The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 426 words.)