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Critical Essay by Robert L. Kahn
SOURCE: "Nelly Sachs: A Characterization," in Dimension, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1968, pp. 377-81.
In the following essay, Kahn explores Sachs's unique place among modern poets.
In its treatment of recent poetry literary history likes to employ the term "modern" to emphasize the deep gulf that separates the old and the new trends in the development of the genre. Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, T. S. Eliot, Garcia Lorca are "modern" poets, whereas Goethe and the Romantics belong to the old tradition.
Nelly Sachs, who was born in Berlin in 1891 and is now living in Stockholm, in many ways is a "modern" poet. She, too, is lonely and fearful in an apparently empty and chaotic world; she, too, in her work destroys reality and the logical and effective order of normal existence; she, too, increasingly breaks down the form of her poem, and operates instead with the irrational force of the word; she, too, relies on suggestiveness rather than rationality; she, too, communicates—if at all—by evocation rather than by precise meaning; she, too, is conscious of living at a time of civilization which is approaching its end.
But in contrast to Gottfried Benn, for instance, her work is emotional and inspirational in character; in contrast to Georg Trakl her views are founded on humanistic values; in contrast to Karl Krolow her imagination is nonintellectual; in contrast to Rainer Maria Rilke her symbols are not entirely private; in contrast to Stefan George she prefers the lyrical voice of the "I" or "we"; in contrast to all of these she is a deeply engaged writer, she is a confessional author, and she does not appear to glory in her loneliness. Nelly Sachs is thus a unique phenomenon in "modern" poetry.
Her uniqueness, one is tempted to think, is explained largely by the fact that she has her roots in a mystic, indeed "secret," tradition: that of Jewish mysticism and religion. She therefore reaches a transcendence which is not broken or empty, as is the case with Stephane Mallarmé's "Nothingness," for instance, but is alive, though shrouded in mystery. This mystic tradition is her firm basis of operation and permits her to resolve her earthly problems—psychological, autobiographical, historical, spatial, temporal—within a larger and ideal framework. In her work we witness a marvelous integration of the individual and personal elements with those of an objective order, the latter by definition being in constant flux and regeneration (of which more shall be said later). As an individual she questions existence and death, suffering and salvation with as much if not more genuine anguish and sincerity than do the rest of the "modern" poets, but her poetry is lifted onto an entirely different plane: that of hope and re-demption in another dimension which is totally absent in the non-believing poets. The process of transmutation, here alluded to, is not an escape from the human condition. It allows her, however, to discover a purpose for her existence and her writing outside of herself.
This kind of poet, whom here we shall refer to as the modern mystic writer is, nevertheless, in an unenviable position. While the "modern" poets despair as humans on all levels and find solace only in their own creation, the mystic author—at the deepest level of his psyche—considers not only his life transient, but also his work, which calls forth a degree of despair unequalled in the other poets. The poem to the mystic writer offers but isolated glimpses of the other world. The "mystic union," in the final analysis, is beyond words. That, in part, explains the frequent occurrence of the term "silence" in Nelly Sachs' poetry, as well as that of "door" and related images.
The modern mystic has to have an awakening or an illumination at one particular time in his life. Generally speaking it occurs at a period of utter distress and disillusionment. In Miss Sachs' case we can reconstruct that moment. It appears to have been an unforgettable and shattering experience, for she refers to it by implication in many of her poems and her few occasional statements. Central to that experience are the themes of death, exile, and injury: The word "wound" occurs as frequently as "death" and the terms for "wandering" in her work. But these images only describe the pre-existent critical condition, not the moment of truth itself, about which she is almost silent, as are all mystics, since it cannot be described in words. Let me be specific. The forty-nine-year-old poetess and her bed-ridden mother were saved from the Nazis as if by a miracle in 1940. Previous to their escape to Sweden, Miss Sachs' father died, while several years later her mother passed away after a long illness. In the winter of 1943–1944 Nelly Sachs wrote a letter to Walter A. Behrendson which is most revealing and reads in part:
A dreadful piece of news came my way—a person very close to me had died a genuine martyr's death. We had arrived here completely exhausted ["zu Tode gehetzt"]. My mother lived through the terror every night. Poverty, sickness, complete despair! Still don't know how I survived. But love for the beloved last human being whom I called my own gave me courage. Thus originated In the Habitations of Death [her first collection of poems, Berlin] and almost at the same time Eli [subtitled ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels, her first play, Stockholm]. It revealed itself in three nights under such circumstances that I believed myself torn in pieces.
It makes very little difference if the "It" mentioned in this letter (in German "Er") refers to the play Eli or to the word "courage" ("Mut"), the experience described here is her moment of poetical inspiration, which will be repeated again and again. Obviously, it was a traumatic rather than a happy experience, a breakthrough which is described on another occasion as follows: "Death was my teacher. How could I have occupied myself with anything else, my metaphors are my wounds. Only through this can my work be understood." By her own request none of her verses which had appeared before this time have since been printed. Psychologically speaking, then, death and exile are the inspirational basis for her new poetry. Her mystic moment is rooted in despair, it still is and will always be, and that is her tragedy and that of "modern" mysticism. The happy released mystic is a figure of a primarily Christian past. I suspect that Miss Sachs' predominantly Old Testamentary theology as well as her highly emancipated, i.e. civilized and controlled religious background, prevented her from that experience. Our age is doomed to suffer.
The key for an understanding of Nelly Sachs' poetry is to be found in Jewish mysticism. Every line of hers is filled with suggestions and allusions to this secret treasure of Judaic lore which extends through the Bible, particularly the Book of Genesis and the Prophets (especially Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel); it runs on through the Midrash, the Aggadoth, the apocryphal writings (particularly the Books of Enoch and Abraham) and the Books Bahir and Yetzira; it flows on the Chassidim of Germany and France of the eleventh century, in the Kabbalists of Spain of the thirteenth century (particularly in the Book of Sohar of Moses de Leon), in the teachings of Isaac Luria in the sixteenth century, those of Sabbatai Zwi in the seventeenth and of the East European Chassidim in the succession of Baal Shem in the eighteenth century.
It is impossible to do justice to or to exhaust the subject of the Kabbala, i.e., of Jewish mysticism. It is sufficient here perhaps if mention is made of the fact that Jewish mysticism, like any other, seeks the union of its living god on the basis of its tradition (Kabbala means law or tradition), that it has fastened especially on the story of creation, and that it awaits the divine revelation without mediator. In its later stages in Luria, Zwi, and Baal Shem the role of the mediator, i.e. of the Messiah, was emphasized, but that proved to be an illusion and false hope. All of these facets appear in Nelly Sachs' work.
Although Nelly Sachs' view of death is steeped in traditional Jewish thought, it can be understood by everyone. Lines, such as the following, in spite of the peculiarly Jewish emphasis on "listening to the voice" ("Hakol") and the "last breath" ("Haodom"), demonstrate the truth of this assertion:
And you shall hear, cleaving your slumber
You shall hear
How in death
(Und ihr werdet hören, durch den Schlaf hindurch
Werdet ihr hören
Wie im Tode
Das Leben beginnt.)
But death is ordained for us all
Patiently wait for the last breath
It sings for you too.
(Aber es ist ja Tod für uns alle bestimmt
Wartet den Atemzug aus
Er singt auch für euch.)
From these two quotations we can deduce her characteristic outlook and mode of expression. Miss Sachs' personal history has led her back to a faith which affirms the value of human life, of compassion, and of justice coupled with mercy. She does not equate the universe with absurdity. To her death and suffering, exile and loss are impermanent. Life finds its solution and resolution in passing away, in change, in changing, in being lifted to a higher stage. Exile and wandering are necessary phases of all of nature.
Miss Sachs' language is musical and evocative of the hymn-like tone of the Bible and the Jewish psalmists. She is not afraid to use the first person singular and plural or to address others. Her tone is thus emotional and hortative, although deeply elegiac. There are people in her poems; she does not present a dehumanized world. Miss Sachs likes to pose puzzles of mystic connotation (her last volume bears the characteristic title Glowing Riddles [Glühende Rätsel]) and she employs humor, not satire or irony. The words are chosen carefully by sound, rhythm, elevation. They have magic properties.
Her world is dualistic, infinite, cosmic; yet at the same time it is unified and symbolic because of the sacred bond and presence in even the lowliest object. The abstract concepts are personified and objectified ("death," "love," etc.), the concrete things are given abstract values ("sand," "stone," "earth," etc.). All nature lives in various stages; all objects breathe and are not dead precisely because of the divine element in them; but all can expect their liberation through death which is the "door" to God, even though they may not know it. This essential tension, which is to be released in the hereafter, is at the basis of her contrasting compound formulations (principle of alienation), such as "invisible objects," "psalms of silence," "secret of a sigh," "black moss," "the unsung song," "torn-apart lovers," "murdered child," "warm darkness," "lightning of prayer."
Everywhere in her poetry there is movement. In her most power-filled famous poem, "O the Chimneys," we find the verbs "drifted," "welcomed," "turned," "devised," "laid," "appointed," ending in the line (without verb!): "And Israel's body as smoke through the air!" Time and space are hurried through; they have become almost meaningless attributes on the road towards fulfillment.
Miss Sachs has formulated some wonderful images for her world, such as the bloody gills of fish (the higher hieroglyphics), that of the calf torn from its mother, of the approaching steps (of the hunter), of the fingers (pointing the way), of the hunter and the hunted. In this mystical and poetic world a human being of our period has found her truth and salvation. It is a unique and great poetess who has voiced her and our terror, her and our longing. She will not be forgotten.
This section contains 1,916 words
(approx. 7 pages at 300 words per page)