The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426

“Tenebrae,” a poem in free verse, consists of twenty-two lines. The Latin title refers to the period of darkness prior to the death of Christ. The term also points to the idea of an eclipse, the cause of such darkness, as well as night and death. In this context, although with no specific reference, the association to Nazi death camps, an experience elemental to Paul Celan’s life and work, cannot be avoided.

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The poem begins with a declaration of apparent proximity to God. The use of “we” as the subject pronoun provides a tone of universality. The second line clarifies this relationship as one not only of proximity but also of attentiveness. This idea is further developed in the second stanza. Line 3 implies that this connection is the result of a process, a means to an end, perhaps toward some higher purpose. In line 4, however, the reader finds that the process is one of defilement. Bodies are clawed while those same bodies claw in anguish. Furthermore, the poem compares this experience to God’s experience, an apparent reference to Christ on the cross.

In line 7, God is called upon to pray. In the following line, the plea turns slightly surreal, roles are reversed, and God is instructed to direct his prayers “to us.” As line 9 refers back to the first stanza, it becomes clear that such proximity and the horrific condition described are in some measure related. In the fourth stanza, the bodies are twisted. Still, the exclamation “we went” implies that they have arrived at this condition of their own volition. They are bent down as if having submitted themselves at this crater. The fifth stanza, a single line, reveals that the purpose of gathering there is to be watered like lambs or cattle.

In lines 14 and 15, the reader finds that it is blood that fills this watering hole, blood shed by God himself. In line 16, another single-line stanza, the pool of blood radiates with light. Now God’s image is reflected in the blood and cast into the eyes of those huddled there. In line 18, eyes and mouths are “open and empty,” drained of life. Finally, lines 19 and 20 tell of drinking from the trough and consuming both the blood and the image cast in it. “Tenebrae” moves toward its conclusion by repeating the directive “Pray, Lord.” In the final line the repeated declaration of proximity takes on new meaning. Clearly, the “nearness” alluded to in the poem refers not to a closeness to God but to something horrible eclipsing this sense of immediacy.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

“Tenebrae” uses several devices common to Celan’s poetry. A sparsity of words as well as the poetic tone suggest absence more than presence. Five of the nine stanzas contain one or two lines, contributing to the barrenness of its appearance on the page. Multiple meanings balance the thin word usage and add to the poem’s complexity. Common also are the new meanings that a single word or its root take on as the poetic voice proceeds. For example, in a few brief lines readers go from being at hand to having been handled to hands clawing. Thus what begins as a reference to attentiveness is quickly transformed into violation by a single allusion.

Celan also describes events in terms of their opposites. In the darkness of the poem, images, scenes, and roles are inverted and confused. This takes on seemingly strange proportions when describing the relationship with God. He appears without omniscience. Although the idea that “we” are near provides a sense of movement toward God, he is directed to “pray to us.” While the poem is clear that “we went,” implying that arrival at such a state is of “our” own free will, the reader may ask if events are running contrary to God’s will. What challenges the reader’s sensibility is the dilemma of attributing the situation to God’s absence or his apparent indifference to humanity.

The most striking inversion is that of the Christian imagery presented in the poem. The association of Tenebrae to the Passion of Christ is represented in the Catholic liturgy of the same name performed during Holy Week. Both the victims’ suffering compared to the suffering of God and the common essence that the image of God and the blood itself take on evoke Christian symbolism. Because such images are easily associated with Christianity, some critics have concluded that the scene in the poem relates directly to the Crucifixion. However, this one-dimensional understanding draws the reader to surface conclusions that correlate neither to the poem’s angry tone nor to the circumstances it describes.

Celan’s poem constructs the horrific with the vocabulary of Christianity, the vocabulary accessible to him yet distinct from a Christian construction. The use of this imagery serves to express a marginal syntax with a central language. Yet because the vocabulary is recognizable, the reader is easily drawn to accept the obvious that eclipses a deeper explanation. In “Tenebrae,” the ornaments that decorate the world may be Christian, but it is the juxtaposition of Christianity with Jewish symbolism, as well as surreal forms and existentialist doubts, that heightens the poem’s meaning.

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Themes