The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 368

“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.

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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.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

“Ewigen Melodien” is a highly rhetorical poem. The first line begins with an initial capital (“Something”), and the last ends with an ellipse. In effect, the poem has the form of a single sentence containing seven separate questions (two each in the first and fourth stanzas). This complex sentence is full of repetition, juxtaposition, and paradox. These rhetorical devices are employed to control an evocative, multilayered imagery. The poem is structured by its punctuation to a degree that is unusual among contemporary poets—somewhat suggestive of the experimental work with grammar and syntax (in a much lighter vein) of the modernist E. E. Cummings. Each line begins with the pronoun “something” followed by a colon. Seven of the colons are followed by questions, eight by declarative sentences. This slight imbalance seems very deliberate, as if to indicate that assertion ultimately outweighs doubt. Ten of the lines end with “but” and three with “and,” running the thought into the next line (this technique is known as enjambment). The final two lines move in a new direction, breaking the pattern by ending with “this” and “begin,” respectively. Yet the brief final assertion, “the melodies begin,” is made even more tentative by being framed within a double ellipse, as if it is not a conclusion at all, but only a fragment pointing to what comes after the poem.

The imagery is simple but emotionally charged. Images of faint sounds beginning with “dead friends’ welcoming whispers” convey the precise perception of a natural “music.” These subtle but very sensuous sound images (“rustle-of-grain-sound somehow yellow” employs synesthesia, the mixing of senses) are juxtaposed with the physical imagery of the once-tormented bodies becoming transformed in death (“our lungs that burst with blood are soft now. . . .”). This vividly allusive imagery not only evokes the horrors of the Holocaust but also juxtaposes life and death in a way that is highly paradoxical—as if some impossible state of consciousness is being described, at once vague and absolute. The compressed imagery becomes suggestive, at almost the same moment, of both human music, or art, and manmade destruction by fire (“deep cello timbre, low resinous hum?”). The final images are nearly surreal, suggesting that the unnamed “something” has, if only by repetition, become possible: “something: brain hymn, bodiless heartbeat? but/ something.” The physical has become music, the music physical. A final paradox is that the poem ends with the word “begin.”

With its careful repetitions and controlled syntax, the poem is a peculiar “song” of its own. It makes effective use of alliteration (beginning words with the same sound) and assonance (internally rhyming vowels). The dominant pattern is one of sibilants working against short and long o sounds, but distinctive “musical variations” mark each stanza, ranging from the w sounds in the first (“wooden wind-bells”), to the d in the second “(dew drying from grassblades”), to b in the third (“burst with blood”), to the deployment of the short i and u in the fourth stanza. The final stanza seems to “open” its sound pattern as it also reaches for a larger meaning.

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Themes