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Nelly Sachs

Noch feiert Tod das Leben


These poems all date from 1960—61. From August to December 1960, and again from March to September 1961, Sachs was being cared for in various psychiatric institutions. Der versteinerte Engel, Vor meinem Fenster, Wunder der Begegnungen, Hinter der Tür, Diese Schneeblume gestützt am Stab, Sehr leise im Kreislauf gleitet, Auf der äußersten Spitze der Landzunge and Niemand unter der Zuschauenden were originally published together in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: these eight poems, directly responsive to life in hospital, all date from November 1960, a return of creativity in the immediate aftermath of the most severe crisis of all, for which she had received electric shock treatment.

Der versteinerte Engel

A fellow-patient in the Beckomberga hospital falls into a catatonic trance. As for the ravens, they are on the one hand sinister. But, on the other hand, see Genesis 8: 7: Noah first sending out a raven, to explore in vain for land, before sending out a dove. The raven is also an ancient symbol of wisdom.

Vor meinem Fenster

Outside Sachs’ room at Beckomberga there was in fact a patch of sand which was being used as a rubbish tip.

   ‘Some crazy songbird’: in the original, a Trauervogel, a ‘grief-bird’, at work ‘overnight’ – presumably, a nightingale. But, in any case, this is clearly an emblem of sorts for the crazy poet herself; lifted out of humanity, as in the final lines.

   The Orestes is a tragedy by Euripides dating from 408 BCE. Sachs’ poem actually refers to the Oresteia, the trilogy covering the same basic story by Aeschylus, written fifty years earlier: Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers and The Eumenides. (I have opted to refer to Euripides’ play instead simply for euphony.) Orestes murders his mother Clytemnestra and her new husband King Aegisthus, in revenge for his father Agamemnon; whom Clytemnestra has earlier murdered, on his return from the Trojan War. For this Orestes is tormented, and driven mad, by the Furies (the Erinyes). But the myth actually shows the older honour culture, with its ethos of revenge-killing – which the Furies represent – being overcome by a more peaceable ethos of resolution-through-litigation, represented by Apollo, who finally causes Orestes to be brought before a court in Athens, trial by jury, by which he is in the end acquitted. This fits Sachs’s own concern for an overcoming of the cycle of vengefulness, in the aftermath of the Second World War, and the Shoah; evoked in the following lines. Euripides’ play, especially, represents a bitter polemical assault on the older ‘heroic’ spirit.

Eine Schöpfungsminute im Auge des Baalschem

 Here is a poem like a Chagall painting.

   Rabbi Israel ben Elieser (1700—1760), generally known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), was the founder of the modern Hasidic tradition within (originally Polish / Ukrainian) Judaism.

   ‘The high Himalayas of his anguish’: the Chinese Communist suppression of Tibet began in March 1959. Sachs had recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead with sympathetic interest. The ‘old woman’ of verse three is perhaps as much a Tibetan shaman as an eighteenth century Hasid; although also, I take it, an image for Sachs herself. ‘The mass grave, sleep’ in verse four is perhaps an allusion to Tibetan refugees who had recently frozen to death as they fled.

Sehr leise im Kreislauf gleitet

A manuscript of this poem is dedicated to Margaretha Lindh: ‘For Margaretha with love! Beckomberga. Written in the very uttermost spiritual extremity’.

Niemand unter den Zuschauendenen

‘Oceana’: this weaver-goddess, associated with the ocean and with night, is Sachs’ own poetic conceit.

   The closing lines in the original refer, literally, to ‘the royal road of mystery’ which leads to ‘where the first ones of the landless dwell’. Sachs is perhaps thinking quite specifically of Jewish exiles gathered in Palestine. But I have rendered it more general. Compare Matthew 5: 3, Luke 6. 20.

Im eingefrorenen Zeitalter der Anden

This poem refers to the discovery, in the southern Peruvian Andes, of the frozen, mummified body of a young girl, not more than twelve years old, who had evidently been a victim of ritual sacrifice, perhaps five hundred years ago. ‘An undissolved initiate / into the Father’s dark domain’: in Sachs’s imagination this figure becomes more or less identified with the Shekhinah. See below, the commentary on Wortlos spielt sie mit einem Aquamarin.


Wortlos spielt sie mit einem Aquamarin

In Kabbalist tradition the Shekhinah is a feminine divine principle indwelling the people of Israel, especially as exiles. ‘She’ is the most earthly level of divine revelation. The corruption of humanity having damaged religion, she represents the authentically divine inasmuch as this has become victim to corrupted authoritarian, patriarchal notions of ‘God’.

   Here, however, her indwelling is no longer confined to Israel. In effect, she has become a feminine manifestation of what Hegel calls ‘Geist’: latently indwelling all of afflicted, powerless, inarticulate humanity, just by virtue of its being afflicted, powerless and inarticulate. Not that Sachs is thinking of Hegel! But the Shekhinah, in her conception, is the ‘that of God’ inherent in every soul, simply to the extent that one remains, pre-theologically, faithful to one’s moral calling.

Anders gelegt die Adern

The poet surveys the whole of her life, essentially, as an evolving impulse to creativity. It’s not, in fact, altogether clear in the original who the ‘sister’ is; whom here I take to be her younger self, but who in the original might perhaps, alternatively, be a fellow-patient in the Beckomberga psychiatric hospital. The nightmare figures, out of childhood, whom I render as ‘Punch and Judy and the scarlet Hangman’, are originally a ‘card-pack of faces’, ‘the ebony horror’ and ‘the executioner’s garb of flame’.

Rückgängig gemacht ist die Verlobung der Heimgesuchten

‘A cancelled calling’: in the original, a cancelled betrothal; perhaps an allusion to Sachs’s own disastrous adolescent love affair. ‘Waves ascending undivided’: unlike the waters of the Red Sea, when Moses parted them: Exodus 14: 21—22.

Im Park Spazierengehen

The ‘park’ in question is the one to be found in the grounds of the Beckomberga hospital. ‘Thus David danced’: see 2 Samuel 6: 1—5. ‘Vast emptiness … before God spoke’: Genesis 1: 2.

Und die blindgewordenen Leiber

‘The catacombs of Ur’: there are royal graves at Ur, in Mesopotamia, dating from the 26th century BCE. Ur was the city from which Abraham originated, before migrating to Palestine. Sachs wrote two dramas about this, with Ur rendered generally symbolic of all that approximates to totalitarianism: Abram im Salz and Der Mann von Ur. The ‘buried treasure’ here evidently represents whatever wisdom may be drawn from the experience of suffering under a totalitarian regime.

Die beiden Alten

I take it that Sachs is thinking here of her own parents. Her father had died in 1930; her mother, with whom she had shared the early years of her exile in Sweden, in 1950.

   ‘Bewitched into a paper-puppet dream of chivalry’: the original refers, literally, to ‘the magic of a black prince’ and a ‘cut-out silhouette of night’. (She does indeed seem to have idealised her father.) ‘This crude … growth’: the original speaks of nails and hair continuing to grow even after death.

Wer ruft?

The rosemary shrub was classically associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love. These lines are enigmatic. But perhaps the meaning is that the cock’s crow – to release us from our nightmares – will only come once all real possibility of love has been swept away by floods. No hope in sleep, and none in waking either!

Sie tanzt

Sachs had a life-long fascination with dance and mime; which she seeks to co-ordinate with poetry in her szenische Dichtungen, ‘theatrical verse’.

   The ‘fish’: throughout her poetry, symbol of silent affliction.

In ihren Schlafleibern

 ‘The Mother’: the Shekhinah.

Die Urkunde vor mir aufgeschalgen

Sachs actually speaks of a ‘marble stairway’. But she also speaks of fish-fossils turned to stone, which is much more apparent in certain sorts of limestone. In translating this, I had especially in mind the old floor of Manchester Cathedral, when I first worked there, some of the stones of which were crammed with fossil crinoids which had been alive at some point well over 300 million years ago; finger-like creatures – a ‘host of ghostly fingers’, indeed!

Und wundertätig

‘That which brooded once’: see Genesis 1: 2, ‘The earth was a vast waste, darkness covered the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water’. Here we have the ‘anarchy’ of before-Creation.

   ‘The cast-off cornerstone’: see Psalm 118:22, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the main corner-stone’. This verse, enigmatic in its original context, was much used by the early Church as a proof-text, the ‘stone’ being identified with Christ, rejected by the rulers of his people. (See Matthew 21: 42—43, Mark 12: 10—12; Luke 20: 17—19; Acts 4: 11; and 1 Peter 2: 6—7, also citing Isaiah 28: 16.) For Sachs, on the other hand, the ‘casting-off’ of the ‘stone’ becomes a more general symbol of human fallen-ness, alienation from God.

Scene from the play ‘Nachtwache’ (Nightwatch)

The play in question, a lyric-archetypal tale of betrayal, was largely completed already in 1952; but these lines date from 1960—61.


 This describes one of Sachs’s fellow-patients in Beckomberga.

Eine Negerin lugt

Here we have little study in ambivalence. To begin with: the ‘promise of eternity’ immediately provokes a sequence of nightmare-images. In the original, the element of hope is expressed in the image of bright eyes peeping ‘out of death’s crystal’ – ‘crystal’ being an image consistently associated with hope in Sachs’ work. The poem begins with peeping eyes; it ends with eyes seeking to hide. This hiding appears to be a paradoxical shrinking-back from the God-given promise, even where that means clinging to a nightmare. Indeed, the poetic voice not only clings to the nightmare of which it speaks. It further seems to identify its own terrified self with the elements that give rise to the terror in that nightmare: the dog, the ghost, the blazing earth.


The dedication is to two recently deceased friends: the Swedish translator Bertil Nydahl (1916—1961), and the German intellectual Joachim Moras (1902—1961).

Überall Jerusalem

The 11th April 1961 was the date on which the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem, began. Sachs, due to her psychological frailty at that time, became very anxious about the trial; and, already before it began, had written a letter to President Ben-Gurion, urging him to annul the death sentence that was clearly going to be passed. She was a patient in Beckomberga psychiatric hospital at the time: hence the image, here, of the crazy prophetess.

   ‘The thirty-six’: the thirty-six just men of traditional Jewish legend, whose existence guarantees the world against divine retributive destruction.

So einsam ist der Mensch

The cock-crow, at one level, recalls Peter’s threefold denial of Christ: Matthew 26: 34—35, 69—75; Mark 14: 29—31, 66—72; Luke 22: 31—34, 54—62; John 18: 15—18, 25—27. But it also evokes the terrible betrayal and mass-murder of the Jewish people of Eastern Europe.