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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Poem

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 that he was murdered by a brother who “invented murder.” This brother is Cain, the slain speaker Abel, and the parents who “invented grief” Adam and Eve. The story of the first murder, from Genesis 4, here represents the brutal persecution of Jews, especially those murdered during the Holocaust.

If Abel is the world’s first murder victim, many others followed. The third stanza seems to make a leap forward in history to the twentieth century, when “the well-known events took place” and “our inventions”—presumably the elaborate death machinery systematically and efficiently employed by the Nazis—“were perfected.”

Abel continues reflecting on his death in the final three stanzas. He declines, in stanza 4, to “mention names,” the names of generations murdered after him; such “details,” he says, horrifying at first, are finally “a bore.” The suggestion is that human beings, the poem’s readers included, have a limited capacity for details of horror. Stanza 5 develops this idea further: “you can die once, twice, even seven times,/ but you can’t die a thousand times.” The narrator, however, does claim the power to die a thousand deaths, and his “underground cells reach everywhere.”

Neither of the brothers is mentioned by name until the sixth stanza, in which Cain’s name appears in the first line. Cain, the murderer, has multiplied “on the face of the earth,” while Abel, his victim, “began to multiply in the belly of the earth.” Victimizers proliferate and live; their victims’ bodies pile up in graves. Nevertheless, the speaker claims that his strength “has long been greater than” Cain’s. The poem concludes with an explanation and emotional assessment of why this is and how it feels: “His legions desert him and go over to me,/ and even this is only half a revenge.”

Forms and Devices

Pagis uses allusions to Old Testament myth in much of his work and alludes to the story of Cain and Abel, archetypes in the Judeo-Christian tradition for the victimizer and victim, in at least two of his best-known poems, “Brothers” and “Written in Pencil in the Sealed Railway Car.” Clearly, Pagis is using imagery from this archetypal murder metaphorically, and the most immediate comparison is to the Nazis’ murder of millions of Jews during the Holocaust.

The reader may well ask just how this is so clear. No details in the poem refer specifically to the Holocaust, or even World War II. Lines from stanza 3, “Our inventions were...

(The entire section is 1,677 words.)