The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Ewigen Melodien” is a free-verse lyric poem of fifteen lines, organized in five stanzas of three lines each. The title is German and means “Everything Melody.” According to William Heyen, he took the title from a letter of the British Victorian era philosopher and man of letters Thomas Carlyle, who, responding to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Nature (1836), wrote to the American philosopher: “You have written the ewigen melodien.” The title also clearly suggests that the poem itself is a kind of song.

The poem is meant to embody the combined voice of all the victims of the Holocaust (the intentional murder by the Nazis of approximately six million European Jews during World War II). It is a questioning voice, reaching toward some new kind of knowledge after the horrors that have been endured. In the first stanza, the representative speaker, while acknowledging that “we are all dead,” nevertheless hears what might be the “whispers” of dead friends and the sounds of small bells and chimes—the beginning of a kind of music. In the second stanza, the sound is specifically called music, and the speaker says that the victims’ screaming throats have relaxed in death. Yet, though dead, they are quickening with a new awareness. Their ears now can “hear” the smallest natural sound. In the third stanza, the speaker says that the fingers and lungs of the brutalized victims are softened in death, and that these dead can hear (and almost see) the grain rustling in the fields.

The fourth stanza develops the idea of music further: The dead now hear the “windsong” in the trees, and it becomes a “deep cello timbre.” Their jaws, necks, and tongues are added to the list of physical organs that have found a relaxation, or softening, in death. The final stanza identifies the strange, faintly heard music that has run throughout the poem with the once-vital organs of the victims—“brain hymn, bodiless heartbeat”—as if to give a name to what seems to have survived death. The next-to-last line contains the odd confession that “we should have known this,” and the poem ends with a tentative but definite sense of something more—some larger music—beginning to be heard.