Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ewigen Melodien” is a mystical poem, a poem of transfiguration. It speaks of violent death and natural life—and of the eternal life that may transcend both. It tries to offer hope in the face of the most enormous and horrible suffering offered by the violent history of the twentieth century. It does not turn away from the reality of torture and physical decay but portrays death as something more than dissolution—an entry into a new state of consciousness, or bodiless being, which somehow offers a promise of something more.

The vagueness of this state of being, the tentativeness of this promise, is at the center of the poem. Reading this poem to audiences (in synagogues and elsewhere), Heyen has remarked that he is not certain exactly what status Judaism affords to personal immortality, but that he wanted to imagine that the dead are not finally dead. The poem, he says, represents their very first moment of awakening beyond death. It does not presume to theology, only to the hint of faith.

“Ewigen Melodien” is perhaps best understood in context. It is the next-to-last poem in The Swastika Poems, an intense, introspective account of the Holocaust from the perspective of a German American poet whose relatives fought (and died) on both sides during World War II. Visiting several of the death camps years later, the poet comes face to face with the destructiveness of which humankind is capable—and with his own sense of...

(The entire section is 522 words.)