Nelly Sachs Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Nelly Sachs published the short play, or “scenic poem,” Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels (1951; Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel, 1967). Her fiction is collected in Legenden und Erzählungen (1921) and her correspondence with Paul Celan in Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence (1995).


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Nelly Sachs arrived at her characteristic poetic style late in life. She was heavily influenced by the German Romantic poets and did not consider her lyric poetry of the years prior to 1943 to be representative of her mature work, excluding those poems from the collection of 1961. Her first published book, a small volume of legends and tales published in 1921, was heavily indebted in style and content to the Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, Sachs published lyric poetry in such respected newspapers and journals as the Vossische Zeitung of Berlin, the Berliner Tageblatt, and Der Morgen, the journal of the Jewish cultural federation.

Sachs’s stylistic breakthrough came with the traumatic experience of her flight from Germany and exile in Sweden. The play Eli was written in 1943 but published privately in Sweden in 1951; it was first broadcast on Süddeutsche Rundfunk (South German Radio) in 1958, and had its theater premiere in 1962 in Dortmund. Acceptance of her poetry in West Germany was equally slow, partly because her main theme (Jewish suffering during World War II) stirred painful memories. In the late 1950’s and 1960’s, however, she was hailed as modern Germany’s greatest woman poet and received numerous literary prizes. She was accepted for membership in several academies. In 1958, she received the poetry prize of the Swedish broadcasting system and in 1959, the Kulturpreis der Deutschen Industrie. The town of Meersburg in West Germany awarded her the Annette Droste Prize for women poets in 1960, and the city of Dortmund founded the Nelly Sachs Prize in 1961 and presented her with its first award. In the same year, friends and admirers published the first volume of a festschrift, followed by the second volume, Nelly Sachs zu Ehren, on the occasion of her seventy-fifth birthday in 1966. On October 17, 1965, she received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade Association, and on December 10, 1966, she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Berlin, the city where she was born and in which she had lived for nearly half a century, made her an honorary citizen in 1967. The city of Dortmund, Germany, and the Royal Library in Stockholm, Sweden, have valuable collections of her letters and transcriptions of her early poems in their Nelly Sachs Archive.

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Examine the influence of German mystics on the poetry of Nelly Sachs.

What was the nature of Selma Lagerlöf’s assistance to Sachs?

Comment on the appropriateness of ashes as metaphors in Sachs’s poems.

Among Jewish authors, is Sachs’s interpretation of the Holocaust an extremely uncommon one?

Consider the relationship between love and intimacy in Sachs’s lyrics.

In what ways do the forms of Sachs’s poems emphasize their themes?


(Literary Essentials: Great Poems of the World)

Bahti, Timothy, and Marilyn Sibley Fries, eds. Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995. Biographical and critical essays of Sachs’s and Benjamin’s lives and works. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Bosmajian, Hamida. Metaphors of Evil: Contemporary German Literature and the Shadow of Nazism. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1979. A historical and critical study of responses to the Holocaust in poetry and prose. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Bower, Kathrin M. Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausländer. Rochester, N.Y.: Camden House, 2000. Critical interpretation of the works of Sachs and Ausländer with particular attention to their recollections of the Holocaust. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Bronsen, David. “The Dead Among the Living: Nelly Sachs’ Eli.” Judaism 16 (Winter, 1967). In-depth discussion of Sachs’s best-known play.

Langer, Lawrence L. Versions of Survival: The Holocaust and the Human Spirit. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. Brilliantly illuminates the paradoxes in Sachs’s verse.

Rudnick, Ursula. Post-Shoa Religious Metaphors: The Image of God in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs. New York: P. Lang, 1995. A biography of the poet and an in-depth interpretation of seven poems. Rudnick traces the biblical and mystical Jewish tradition which grounds Sachs’s work. Includes bibliographical references.

Sachs, Nelly. Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs: Correspondence. Translated by Christopher Clark. Edited by Barbara Wiedemann. Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Sheep Meadow Press, 1995. A collection of letters by two poets living outside Europe and tormented by guilt that they had escaped the Holocaust. Includes bibliographical references and index.