(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Death Fugue” is structured like a musical fugue, in which a main idea or phrase is systematically repeated throughout the composition. The six irregular stanzas present the speaker’s perspective on a Nazi concentration camp; the lack of punctuation between thoughts suggests the deterioration of the speaker’s consciousness as he exposes the atrocities the crematorium has wreaked on those condemned to die. He also repeats incessantly, as if to suggest an urgent need to fill the void of death. Paul Celan’s parents both were murdered in a concentration camp; Celan himself was taken to a forced-labor camp. Throughout his life he was haunted by their deaths and, in a sense, by his own survival.

The first stanza is an exposition of the time, space, and place of the death camp. The poem’s narrator speaks for a collective and condemned “we” who dig graves from morning to night. The repetitiveness of time is revealed in the first two lines of the poem: “daybreak” is followed by “sundown,” which is followed respectively by “noon,” “morning,” and “night” again. Time has ceased to flow with distinction for these workers of the death factory. Meanwhile, the officer who is responsible for keeping the gravediggers in line is seen writing letters home to Germany. That he corresponds nightly with the motherland indicates that the camps are outside Germany.

Each subsequent stanza reveals the cruelly civic and barbaric nature of the camps. Every image presented is “answered” by an opposing one. The golden hair of Margarete from Germany, for example, contrasts with the “ashen” hair of the Jew Shulamith. Daybreak soon becomes dusk or “sundown”; the sound of the spades hitting dirt is juxtaposed against the sound of Jews forced to sing and dance as they dig; the “black milk of daybreak” that characterizes the sky under which the Jews dig is contrasted with the starry and brilliant night under which the officer writes home.

The sharp distinctions between the condemned Jews and the Germans in the opening stanzas emphasize the relationship between the victims and their oppressors. As the poem progresses, the relationship intensifies. The officer “calls out more darkly” and demands that the condemned “jab deeper into the earth.” The swifter the commands, the more quickly the condemned must act in their movements toward death. In order to hasten their final annihilation, the officer steps out of his house and moves closer to the condemned; he stops and gives himself the necessary distance to fire his “leaden bullets” at any who disobey him. The rest will be gassed to death in the crematorium.

In the last stanza, the separation between the dead and those responsible for death is expressed in the even number of lines describing each. The first half of the stanza reiterates the scene of the gravediggers, while the second half cruelly crowns death as “a master from Germany.” This phrase is repeated as the speaker faces the point of death (signified by the point of the gun). The last lines shift back to contrasting the hair of Margarete with that of Shulamith; with the striking contrast of each with regard to life and death, this image expresses the final tendrils of death.

The musical structure, as well as the allusion to music within the poem, belies the anguish of death, particularly the mass deaths in the concentration camps. Some have objected to the poet’s “aestheticizing” the death camps, charging Celan...

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Death Fugue Bibliography

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sources for Further Study

Baer, Ulrich. Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Bernstein, Michael André. Five Portraits: Modernity and Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000.

Chalfen, Israel. Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth. Translated by Maximillian Bleyleben. New York: Persea Books, 1991.

Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Lyon, James K. Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951-1970. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Tobias, Rochelle. The Discourse of Nature in the Poetry of Paul Celan: The Unnatural World. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.