Nelly Sachs’s O the Chimneys contains several collections of loosely connected free-verse poems, some preceded by quotations from the Old Testament, written to give voice to the horror and tragedy of mass murder. Each collection is set off by a thematic title, such as “In the Habitations of Death,” “Eclipse of the Stars,” or “And No One Knows How to Go On.” As the series continues, titles indicate a progression toward tired, wistfully sad resignation and recognition that profound tragedy can never be explained. Representative titles are “Death Still Celebrates Life” and “Glowing Enigmas I, II, and III.” Within the larger units, individual poems, usually eighteen or twenty in each group, carry descriptive titles indicating their content. Also included in the book is the verse drama Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel, which was first produced in 1962.
The collection, which begins with the title poem “O the chimneys,” includes such thematic designations as “O the night of the weeping children,” “Even the old men’s last breath,” “A dead child speaks,” and “Chorus of the Unborn.” The poem “O the night of the weeping children,” for example, is divided into two parts deriving their effectiveness from paradox and contrast. The poet speaks of the night, but one in which sleep is impossible, and of nursemaids who do not foster life but sow death, suckling the children on panic instead of mother’s milk. In the second half of the poem, the author uses such concrete items as “the doll with cheeks derouged by kisses” and a stuffed toy to recall the happier, innocent time that she terms “yesterday,” but the poem ends with abandoned toys and the image of nightgowns blown over children’s hair “that no one will comb again.” Sentimental evocations are overpowered by death in this poem, with that word reiterated three times in the space of nineteen lines.
The free rhythms contain cadenced lines and strophes of uneven length that are entirely unrhymed. They customarily contain rhetorical devices, such as repetition, parallelism, calls to an unseen force, rhetorical questions, and other technical devices from the tradition of speech, debate, or drama; likewise, the position of words, especially at beginnings and ends of lines or verses, carries significant weight.
Sachs’s poems are characterized by rich poetic imagery; by echoes of biblical cadences; by such classical evocations as references to oracles or to Mars, the ancient god of war; by animal references, as to wolves, calves, dragonflies, various kinds of birds, and butterflies (the latter two often symbolic of the soul); by a preponderance of references to astronomical entities, such as stars, the sun, constellations, and the heavens in general; by botanical references, as to dandelions, seeds, or bindweed; and by multiple references to images having to do with time, such as clocks (“the clock face of ages”), dust, stones, and the sands of time. Family relationships also play a significant symbolic role in the work of this compassionate and often-anguished poet. The critic Harry Zohn has drawn attention to Sachs’s use of images drawn from Jewish mysticism.
Few women achieved fame in German literary history before the late twentieth century. In 1966, Sachs shared the Nobel Prize in Literature, specifically for her poetry, with the Israeli writer S. Y. Agnon. Her importance in the German lyric tradition is limited, although she is a significant voice for the Jewish experience in World War II Germany and the immediate postwar years.
Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel is fairly unknown in the twentieth century German dramatic tradition. Sachs wrote it in the space of a few nights in 1943 after receiving news of the atrocities in...
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