Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408
“When in Early Summer” was first published in Sternverdunkelung. It is available in English in the book The Seeker, and Other Poems. Sachs wanted to omit the poem from the 1961 edition of her collected poetry but was persuaded by the editor, Enzensberger, to include it. The poem contains some of her most vivid images and is one of Sachs’s best-known works in Germany.
The sixteen-line poem has five stanzas. Of these, the first three form a progression and the last two commentary. The first stanza, with five lines, describes a night in early summer when nature seems especially alive and humans seem especially attuned to its reassuring messages. All is as it should be, calm and beautiful. “The moon sends out secret signs,” the “scent of heaven” streams from the lilies, and, as the crickets sing, one can hear the “earth turning and the language of spirits set free.”
It being night, the poet’s thoughts move easily from the outer world to the inner world. In the two lines of the second stanza, in dreams, she moves into the mystical state and envisions things beyond the realm of the ordinary. The first image is one of entry into a higher form of being: “fish fly in the air.” This is consistent with the ecstatic experience of the summer night. The second image contains a downward motion, “a forest takes firm root in the floor of the room,” and indicates that in mystical experience transcendence is always shadowed by determinism.
In the central stanza, the poet moves from one extreme to the other. “In the midst of enchantment a voice speaks clearly and amazed.” Twice the voice addresses the world, asking how the world can go on playing its games when “little children were thrown like butterflies,/ wings beating into the flames.” The poem has moved from the mundane world, through the sweetness of mystical vision, to a vision of an unfit world.
How can the Holocaust not be punished by God? In the Old Testament, aberrations before the Lord brought some terrible retribution in the natural world. Amazingly, the worst thing done to the Jewish race since biblical times takes place in the twentieth century and divine retribution fails to materialize. “Earth has not been thrown like a rotten apple into the terror-roused abyss.” The closing stanza reiterates the poet’s surprise: “Sun and moon have gone on walking—/ two cross-eyed witnesses who have seen nothing.”
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