Revelation Freshly Erupting:
The Poetry of Nelly Sachs
Why is the name of Nelly Sachs not far better known? She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966, jointly with the Israeli writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon. And she was a close friend of Paul Celan, who by contrast is very much more widely now remembered. Sachs and Celan are the two great German-
I guess that the chief factor tending to impede the reception of this work has been just what also constitutes its true greatness. Namely: its quite unconventional mystical intensity. It has an intensity from which admittedly one may well be tempted to recoil; it is so austere.
The recognition Sachs did receive in her own lifetime was very much as a poet of tragic Jewishness. She was accorded various honours, from the late 1950s onwards, by a German literary establishment anxious to signal its willingness to come to an honest reckoning with the trauma of the Third Reich. And yes, it is true that her great work entirely arises out of that trauma. The Nobel Prize citation spoke of her ‘outstanding lyrical and dramatic poetry which interprets the fate of Israel with such moving power’. However, this power is closely bound up with, and indeed largely depends upon, a spiritual impulse of altogether more universal significance. She is, after all, far more than just a memorialist of ‘the fate of Israel’; even though that is what she begins from.1
What constitutes the true greatness – and at the same time the essential difficulty – of Sachs’ work? I am inclined to say that it is, in theological terms, its sheer revelatory power.
Usually, of course, when Christian, Rabbinic or Islamic theologians speak of divine ‘revelation’ it is with reference to the authority of their most sacred scriptures. In particular, however, it is a term for the (so to speak) volcanic lava-
I actually want to make quite a bold claim for Nelly Sachs’ work: whatever its other literary strengths or weaknesses may be, her poetry does, at any rate, seem to me to be pretty much the clearest case of fresh ‘revelation’, in poetic form, to be found in all of twentieth century literature. It is rendered revelatory partly by the sheer extremity of the trauma to which it is responding; and partly by the purity of its unflinching exposure, in God’s name, to that trauma. This exposure represents such a fundamental refusal of moral anaesthesia; the normal survival-
Volcano, or earthquake: elsewhere, I have given this quality of poetic truth-
Typically, one might say, the ‘pathos of shakenness’ combines three elements. First: a more or less ferocious repudiation of herd-
Thus, in the first place, her work resonates from beginning to end with an anguished cry of protest against the spiritual conditions creating the possibility of the Third Reich. She was born on the 10th December 1891 in Berlin; died on the 12th May 1970 in Stockholm.3 Her family was Jewish, but completely assimilated to the secular world of the German bourgeoisie; it was the Nazi regime which first awakened her to her Jewish heritage. Following her father’s death in 1930 she continued to live with her mother in Berlin. As a young woman she had started to dabble in literature; nothing all that ambitious at first. But she had at any rate corresponded with the great Swedish novelist Selma Lagerlöf. And with the situation growing ever more ominous for German Jews, in the late 1930s, this eventually encouraged her to seek asylum in Sweden; even though Sweden was in general closed to Jewish emigrants. On the eve of the War, a Gentile friend, Gudrun Harlan travelled to Sweden, in the hope of persuading Lagerlöf to intervene on Sachs’ behalf, so that she might be given an exceptional visa. Lagerlöf, being old and ill, was not in a position to do much. But she did write a brief letter, indicating her support; which was enough to obtain Harlan an interview with Prinz Eugen, the king’s brother, who in turn promised to do what he could. In May 1940 the visa came through. Then Sachs and her mother managed to catch the very last Berlin to Stockholm flight before, for the War’s duration, the service was discontinued. She had already received her summons to report, as all Jews at that point had to, for forced labour; the next stage on their descent to the death camps. A helpful Gestapo official recommended that they fly, rather than take the train: even with a visa, he told them, if they travelled by train the chances were that they would be turned back at the border. And so, by the narrowest of margins, she just managed to escape.
Her whole life hitherto had indeed, already, been marked by acute inner solitude. As an only child, and painfully shy, in her earliest years she had never lacked for anything, except friends. Her closest companions had been the pets that her father bought her: the dog, the goat and the deer that roamed their park-
It was the shock of exile that, from her early fifties onwards, inspired Nelly Sachs’ mature work. In a letter to a friend she once famously wrote: ‘The terrible experiences which brought me personally to the brink of death and darkness became my tutors. If I had not been able to write, I would not have survived. Death was my teacher. How could I have been occupied with anything else? My metaphors are my wounds…’4
In 1950 her mother died. Immediately afterwards she suffered what she herself called a first ‘nervous breakdown’; her recovery from which was marked by a further surge of poetry-
For, after all, there’s a limit to the amount of such reality that humankind can bear. Despite which (to put it in theological terms) God sometimes still experiments with quite large doses – as in this case, pushing, dangerously, at the sensible limit, for the purposes of revelation.
Her poetry is an invocation of spiritual healing, for sick humanity at large; rendered all the more poignant by her having renounced the sort of shut-
So many seas soaked into sand,
So much sand prayed hard into stone,
So many hours wept away in the sea shells’
so much of being abandoned to death
in the pearly eyes of the fish,
so many morning trumpets in coral,
so many star-
so much burgeoning glee in the gull’s throat,
so many threads of homesick desire
so much fertile soil there
for the root of the word:
behind all the crashing-
of the mysteries