Nelly Sachs | Critical Essay by Paul Konrad Kurz

This literature criticism consists of approximately 25 pages of analysis & critique of Nelly Sachs.
This section contains 7,431 words
(approx. 25 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Paul Konrad Kurz

SOURCE: "Journey into Dustlessness: The Lyrics of Nelly Sachs," in his On Modern German Literature, University of Alabama Press, 1967, pp. 194-215.

In the following essay, Kurz presents a deep analysis of Sachs's poetry, concentrating on her use of biblical imagery and of symbols including the butterfly.

Klaus Nonnenmann does not even mention Nelly Sachs in his Schriftsteller der Gegenwart ("Present-Day Writers"). The Kleines Lexikon der Weltliteratur ("Small Lexicon of World Literature") allots her only a third as much space as has been allotted the biography of Ingeborg Bachmann. Michael Landmann, a Berlin professor of philosophy closely connected with the ivory tower of Stefan George's former circle of disciples [the Georgekreis], complained in 1963: "Even today, fashionable abuse allows poems to be written—not certainly for the sake of musicality, but rather from extreme aversion to what can be rationally comprehended—which, like those of Nelly Sachs or Perse, either say disturbingly little—are little more than emoted printer's ink—or else remain so inaccessible to even the most genuine attempt to understand them, that one longs for a return to banal clarity." Hans Magnus Enzensberger, who trumpeted his Landessprache ("Vernacular") angrily across the land, knew her as early as 1961, when he wrote: "In the center of Stockholm … between the neat Paalsundpark and the little grocery stores opposite, the visitor could, if he were so minded, meet at certain hours of the afternoon a dainty, friendly, shy, elderly woman: the greatest poetess who is writing in German today." And he continues, "Don't utter it, that superlative! Go past, stranger! For the little dwelling … is a refuge, the sanctuary of a woman who has been persecuted." There, in this little dwelling, Rolf Italiaander visited her in the first of his postwar visits. He reports: "Nelly Sachs' kitchen was her bedroom, living room, and workroom, as well as her reception room for visitors. In the other room, her old mother lay in great pain. When I arrived, Nelly Sachs took off her kitchen apron. I was surprised to see how small and frail she was. I found her manner typically Berlinish. I … was enchanted by her cordial simplicity. Even as she was pushing the peeled potatoes to one side, we began to talk about literature."

Nelly Sachs has been called "Kafka's sister." But her experience and linguistic expression are structurally different from Kafka's. For her, darkness does, indeed, hold a painful meaning, but it is one that illumines existence. Grief can be transformed. The way of flight stands open, not from here to there, but from here upwards, from immanence to transcendence. For her, God has not disintegrated, as He had for the merchant's son Kafka; for her He is ever present as He was for the elect of the Old Covenant. With more justice, she has been called "a sister of Job." She is, indeed, a sister of Job, separated from him by two and a half millennia, but not by any difference in the intensity of her experience of suffering, in her enduring of earthly losses, in gnawing doubt, in attachment to Yahweh-God, in searching for God in grief and finding Him in hope. Not by accident is the exemplary figure of the suffering and believing people of Israel the main theme of Nelly Sachs' poetry.

     Job
     O thou weathervane of suffering!
     Lashed by primeval tempests
     into this storm's course and that;
     even thy South is called loneliness.
     Where thou standest is the navel of pain.
 
     Thine eyes are sunk deep into thy head
     like cave doves in a night
     that the hunter brings out blindly.
     Thy voice has become silent
     for it has too often queried why.
 
     Thy voice has gone to rest among the worms and fish.
     Job, thou hast wept through all the watches of the night.
     But there will come a time when constellations of thy blood
     will cause all rising suns to pale.

Suffering comes from every direction of the wind to surround the sufferer. There is no possibility of avoiding it in time or space. Wherever he stands, there "is the navel of pain." Escape is impossible—but not transformation. In Glühende Rätsel ("Glowing Riddles") the last cycle of her poems thus far published, the poetess dared to write: "Thine anxiety has issued into the light."

Nelly Sachs was born in Berlin on December 10, 1891, the only child of a Jewish manufacturer, William Sachs. She grew up in a villa in the Zoo Section, in a cosmopolitan atmosphere. She was taught by private tutors. As a girl, she enjoyed her father's musical efforts. In his library, she found books on German Romanticism, which fascinated her. She herself soon began to play an instrument, to dance, and to write. At the age of fifteen, she read Selma Lagerlöf. Later, she dedicated her own first work, Legenden und Erzühlungen ("Legends and Tales"), to the Swedish authoress. In the 1920s, Stefan Zweig became her first literary mentor. Her first poems appeared in 1929 in the Vossische Zeitung. In 1932, Leo Hirsch printed the verses of the still unknown poetess in the Berliner Tageblatt. Her works were printed even in the formerly well-known Munich journal, Jugend. Soon, however, only Der Morgen, journal of the Jewish cultural group, was open to her. She could no longer publish in Aryan Germany. After 1938–1939, when the extermination of the Jews was rigorously pursued, her life was in danger. In the summer of 1939, in response to the pleading of a friend, Selma Lagerlöf in conjunction with the Swedish royal house, intervened on behalf of Nelly Sachs and her mother. In June 1940, they fled by plane from Berlin to Stockholm. In the meantime, Selma Lagerlöf had died. It seemed a miracle to Nelly Sachs that her rescue had been so successful. Her relatives were being put to death in the concentration camps of the Third Reich. With all the ardor of her thinking and loving soul, she suffered the murder of those dear to her and the systematic extermination of her people in the gas chambers.

From this suffering there arose, after 1940, her verses In den Wohnungen des Todes ("In the Dwellings of Death"). They appeared first in 1947 in the Aufbau-Verlag in East Berlin. The cycles in the volume Sternverdunkelung ("Eclipse of the Stars") were written from 1944 on. She meditated on the figures of the Old Testament and inquired unceasingly into the meaning of life and death in this world. In 1949, the poetess was able to have her verses published by the Bermann-Fischer Publishing Company, which was then located in Amsterdam. The greater part of this printing had to be destroyed. No one knew her or wanted to buy her poems. No literary journal presented her to the public. Her next volume, Und niemand weiβ weiter ("And No One Knows Anything More") contains elegies on the death of her mother and further Biblical reflections. The Hamburg publisher Heinrich Ellermann printed this collection in 1957. Two years later, the Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt in Stuttgart published her new cycle, Flucht und Verwandlung ("Flight and Metamorphosis"). The later cycles, Fahrt ins Staublose ("Journey into Dustlessness") and Noch feiert der Tod das Leben ("Death Is Still Celebrating Life"), as well as the earlier poems, appeared in the Suhrkamp Verlag in Frankfurt in 1961. The collected edition of her poems bears the title Fahrt ins Staublose. A selection, to which has been added the first part of the cycle Glühende Rätsel from the year 1962, was brought out in a Suhrkamp edition in 1963. It offers a kind of lyrical summary of her work. Parts 2 and 3 of Glühende Rätsel—her last publication to date—appeared in Späte Gedichte ("Late Poems").

Nelly Sachs also wrote dramatic scenes. Eli, a mystery play about the sufferings of Israel, became well known. Eli is an eight-year-old shepherd boy in a small Jewish city in Poland that was destroyed during the last war. German soldiers drag his parents from their beds. In his nightshirt, Eli runs after them, raises his shepherd's flute, and with it calls God to their assistance. One of the soldiers fears that it is a signal and strikes the boy dead with the butt of his rifle. Samuel, the old grandfather, who had also run after them, is struck dumb with fear. Later, the soldier suffers and dies from pangs of conscience.

As a sign of gratitude to her host-land, Sweden, Nelly Sachs translated modern Swedish lyrics into German. For this work, she received her first public honor, the Literature Prize of the Association of Swedish Lyricists. There followed in 1959 a presentation from the Cultural Committee of the Federal Association of German Industry. A year later, she accepted the Droste-Prize in Meersburg. In her speech of acceptance, she pleaded: "My brothers and sisters, bestow on me more of this courage with which you help me today to overcome my weakness. I have nothing to forgive: I am a human being, like all the rest." Had they read her poetry? Or did they want to make "restitution"? In 1961, she was honored again, this time with the Literature Prize of the city of Dortsmund. The last token of esteem from Germany came to her in the Paulskirche in Frankfurt on October 17, 1965 when the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade was bestowed upon her. A disinterested observer noticed that, as the cameras flashed, the prizewinner assumed no pose. Where speakers were eloquent, she was silent. Heroes and stars, even writer-stars, are corruptible. But hymns of praise could not corrupt Nelly Sachs. The show, the bustle, the fawning publicity had no effect on her. What unadorned sincerity, what a sign, what a consolation in this world! She had chosen suffering as her lot. Her work is "inconceivable without the additional notion of substitution…. Out of her mouth speaks more than just herself." On October 20, 1966, Nelly Sachs, together with the Jewish novelist Samuel J. Agnon, was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. After the war, Theodor W. Adorno, a man who had himself experienced exile, expressed a thought that has subsequently often been quoted: Since Auschwitz, it is impossible to write a poem. Nelly Sachs has written poems not only since Auschwitz but even about it. She proves Adorno right in that she has been unable to produce specimens of the post-Romantic or of the Expressionist "Clang-and-Bang" tradition. But she disproves the philosopher's contention by her own concentrated, prophetically astringent, religious tone, which has been purified by her encounter with death and is radically suited to an age of horror.

In the Dwellings of Death is the title she gave the four verse-cycles in which she meditated on, prayed over, and conjured up the incomprehensible occurrences in the concentration camps. They are dedicated "To my Dead Brothers and Sisters." The first part pertains to the Jewish people as a whole; the second contains the "Gebete für den toten Bräutigam" ("Prayers for a Dead Bridegroom"); the third, a series of "Grabschriften in die Luft geschrieben" ("Epitaphs Written into the Air"); the fourth, "Chöre nach Mitternacht" ("Choruses After Midnight"). Several of the poems have epigraphs from the Bible, Hasidism, and the Cabala. The speaker belongs to the tradition of the believer, of the devout Jew.

The epigraph of the first poem—it supplied the title of the first volume—is taken from the Book of Job, where the context implies an "invocation of the Muse," but not the Muse of antiquity, nor a new mythic Muse, nor even a Muse of Job's own making. In his fifth reply, Job pleads with his accusers and friends for pity, wishes that his words might be written down, inscribed on rock, because they confess his experience, document his belief in the counsel of Yahweh, and reveal his endurance of the incomprehensible, his reaching out to the Savior-God. The poetess—Gottfried Benn would have said "the lyrical I"—chose the central verse as a pertinent motto, an epigraph. It reads: "Even after my skin is flayed, without my flesh I shall see God" (Job 19:26). The title poem reads as follows:

     O the chimneys
     On the ingeniously conceived dwellings of death,
     When Israel's body released in smoke went forth
     Through the air—
     A star, like a chimney sweep, received him
     And became black
     Or was it a sunbeam?
 
     O the chimneys!
     Paths to freedom for Jeremiah and the dust of
     Job—
     Who conceived and built you stone on stone
     The path for fugitives from smoke?
 
     O the dwellings of death,
     Invitingly constructed
     For the master of the house who formerly was
     guest—
     O you fingers,
     Laying the threshold at the entrance
     Like a knife between life and death—
 
     O you chimneys,
     O you fingers,
     And Israel's body in smoke through the air!

The situation presented here is the murder of the Jews and their cremation in the extermination camps of the Third Reich. The verses are a lament for the dead. The anonymous killing and dying seek a memorial—a direction with meaning. The murder is done to "Israel's body." It is the Jewish people in its visible, earthly form, regarded from the standpoint of religion, not of race. The occurrence is not so much described as invoked, evoked, and expounded. Its brutal and monstrous shape is subsumed by invocation, evocation, and suggestive query into the person who commemorates it.

In the "dwellings of death," the descendants of Israel were put to death. Through the chimneys of the cremation ovens, they were pursued into the air. What irony in the word "dwellings." These are dwellings, not to dwell and live in, but to be killed in. And what perversion of thought, what reversal of meaning, that these dwellings, these murder-factories, are "ingeniously conceived." The cosmos grieves. The "star" that shone "like a chimney sweep" down the chimneys of the cremation factories was "black"—black from soot, black from smoke, black from grief. "Or was it a sunbeam?" queries the last line of the strophe—participation has been added from the direction of the supernatural. Star and sunbeam are lament, lamenter, and consoler in one. The murderers wanted literally to pursue "Israel's body" into the air and destroy it. But "Israel's body released in smoke went forth / Through the air," through the beyond. Whither? Into what dwellings? Into cosmic, supernatural realms. "Star" and "sunbeam" did more than turn black, did more than endure the situation passively. They, too, inaugurated an action: against banishment, reception; against annihilation, rescue. They "received" Israel's body. A higher, lighter irony answers the wicked irony of the "ingeniously conceived dwellings." It surpasses the wickedness but is unable—and therein lies, for man, the incomprehensible darkness-to hinder the earthly course of annihilation. The supernatural realms receive only what is left, what is immortal.

One who ponders in faith recognizes (strophe 2) the chimneys of death as "paths to freedom for Jeremiah and the dust of Job." "Dust" belongs to the basic vocabulary of the poetess. It defines one pole of human existence. The definition is rooted in the Biblical formula of experience: Dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return (Genesis 3:19). But the lyrical work of Nelly Sachs continues the Biblical sentence in a manner that is Biblical: and thou shalt return through dust. The dust is at the same time the "ashes of resurrection"—and as such the point of departure for the last metamorphosis. From this perspective, the experience of dust ("Disinherited, we bemoan the dust," Späte Gedichte) and the becoming dust, in whatever forms, become stations on what the later lyrics have called the Journey into Dustlessness. All this has not been said expressly in the poem, but it has been intimated. The poem inquires expressly into the identity of the one who conceived and built the chimneys that became, though their innovator had not intended it, "paths to freedom." "Who conceived and built you stone on stone / The path for fugitives from smoke?" As opposed to him who conceived and built the "chimneys," the poem recognizes him who conceived and built the "paths to freedom"; as opposed to the dispositions below, it recognizes in wonder the dispositions from above. The paths to annihilation built by murderers are at the same time "paths to freedom"; the paths to freedom are "paths for fugitives"; the paths of flight—so says the later work—are paths of "metamorphosis." There is no express answer here to the query as to who conceived and built the paths of freedom. It has already been given in the context. It is the God "of Israel," the God of Jeremiah and of Job. It had also been expressly stated in the epigraph: "Even after my skin is flayed, without my flesh I shall see God."

In sharp contrast to the interpretation of death as victorious escape for the slain, the third strophe speaks insistently of the remembrance of what has happened and of lamentation. What language, what pathos would be adequate to portray this death? The primeval movement of lament cries out: "O the dwellings of death." In a combination of euphemistic understatement and irony, the simple lament is commented upon in a verse heavy with antithetical tension: "Invitingly constructed/For the master of the house who formerly was guest." This master is death. The use of the present participle einladend (here translated in its adverbial form, invitingly) makes the event more graphic. And just as the first strophe apostrophizes the ingenious thought of the manufacturers of death, so now the perpetrators are represented in shuddering memory by their "fingers" (pars pro toto). "O you fingers / Laying the threshold at the entrance / Like a knife between life and death." That such a thing existed can be proclaimed only with lamentation, only in a form that is at once as simple and as intensive as possible.

The last strophe is a summary. It conjures up the whole poem with the utmost brevity and condensation: one verse each for the place, the perpetrators, the dead; report and reflection, lamentation and consolation combined:

              O you chimneys,
              O you fingers,
              And Israel's body in smoke through the air!

Here is utmost economy of words, a great poem, a unique statement.

In quite a different way, Paul Celan, in his famous "Todesfuge" ("Fugue of Death"), has made the same occurrence the object of a poem. As a "Fugue," his poem is not only more artistically constructed; it is also linguistically richer. Instead of the primitively simple, faltering tone of lament in Nelly Sachs' poem, Celan has employed a swifter, lighter, almost dancing rhythm and a magically whirling tone. He makes no attempt to interpret the occurrence. In long, artistically constructed lines, he offers a visionary presentation unsurpassed for power of imagery and suggestion. But there is no search for meaning, no ascent to religious transcendence. Celan's poem is tremendously beautiful; Nelly Sachs' verses are reflective, prophetical, and simple.

The cycle "Dein Leib im Rauch durch die Luft" ("Thy Body in Smoke Through the Air"), whose title poem has just been interpreted, was followed by the "Gebete für den toten Bräutigam" ("Prayers for a Dead Bridegroom"). These are at once love poems and prayers. The all-pervasive pain of separation at the threshold of death, the address to the absent one, the speaking to God and to creatures about the beloved dead, this directness of address and compact consciousness, this unity between the experience of suffering and the contemplation that penetrates its meaning—all this is unique as well as completely personal, religious, and cosmic in tone. One might say that no one else since Dante has achieved such intensity, purity, or transcendent power of longing. Like "dust," "longing" is one of the words most frequently used by the poetess. If "dust" defines man in the existence that has been predetermined for him, "longing" defines him in his character as wayfarer and in his freedom to transcend it.

     But perhaps God needs longing,
     or where else would she be found,
     She who with kisses and tears and sighs
     fills the mysterious spaces of the air—
     Perhaps it is the invisible kingdom of earth
     from which the glowing roots of stars emerge—
     And the radiant voice over the fields of separation
     that summons to reunion?
     O my beloved, perhaps our love
     has already borne worlds in the heaven of longing—
     As our breathing in—and out
     builds a cradle for life and death?
     Grains of sand, we two, dark from parting
     and lost in the golden secret of births,
     And perhaps already lighted round about
     by future stars and moons and suns.

The words seem conventional; any one of them might have been written two generations earlier. Whence comes, then, their undeniable power to convince? From the purity, the interiority, the spiritualization of love and pain, from the mystic consciousness of the omnipresence of the beloved and of cosmic and personal union.

The "Prayers for a Dead Bridegroom" were followed by "Grabschriften in die Luft geschrieben" ("Epitaphs Written in the Air"). They are epitaphs for the individual acquaintances designated in the headings by professional title or initials. The memorial words are written in the air because these people have no grave and no gravestone. They all belong to "Israel's body released in smoke … through the air."

The last cycle in the volume In den Wohnungen des Todes is formed by the "Chöre nach Mitternacht" ("Choruses After Midnight"): a "Chorus of Things Left Behind"; a "Chorus of the Saved"; a "Chorus of Wanderers"; a "Chorus of Orphans"; a "Chorus of the Dead" and a "Chorus of Shades"; a "Chorus of Stones" and a "Chorus of Stars"; a "Chorus of Clouds" and a "Chorus of Trees"; a "Chorus of Invisible Things"; and a "Chorus of the Unborn." All the choruses reflect a real world and time: the cosmic, historical, interpreted, present time of the world. It is the "time after midnight," after the great murder, after the war; the time when a new day is dawning. It is not improbable that the midnight of Jeremiah is concealed in the midnight-cipher of the poetess. In Jeremiah, the "energy of chaos and creation [bears] its own name. This is midnight. Midnight is primarily a place: the region of the North where darkness and night reign. All harmful powers are concentrated around midnight. When the portals of midnight are opened, evil wins free course. It is impossible to predict the physiognomy of evil—neither its degree nor the duration of its harmfulness can be known in advance. But midnight is also the exciting hour into which—with Jeremiah—all men are plunged. Jeremiah saw the portals of midnight open." In Nelly Sachs' works, midnight is also the time of inner confidence, as witness the later verses: "und nach Mitternach / reden nur Geschwister" ("After midnight, only brothers and sisters speak"). The "Chorus of the Saved" pleads: "Lasst uns das Leben leise wieder lernen" ("Let us learn life gently once again"). The "dead of Israel" speak: "Wir reichen schon einen Stern weiter / In unseren verborgenen Gott hinein" ("We have progressed one star farther / Into our hidden God"). The "unseen things" console the "separated loved ones" and rise up, conscious of their strength, against the "Klagemauer Nacht" ("Wailing Wall, Night"):

     Wailing wall, night,
     Thou canst be shattered by the lightning of a prayer
     And all who have missed God in sleep
     Awaken unto Him behind
     Thy falling walls.

Lastly, there speaks the "voice of the holy land" (does not this name spring from the Christian domain?). She speaks: "O meine Kinder / Der Tod ist durch eure Herzen gefahren / Wie durch einen Weinberg—" ("O my children, / Death rode through your hearts / As through a vineyard—]. She queries further: "Wo soll die kleine Heiligkeit hin / Die noch in meinem Sande wohnt?" ("Whither the little holiness / That still dwells in my sand?") And she answers admonishingly: In forgiveness.

      Lay upon the plowed fields your weapons of revenge
      That they may become gentle—
      For even iron and grain are brother and sister
      In the bosom of the earth—

Who could utter these words today and be believed? A Christian? What Christian? But the Jewess Nelly Sachs can and does. In the poem "Auf dass die Verfolgten nicht die Verfolger werden" ("That the Persecuted May Not Become the Persecutors"), she admonishes her brothers and sisters to renounce the spirit of revenge.

According to all current theories about the lyric, from Benn to Brecht and from Höllerer to Heissenbüttel, this kind of speech is old-fashioned; themes of Biblical import are not admissible. At least, they never occur to the programmatic mind of the programmatic poet. They have all defined knowledge and wisdom after their own fashion. They omit the greater reality. They seem to know nothing of mystic community.

The very first poem in the Wohnungen des Todes mentioned the key word "flight." The fact that those exiled to the gas chambers are received supernaturally, that the most radical restraint upon them is recognized as a possibility of utmost freedom, points to a metamorphosis. The cycle Glühende Rätsel is still concerned with the puzzle of her own existence as flight and metamorphosis. Flight and metamorphosis are themes in all of Nelly Sachs' poems. The cycle published in 1959 bears this title. It is concerned with the same radical, inescapable, and indestructible existence which, in a later formulation, was called "Fahrt ins Staublose." Man's life begins in the birth of dust. It ends in dustlessness. Between lies the journey, with its many stations of farewells, of death, of metamorphoses, of gradual, often violent, birth. Man, "dark from parting," but "lost in the golden secret of births"; man "exploding," charged with the "stuff of longing", is always "the ashes of resurrection":

      Upward from daily destructions
      his prayers have winged their way
      seeking the eyes' inner thoroughfares.
 
      Craters and dry seas
      filled with tears
      traveling through the starry stations
      on the journey into dustlessness.

The "journey into dustlessness" is a flight from and a flight toward something: a flight from the "dwellings of death" in this world, with their "breath of Sodom" and their "burden of Nineveh"; a flight from the world that has slain the "bride-groom" and affords no "homeland" ("Heimat,"); a flight from this world that is nourished on the "shrub of despair." But whither? In the very concretely recognizable, personal "refugee" situation on the "pavement of a strange city," where the show windows present their "picture-book heaven," the "survivors" (Überlebende, title of one cycle) protest: "World, do not ask those who have been snatched from death / whither they are going, / they are always going to their grave." In the cycle Von Flüchtlingen und Flucht "[On Fugitives and Flight)", this experience is portrayed: "That is the flight that draws fugitives with it / into epilepsy, into death!" The lyrical "I" of these verses knows that it is "fleeing the land / with the heavy baggage of love." Fleeing the land to go where? Into the other world, into the world of the bridegroom and of God, for it is one world. "Always on your luminous trail," i.e., the trail of the dead bridegroom. In accordance with strict Israelite reverence before the absolute spirituality and infinity of the totally Other, God is not addressed as "Thou" in these verses. He is the God of "creation,", of "births," of the "source," of "what is hidden," of "resurrection," of "salvation." Despite the teleological role of His world, the "trails" to it and to Him are again and again "darkened in epilepsy." In June 1961, the poetess confessed in a letter: "The poems that I write from time to time—in the beginning it was done to be able to breathe—are now tumbling as though epileptic to their end." The intensity of the ecstatic flight compels the fugitive at times almost into madness.

      Flight from the black-bloodied constellation
      of farewell,
      Flight into the lightning-tapestried
      inns of insanity.
 
      Flight, flight, flight
      into the coup-de-grâce of flight
      from the ruptured arteries
      of a brief stopping place.

Since the days of "Abraham," Israel's fate has been flight. Nelly Sachs' personal flight has its place within the larger exodus of her people. But even this larger exodus of her people must be understood as encompassing more than just the one most obvious and visible exodus in a movement of flight that is actually cosmic. For Nelly Sachs, the whole world is proceeding endlessly toward the start of flight and its goal. The whole universe is putting on a new condition, a new birth.

     Whither o whither
     thou universe of longing
     who, even in the caterpillar bewitched yet dimly
     surmised,
     unfurl thy wings,
     and with the fishes' fins
     incessantly describe thy origin
     in depths of water that
     a single heart
     can measure with the plummet
     of grief.
     Whither o whither
     thou universe of longing
     with the lost kingdoms of dreams
     and the ruptured arteries of the body;
     as the curled soul awaits
     its new birth
     under the ice of the death mask.

The poem seems to be a parallel to the eighth chapter of the Epistle to the Romans: "For the eager longing of creation awaits the revelation of the sons of God," St. Paul says. "For creation was made subject to vanity … in hope, because creation itself also will be delivered from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the sons of God … And not only it, but we ourselves … groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom. 8:19-21; 23 passim).

In the poem "Wohin," the poetess develops for the first time her great image of the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly. It is one of the central images in the mysticism of both Orient and Occident and is even found in a secular form in Goethe's poem "Selige Sehnsucht" ("Blessed Longing") in the West-Östlicher Divan. For the "flight and metamorphosis" that she had both experienced and understood in faith, Nelly Sachs found an objective correlative in the image of the butterfly. The caterpillar has many metamorphoses before it; the butterfly has already experienced them: from caterpillar to chrysalis to flying lepidopteron—each one a process of dying and of being reborn. Nelly Sachs sees—and this is the fruit of her reflections on Hasidism and the Cabala—the "origin" of the butterfly's wings as implicit in the "fishes' fins." For her, fish are creatures that lie farther back in creation, farther below in longing, nearer the beginning. They, too, are objective correlatives, namely of the soul's "consciousness of water."

Repeated reflection reveals in the aspect of the butterfly yet another level of comparison. An otherworldly splendor has been painted onto the dust of its wings. The image of meta-morphosis becomes an image of promise and transcendence. Unlike Mörike in his poem "Im Weinberg," Nelly Sachs portrays, even at the outset, a butterfly that is diaphanous, and so allows a glimpse of transcendence. In Mörike's poem, the lyric "I," sitting in the vineyard, recognizes the butterfly first as a shimmering natural being, as a charming sylph, as an aesthetic encounter. Only as a second step and from without does the lyric observer, who holds the New Testament in his hands, draw any connection between the butterfly and the Word of God—and even then only in the narrowest sense. For Nelly Sachs, the butterfly is, itself, an image of promise.

     Butterfly
     What beautiful otherworldness
     has been painted on thy dust.
     Through the fiery core of earth,
     through its stony crust
     thou wert passed,
     farewell web in the measure of mortality.
 
     Butterfly
     the good night of all creatures!
     The weights of life and death
     sink down with thy wings
     upon the rose
     that wilts as the light ripens homeward.
 
     What beautiful otherworldness
     has been painted on thy dust.
     that a symbol of royalty
     in the secret of the air.

The butterfly is neither described naturalistically nor regarded in the manner of Goethe or Mörike. From the beginning, its image is viewed from the horizon of that transcendental knowledge that comes from faith, its symbolical character is recognized, and it is depicted in precisely this referential character. This kind of writing existed in the Middle Ages and in the Age of Baroque. Transcendental faith seeks its symbolical analogue; existence that is but dimly directed to the world beyond seeks its objective correlative. Everything visible must serve faith; the whole representational world must serve the nonrepresentational world. To the degree that a rationalistic and scientific point of view was declared the only legitimate one, such a contemplative attitude was rejected as unscientific. It found its natural sphere among the mystics. In the poem here quoted, the butterfly is understood a priori as the sign of an existence that is subject to change, but whose goal is not of this world, and whose return home is through the portals of death. This attitude does not turn the butterfly into a thin allegory or a formal emblem. On the contrary, presentation from the standpoint of faith intensifies it until it becomes most truly what it is in the plan of creation, a being that points beyond itself.

The poem begins with an exclamation of astonishment: "What beautiful otherworldness has been painted on they dust." In the dust that the wings have accumulated in flight is concealed all the transitoriness of all dust, the birth of the dust of created beings. But it bears also the traces of immortality, the beauty of the world beyond—in the polar tension between the world beyond and dust. The beautiful flaming structure of the wings passed, as the poem says, "through the fiery core of earth." It springs from the fire that is innermost, strongest; from the creative fire. But then it passes "through [earth's] stony crust," through the limiting and limited confines of earth. The regions from which the butterfly emerges, to which it is bound by its origin, are named. The last line of the first strophe identifies the butterfly itself. What is it then? A "farewell web in the measure of mortality." What a definition! What a metaphor! What a combination of image and concept! Whose "farewell web" is meant? In the first place, of course, that of the butterfly itself. In its own development from caterpillar to chrysalis and from chrysalis to butterfly, the web of wings is the last web to be formed, the farewell garment. As such, the web is, at the same time, a cosmic sign of farewell for the one who beholds it, a memento mori in the fullness of its beauty and in the fragility of its design. Therefore, it is "the good night of all creatures"; it is not only the sign of night and the night of death, but a promise that both of these will be turned to good. This promise is based on the butterfly's own being, whose process of becoming and dying rises in a single direction, from lower to higher, from the heaviness of the cocoon to the lightness of air. It is, by definition, a being between "life and death." In this role, the weightless "weights" of its wings "sink down … upon the rose." The rose is the second correlative, the second sign of the human soul. Even in bloom, it is on its way home; it attains the high point of its existence in the face of encroaching death. Between butterfly and rose there exists, then, an inner relationship. They attract one another mutually, show themselves to one another, and, as the butterfly sinks to rest upon the rose, speak to one another the word of love and of farewell. This is also an image of man and wife, together an intensified sign of "light ripening homeward."

The poem begins with a statement. It ends with a proof. It is astonishment at a higher level, the fruit of meditative reflection, when the poetess repeats at the end: "What beautiful otherworldness has been painted on thy dust." In conclusion, explicit reference is made to the symbolic character of image and event. "What a symbol of royalty in the secret of the air." Symbol of royalty—the highest among signs. The poetess uses the metaphor of royalty frequently. She speaks, for instance, of "the fish with the purple gills torn out / a king of sorrows"; of "this chain of riddles / laid around the neck of night / a royal word written far away"; and she knows about the "royal road of secrets." The metaphor of royalty points beyond what is highest and most worthy on earth and into the regions of the divine kingdom of Yahweh, i.e., once more into transcendence. This word, too, is a cipher in the Jewish Cabala. In the poem we have been discussing, the sign of royalty is the butterfly, the rose, the meeting of the two: a "secret" in a double sense. Not everyone heeds the image in its character as a sign.

They see and do not see. But the process remains a "secret" even for those who do see. There is no definitive interpretation for the process of living and dying. The referential function of the image empties into infinity.

The penetrating experience of the "I" that speaks out of all these verses is flight—flight as destiny and freedom, as necessity and grace; flight as both the potentiality and the predestination of life; as "epilepsy" and "pursuit." Compelled to flee, the "I" prays "for the blinking of an eye: / Rest upon the flight." The prayer is heard. The "hearing" is depicted in the following lines:

     During the flight
     what a great reception
     on the way—
 
     Wrapped
     in the winding cloth of wind
     feet in the prayer of the sand
     that can never say Amen
     for it muse be transformed
     from fin to wing
     and further—
 
     The sick butterfly
     will soon have knowledge of the sea again—
     This stone
     with the inscription of the fly
     has come into my hand—
 
     In place of a homeland
     I hold the metamorphoses of the world—

The man forced into flight is accorded not only a "brief stopping place," as in an earlier poem, but "a great reception." In what does the reception consist? Who grants it? The reception "during the flight" (an echo of "upon the flight") consists in becoming aware of an image, more specifically, of the poetess's great image of metamorphosis. She recognizes at once its character as a sign, as an objective correlative, as the reflection of her own condition. In the encounter with the image of the butterfly, the "I" experiences rest during the flight, confirmation, direction, hope, and consolation. The butterfly is a "sick butterfly" at rest. It, too, is on its way—on its way to the sea. What is its sickness? We are not told explicitly, only implicitly. It is sick from weariness, from longing, from flight, from the long journey.

"Wrapped / in the winding cloth of wind / feet in the prayer of the sand," it stands, sits, and lies there. "Wrapped in the winding cloth of wind" is an ironic euphemism, for it means not wrapped in the winds, but exposed to them. "But the wind is no home / it only licks, like the animals, / the wounds of the body," we read in the poem "Jäger, mein Sternbild" ("Huntsman, my Constellation"). The wind is no house, no covering, no vis-à-vis. And yet it is a kind of place, of covering, of vis-à-vis: a place sui generis, i.e., the place in which "flight and metamorphosis" occur, where the barriers of space are removed—a kind of unpredictable "being-spoken-to" from all sides. It indicates her symbolic and cosmic view of the butterfly, her extraordinary awareness of this removal of barriers, as well as of space, person, and transcendence, when the poetess says that the butterfly's "feet [are] in the prayer of the sand." That is, of course, a mystic interpretation. The butterfly is understood as the reflection of the speaking "I." But that does not exclude the possibility that the butterfly achieves, precisely through this recognition by another, its own cosmic individuality. It stands in the sand "that can never say Amen." If we tried to count the grains of sand, we would never come to an end. In this not-coming-to-an-end, the sand is like the endless sea toward which the butterfly is moving. To the objective endlessness of the goal there corresponds the subjective endlessness of the "I's" own condition, of prayer. It is not only the sand "that can never say Amen," it is also (stylistically, this is the figure of enallage, of extension of the basic reference of a word) the butterfly; it is also man "during the flight": "it (the butterfly) must be transformed / from fin to wing / and further." "Fin" and "wing" are formally shortened expressions. We have already seen that, in the imaginative world of the poetess, longing—the necessity of flight and the task of metamorphosis—has its origin in the "fishes' fins." In man, flight and metamorphosis begin "back among the stars in memory / borne on the waters of sleep." The way, "the vein of gold in mortals / sinks under the awareness of water / and works for God." From this state in which it has fins and is aware of water, the creature that is subject to flight and metamorphosis must be transformed into "the cocoon of the silkworm," into "wing / and further." But even the winged state is not a final state. As a winged creature of dust, man must—the "sick butterfly" must—be further transformed until the last metamorphosis of "death" has been completed by the "resurrection" from "the ashes of the resurrection."

At present, the sick butterfly has lost its awareness of the sea and therewith its inner compulsion toward the goal. The loss is part of its sickness. But it "will soon have knowledge of the sea again," of the nearness of what it seeks and the goal of its predestination. Surprisingly, the poem offers a second image of encounter: "This stone / with the inscription of the fly / has come into my hand," says the lyric "I." This is no egotistical grasping for the object seen, but a reverent contemplation, which comprehends the stone as a gift, the gift as a sign. What kind of stone is it? Probably a piece of amber found in the sands on the beach, in which an insect has been embedded. Far from being valued for the sake of adornment, the amber is a sign for faith. Was not the slain Christ entombed in the rock as the insect is in this stone? The stone thus found is an image of death. "Job's four-winds-cry / and the cry hidden in the Garden of Olives / like an insect in crystal overcome by weakness," so reads the poem "Landschaft aus Schreien" ("A Landscape of Cries"). As the Christ of Easter, the Christ entombed is the sign of a "resurrection in stone." The stone with the "inscription of the fly" is, for the believing "I" who contemplates it, a sign of its own death and its own resurrection.

Butterfly and stone-enclosed fly are, symbolically, forms of the "metamorphoses of the world." The rest during the flight, the reception, the contemplation, the gift—all consist in this: that they reveal to the lyric "I" both its own inner condition and its own state. The point of departure for the poem was a situation of flight. The two middle strophes showed two images of metamorphosis. On the basis of these strophes, the final one points, on a higher level, to the flight of the "lyric I," a flight transformed by the sign of death and resurrection. The final verses read: "Instead of a homeland / I hold the metamorphoses of the world." Critics have recognized in them the lyrical interpretation of the poetess herself, the sum of her existence incorporated in a poetic formula. It is no accident that not only the word "flight" but also the word "reception" appeared in Nelly Sachs' first poem, "In the dwellings of death." Star and sunbeam received there the "fugitives from smoke." In this poem, the "sick butterfly" and the "fly" in stone receive the fugitive. Unlikely hosts give a "great reception," behind which stands the God of Israel. The "sea" is a sign of Him; the "metamorphoses" are paths to Him. The man who is in flight throughout his existence possesses no home. He cannot cling to anything, cannot rest; he is not rooted in what we generally call a "homeland." What is a "homeland" for other men is for him the "metamorphoses of the world." What poverty! What a presentation of life—an exceedingly challenged and symbolical existence—the most exposed path to the God of creation and of resurrection.

In the twentieth century, destiny has replaced the medieval pilgrim with the refugee. Yet we refuse to recognize his existence. Regarded from its brighter side, flight means "journey." Whatever is found on the journey: fish, butterfly, rose, or loved ones; whoever "comes from the earth" is, in the language of the Bible, "dust"; born in dust, perishable dust, dust of metamorphosis, "dust, that stands open to a blessed encounter." The man who is completely and finally transformed, the resurrected man, will be the "dustless" man—goal of all flight and of all metamorphosis. Surpassing all the definitions of man that have been hurled at us in recent times, Nelly Sachs defines man out of her Biblical faith as one "on the journey into dustlessness." What definition could be more necessary for us? Technical man wants to change; mystical man lets himself be changed.

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