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Paul Celan's "Todesfuge," or "Deathfugue," is one of the most striking poems to come out of World War II.  The text below is presented with an interlineal translation by Celan scholar John Felstiner.  I've selected the Felstiner translation because it not only captures the singsong rhythms of the original, but because it, unlike other translations, converges on the original German at the end of the poem.  The fragments of German that emerge during the recapitulations of the original theme are uniquely effective.

Sonics

There are two conflicting sonic patters at work in "Todesfuge": the (largely) dactyllic singsong of the lines themselves, and the repetition of the fugue theme.  German, like English, is a language of stress, so the singsong jumps right out if you scan the lines.  Take the beginning, for example:
   /     ~  /     ~   /  ~  ~   /    ~  ~   / ~
   Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
   ~   /    ~  ~   /  ~    ~   /  ~    ~   /    ~  ~   /
   wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
The singsong, combined with the lilting feeling we get from the trisyllabic foot, gives the poem the light rhythmic feel of a dance.  This, as we'll see in a bit, is horrifically appropriate.

Set against this dance feel is the fugue aspect of Celan's piece.  I say "set against" because the fugue is not a musical form one traditionally dances to.  I also say "set against" because the stereotypical fugue is set in common time, with four beats per measure and the quarter note getting the beat.  This is not a hard and fast rule for fugues, but most of them follow it.  The feeling of four is in tension with the trisyllabic foot, which, on its own, implies a rhythm in three rather than in four.  This tension would be ameliorated somewhat if the lines contained four feet, but the line lengths are irregular.  No matter how much we might want to say, "This poem is a splendid example of dactyllic hexameter," we can't.

The fugue aspect of this poem comes into play with the repetition at the beginning of each stanza.  In fugues, a central theme is repeated throughout the piece, each time with slight alterations, and often in counterpoint.  Our theme here is the first three lines (mouse over for a translation):
   Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
   wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
   wir trinken und trinken
which becomes
   Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
   wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
   wir trinken und trinken
and continues to shift from there.  Other phrases are similarly taken up and repeated throughout the poem.

Why does this matter?

Well, following the narrative may help explain.  The poem tells the story of a German overseer, who takes "his Jews" out one day and has some of them play some music while the others dig their own grave.  This story is true, many times true, in many forms.  By setting the vulgar singsong of the line agains the classical form of the fugue, which, it should be noted, reached its apotheosis under the great German composer Bach, Celan highlights the surreality that characterized the European Jewish experience during World War II.  The world of "Todesfuge" is one of radical juxtaposition: fugue against singsong, master of death against meister of music.

"Meister" is an important term here.  Felstiner notes that the word "can designate God, Christ, rabbi, teacher, champion, captain, owner, guildsman, master of arts or theology, labor-camp overseer, musical maestro, "master" race, not to mention Goethe's Wilhelm Meister and Wagner's Meistersinger von Nurnberg, which carries overtones of the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws. . . . "

Marguerite?  Shulamith?

Marguerite is the female hero in Goethe's Faust, and the reason Faust sells his soul.  She represents the German Romantic ideal of the feminine.  In German, the final vowel in her name is pronounced as a schwa.

Shulamith is the princess from the Song of Solomon: Shulamith's name recalls the Hebrew word for peace (shalom) and the word for Jerusalem (Yerushalayim).  She is an emblematic figure for the Jews.


The text


Todesfuge
Deathfugue


Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

wir trinken und trinken
we drink and we drink

wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped

Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Marguerite
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite

er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling

er pfeift seine Rüden herbei
he whistles his hounds to come close

er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz
he orders us strike up and play for the dance


Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening

wir trinken und trinken
we drink and we drink

Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der schreibt
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes Haar Marguerite
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite

Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped

Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singet und spielt
He shouts jab this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play

er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingts seine Augen sind blau
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue

stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum Tanz auf
jab your spades deeper you lot there you others sing up and play on for the dancing


Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening

wir trinken und trinken
we drink and we drink

ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Marguerite
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Marguerite

dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

Er ruft spielt süßer den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland

er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in die Luft
he shouts scrape your strings darker you'll rise them as smoke to the sky

dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng
you'll have a grave then in the clouds there you won't lie too cramped


Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken dich nachts
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland

wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink

der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue

er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true

ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Marguerite
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Marguerite

er hetzt seine Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air

er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Marguerite

dein aschenes Haar Shulamith


-- Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner




Sources:

http://mason.gmu.edu/~lsmithg/deathfugue.html
http://www.hall-of-memory.de/antholo/Todesfuge.htm

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