The Poem

“Hasidic Scriptures” consists of twenty-nine lines divided into tercets, couplets, and one quatrain, all written in free verse. The title refers to the teachings of Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of Hasidism, and draws the reader immediately into the context of Jewish mysticism. An epigraph preceding the poem comments on the mystical relationship between the Law of the Commandments and man’s physical experience. The first line, “All is salvation in the mystery,” which repeats throughout the poem, indicates Nelly Sachs’s belief that it is inappropriate, if not impossible, to attain spiritual truth through logic. The poem unfolds as a meditation on this relationship between the Creator and the created world, in which Sachs transforms theological and metaphysical concepts into a deeply personal artistic vision.

The poem’s first eleven lines place the reader at the beginning of Creation as light is born of darkness in the protective, nurturing matrix of the universe. The entire process is distilled into images of night, stars, water, and sand. For Sachs, who was inspired by mysticism, the agent which initiates and sustains the Creation is language: “and the word went forth/Names formed/ like pools in the sand.” These “names” refer to the formative power of language and recall man’s role in naming the animals (Genesis 2:20), which implies a personal participation in language. In the syntax of the poem, the...

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Forms and Devices

Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote in his introduction to O the Chimneys (1967) that Sachs’s poems are “hard, but transparent. They do not dissolve in the weak solution of interpretations.” The most powerful aspect of her poetry is her use of symbols and metaphors in which are concentrated layer upon layer of meaning drawn from her life’s experiences and Jewish mysticism. The complexity of her system of signs is further enriched by the associations brought to it by her readers. Her translators face the difficult task of selecting words that evoke at least some of the many nuances found in the original texts. They are further challenged by the complicated and ambiguous syntax of her verses: New clauses begin without markers, subjects and objects are blurred, and inserted modifiers distend the sentence’s structure. These strategies alter the pace of reading. The reader is sometimes slowed and sometimes propelled by the use of anaphora (here, the repetition of “and” at the beginning of eleven lines) in a chain of associations.

The broken rhythm of Sachs’s syntax is replicated in the arrangement of her lines of verse. The repetition of the poem’s first line, “All is salvation in the mystery,” weaves through an irregular pattern of couplets, tercets, and a single quatrain creating an unpredictable emphasis. Another unifying element is the recurrence of simile after each repetition of the opening line.

The simile is only...

(The entire section is 471 words.)