“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 shift toward an upward movement nevertheless begins here as the persona associates the congregation with a flower that wants to bloom for “no one” and even wishes to glorify and court “no one.” Thus, the sense of devastation introduced in the first stanza is somewhat dissipated, even though bitterness is still betrayed by the voice.
The bitter self-awareness of the congregation is continued in the third stanza as it recognizes its own nothingness that informs its own past, present, and future. The self-identification with the flower is also continued, however, and the congregation is characterized as the nothing rose and the no one’s rose. Whereas the image of the rose conveys beauty, lack of value is suggested by the first metaphor and an orphaned state by the second one. The fact that this rose is “blooming” contributes to the affirmation of an inner richness and force.
In the last stanza, parts of the rose are compared to human mental and physical states and convey both much suffering and transcendence. The reproductive parts of the rose as well as the implication of many petals of its “crown” convey dynamic growth of a people, a drive toward beauty and spiritual awareness. The inner core of the rose, the pistil, is as bright as the soul. The stamen is ravaged by heaven, as if laid to waste or burned by the sun. The head of the rose, which the poet calls a crown (rendered as “corolla” in the translation) is red with “the crimson word.” The suggestion of blood in the colors red and crimson is unmistakable. It emphasizes suffering, martyrdom, and untimely death. The “crimson word,” sung over the thorn, suggests cries of pain and complaint as well as beauty.
Forms and Devices
“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...
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