Study Guide

Deathfugue

Deathfugue Summary

The speakers of this poem are Jewish prisoners. They describe drinking "black milk," a symbol for the un-nourishing life of a concentration camps. They drink this toxic brew all day long. They also dig mass graves under the orders of one of the Nazi guards.

The guard lives in a house and thinks about classic German literature a lot. He has a thing for Marguerite, the innocent blond-haired heroine of Goethe's Faust. He also beats the Jewish prisoners and makes some of them play music while the others work: the "Deathfugue" or "Death Tango."

The poem begins repeating itself – this is the "fugue" form. Each stanza sounds faster and more disorienting. Marguerite is compared with Shulamith, a symbol for a Jewish feminine ideal. References to death and the Nazi crematoriums add a sense of menace. The speaker claims that "Death is a master from Germany."

The guard executes some of the prisoners with gunfire and turns his vicious dogs on others. The poem ends with a repetition of three mysterious phrases that explore the fractured identity of the German and Jewish cultures.

  • Stanza 1

    Lines 1-3

    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

    • The speakers, a group of Jewish prisoners in a concentration camp, describe how they drink black milk all day and all night.
    • Picture people forced to drink glasses of thick, sticky crude oil and how disgusting that would be.
    • The Jews have no choice in the matter, they are forced to keep taking in this toxic substance.
    • The image of "black milk" is not supposed to be literal. It is a symbol for life in the camps, which is both physically and spiritually unhealthy. Creamy white milk would be the ultimate symbol for health and nourishment, but "black milk" inverts (or turns inside out) the symbol to mean the opposite.
    • In the Hebrew scriptures (which includes what Christians call the Old Testament), the "land of milk and honey" was a way of describing a kind of paradise or promised land. "Black milk" ironically makes us think of this reference. Instead of a paradise, the prisoners drink bitter milk in an earthly hell.
    • Think also of all the connotations that milk has with nurturing and parenthood. The Jews in the camp are not being nurtured at all. They have been orphaned by their European "fatherlands," like Germany.

    Line 4

    we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped

    • The Jews carry out forced labor. They dig graves where those who are killed by the Nazis will be unceremoniously dumped.
    • There are many harrowing stories and images about the use of mass graves during the Holocaust. They are one of the iconic images of the period.
    • The grave is not in the ground as you would expect; it is "in the air." It is an imaginary or figurative grave.
    • The last part of the line – "there you won't lie too cramped" – is ironic. It's as if someone were trying to convince them that dying will actually be good for them. Or maybe it is the Jews themselves who are looking forward to death as a way of escaping the cramped and horrible conditions of the camps.
    • Celan is probably alluding to the fact that many Jews were cremated during the Holocaust, particularly those killed in the infamous gas chambers.
    • The Nazis didn't even want to take the time to give their victims a proper burial. It was more convenient to just burn the bodies in huge crematoriums. In this sense, the victims had their graves "in the air."

    Lines 5-7

    A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
    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

    • The poem introduces a new character, who is generically referred to as a "man."
    • But it is clear that this man is really a camp guard, and therefore a member of the Nazi S.S., which ran the concentration camps.
    • Unlike the prisoners, who are stuffed in the barracks, he lives in a house like any person would under normal circumstances.
    • He has a dark and sinister side – he plays with "vipers" or snakes. Think of all those negative connotations about snakes, like sin, betrayal, and the loss of innocence.
    • The guard fancies himself a writer and a man of culture. By day he is a sadistic guard, but "when it grows dark" he becomes this wannabe Romantic poet.
    • He's a nature lover and takes the time to appreciate things like the twinkling of the stars. This is all very lovely, but when you remember that these stars are shining over a death camp, you can't help but realize how twisted and messed up the guard has become. A humane person would probably not be able to appreciate stars while knowing that people were dying gruesome deaths just on the other side of a fence.
    • He obsesses over and idealizes the blond or "golden" hair of Marguerite, a literary character from the great epic poem Faust by Wolfgang von Goethe.
    • Faust might just be the most famous and celebrated poem written in German, and so it represents the heights that the culture achieved about a hundred years before Germany started murdering millions of people under Hitler.
    • In Goethe's poem, a scholar named Faust essentially sells his soul to Satan in return for power and knowledge. Along the way he seduces a poor sweet German girl named Marguerite.
    • Remember the Halloween episode of The Simpsons where Homer sells his soul to Ned Flanders/Satan for a doughnut? That is taken right out of the Faust legend. (Those Simpsons writers know their world literature!)
    • Marguerite's blond hair is a symbol of the Nazi racial ideal – also known as the "Aryan race."

    Lines 8-10

    he whistles his hounds to come close
    he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
    he orders us strike up and play for the dance

    • Now that we know how "cultured" and Romantic the guard is, we learn how cruel and barbaric he is, too.
    • When he's not writing about Marguerite, he abuses Jews. He threatens them with his dogs. He forces them into line up into rows, as if they were only tools or instruments. He makes them dig graves and orders them to play music.
    • The music is the "Deathfugue" of the title. In real camps like Auschwitz, Jews were sometimes forced to play music, perhaps a way of calming the other prisoners, or perhaps just to be cruel.
    • Notice that now Celan has switched from the imaginary image of graves "in the air" to a literal image of "a grave in the ground."
    • Obviously, the guard's education has not prevented him from turning into an absolutely rotten human being. If you think of him as a representative of Nazism or maybe even German culture as a whole, you see where Celan is going with this…
  • Stanza 2

    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.
  • Stanza 3

    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.
  • Stanza 4

    Lines 28-30

    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

    • The poem circles back one more time to give us a final variation on the fugue.
    • We get the same bit about the "black milk" as before, but this time Celan splices in the line that "Death is a master from Deutschland."
    • The poem is beginning to fragment and split apart, like a Merry-Go-Round out of control.

    Lines 31-32

    this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
    he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true

    • The guard is explicitly compared with the figure of Death. Death's eye is blue, and so are the guard's eyes, as we learned back in line 18.
    • The guard begins to execute some (or maybe all) of the Jews. He shoots them with his lead bullets.
    • Someone (maybe the guard himself) ironically praises the guard's marksmanship, as if we should be happy that he can shoot "level and true."
    • The Nazis cared much more about skill and efficiency – and here shooting is an example – than they did about the results of this efficiency, which were often devastating.

    Lines 33-35

    a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
    he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
    he plays with his vipers and daydreams

    • The poem has exploded into violence and death at the end. The guard has finally loosed those menacing dogs on the Jews.
    • The speaker notes ironically that he has "granted" them "a grave in the air."
    • "Granted" usually has positive connotations, like when your wish is "granted" or some formal request is "granted" by the authorities.
    • It's as if the guard thought he were doing the prisoners a favor by "granting" them death. He's like, "What's the problem? Now you have a grave in the air. Isn't that great?" He forgets that they had no choice in the matter.
    • We are left with the lingering image of the two sides of the guard – his cruelty and his culture. He daydreams like a thoughtful adolescent, but he plays with his vipers like a madman.

    Lines 36-38

    der Tod is ein Meister aus Deutschland
    dein goldenes Haar Margarete
    dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

    • The poem concludes with three separate phrases. In our translation (Felstiner's), all of these phrases are in German.
    • First, "Death is a master from Deutschland," which takes on new resonance now that the Jews have been killed.
    • Next, the contrast between Marguerite and Shulamith. The idealized and erotic images of these two fictional women stand uncomfortably against the real-life violence that has just been described.
    • Celan wants us to think about the role or art and literature in the Holocaust as we finish reading this work of art.
    • The contrast of "gold" and "ash" is like the contrast of the Nazi ideal (in their own minds) with the reality it produced.