Nelly Sachs World Literature Analysis
It was Nelly Sachs’s good fortune that in 1944 several of her poems were sent for assessment to Walter A. Berendsohn, who became a tireless champion of her work. On Berendsohn’s recommendation, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, editor in chief of Suhrkamp, the prominent German publishing house, in 1961 undertook the publication of Sachs’s entire work with ten thousand copies of each volume. This edition in turn paved the way for Berendsohn’s successful recommendation of Sachs for the Nobel Prize in 1966. Of pivotal importance in that recommendation was his praise for Eli, the short play that Sachs wrote during the winter of 1943-1944.
The point of departure for the events of the play is not shown on stage but is narrated. Eli, a Jewish boy, is playing his pipe when he is struck down by a soldier and killed. The action of the play consists of the search for Eli’s murderer, who crumbles when confronted with the facts. Berendsohn interpreted Eli as a monumental work because of Sachs’s trifold treatment of the fate of Israel. She shows individual suffering during the Third Reich, new beginnings in the form of repairs and children playing, and most important, the collective consciousness of the people. This consciousness reached its external manifestation in the state of Israel, founded in 1948. Berendsohn’s analysis is so persuasive that the play itself comes almost as a letdown in comparison. Most critics see Sachs’s strength in her poetry, a judgment reflected in the selection of her works for English translation in the two large volumes O the Chimneys (1967) and The Seeker, and Other Poems (1970).
Like much twentieth century poetry, Sachs’s poetry is without rhyme or regular meter. Stanza length varies, following the dictates of content. One easily recognizable rhetorical device in Sachs’s poetry is her repetition of words, phrases, or whole sentences. Her poems are rhythmically alive and demonstrate a rare mastery of language. The German poet Hilda Domin ranks Sachs’s poems among the best in the German language. An assessment by author Stefan Zweig in the 1930’s is also applicable to Sachs’s entire oeuvre. Zweig was sent two of her poems by a friend, and he replied that her poetry showed an “ecstatically rising line.” That is an astounding description for a poet who was to find her main theme in the Holocaust, in excesses of human cruelty and depravity, and in the attempted extermination of her people.
One has only to read a little of Sachs’s work, though, to discover that she did not consider death in this world to be an absolute end. When reduced to dust, or ashes, people return to the elemental reserve from which life will spring again. Furthermore, Sachs, in her work, demonstrates the belief that there is continual recombination of the same elements. The race sprang from Abraham and will continue until the end of time. All the Nazis accomplished by drastically accelerating the deaths of six million Jews was a slight alteration in a phase of the twentieth century, a ripple in the sand of renewal. In death, Sachs argues in her work, life begins.
Sachs’s transcendent view of life is not derived from any specific religious doctrine, either Jewish or Christian, but is an eclectic combination of ideas from diverse sources that were meaningful to her. Every mystic finds his or her own way to God. Sachs read widely, but not systematically. She was versed in some books of the Bible and not in others. The German mystics Meister Eckehart and Jakob Böhme exerted a strong influence on Sachs. So too did Kabbalism, the esoteric medieval symbol system based on Hebrew scriptures. For example, some of Sachs’s most powerful imagery, that of sand, fin, and wing, may be traced to the concept in Jewish mysticism of the soul in exile rising through increasingly higher forms of existence. Recurrent images or motifs in Sachs’s work deserve close analysis.
Each of Sachs’s images appears in various forms and means different things in different contexts. The cumulative effect, as the composite picture gets increasingly complex, is that a word suffices to conjure up a wealth of associations, and the reader who is familiar with Sachs’s entire work will find individual poems accessible in a way that, on their own, they are not. Her entire body of work is self-referential, giving credence to the frequently reiterated critical opinion that Sachs wrote only one poem, with many component parts.
Sand, ashes, and particles of smoke have the same functional significance. They are perhaps Sachs’s most startling images because in these, the most inanimate objects, she sees the wellspring of rebirth. It is smoke rising from concentration camp crematoriums, it is the sand of Sinai containing the continuing history of the Jews, it is the sand of the hourglass, and it is desert sand from which oases spring.
Fish imagery in Sachs’s poetry is associated almost exclusively with the suffering of living creatures, suffering inflicted by humanity. In some poems, Sachs identifies with the fish and employs vivid images of its torn and bleeding gills, empathizing with it in its dying moments. At the same time, there is a sense of the inevitability of its fate, of overwhelming sorrow that this must be so, and recognition that the fish is a symbol for Christ.
Butterflies are Sachs’s favorite image for the precious, fragile, ephemeral aspects of human nature. They are innocent children, the future in which Sachs placed her hope. Their delicacy and vulnerability is also a reflection of her own delicacy and vulnerability. A sensitive woman, alone, in exile, she often felt crushed by the brutal forces of the world.
Sachs’s poetry was written at night, a time when she found release from preoccupying thoughts. Her poetry may be grouped by three periods. The first, that of the 1940’s, deals...
(The entire section is 2418 words.)