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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 406 words.)