The Poem

“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.

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...

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Forms and Devices

“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...

(The entire section is 437 words.)