The Poem

A brief free-verse poem of sixteen lines divided into four stanzas, “Fleeing” was written originally in German. The present progressive form of the title suggests flight as an incessant reality, intensified by the poet’s unblinking scrutiny.

The poem opens with a curious observation, voiced with more wonder than irony. The poet marvels about the “great reception” one encounters “on the way” while fleeing. She reveals herself as immersed in the process, rather than focused on the point either of departure or of arrival.

This reception involves the participation of the natural world, represented by the elements and by animate life. The world is in constant motion, caught in the currents of change: wind, sand, and evolving beings. As such, it invites no comment; there is no “amen” to the prayer recited in its sanctuary. Existence is “compelled,” the poet concludes in the second stanza, in its eternal metamorphosis.

The imperative of transformation is embodied by the butterfly, which the poet presents in the third stanza—presumably as an image of the self. It is “sick,” and transformation can serve as a kind of healing. Metamorphosis is not without continuity; the butterfly will “learn again of the sea”—that is, be reconciled with its origins.

Every living being leaves an impression; comprehension of life’s hieroglyphics is available to the imagination, as nature even in its storm of change becomes meaningful in relationship to consciousness: A stone “with the fly’s inscription” gives itself into the poet’s hand. The poet’s borderless dwelling in the universe is conveyed by her description of it as an environment of worship: “Wrapped/ in the wind’s shawl”—that is, the tallith, or prayer shawl—with feet “in the prayer of sand.”

In the final stanza, the poet locates herself in a moment of time rather than a demarcation of geography (a “homeland”), and this moment is fleeting. That is, time and space are conspiring to flee with her; the entire world is gathering itself for transformation.

Forms and Devices

Recurring throughout Nelly Sachs’s poetry are the images of dust, or sand, and the butterfly, both symbols of metamorphosis. Representing both the animate and inanimate worlds, these images indicate a creation that is in flux. Sachs also evokes the idea of creation as a work in progress, rather than as a finished product, in her allusion to the workings of evolution: from “fin to wing/ and further.”

The imagery in “Fleeing,” as in other Sachs poems, acts sacramentally; that is, natural objects become agents of spiritual awareness: The wind becomes a prayer shawl, the sand a prayer. Language itself is a vehicle for the sacred, through prayer as well as through inscription that contains revelation.

Meanings and significances of words themselves undergo metamorphosis in the course of the poem: Fleeing turns into a reception; a stone becomes something impressionable and communicative. The very alchemy of which poetry is capable is thus suggested. The poem acts like a hymn as a vehicle for transformative experience. The critic J. P. Bauke has written that Sachs’s poetry “reaches the hymnic pathos of prophecy”; poet Stephen Spender has described her verse as “apocalyptic hymns.”

The shortness of the lines, along with the use of the dash at the end of each stanza, helps communicate rhythmically the urgency and incompleteness, the thrust into the unsayable, conveyed by the poem’s transmutable imagery and language.

With its emphasis on imagery—on metaphor, juxtaposition, ellipses—rather than on complex rhythmic texture or intricate rhyme scheme, Sachs’s poetry can be readily appreciated in translation.