Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

“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.

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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 implication in these awful events. In this light, the poem may be seen to have been written to offer the poet himself some solace in the face of the unspeakable. (The fact that Heyen published an expanded version of The Swastika Poems, retitled Erika after the name of a wild plant that has grown up on the mass graves at one of the camps, and containing some dozen new, more positive poems, seems to confirm this.)

Moreover, the poet seems to be testing the limits of his art. In a well-known remark, the social theorist Theodor Adorno once stated that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is a barbarism.” Yet poets have continued to write. Heyen here seems determined to wrest a “melody” from anguish—yet in a way that will not offend. The struggle between an often brutal history and the claims of poetry is an old one (dating back at least to Aristotle); Heyen’s highly contrived poem is in the modern tradition of art offering solace where religion may fail.

There is further thematic resonance in the poem’s placement within its original volume. It is to be found in the third section of The Swastika Poems, entitled “The Numinous,” an ancient philosophical term referring to the spiritual level of reality. Heyen, long identified with the American Transcendentalist vision, seems to want to see nature, even in its decay, as pointing to a larger unity, a higher state of being in which earthly paradoxes are reconciled. Thus the poem’s title works doubly: It points to a transcendent realm and also indicates this poem’s presumed role in helping the reader become aware of it.

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