“Once” is a fifteen-line poem that is part of Glühende Rätsel. Published when Sachs was seventy-five years old, it is a mature reflection on the course of her life, and it is written with conscious irony and humility. The wistful opening is reminiscent of the beginning of a fairy tale. It recalls a time in the poet’s life when options were still open. Her fairy tale, however, does not end happily, and she takes personal responsibility for the outcome: “I founded/ the future upon the stone of sadness.” Contrary to what is expected of a princess in a fairy tale, the poet did not get married and live happily ever after.
The prince was there, and she recognized that they were destined for each other. The second stanza speaks of “prenatal reunion.” In other words, the union between the two of them was something that was fundamentally not of this world but foreordained on a level to which there is no access. The union was “made of ocean,” and, sadly, it “ran its course.” The opportunity arose, was not seized, and was lost.
In the third stanza, Sachs seeks meaning for suffering. “Perhaps near the equator a fish/ on the line paid off a human debt.” The implication is that balance is being maintained in the world and that one’s position in time and place, while beyond one’s control, is not random.
Proceeding from the supposition of interrelated events and fates, the poet applies the concept to the...
(The entire section is 443 words.)