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"Death Fugue" Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Death Fugue,” or “Todesfuge,” remains Celan’s most popular poem, although he at one time repudiated it, refusing to anthologize it further or to read it aloud. In this poem, Celan treats his subject, the Holocaust, directly and graphically. He wrote “Todesfuge” in 1944 or 1945—critics disagree—and it was first published in 1947 in Romanian, not German, having been translated by Celan’s friend, Petre Soloman. This poem was immediately and immensely popular, as it expressed in unshakable images the Jewish experience under Adolf Hitler.

Celan indicated that the poem arose from the Nazi practice of forcing Jews to play dance tunes while prisoners were executed; in one camp where this was done, the entire orchestra was shot after the performance. His first name for the poem was Todestango (death tango), and it was first published under the Romanian equivalent of this name. The bleak, obsessive repetitions and the music of the lines suggest the death dance. The poem also has qualities of the musical form of the fugue, in which a theme or themes appear again and again in differing patterns. The theme of the blond-and dark-haired women, the black milk, and the death-dealer are repeated throughout the poem, the repetitions themselves creating a musical effect. Changes appear in the repeated lines, as variations on the theme.

In the poem the “we” who narrate describe the “black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening”;“we,” perhaps the voiceless, annihilated Jews, are destroyed by those who should nourish them. (Translation is by Michael Hamburger.) The reader, too, is implicated, forced in mind to drink the milk and breathe the ashes of destruction. The ideal German, Aryan woman, Margarete, is compared with “ashen-haired” Shulamith, who is the erased Jewish woman. Margarete’s name evokes the woman whom Faust seduces in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s play Faust: Eine Tragödie (part 1, pb. 1808, pr. 1829; The Tragedy of Faust, 1823; part 2, pb. 1833, pr. 1854; English translation, 1838). Shulamith’s name may suggest “shalom,” the Hebrew word for peace, and it also alludes to the Beloved in the Song of Solomon. The speaker, the “we” or the Jews, are forced to “shovel a grave in the air” for Shulamith. Shulamith’s hair is not merely covered with ashes—it is ashes; she is ashes. The women and the milk are motifs throughout the poem.

Another motif is the death-dealer, a man who “lives in the house,” who is present in the enclosed society and whose pleasure is killing. He “looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air.” The death-dealer is at the center of the action, playing “with his serpents” and sowing destruction around him. The repetition gathers heaviness as the poem proceeds, shifting back and forth between the women and the man. The phrase, “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening” goes through various permutations; the last is “Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night,” the German familiar du (you) taking the place of...

(The entire section is 736 words.)