Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 443
“Once” is a fifteen-line poem that is part of Glühende Rätsel. Published when Sachs was seventy-five years old, it is a mature reflection on the course of her life, and it is written with conscious irony and humility. The wistful opening is reminiscent of the beginning of a fairy tale. It recalls a time in the poet’s life when options were still open. Her fairy tale, however, does not end happily, and she takes personal responsibility for the outcome: “I founded/ the future upon the stone of sadness.” Contrary to what is expected of a princess in a fairy tale, the poet did not get married and live happily ever after.
The prince was there, and she recognized that they were destined for each other. The second stanza speaks of “prenatal reunion.” In other words, the union between the two of them was something that was fundamentally not of this world but foreordained on a level to which there is no access. The union was “made of ocean,” and, sadly, it “ran its course.” The opportunity arose, was not seized, and was lost.
In the third stanza, Sachs seeks meaning for suffering. “Perhaps near the equator a fish/ on the line paid off a human debt.” The implication is that balance is being maintained in the world and that one’s position in time and place, while beyond one’s control, is not random.
Proceeding from the supposition of interrelated events and fates, the poet applies the concept to the circumstances of her own life, and is ruthless in her self-examination. The line “and then my Thou” signals the change in focus from the general to the specific. As the grammatical subject, “Thou” corresponds to the fish in the previous statement, but whereas the fish paid off a human debt, the function of the Thou remains unstated. So many clauses are introduced to define the Thou that they themselves take on narrative quality, and the poem ends without Sachs having come to the verb. The structure of the poem reflects the nature of the content. There is much conjecture but no definitive statement about the “Thou.” It remains an enigma.
The poet did not spend her life with the man, but she cannot free herself from the idea that she is somehow to blame for what happened to him and to herself. He was kept a prisoner “whom to release I was chosen/ and whom in enigmas I lost once more.” The questions continue beyond his death. Like many of Sachs’s poems, this one ends in a dash. She leaves the reader with a tantalizing glimpse of cosmic connectedness.
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