The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Psalm” is a short poem in free verse. Its twenty lines are divided into four stanzas, each representing a separate unit in the poem’s movement. The title indicates the theme and sets the reader’s expectations: This poem is a prayer, an evening song, a praise. God, whom traditional evening songs praise, is, however, repeatedly identified with “no one” and, eventually, the poem turns out to be a song in praise of the human spirit. The context of Paul Celan’s poetry and the imagery of “Psalm” also suggest that, more specifically, this poem is about Jewish people who were murdered by the Nazis during World War II. This specificity nevertheless bears universal validity and human significance.

The poem is written in the first-person plural, and, thus, the persona is actually a congregation of people. As the first line indicates, however, this congregation is dead. In obvious reference to the story of creation in the Bible, the persona declares: “No one molds us again from dust and clay, no one conjures up our dust.” The word “again” betrays that a chance to live, once given, has been irretrievably lost, and the people represented by the persona have lost all hope of coming to life again.

The three lines of the first stanza, in each of which the words “no one” are repeated, end on a note of desperation. The praise of the name of “no one” in the first line of the second stanza is therefore full of shocking irony. The...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Psalm” is a complex poem because it is built upon a movement from irony to paradox and is developed through an extended metaphor that fuses with several other metaphors. The tone of irony, bitterness, and an initial sense of nihilism are relieved by overtones of mystic imagery and symbolism, which render the poem ambivalent. This ambivalence is a source of the poem’s richness, as it makes two contradictory interpretations possible. The duality that pervades the whole poem allows the reader to experience overwhelming pain and despair, as well as empathy with the people who suffered devastation and untimely death. Awe and respect for them is evoked through an awareness of their inherent beauty and loveliness. Even a trace of reconciliation redeems the poem from bitterness.

The repeated personification of “no one” emphasizes divine absence. The irony that results from the suggested relationship of a silent “no one” and a congregation that is full of praise disappears as the image of the rose begins to predominate. This rose, a symbol derived from Jewish mysticism, may appear forlorn, deserted, or lost—as suggested through the metaphoric combination of this image with nothing—but it gains significance through spirituality.

For Celan, the rose, along with the image of the crown, symbolizes the people of Israel. Whereas the pistil and the stamen represent reproductive principles and therefore organic growth—and, in the context...

(The entire section is 492 words.)