In the history of literature, the name of Paul Celan became an undying poetic legend. The critics named him the “prince of modern poetry,” “prince of metaphors,” and “secret king of German poetry.” Of course, it is because Celan was an extraordinary phenomenon in the poetry of the XX century. He can surely stand in one row with the major innovators of modern poetry.
The “Death Fugue” is one of the most famous and significant Celan’s works. The poem depicts a terrible confrontation of two irreconcilable principles: humanity and cruelty, barbarism and mercy, animals and humans. This unequal confrontation is, in essence, fatal. It is horrible as the German camp commandant, pathological sadist prone to sentimentality, confronts only the humble powerless and doomed prisoners. With miser strokes, without any unnecessary words, Celan fixes this “world inside out.” The poem is based on the principle of musical counterpoint with several leitmotifs which develop, intertwine into the complex configurations, and merge together. “Death Fugue” is an example of a suggestive lyric with the extremely complicated structure of contexture. It is full of mythological and literary reminiscences, deep in cipher allusions and requires the reader to an intense associative co-creation. “Death Fugue” gives a possibility to observe it from different points of view. It is about the art reality of the poem “Death Fugue,” its genres and system of images including the main symbols of “master” and “milk.”
The events of the poem take place during the Second World War in Germany: “Death is a master from Germany.” The poem represents the words of the prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. Through the terrible “blizzard of metaphors,” the realities of camp life show the reader the mass executions of repressed prisoners, their burning in the crematoria ovens, the German shepherds guarding the territory of the camp, the commandant who watched over the work of the “factories of death,” and even the notorious bands of the same prisoners who played their music while thousands of others took farewell of life. The main themes of the poem are life and death, the national tragedy of the Jews, and Nazis who exterminated them.
Considering the genre of the poem, to be honest, it is difficult to define it. In “Death Fugue,” Celan combines several lyrical genres. “Death Fugue” contains features of ballads and elegies, the tomb weeping and the lyrics of a ritual dance, documentary reportage and vision (Weimar, 87). The poem’s emphasis is made on the musical counterpoint principle: as in the musical fusion, the several motives hold here and develop simultaneously in order to reconnect in the final. The specificity of “Death Fugue” lies in the fact that the poem combines the features of both meditative and suggestive lyrics. The images of the “Death Fugue” affect more emotionally than provoke thoughts. “Death Fugue” is a free verse without meter and rhyme. The poem also has no punctuation.
The system of images in the poem consists of the mains ones: we (Jews), he (the master, the man who tames the snakes), Margaret, Shulamith, grave and milk (Weimar, 89). Margaret is a favorite female figure of the German literature, a symbol of beauty, femininity, and love. Margaret is reminiscence of the Goethe’s Faust. Shulamith is a symbol of the Jewish women, beauty and culture. From the Bible, she was a truelove of Solomon. Her image of Shulamith in love is present in the biblical “Song of Songs.” The problem of the equivalence of two great cultures is represented in strength parallel in which the author compares and contrasts both images of Shulamith and Margaret. They are the personification of the female love, of two inspired poetic creations of German and Jewish spirit: “your golden hair Margaret” and “your ashen hair Shulamith.” The antithesis of women’s hair color brings out the anomalous situation where the value statement of one nation and its culture is a mandatory condition for its impairment of another (Roskies, 237). By the way, it is the depreciation, which in practice turns to the destroying of people. The golden hair of Margaret is an eternal element of female beauty in German folklore and literary tradition. It characterizes her as “almost a sample German feature.” The ashen the hair of Shulamith, for the reader, is simultaneously the metaphor of the gray hair of Jewish women and mothers under the rule of the Third Reich, and, in its literal sense, the ashes to which it becomes in the Nazis “factories of death” (Weimar, 88). In the combination of literal and figurative meanings of this image, the tragedy of the Jewish people during the Nazi persecution appears.
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The “master” is a general image of the executioner, the “master of action” because the Germans are the real masters in everything. That is why Celan compares the death with “a master from Germany.” The word “master” is not accidentally here while being mentioned for four times (Weimar, 89). It forms around a rich associative field in the center of which is a medieval Germany with its manufactories, shops, handcrafts when the determining “master” was the best compliment for the German quality. The definition of “death,” Celan imposes on the master: “death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue he strikes you with leaden bullets”. The Nazis were masters as well. The blue eyes have the subtext of the hero’s belonging to the “superior Aryan race,” which by defending Hitler’s government’s rules, had as the aim to destroy the “inferior races.” Jewish was among them. The author describes the actions of the commandant as a person with two personalities: a monster-sadist who with pleasure “organizes” the death, and tender lover who writes letters to his woman in Germany.
The main motive of the poem is the image of milk. The general association with milk is a childhood, mother, and hope. It is a symbol of life. In Celan’s poem, the black milk associates with horror, crematoria, pain, suffering, death, and hopelessness. It is not a life-giving drink, but a “bitter glass of Destiny,” which Jews have to drink (Roskies, 237). The metaphor “black milk” is an oxymoron. It is the feature of the avant-garde aesthetics. The image of milk has a connection with an image of grave, which is the logical extension at the beginning of the verse: “we dig a grave in the breezes,” and is here for five more times: “has them dig for a grave,” “we dig a grave in the breezes,” “then a grave you will have in the clouds,” “he grants us a grave in the air.” The image of the graves in the air is an association with the mass burning in the crematoria of the concentration camps (Roskies, 237).
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In the poem “Death Fugue,” Paul Celan uses different methods of art in his trial to convey the tragedy of the Holocaust. The images of his verse do not have an unambiguous interpretation, so that the poet had to admit that poetry is hardly capable to find the appropriate words to this tragedy. Paul Celan is not the only one who describes this problem in the art works. Various poets, writer, artists and musicians create their works with the motives of the Jewish suffering during this period. Throughout his life, Paul Celan was full of the unspeakable tragedy, which defined the tone of his works. As the person who survived after staying in the concentration camp, Celan saturates his poem “Death Fugue” with the intense repetitive and variable genre images according to the laws of fugue, so the verse pass the reader almost the physical sensation of pain. However, exactly because of ambiguity of the images, the reader of the poem understands the parallel of the author’s vision with the events of the Second World War. The greatest charm and talent of the poem is in the combination of the personal and general experience with symbols and metaphors (Roskies, 237). That is why Paul Celan with his “Death Fugue” is one of the best representatives of the horrible period in history and one of the most significant poets of his time in German literature.