The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“On Thinking About Hell” is a relatively short poem written in free verse without rhymes. It consists of twenty-one lines divided into three stanzas, each of which is a different length. The words of the title also form the beginning of the first stanza and are repeated in its fifth line. They set the tone of the poem, which is a reflection, a meditation on the earthly representation of hell. The work “Hell,” capitalized in the English translation of the poem, thus emphasizing the biblical allusion, is repeated in the first line of each stanza; each repetition, however, hits at a different aspect of Bertolt Brecht’s vision of hell. The poem is written in the first person, which poets often use to speak through a persona whose outlook and experiences may be quite different from their own. Here, however, no distinction is implied between Brecht the poet and the speaker of the poem. The poet reflects on his own impressions of Los Angeles, where he lived during part of his exile from Nazi Germany (from 1940 until 1945). To Brecht, the city appears strangely suspended in time and place. Attractive at first glance, its illusive nature quickly becomes apparent under his scrutiny, and Los Angeles turns into a repulsive urban sprawl.

In the first stanza Brecht declares his kinship with the British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had likened the city of London, England, to the place of human damnation. The speaker of the poem, however, feels that Los...

(The entire section is 407 words.)