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Critical Essay by Gertrude Schwebell
SOURCE: "Nelly Sachs," in Saturday Review, Vol. XLIX, December 10, 1966, pp. 46-7.
Schwebell is an author and translator. In the following essay, she traces Sachs' poetry career from its beginnings in Sweden, noting the gradual growth of her popularity in Sweden and Germany and its culmination in the Nobel Prize for Literature.
"Let us walk together into the future to seek again and again a new beginning; let us try to find the good dream that wants be realized in our hearts." This is Nelly Sachs, who just received the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Born in 1891, the only child of a well-to-do manufacturer, she grew up in the Tiergartenviertel, the most distinguished neighborhood of Berlin. She studied music and dancing and, at the age of seventeen, started to write poetry—pretty, highly polished verse in the traditional manner. In accordance with her wish, this poetry was not included in her collected work.
With the Nazi rise to power, Nelly Sachs's world collapsed, but she stayed on in Berlin until 1940, when she and her ailing mother were taken to Sweden, where, acting on the request of Selma Lagerlöf, Prince Eugene of Sweden had interceded on her behalf. They arrived in Stockholm, shaken and afraid, for Selma Lagerlöf had died. However, a friend of the novelist welcomed the fugitives. By then almost fifty years old, Nelly Sachs started to write the sweeping poetry that has now brought her worldwide renown.
She wrote during the night to find herself again, wrote about "The Houses of Death" where her friends were perishing, wrote "Eclipse of Stars," "And No One Knows Where to Go." She wrote in German: her mother tongue was the only home left. Nevertheless, Nelly Sachs studied Swedish, and soon she was translating Swedish poetry into German, perhaps to find a way into the new world that had received her. Here Miss Sachs's sensitive language penetrates the innermost confines "into the mysterious that blurs all boundaries." Her first anthology of Swedish poetry, Welle und Granit ("Wave and Granite"), was published in West Berlin in 1947; Aber auch diese Sonne ist heimatlos ("But Even This Sun Has No Home") followed in 1957. Such books brought well deserved recognition to Swedish poets: Gunnar Ekelöf, Johannes Edfelt, Karl Vennberg, Erik Lindgren, to name only a few. In 1958 Miss Sachs received the Prize of the Swedish Poets' Association.
Neither the first collection of her own verse. In the Houses of Death (In den Wohnungen des Todes), printed in West Berlin in 1946, nor her second volume, Eclipse of Stars (Sternverdunkelung), printed in Amsterdam in 1949, received much attention since there was no communication within Germany in those years. Life was but a bleak struggle for survival. In 1950, Swedish friends had published 200 copies of her Eli: A Miracle Play of the Sufferings of Israel in a private edition. A copy found its way to West Germany, where it was read over the radio station Süddeutscher Rundfunk in the same year. Later Eli was turned into a radio play and became widely known in West Germany.
Nelly Sachs's next two books, Und Niemand weiβ weiter ("And No One Knows Where to Go"), published in 1957, and Flucht und Verwandlung, ("Flight and Metamorphosis"), which came out two years later, brought her deserved acclaim as a lyric poet. Rainer Gruenter writes in a review in Neue Deutsche Hefie, "Her poetic voice descends from Luther down to Trakl, yet is entirely the speech of today. There also is a sisterly echo of the Lamentations of Jeremiah…. Miss Sachs does not have the attitude of Job, who in his misery ascertains the Lord's love in testing him, nor does she feel the security in God that the Prophets have, which rests on their knowing about good and evil, about guilt and punishment…."
Hugo von Hoffmannsthal said that suffering is the only business we shy away from, but suffering is our lot. Nelly Sachs accepts in her poetry the suffering of creatures for nothing but suffering's sake, a conception which raises her beyond conventional morality—with good and evil for touchstones—into the realm of a cosmic trust. "Man," she wrote in Nightwatch, "will always become guilty. Wherefore? Therefore. This is his tragedy on earth. This most terrible question, one of the essential questions of mankind, permeates the whole: why is evil necessary to create the saint, the martyr? No one will ever be able to answer this—Mars and the Moon would rather give up their secrets before this eternal sigh of mankind will find an answer." Miss Sachs is not speaking of revenge and of the wrath of the angry God, nor is she using the word forgiveness. She does not feel that she has to forgive the horrors of our apocalyptic times, but she accepts the forces of evil that live on forever in our bipolar world. This is her greatness.
The arc of Nelly Sachs's poetry reaches from "The Houses of Death" over "Metamorphosis" to the "Journey Into the Beyond" (Fahrt ins Staublose), the title she gave to her collected poetry. "… Strictly speaking, she has been writing one book," says H. M. Enzensberger in his introduction to Ausgewählte Gedichte ("Selected Poems"). "This priority of the whole over the detail is not just a formal feature, it is not just implied in the composition, as a cyclic or an epic structure: its roots are deeper. The idea on which her work is based is of religious origin." Her bond with the fate of the Jewish people, with their and with Germany's literary tradition is the source of her work, a psalmodic lyric in free rhythm, austere and rich in metaphors.
In a time when lyrics are not meant to have moving qualities, the stirring poetry of Nelly Sachs has great impact. It is not easy reading; one must have patience and the will to enter into her poems. But they are not written in a code, calculated or estranged. Her metaphors come naturally: "Butterflies / over the burning bush / feeling the weight of life / and death / on their wings." At times she uses simple sentences, shimmering with transparency: "How light / the earth will be / only a cloud / of evening-love." "Someone / will come / who will take the ball / from the hands of the terrible players…." "Where ever man is / under the sun / the shadow lily guilt / is cast upon the sand." "We, who were saved /—Death was ready to cut his flutes from our hollow bones / Death was ready to use as chords our sinews /—our bodies are still aching / with their mutilated music." But in spite of anguish and dread she finds words like these: "We, the mothers / who guard in the cradles / light memories / of the Day of Creation—/ The rhythm of breath / is our love song's melody. / We, the mothers / are rocking the heart of the world: / the melody of Peace."
Great and powerful is her gesture of a new beginning. Nelly Sachs has risen beyond our time, and her lyrics cross the boundaries of one people and one time and one language. This has enabled the youth of Germany to receive the poet as their own. "The young Germans are coming to me in Stockholm," she told Erika Guetermann during an interview in 1960. "Young people, the young poets; they say: You are speaking our language. I received marvelous letters! Paul Celan, Max Frisch, Ingeborg Bachmann, Hermann Kasack—they all held me in their arms. All the dear people. It was like a dream. I do not know how I ever shall be able to earn this. This youth—that they want me! It was almost a shock. I live quite secluded in Sweden…. Certainly, I have a small circle of friends, and young Swedish poets used to visit me. But I had no access to modern German poetry. I was so completely by myself…."
In contrast to the language in her poems, that in Nelly Sachs's Szenische Dichtungen (scenic poetry, as she calls her plays) initially had the simplicity of the medieval miracle plays of the Christian church, especially the first three: Eli, Abram in the Salt, and Nightwatch, written between 1940 and '44. Ten years later she wrote eleven more of these plays, some of them very short sketches. Her language now is more complicated, fraught with ambiance—but her attitude towards suffering and sufferance never changes. Especially remarkable are Simon Plunges Through Thousands of Years: A Dramatic Happening in Fourteen Scenes (1955) and Beryll Gazes Into the Night, or the Lost and Refound Alphabet (1961). In the appendix to the latter she writes, "The German mystic, Jakob Böhme (1575–1624) said: 'Nothing is the search for Something.' He knows about the inexhaustibility of the creative forces. So does the magnificent Sohar, the book of Hebrew mysticism…. I have always endeavored to raise the unspeakable onto the transcendental level to make it bearable thus, and to let a glow of the holy darkness fall into this night of nights."
In a discussion of her scenic poetry with Erika Guetermann Nelly Sachs explained: "I tried to say in a dramatic form what cannot be expressed in lyrics…. I was a dancer, once. I try to let the world develop into movement and back into the new word, as in the choruses of the dramatic poetry of antiquity."
During the excavations at Ur in Chaldea the archeologists found impressions in the earth left by objects that had completely turned to dust. In Abram in the Salt Miss Sachs tries to bring back to life this handwriting of that which has become invisible. The scene takes place in post-Flood time in Ur, where the cult of Zin, God of the Moon, demands human sacrifice. Abram, the fifteen-year-old, returns from the cave of the dead—the first human being to long for an invisible god. "Longing born of thirst" might be the topic of this play. In her stage directions she says, "The stage-design should always seem to be far away, only outlines like the hunting scenes in the caves of the Ice Age. The salt landscape should be abstract—a skeleton in white—the left-over after the Flood (and in the salt originates the thirst of mankind). The choruses of the thirsty, the mothers, the possessed shall accompany the scenes like Greek choruses. There is also a touch of the Japanese Noh play in the musical themes; these themes come from far away, as from the faraway past."
When Nelly Sachs received the Nobel Prize in Literature she was virtually unknown beyond Germany and Sweden. Nevertheless, her poetry had received a number of previous awards. The first was the West German Kulturkreis, given by German industry, in 1959; then came the Annette von Droste Hülshoff Preis in 1960, when for the first time she returned to Germany; she was the initial recipient of the Nelly Sachs Preis established in her honor by the city of Dortmund in 1961. On the occasion of Miss Sachs's seventieth birthday the publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag brought out her collected work—Fahrt ins Staublose, her poetry, and Zeichen im Sand, her plays, as well as Nelly Sachs zu Ehren, a volume of poetry, articles, and memories about her by such writers as Ilse Aichinger, Beda Allemann, Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan, Hilde Domin, Günter Eich, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, and others. In 1964 Miss Sachs received the prize of the Börsenverein; in 1965, the Friedenspreis des Deutschen Buchhandels. When she received the peace prize at the Paulskirche in Frankfurt in October 1965, Nelly Sachs addressed her acceptance especially to the young German generation: "In spite of all the horrors of the past, I believe in you…. Together, full of grief, let us remember the victims, and then let us walk together into the future to seek again and again a new beginning—maybe far away, yet ever-present; let us try to find the good dream that wants to be realized in our hearts."
This section contains 1,992 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)