From Man You Came and to Man You Shall Return

by Yehuda Amichai
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

Yehuda Amichai’s “From Man You Came and to Man You Shall Return” is a seventeen-line poem in four stanzas, the first consisting of three lines, the second of four lines, the third of seven lines, and the fourth of three lines. The lines are uneven in length and irregular in meter, but the poem may have a different prosody in Hebrew, the language in which Amichai wrote and from which his poems have been translated into at least thirty languages. The title is an integral part of this poem and provides the first surprise for the reader. The phrase “From Man You Came and to Man You Shall Return” strikes the reader with a certain irony; the framework is certainly familiar, one has heard it before, but it seems not quite right. Is this a familiar biblical edict? The reader is immediately drawn into the poem, trying to remember the wording of the original phrase. It does not take long to recall the source of the title, a sentence embedded in Genesis 3:19: “For dust you are,/ and to dust you shall return,” which the God of the Hebrew Bible said to Adam when He discovered Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit.

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The three lines of the first stanza form an apparently simple statement,”Death in war begins/ With one young man/ Descending the stairs.” Readers are far from the field of battle, in the city or village, and one young man is leaving his home, yet the poet says that the casualty of war begins here. Although the statement appears simple, it is really ambiguous. Is Amichai looking at a photograph of a soldier leaving for battle? Is he imagining such a scene? Does he mean that even as young men go about their daily business the seeds of war are carried in their genes? The second stanza continues in this vein; the young man is “closing a door in silence” and “opening a window”; actions performed frequently and even innocently are the beginnings of death.

In the third stanza Amichai addresses the reader with an imperative. “Hence, do not weep for the one who goes,” he commands, “Weep for the one who descends the stairs of his house.” Weep only for the living, the poet is saying, weep only for those who are still performing the daily gestures of life, although death in war is lurking in their future and every action brings them closer to that fated end. The third stanza ends with three lines that start with the word “weep,” exhorting the reader to mourn objects, objects that themselves remember the dead. The fourth and final stanza takes readers back to the title. Amichai’s titles are often lines taken from the poem, usually the first line. By using the last line for the title, however, the poet gives this statement, literally, as the last word. Although this stanza contains a question, the brief three lines do not end with a question mark. It is a rhetorical question, “Who will stand up and say to the dust:/ From man you came and to man you shall return.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

Although Amichai was born in southern Germany, his extended family sailed to Palestine in the mid-1930’s, avoiding the Holocaust. Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish family and attending the Orthodox Ma’aleh high school, the poet became accustomed in his youth to the stately cadences of the Hebrew Bible, which had the greatest influence on his own poetry. Typically, Hebrew biblical poetry has little or no metrical scheme but is organized instead on symmetry of units, called parallelism. The main type of parallelism used in “From Man You Came and to Man You Shall Return” is repetition. In much biblical poetry, symmetry is achieved by the repetition of three or more words in each unit or line.

Significantly, given the biblical reference of the title of this poem, the form also echoes biblical technique. “Death in war begins” is the unifying phrase that opens the poem and recurs twice in the second stanza. In the third stanza, the phrase “do not weep for” in the first line is reversed to “Weep for” in the second, creating another type of parallelism, antithesis. “Weep for” is repeated again in the third, fifth, sixth, and seventh lines of the third stanza, and with each repetition the poem grows stronger and more memorable. This third stanza is written in the third person; the poet is speaking directly to the reader and establishes a sense of intimacy enhanced by the simplicity of the vocabulary and references to such humble items as stairs, a door, a key, a pocket, and tears. For years Amichai was Israel’s most loved and respected poet, a man who remained aloof from politics and literary cliques but was a familiar sight in Jerusalem’s cafes and classrooms. This apparent simplicity was loved by students and soldiers as well as intellectuals, and critics praised his work and considered him Israel’s most important poet.

The fourth stanza is also intimate in tone, although it does not continue the use of parallelism. The first line, “And in this spring,” establishes the time for the poem. It is the eternal now; it is not some other spring, or some past spring, but “this spring,” and as long as the poem is read it will always be now. The second and third line pose the question, “Who will stand up and say to the dust:/ From man you came and to man you shall return.” This is a startling departure from the biblical quote it refers to, and here the poem changes from an elegy for those who die in war to a subversive, even revolutionary, work.

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Themes