In Nelly Sachs’s mature poetry, one finds echoes of her childhood passion for the fossils and insects that she studied as keys to nature’s secrets. Later, as she tried to understand a distorted world which had engendered the Holocaust, she returned to this realm and found a rich source of symbols and metaphors. Her poem focuses on natural phenomena that emphasize constant flux and the potential for transformation, making it an especially poignant statement in the light of the historical background against which she wrote.
Sachs, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, was known as the “poet of the Holocaust.” This particular poem appeared in a volume of poetry dedicated to commemorating its victims and understanding their suffering. The butterfly is a recurring image in this collection, where it serves most often as an icon for the souls of the innocent. In this poem, however, the individual’s metamorphosis through death is placed in the context of the earth’s life cycles: The butterfly symbolically embraces a phase of transformation lasting eons (the planet’s core is constantly creating) and one lasting a single day. Each end leads to a new beginning. The pain of leavetaking, of death, is not erased, but is mitigated by the promise of renewal. Thus did Sachs attempt to come to terms with the senseless deaths of her people during the Holocaust.
The metaphor is the poem’s formative poetic device as well as its thematic content. In writing poetry, Sachs faced an unusual dilemma: The language she used, German, was also the language of the oppressor. Moreover, the experiences of her time seemed overwhelming and inexpressible. Her solution was her system of metaphors. At a time when many poets were experimenting with meaninglessness and with the arbitrariness of language, her metaphoric approach allowed her, in a sense, to reinvent her language. The metaphoric butterfly expresses the paradoxical relationship between death and transformation. It is the “royal sign” which encodes the patterns of this mystery and serves as an example of Sachs’s transformed language in which words seem to include concepts and their opposites. When confronted with such paradoxes, one is indeed challenged to reconsider assumptions about how narrowly one perceives the world and one’s position in it.