“Death Fugue” is structured like a musical fugue, in which a main idea or phrase is systematically repeated throughout the composition. The six irregular stanzas present the speaker’s perspective on a Nazi concentration camp; the lack of punctuation between thoughts suggests the deterioration of the speaker’s consciousness as he exposes the atrocities the crematorium has wreaked on those condemned to die. He also repeats incessantly, as if to suggest an urgent need to fill the void of death. Paul Celan’s parents both were murdered in a concentration camp; Celan himself was taken to a forced-labor camp. Throughout his life he was haunted by their deaths and, in a sense, by his own survival.
The first stanza is an exposition of the time, space, and place of the death camp. The poem’s narrator speaks for a collective and condemned “we” who dig graves from morning to night. The repetitiveness of time is revealed in the first two lines of the poem: “daybreak” is followed by “sundown,” which is followed respectively by “noon,” “morning,” and “night” again. Time has ceased to flow with distinction for these workers of the death factory. Meanwhile, the officer who is responsible for keeping the gravediggers in line is seen writing letters home to Germany. That he corresponds nightly with the motherland indicates that the camps are outside Germany.
Each subsequent stanza reveals the cruelly civic and barbaric nature of the camps. Every image presented is “answered” by an opposing one. The golden hair of Margarete from Germany, for example, contrasts with the “ashen” hair of the Jew Shulamith. Daybreak soon becomes dusk or “sundown”; the sound of the spades hitting dirt is juxtaposed against the sound of Jews forced to sing and dance as they dig; the “black milk of daybreak” that characterizes the sky under which the Jews dig is contrasted with the starry and brilliant night under which the officer writes home.
The sharp distinctions between the condemned Jews and the Germans in the opening stanzas emphasize the relationship between the victims and their oppressors. As the poem progresses, the relationship intensifies. The officer “calls out more darkly” and demands that the condemned “jab deeper into the earth.” The swifter the commands, the more quickly the condemned must act in their movements toward death. In order to hasten their final annihilation, the officer steps out of his house and moves closer to the condemned; he stops and gives himself the necessary distance to fire his “leaden bullets” at any who disobey him. The rest will be gassed to death in the crematorium.
In the last stanza, the separation between the dead and those responsible for death is expressed in the even number of lines describing each. The first half of the stanza reiterates the scene of the gravediggers, while the second half cruelly crowns death as “a master from Germany.” This phrase is repeated as the speaker faces the point of death (signified by the point of the gun). The last lines shift back to contrasting the hair of Margarete with that of Shulamith; with the striking contrast of each with regard to life and death, this image expresses the final tendrils of death.
The musical structure, as well as the allusion to music within the poem, belies the anguish of death, particularly the mass deaths in the concentration camps. Some have objected to the poet’s “aestheticizing” the death camps, charging Celan with the audacity to write lyric poetry after the Holocaust. Others perceive that the death of Celan’s parents in Transnistria compelled the poet to transpose personal anguish into art, as this early...
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In fact, the systematic repetition and the musical aspects of the poem indicate that the condemned are no longer in control of life. Their activities are as mindless as their forced and mechanized behavior is soulless. They “speak” and “think” in run-on phrases, and the poem literally reflects their mental and physical deterioration. They dig graves and are forced to sing and dance even as they prepare for death; in the final coup de grâce, they beg for death so they can disappear into nothingness. Ironically, they sing for death in order to escape from death.
With the exception of stanzas 3 and 5 (which serve as the “counterpoint” in the musical fugue structure), the second half of each stanza shifts from the viewpoint of the condemned to the officer and what he represents—Nazi Germany. These sections reinforce the oppressiveness of the concentration camp. Each is as repetitive as the first section, but with a difference, since here, the officer acts as an agent of death. His power over the condemned can be seen in the variety of terrors he is capable of causing: “whistles his Jews,” “commands us strike up for the dance,” “grabs his iron,” “plays with the serpents,” “strikes you with leaden bullets,” and “sets his pack on us.” If the condemned have only one course available to them, it is the task of the officer to both hasten and torment them toward this end.
The poem’s effect derives as much from the irony of the musical aspects as it does from the juxtaposition of extreme opposites. The first image, “black milk,” is already suggestive of the deep taint of death. If the infant drinks of the mother’s nourishment in its whiteness and purity, the condemned victims drink endlessly the dregs of their graves. They are doomed to the black smoke of the crematorium. Shulamith’s “ashen hair” reinforces the results of cremation, while it contrasts with the “golden hair” of Margarete. The blond hair, as well as the officer’s blue eyes, contrasts with the dark and black of the victims.
The shifts in opposing images, besides indicating the difference between the Germans and the Jews, also create the effect of heightened emotion and a sense of growing despair. The officer’s perfunctory commands (reporting to Germany and keeping the prisoners in line) give way to increasingly cruel treatment and attitude.
In stanza 3, the speaker observes that the officer is noticeably more excited and animated. In stanza 5, “He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany,” and he promises the condemned a space in the crematorium, “a grave you will have in the clouds.”
In the next stanza, “he grants us a grave in the air” is a remark that expresses a twisted gratitude. These images serve as a counterpoint, an answer to the main theme of the men digging their own graves. As the condemned grow more mechanical and hopeless, the officer expresses a malicious glee at the pain he inflicts. In the end, it is death—as signified by the Nazis—that reigns supreme.
“Death Fugue” exposes the savage cruelty of the concentration camps by plainly describing the conditions. Everything that is human and active (working, singing, dancing, writing) is directed toward death. Without being didactic, the poet expresses the unforgettable conditions of the camps. The very vividness of the poem’s first-person narration, however, also points to an incongruity within the poem: The poem’s speaker, along with the other people in the camp, may be assumed to have been killed. Celan uses this incongruity to remind readers how far they will always be from knowing the full truth of the death camps.
The musical structure distances the reader from the events as they are presented in the poem. Rather than elicit an aesthetically pleased response from the reader, the poem achieves an opposite effect by making each episode tell what happened as directly as possible but in language that also reflects the progression toward death. The poet drives each point home with the repetition of images, especially the ones that lead from digging the graves to the final end, represented by the rising smoke.
In addition to the musical association of the word “fugue” (which comes from the Latin word meaning “to flee”), there is a psychological meaning, a state in which a patient suffers from a pathological amnesiac condition and has no recollection of incidents that occurred during the illness. Viewed from this perspective, the poem could also express the devastating historical fact of the Holocaust. It is impossible to forget the millions who were condemned to die by the Nazis, even though the full extent of what happened may never be known. Those involved have tried to flee from taking responsibility for their crimes. At the Nuremberg Trials, for example, the Nazis frequently claimed that what happened at the death camps was the result of their merely following orders.