The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Autobiography,” a poem of twenty-six lines divided into six stanzas of four or five lines apiece, requires some knowledge of Dan Pagis’s biography. Pagis, a leading Israeli poet of his generation, was born in Radautz, in Romanian Bukovina (now Russia). A Jew, he was incarcerated for three years of his early adolescence in a Nazi concentration camp. At the age of sixteen, in 1946, Pagis, like many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust, emigrated to Palestine. (The nation of Israel was officially established by the United Nations as a homeland for Jews in 1948.) His native tongue was German, and he learned Hebrew in order to assimilate into Israeli society. He began writing poetry in Hebrew in about four years; it is remarkable that he later became a preeminent poet—not to mention a respected scholar of the literature—in a language not native to him.

The first line of the poem establishes that the speaker is dead. Clearly, the poem cannot be an “autobiography” in a literal sense. When the reader considers the author’s biography, it begins to seem possible that the “I” who “died with the first blow” is collective rather than individual. The “I” in this poem symbolizes Jews murdered by the Third Reich’s diabolical “final solution” or perhaps, in a larger sense, all Jewish people who have endured persecution. The identification of the “I” with victimized Jews becomes stronger in the next stanza, in which the speaker reveals...

(The entire section is 539 words.)