The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407

“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.

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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 Angeles is more like hell than London. The second stanza elaborates on this theme and deepens the contradictory feelings of superficial lure and deeply felt disgust. It is a study of the slow destruction of illusions fostered by the appearance of abundance and an easy life. However, this semblance of natural wealth in Los Anglese is superficial. The second stanza ends with the notion of aimlessness and emptiness that neither the unceasing movement of automobiles nor the “jolly-looking people” can mask. The first line of the third stanza continues the theme of beauty in hell, albeit in its negative form (“notugly”). The last three lines of the poem talk about the specter of homelessness that lurks behind the mask of affluence and security. Brecht leaves the reader to imagine the various reasons for being thrown out into the streets, a fate that can catch up with the inhabitants of villas as well as with those of the shanty towns.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 406

Present participle constructions (such as “on thinking” in the English translation) abound in the original German version of the poem. This linguistic construction depicts an action suspended in the present tense. It is found six times in the poem and underlines the mood as it describes a state of unchanging sameness and immutable but ongoing monotony that holds the poem in limbo. This stasis consists of contrasts that hold the structure of the poem and its content in a precarious balance. Brecht uses exaggerations and contrasts to emphasize his point, a device that can also be found in other poems about his experience of exile in the United States. Even the lines of the second stanza are symbolic of this exuberance: They are so long that they must be printed on two lines.

“On Thinking About Hell” describes “flowers as big as trees” brought forth by the wasteful use of expensive water. There are “fruit markets/ With great heaps of fruit” that have “Neither smell nor taste,” their appearance promising delectable delights that they cannot keep. Furthermore, the reader sees an endless procession of cars moving “faster than/ Mad thought” without any destination. To Brecht, the artificial growth and constant movement signify stasis rather than change and development. The passengers of the cars, however, keep up a jolly appearance. Coming from nowhere and going nowhere, they are caught in the vicious cycle of an adopted lifestyle that they are unable to change.

The hiatus of the juxtapositions is found in lines 16 and 17: “And houses, built for happy people, therefore standing empty/ Even when lived in.” These lines hint at a past during which life still had meaning and provided contentment while the people who now live in Los Angeles can no longer fill space with life because they are no longer happy. Just as the fruit of the overgrown plants has no flavor, their houses remain hollow. In the last four lines, Brecht attempts to break any illusions that the reader might still hold about this washed-out paradise: The word “Hell” is now complemented by the adjective “ugly” and the nouns “fear” and “shanty town.” The illusions and lures that masked the reality of life in the fast lane are ripped away. The poem ends by depicting psychological hell—the fear of homelessness—and thus comes full circle: The reflections at the beginning have been realized, and they will foster more thoughts and continue the cycle.

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