(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...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Sources for Further Study

Baer, Ulrich. Remnants of Song: Trauma and the Experience of Modernity in Charles Baudelaire and Paul Celan. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Bernstein, Michael André. Five Portraits: Modernity and Imagination in Twentieth-Century German Writing. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2000.

Chalfen, Israel. Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth. Translated by Maximillian Bleyleben. New York: Persea Books, 1991.

Felstiner, John. Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1995.

Lyon, James K. Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: An Unresolved Conversation, 1951-1970. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Tobias, Rochelle. The Discourse of Nature in the Poetry of Paul Celan: The Unnatural World. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.