Study Guide

Deathfugue Quotes

  • War

    Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
    we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
    we drink and we drink (lines 1-3)

    These opening lines are the poem's refrain. They are repeated at the beginning of each new turn of the "fugue." The war experience for the camp prisoners unique (and uniquely terrible) because, unlike a battle that must end at some point, there is never any let-up in the fight for survival. There is no time during the day when they are not forced to drink "black milk."

    he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
    he orders us strike up and play for the dance (lines 9-10)

    The Jews are forced to do the dirty work for the Nazis. Not only was forcing the prisoners to dig graves considered efficient, but it also wore down the spirit and morale of the prisoners. It was part of the strategy in the Nazi war on the Jewish people.

    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 (lines 17-18)

    The guard is portrayed as more and more inhumane as the poem goes along. Here he is shown beating the prisoners, and his blue eyes are a symbol of cruelty, rather than the ideal that the Nazis hoped for. He is like a musical conductor, ordering one group to dig and the other to play music.

    He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland (line 25)

    Celan is extremely critical towards Germany and its role in the war. He even goes so far as to locate the abstract idea of "Death" in Germany. Death is to be found both in the cruelties of men like the camp guard, and also in the ideology of Nazism, with its emphasis on racial "mastery."

    his Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
    he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
    a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
    he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air (lines 31-34)

    In line 31, "Death" is directly equated with the guard and his blue eyes. This is the moment at which the tension in the poem breaks out into violence, and the guard starts executing the prisoners. The speaker ironically praises his shot as "level and true," as if all that mattered was efficiency. You really get the sense that the guard holds all the cards and has all the power, and the prisoners could not have fought back even if they had wanted to do so.

  • Suffering

    Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
    we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
    we drink and we drink (lines 1-3)

    We've likened "black milk" to drinking sticky crude oil, a symbol that captures the prisoners' lack of power (they are forced to drink it), their sickly state (black milk can't be good for you), and their immense suffering. It's just a tremendously powerful image – can you think of a natural substance that looks "whiter" than milk? And then Celan just completely turns the image inside out, and the blackness of the milk corresponds to the images of ash and smoke that appear throughout "Deathfugue."

    he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
    he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling (lines 6-7)

    The total obliviousness of the guard to the suffering around him is one of ideas presented in these lines. Imagine if there were a concentration camp right next to Yosemite National Park – would you still want to go out hiking and admire the stars and all that? Of course not. But the guard is able to separate the horrible deeds he commits during the day from his Romantic dreams at night.

    your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped (line 16)

    There are many layers of suffering in this poem, but one of them is the annihilation of the Jewish people and their traditions. Shulamith's "ashen" hair is a great image because it gives us both the literal reality of the racial differences – like dark hair – that set the Jews apart from the Nazi ideal, and also the metaphorical reality that the European Jews are being murdered and burned to ash.

    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 (lines 26-27)

    Another kind of suffering faced by the prisoners is humiliation and loss of dignity. No doubt the Jewish musicians who play the "Death Tango" love music. But from now on their thoughts of music will be associated with graves and executions. To force the prisoners to dance while they dig grave is to make them do what is most painful and least appropriate. It was all part of the Nazi method of dehumanization.

    he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
    a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
    he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air (lines 32-34)

    Notice how the poem draws the reader in here: he shoots you. We are placed alongside the Jews in the line of fire. These prisoners have suffered so much that the execution scene can only be understated and ironic. There is nothing to be shocked by anymore. Instead of "he murders us," which is the reality, the speaker says that he "grants us a grave in the air."

  • Identity

    A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes (line 5)

    This line almost sounds like it could have been written by a child, doesn't it? But we learn so much about the identity of the guard. He's like an ordinary, middle-class guy, but he has a sinister side, what with his vipers and all. He's also a writer of some kind, so he must be cultured. One of the lessons the Holocaust taught is that people can do monstrous things without seeming like monsters most of the time.

    he whistles his hounds to come close
    he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground (lines 8-9)

    Celan uses parallelism in these two lines to compare the Jews with animals (hounds), which is exactly how the Nazis thought of them. They are like possessions that do work for him, just like his dogs. And calling them "his Jews" emphasis the role of "master" that is explored later in the poem.

    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 (lines 11-13)

    These lines, repeated at the beginning of each next stanza, are practically the only use of first person in the poem. The Jews do not have an identity except as this mass, uniform group that must suffer together. They are like ghosts or the ghostly chorus of a Greek tragedy. And yet we learn about these speakers through the use of tone, especially irony, and by the small details that they notice, like the guard's blue eyes.

    he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
    your ashen hair Shulamith (lines 15-16)

    Marguerite and Shulamith are contrasted against each other, as if they were natural enemies. But, in fact, they are simply characters from literary works separated by thousands of years, and you would never think to contrast them if Celan did not do so here. Marguerite is idealized as "golden" and her blond hair symbolizes a Nazi nostalgia for innocence and purity. Shulamith, on the other hand, has "ashen" hair that reminds us of death. She is an erotic figure in the Hebrew "Song of Songs," but no trace of eroticism remains in this poem.

    der Tod is ein Meister aus Deutschland
    dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    dein aschenes Haar Shulamith (lines 36-38)

    In the last three lines, the poem slows down to a crawl. These lines are all about identity, namely, the fractured sense of identity produced by Nazism and the concentration camps. These images – of Death, Marguerite, and Shulamith – are confusing and do not seem to form a unity. But when you think about it, both of the female figures, and the cultures they represent, are forever linked together by death and the legacy of the Holocaust. Even today, it is hard to think about either Germany or the Jewish people without remembering this connection.

  • Mortality

    he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
    he orders us strike up and play for the dance (lines 9-10)

    The Jews could either be shoveling graves for themselves or for others in the camp who have died recently. Either way, they are confronted with the possibility of death at any moment, which is part of the idea behind the whole "we're drinking black milk at all hours" thing. As if that weren't bad enough, the guard forces some of the Jews to play a "Deathfugue" or "Death Tango."

    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 (lines 15-16)

    Shulamith's "ashen" hair reminds us of smoke and the "grave in air" that is mentioned throughout the poem. The bodies of Jews in the Holocaust were often burned in crematoriums, and they were denied graves and the religious rites of a funeral. A mysterious voice within the poem tries to make up for this loss by offering the thought that "there you won't lie too cramped." Whose voice is this?

    He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland
    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 (lines 25-27)

    Death is everywhere in this poem, isn't it? First, "death" is the name of the song the Jews are playing, and which the guard cruelly wants them to play "more sweetly." Second, death is "a master from Deutschland." It's as if death itself has taken over Germany and is running the country. Finally, it seems that the guard might have been that mysterious voice luring the Jews toward a "grave […] in the clouds."

    Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
    we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
    we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink (lines 28-30)

    In the final turn of the fugue, did you notice how Celan slipped "Death is a master aus Deutschland" into the theme about black milk? This addition makes the poem seem to move faster and more out of control, and it also foreshadows the depiction of executions in the last stanza.

    he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
    a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
    he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air (lines 32-34)

    This description of executions is chillingly matter-of-fact. The prisoners did not have any chance of escape; the guard merely points and shoots. But beneath this orderly facade, you can only imagine the panic and terror of the scene. Why does Celan choose to understate this last bit?

  • Art and Culture

    Deathfugue
    (title)

    The original title of this poem was changed from "Death Tango," in Romanian, to "Deathfugue" in German. One reason for this change is that "Deathfugue" directly makes reference to the great tradition of classical music in Germany, and its composers like J.S. Bach, who wrote "The Art of the Fugue." Also, the poem itself tries to mimic the fugue form, so it too is a highly polished work of art.

    he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
    he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling (lines 6-7)

    The Nazis were extremely proud of Germany's cultural heritage, and they especially loved the Romantic period of the nineteenth century. Romanticism was all about the value of emotions and intuitions and the glory of nature. In these lines, you can see that the camp guard thinks of himself as a Romantic personality. He even invokes Marguerite from Goethe's Faust, one of the masterpieces of Romantic German literature.

    he orders us strike up and play for the dance (line 10)

    The playing of the "Deathfugue" by the prisoners shows a dark side of Germany's musical tradition. The camp guard tries to introduce art (or a parody of art) in an environment where it has no place.

    your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped (lines 16)

    Shulamith is the only reference to the unique culture of Judaism. She is a princess in the Hebrew text "The Song of Songs," which itself has high literary value. In this poem, you could say that she represents the independence of the Jewish identity from German culture, from which these Jews have been excluded.

    He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland (line 25)

    Again the guard takes his love of music way too far. He acts like a sadistic composer, trying to make the idea of death "sweet" to the Jews. Also, the word "master" is loaded with connotations about German art and culture. The famous German Romantic (and anti-Semitic) composer Richard Wagner wrote an opera titled "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg." See our "Detailed Summary" for more info.