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Andrew Shanks

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-language poets among the Jewish escapees from the Shoah. Yet hers remains, I think, one of the most unjustly neglected of 20th century poetic voices.

   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-nature of these texts; at any rate, the most authoritative of them. That is to say: their character as bearing close witness to experiences of tremendous cultural eruption; the utter overthrow of older values; everything, with blazing passion, being called into moral question. And this quality of revelatory witness is surely not confined to ancient scriptures alone. Indeed, one way of thinking about the revelation of God is to see it as a whole chain of volcanoes. Its primary, red-hot lava flow is God erupting into our lives with the very starkest sheer urgency: ‘Stop and think!’ So we encounter it through literature that registers, simply, the most intense and troubling experiences of interruption to routine banality, as such. Wherever literature does this – in God’s name – with real effectiveness, there, one might say, is a fresh event of ‘revelation’. And the authenticity of authentic faith communities, in general, essentially depends upon their being inspired by the memory of such eruptions, kept fresh by theology. On the one hand, there is the literature of ‘revelation’; on the other hand, there is theology. The basic difference between the two consists in the immediate heat of the lava involved. ‘Revelation’, in itself, does not yet define or revise theological doctrine. It is just what gives theology its raw material.

   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-strategies of ordinary banality have been so completely abandoned here. The resultant work uncovers, with such a flourish, what ordinary banality conceals.

   Volcano, or earthquake: elsewhere, I have given this quality of poetic truth-telling a name, the ‘pathos of shakenness’ – discussing it in my book ‘What Is Truth?’ Towards a Theological Poetics with particular reference to four very different writers, each of whom I think exemplifies it to an exceptional degree.2 The others, besides Sachs, were the prophet Amos, William Blake, and Friedrich Hölderlin. Further examples of the same would certainly include the writings of St. Paul; the gospels; the other classics of ancient Hebrew prophecy, besides the book of Amos, most notably the work of Second Isaiah; the classics of Sufi tradition, Junayd and Hallaj for instance in the late ninth, early tenth centuries CE, and Rumi in the thirteenth century; the extraordinary German language sermons of Meister Eckhart in the early fourteenth century. What do all these various texts have in common? On the surface, nothing: they are utterly diverse in style, imagery, emotional tone. But they all, nevertheless, exemplify the ‘pathos of shakenness’, inasmuch as they all of them, with the most disconcerting yet also exhilarating vividness, register a sense of the very foundations of ordinary moral thoughtlessness starting to rumble.

   Typically, one might say, the ‘pathos of shakenness’ combines three elements. First: a more or less ferocious repudiation of herd-morality, in whatever its prevailing form may be. Second: a strong undertow of grief. The ‘shaken’ individual, or the little community of such individuals, is to a painful degree not at home in the world shaped by herd-morality. But third, also: at the same time, a defiant, often positively gleeful impulse of hope. For otherwise, without that impulse, the grief-stricken individual would tend to be reduced to despairing silence; here, though, testimony bursts forth. These three elements are all pre-eminently present in Nelly Sachs’ work.

   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-sized garden. When she was seventeen she had experienced an unhappy love affair. Nothing is known about what happened. She kept the name of her beloved forever secret, and never revealed what had gone wrong. All we know is that in her extreme grief she had, at the time, fallen prey to anorexia, almost died; and that the grief lived on. It ruled out any subsequent prospect of marriage, or other close partnership. There is a hint in one of her letters of a traumatic re-encounter with the beloved at some point just before her final farewell to Berlin. Then, news of a death, in one of the camps: prompting her, over the winter of 1944—5 as the killing still went on, to write the earliest of the poems translated below, the cycle she entitled ‘Prayers for the Dead Bridegroom’.

   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-writing energy. Then, however, in December 1953 there came a more ominous crisis: enemies, it seemed to her, were tapping morse code messages through her flat all night, to prevent her sleeping. Her neighbours also complained of how the central heating system in the block creaked, but to Sachs this began to feel extremely sinister. Again, she recovered. In 1960 however she was once again seized by terrible paranoia; sank for a while into a catatonic state; was admitted into the Beckomberga psychiatric hospital and given electric shock treatment. Over the following three years, and again briefly in 1968, she spent much of the time in Beckomberga and other psychiatric institutions. Her illness largely coincided with her emergence into public prominence, being awarded a series of literary prizes; the exposure left her feeling vulnerable, as a representative figure and hence, as she saw it, a potential target of persecution. During her periods of recovery she continued to write. The experience of being in hospital enters into her poetry – notably in her 1961 collection Noch feiert Tod das Leben ( Death Still Celebrates Life) and Part One of the collection Glühende Rätsel (Ember Riddles), dating from 1962 – yet there is nothing in the actual writing itself that seems insane. Rather, it is as though her exposure to bouts of insanity were a price she had to pay for her entirely sane creativity. ‘If I had not been able to write’, she said, ‘I would not have survived’. No doubt this is true, in the sense that she would not have survived as the particular spiritual individual that she was. But most people who survive the sort of trauma to which she was exposed do so, very differently, by some degree of emotional shutting-down: sinking into anaesthetic despair more or less masked with distraction; or resorting to an anaesthetic attitude of sentimental-consolatory devout resignation. Sachs’ faith in God was, above all, a repudiation of any such shut-down. Hers, in short, is the story of one who so opened herself, spiritually, to difficult reality that she was in the end broken by it.

   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-down most likely, perhaps, to have brought her some measure of psychological healing, as a private individual. What comes to expression here is, thus, a tragic faith.5 That is to say, faith mixed with the most paradoxical form of life-intensifying hope.

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-patterns in crystal,

so much burgeoning glee in the gull’s throat,

so many threads of homesick desire

criss-crossing the night-net of the stars,

so much fertile soil there

for the root of the word:


behind all the crashing-down screens

of the mysteries

You –