(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“In the Blue Distance” is a haunting meditative lyric poem that presents intense images in free verse. Like most of Nelly Sachs’s painfully beautiful poems, it is a variation on the basic theme of the Holocaust. This poem searches for a way to go on afterward, reflecting the theme revealed in the title of the collection in which it first appeared, Und niemand weiss weiter, which translates as “and no one knows how to go on.” The poem’s travelers look toward “the blue distance,” where “longing is distilled” or where one can recognize and find deliverance from longing. Exactly what one longs for (peace, forgiveness, love, death?) is not specified in the poem, but the mood of the work is one of acceptance. The mood of quiet reconciliation in the last stanza offers the possibility of transcendence from hate and bitterness. That offer is perhaps made with reference to the suffering of the Holocaust, if only implicitly.

The first stanza presents a vista—a metaphorical view from a valley. Those who live below can see far away a row of apple trees with “rooted feet climbing the sky.” In this image, the juxtaposition of “rooted” and “climbing” suggests a tension between two longings, perhaps. One is to remain earthbound, and the other looks toward the blue distance, skyward. In Sachs’s vocabulary, flying—one way to interpret “climbing the sky”—often signifies transcendence or re-creation. “Those who live in the valley” might feel some comfort knowing that a higher realm exists.

The apple trees in one sense signify the hope and abundance of such a spiritual place. Perhaps it can be as simple as those on earth wishing to see heaven, or simply to know one exists. The poem in stanza 1 thus seems to consider another way (among all the ways in Sachs’s poetry) for those hurt by the insanity of the war to expiate their terrors and to relieve longings intensified by the losses they suffered.

“Rooted” and “climbing” may also allude to the magic of organic growth—the magic that all plants possess. Such organic growth, or regeneration, would mean, in human terms, spiritual healing. Apple trees also are heavily laden with mythology: Apples have long been equated with the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, but apple trees also bring blossoms in spring, and thus hope. Stanza 1 thus suggests the necessity for those who are suffering from their pasts to find some way to regenerate their spiritual balance and inner peace, the way plants grow anew after they have been cut back. There seems to be a yearning for some way to grow toward the sky, out of the low valley.

The image of “the sun, lying by the roadside” in stanza 2 is, on one hand, a simple description of the sun lying low on the horizon, at sunset; on the other hand, this image may be seen as frightening: If the sun really lay by the roadside, like some suffering or ambushed traveler, such eerie displacement would suggest the worst kind of chaos. The “magic wands” mentioned in this stanza could suggest that this sun is an impostor, a prankster, or a sorcerer. If this is so, perhaps the travelers are being deceived; perhaps even nature is not to be trusted in a world so prone to chaos and pain.

In a lighter and more positive interpretation, these magic wands could simply suggest the regenerative magic of the natural world, of which the sun is a part. It provides light, so basic to life, and, in a figurative sense, knowledge. Perhaps the stanza reflects the wrenching uncertainty of life during the Holocaust—the command “to halt” could come at any time, from any quarter. Life during the Holocaust had become so unpredictable, so unnatural, one might not be surprised to see the sun collapse and become earthbound.

In stanza 3, the travelers have halted, although they seem alone “in the glassy nightmare.” One cannot be sure why or for whom they have stopped. This lack of certainty compounds the eeriness that arose...

(The entire section is 1633 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Sources for Further Study

Bahti, Timothy, and Marilyn Sibley Fries, eds. Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995.

Bower, Kathrin M. Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000.

Dove, Rita. “Poet’s Choice.” The Washington Post, May 28, 2000, p. X12.

Hirsch, Edward. “Nelly Sachs, 1891-1970.” The Washington Post, August 15, 2004, p. T12.

Myers, Ida. “Nelly Sachs: Neglected Nobelist.” Jerusalem Post, May 12, 1995, p. 25.