Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Celan—an East European Jewish poet whose parents and close friends were killed by the Nazis—never recovered entirely from the tragedy he experienced when barely twenty years old. He repeatedly expressed his utmost grief in his poetry and searched for a solution or answer to the extreme suffering of his people.

In “Psalm,” Celan addresses the universally valid question of the relationship of the world and an infinitely absent God. Twentieth century European nihilism, frequently attributed to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who declared that God was dead, also affected Celan, who, because of his traumatic wartime experiences, faced a spiritual crisis. Eventually, however, Celan came to use the resources of Jewish mysticism for probing questions raised by the suffering he witnessed and experienced. Celan nevertheless differs from mystic poets, because the mystical symbolic significance of his imagery hangs in balance with an all-but-unresolvable bitterness and despair. In “Psalm,” he juxtaposes a sense of nihilism with tenets of his religion and raises a question that is hidden beneath a twentieth century convergence of cultures and tragic historical events: Can God be redeemed from the void of his infinite absence and indifference?

The poet approaches this question by fusing in the image of “no one” two different religious traditions of Judaism. In the biblical tradition, God is envisioned as being...

(The entire section is 461 words.)