedded his own name in musical notes: B-A-C-H. One of his most important works is called "The Art of the Fugue." The title of Celan's poem, then, refers both to the music played by the prisoners in the poem and also to the repetitive form that Celan uses throughout.
"Deathfugue" is set in a concentration camp somewhere in Europe during World War II. The Nazis set up concentration camps all over the territories they controlled, and this one could be anywhere. The details are deliberately sparse so as to capture the experience at the most general level. We know that the Jewish prisoners are digging graves, and there seems to also be a crematorium where bodies are burned. There are only a few historical details, like the music that the prisoners play while others perform forced labor. This happened in Auschwitz, probably the most notorious camp, and some other places, too. One detail that is notably missing is that of gas chambers. The camp in which Celan himself was interned did not have gas chambers, and they are not included in this poem. But the fact that the prisoners constantly dig graves shows that many people are dying on a consistent basis.
If "Deathfugue" were a painting, it would be full of grey and ash colors, and of course the blackness of black milk. We picture the air is filled with haze and ominous smoke. The prisoners all chant in unison, and they have taken on similarly haggard appearances from living in the camp. They are not differentiated from each other in any way. The only hint of bright colors are Marguerite's "golden" hair and the blue eyes of the camp guard, but in the context of the poem these colors inspire only dread. Importantly, the guard's house is kept separate from the camp in the setting. It is like a little Romantic hideout where the stars shine and the guard can write in peace. However, our knowledge about the man who lives there fully contaminates this space for the reader. In reality, there is nowhere safe in this poem.
The speaker of the poem actually appears to be a group of speakers. They are the Jews who are imprisoned in the concentration camp. They are almost like the members of a chain gang, singing a rhythmic song to pass the time, or just to stay sane. Some of the speakers are digging graves, while others are playing the "Deathfugue." They are all tired, worn out, and mostly without hope.
The cyclic nature of the fugue form and the disjointed nature of the language create a hallucinatory effect. The speakers are not in a "normal" state of mind. Nor do you get the sense that they believe they will make it out of the camp alive. Their attitude towards death is almost one of pitch-black humor. They often sound ironic in repeating lines like "there you won't lie too cramped," but the line between the irony and the literal is very thin in this poem.
The speakers are very attentive and they understand more than their jumbled syntax would suggest. They closely watch the movements of the guard, and they know about his literary pretensions. They see what the guard probably does not allow himself to see; that all his efforts to be cultured are undone by his barbaric actions during the day. The speakers themselves have a knowledge of German literature and music – maybe even an appreciation for it – which they find hard to reconcile with the situation that Nazism has placed them in.
This poem is not so much difficult to understand as it is difficult to read because of its subject matter. Celan uses a lot of symbols, but they are usually easy to pick out (milk, vipers, etc.). Also, he writes in a disjointed style, in which phrases that don't seem to be related are put next to each other. Don't worry – this style is supposed to be disorienting, it's part of the effect of the poem. Finally, we try to explain some of the literary and cultural allusions in the poem in "Symbols, Imagery, and Wordplay," so you might find that helpful. Once you figure out who Marguerite and Shulamith are, you're set.
Wow, that's kind of a chilling calling card to have. But there is no getting around the question of nothingness and the abandonment of men by God in Celan's poems. Celan was Jewish, but his experiences during the Holocaust seemed to have shaken his beliefs to the foundation. In "Deathfugue," he describes how the prisoners drink "black milk." According to the Book of Exodus in Hebrew scriptures, the Jews were supposed to be delivered by God to "a land flowing with milk and honey," the very opposite of where they find themselves in Celan's work. In another poem, called "Psalm," he is even more direct:
No one kneads us again out of earth and clay
no-One summons our dust.
Blessed art thou, No One.
(Read the full poem here.)
A fugue is a musical piece that begins with some theme and then comes back to that theme several times, with variations. We don't know of any other "fugue" poems, certainly not any famous ones. It would be as if someone took a Viennese Waltz and said, "I'm going to find a way to make this into a literary form."
The poem basically restates its "theme" four times. Each time begins with the invocation to "black milk," and then a description of the man who lives in a house. The end of each stanza is choppier and mixes together different phrases, like "your golden hair Marguerite, your ashen hair Shulamith." Celan does not use much punctuation and he does not write in complete sentences. Instead, he splices together snippets of language that only have a slight connection to one another. This gives the poem an almost schizophrenic feel: indeed, a "fugue" in psychology is a disoriented state that resembles schizophrenia (source). The poem doesn't have any regular rhythm scheme, and it is translated from German so the rhythm of the English translation is only an approximation.
The fugue is an interesting form to choose because it is so closely associated with German high culture. Germany (and its German-speaking neighbor, Austria) certainly has one of the most impressive musical cultures in the world. Just think of all those "big names" of music: Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart, Strauss, etc. But Celan takes this classy, cultured tradition and uses it in a poem about death and concentration camps. It's as if he wanted to implicate the German musical tradition in the Holocaust. By far the most famous composer to use the fugue is J.S. Bach, who lived in the seventeenth century and wrote The Art of the Fugue, a collection of incredibly complicated and beautiful fugues.
Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.
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.
The man who lives in a house couldn't sound more ordinary at first – we know lots of men who live in houses! But it soon becomes clear that this man is a Nazi guard, most likely a member of the notorious S.S. organization that carried out many of the worst crimes of the Holocaust. The man is a representative of the Nazi movement as a whole and of a particularly dark strain in German culture. His physical appearance is a manifestation of the Nazi ideal, but his actions are nothing short of barbaric. He is frequently shown ordering people around in the poem, and committing terrible abuses. At the same time, he thinks his knowledge of books and music someone makes him superior and "cultured."
The poem expects that the reader is familiar with the enduring images of misery that have come out of the Holocaust: emaciated prisoners behind wire fences, guards with machine guns in watch towers, and especially mass graves and crematoriums. Most of the Jews who died in the camps were never buried, and many were burned to make their remains more easily disposable. The images of ashes, smoke, and graves in the air subtly allude to this practice. Others were dumped in mass graves, and the prisoners were often forced to dig their own graves before being killed. This, too, is recorded in the poem. Finally, throughout the poem an ironic voice seems to lure or tempt the prisoners to death, promising them freedom from their "cramped" conditions.
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.
This is a Holocaust poem, so sex isn't on anyone's mind. On the other hand, Marguerite and Shulamith are idealized erotic female figures, so we're left wondering why Celan chose to include them in the text. Thoughts?