Sachs, Nelly (Vol. 14)
Sachs, Nelly 1891–1970
A German poet, playwright, and translator, Sachs left Germany for Swedish exile when the Nazis rose to power. Narrowly escaping the concentration camp, she chose to create in her work a monument to the sufferings of the Jews. Her poetry is lyrical and often psalm-like, drawing much of its inspiration from both Jewish and Christian mysticism. Death, redemption, and the human search for peace are important themes throughout her work, which Stephen Spender called "apocalyptic hymns rather than 'modern poetry'." Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; and Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 2.)
One terrible aspect of our century is that fantasies horrible as the worst nightmares of writers like Baudelaire and Dostoevsky in the previous century have become literally true, realized in world wars, mass murder, genocide, concentration camps. They have come true in the minds of all of us, and in the lives and deaths of the victims….
Nelly Sachs … escaped from the Germany of concentration camps into neutral Sweden in 1940. [She is] a poet who writes out of a life immersed in the horror of the actual nightmare, the deaths of those who were burned in ovens. Reading "O the Chimneys," one is there. One feels at once that here is a writer who does not make poetry out of material which she imagines from afar. Her poetry is the lived material itself.
Her poems have variety, but they might all be one poem, and each poem seems part of the suffering of her people in the camps, a death which in her imagination extraordinarily flows into the resurrection which is Israel. The idea of the Jewish people so prevails that the lives and the deaths seem aspects of the same consciousness. The history of destruction and rebuilding seems to happen at the same time, to be contained in a single moment of time, which is the concept of "my people."
In "Chorus of the Unborn," the unborn with their hope, the dead with their anguish, the murdered and the builders of new life, seem the same…. (p. 5)
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[The publication of Nelly Sach's O The Chimneys, a selection of her work in translation,] enables the greatness of her spirit and her art to cross the frontier into English.
Her poetry seems almost designed for translation. It is formally and rhythmically free, concrete and sensuous, difficult in ellipsis and juxtaposition rather than in texture, startling in metaphor, often mysterious, but rarely ironic or ambiguous. Many lines can be rendered literally in English and yet remain poetic….
Fantastic, expressionistic, Yeatsian (with Hassidic mysticism in place of Irish myth), Chagallian, [Eli, a Mystery Play on the Sufferings of Israel] is a drama of pursuit and retribution. At the end a Voice from above proclaims the "Last earthly moments of Israel," and its doctrine is simply stated in a phrase of her postscript: "No more trust in good on earth." It is the work through which, in radio and theatrical productions, Nelly Sachs became widely known in Germany, and it should have a place in the American theater. It ought to have been the prelude rather than the postlude to this book.
For the movement of her linked and interwoven poems and books is not from torment to despair, but from death to rebirth. The opening poems of her first book are lamentations…. But the great closing "choruses" of that book sing both the metamorphosis of tears into eternity and the rebirth of Israel itself in...
(The entire section is 389 words.)
Alvin H. Rosenfeld
Prior to the announcement of the Nobel Prize for Literature for 1966, Nelly Sachs, co-winner with S. Y. Agnon, was largely unknown, especially in this country. Almost nothing of her poetry had appeared in English translation; it was a rare article, whether scholarly or popular, that was devoted to her; and she was seldom referred to in books. Certainly there was no book in English about her. There still is none. In sum, she had virtually no audience here. (p. 356)
[It] was not easy for her to emerge from her general obscurity. She could claim no participation in the revival of a modern Jewish state or in its newly emerging literature. Her language was German, not Hebrew, or what is even more popular with an American audience, Yiddish. Her origins seemed somehow both archaic and anachronistic, in either case hard to sentimentalize; born in Berlin, the old Berlin, she was now living in Stockholm. Most distancing of all, perhaps, was that her art form was not only poetry but lyric poetry, and lyric poetry of an intensely personal, even private, kind—"glowing enigmas" as she herself called a large section of her work. She was not easily or naturally prepared for, but seemed, instead, suddenly to have materialized. What accounted for her?
The answer, of course, centered chiefly in her subject matter. She was a poet, the poet now of reputation, of the Holocaust, or, as she came to name it, of das...
(The entire section is 2036 words.)