by Paul Antschel

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Themes and Meanings

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All Celan’s poems are about loss, even those rare ones that carry some glimmer of hope, a possible substitution, such as love, for past losses. The deaths of his parents in the concentration camp, as well as those of all other victims of the Holocaust, haunt the poems. His best-known works (“Death Fugue,” for example) are direct treatments of the Holocaust. The colors of all of his poems are gray and somber; his works reflect the experience of one who has survived the ordeal and at the same time not survived it, because so much has been lost that not enough is left to sustain him. Celan committed suicide in 1970, despite having married and having become internationally famous as poet and translator.

The death-in-life theme is present from the onset of “Homecoming.” The title suggests meetings and greetings, but neither is forthcoming. The dense snow, suggesting death, is thickening. The third line is mysterious, but it too suggests death in life: The snow falls “as if even now you were sleeping.” The “you” is addressed nowhere else in the poem and, as usual in Celan’s poems, is indeterminate; but the lines state that the addressee is “as if” sleeping. He (or she, or they) is not sleeping; the suggestion is that he is absent, dead.

The white and gray of the scene extend from the top to the bottom of the field of vision, and everything the speaker sees in the sky or on the earth connotes death. The sky is the “sleigh track of the lost”; the ashes of the incinerated Holocaust victims rose skyward. The snowy hills on the ground are the graves, and each one contains “an I slipped away into dumbness.” The use of “I” gives two suggestions to the line: Each individual consciousness has been silenced, and the speaker is identifying with each one of the lost. “I” in this poem may mean both “ego” and “self.” (The German “Ich” also has this dual meaning.)

The final four lines raise the issue of the possibility of the speaker’s survival. He has come “home” to homelessness; everything is frozen and dead. The earth and sky are full of graves. Still, something moves in this bleak landscape—a feeling, which finds its substance in cloth, white or gray-white. A question might arise from this enigmatic conclusion: Is the flag thus formed visible enough to identify the landscape? So much of the speaker has been lost, drained away, identified with the dead, diffused into the earth and the sky. Can there be enough self left to sustain him?

The question of how poetry could be written at all after the Holocaust has been raised, and some critics have accused Celan of aestheticizing the death camps—making them into art and thus glossing over their horror—but critic and translator Michael Hamburger’s comment on another Celan poem could also be applied to “Homecoming”: “[T]he personal anguish was transposed into distancing imagery and a musical structure so incompatible with reportage that a kind of ‘terrible beauty’ is wrested from an ugly theme.”

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