In his famous “Meridian” speech Celan confessed that poetry is ultimately “an eternalization of nothing but mortality, and in vain.” The contradictions between silence and speech, between human consciousness and death are present in his poem “Chanson of a Lady in the Shade.”
One of Celan’s earlier poems, “Chanson of a Lady in the Shade” (Mohn und Gedächtnis, 1952), is an excellent example of how Celan moves through language, figuratively and literally. The title and first line of the poem present the reader with the contradiction of singing and silence, an issue that always lies in the background of Celan’s poetry. The genre of the Chanson often combines a spoken word style with passages of a singing voice style, where emphasis is placed on what is spoken and on the act of arriving at a specific point. In Celan’s poem there is a threefold movement: the speaker, the “he,” and the poem itself have to move through the repetitions to arrive at the point of the poem. Celan opens with the lady’s entrance onto the stage of the poem. She is the one who “beheads the tulips.” This image can be interpreted as the violent act of destroying beauty and of robbing the tulips of their flowering. Flowers in the process of budding or blooming are common images in Celan’s body of work, a metaphor speaking to the transformation of language. The desired goal of this poem is to flower into language. And yet, this flowering is violently brought to an end by “the silent one.”
After introducing “the silent one,” the poem moves into a series of questions that describe four different possibilities: winning, losing, seeing, and speaking or naming. In the German original the repetition is intensified by the use of “wer,” “er,” “der” throughout the poem. Not only does Celan create movement through repeating lines and alternating endings, but the chorus of “He wears it” and “He carries it” describes an actual movement of the character. In a sense the “he” is carrying the poem to its destination. The progression from “wer” (the interrogative pronoun) to “der“ (the nominative pronoun) also suggests a movement from the indefinite to the definite. What is at stake in this poem is a movement from contemplation to naming, from silence to speech.
Del Caro points out that the poem is composed of three different personae of the poet “who all have certain features of his, and so long as the features are merely superficial, such as hair, and [the persona] does not try to name the lady in shade by her name, he is safe” (73). The first persona then simply refers to the existence of the world for its own sake, without being named. And yet, the line “He wears it much as one wears the dead on one’s hands” introduces the burden of this world. In the German, the assonance of “trägt” and “Händen” implies that the act of carrying is a drawn-out and laborious process. To carry the dead means that even after the disappearance of matter, carrying is still continued. The stanza ends with the word “vanity,” an indication that this persona is trapped within his own reflection. There is no movement outward, and the assonance within the word “Eitelkeit” suggests a circular movement. By not looking and not naming, this persona “wins” and escapes beheading. In a way the beheading can be seen as the act of losing one’s head, losing oneself in assigning meaning to what one perceives.
In the fourth stanza, Celan moves from the hair, which is dead matter, to the eyes of the speaker. Del Caro observes that “the second persona is more intimately related to the poet, wearing his eyes (his consciousness)” (73). Here, the eyes are the entry point to the human mind. However, the line “He’s had them since gates have shut” seems to contradict the idea of seeing and consciousness through the image of closed gates. The present perfect tense also implies that the persona has had the speaker’s eyes for some time; it is not a single event or experience that triggers consciousness, but rather the whole of experience over time. To wear the speaker’s eyes like “rings on his fingers” and “shards of sapphire and lust” means that the eyes are simply an accessory, much like jewelry. The eyes and the sapphire refract light, and due to this refraction one can only perceive shards of what exists. The eyes and perception are a recurrent theme in Celan’s poetry, which is not surprising considering that Celan is attempting to open up language, to get at the symbolic meaning of language. Seeing precedes comprehension. As Del Caro has pointed out, calling this persona “brother” is an indication of the speaker’s and the persona’s close relationship. They share a similar perception of the world. Furthermore, the last line of the fourth stanza, “he’s counting the days and the nights,” suggests an anticipated encounter between the speaker and the persona.
The fifth stanza is almost a mirror image of the third stanza, except for the fact that “He’s the last to speak her name.” We have finally arrived at speech. And yet, the speaking of the lady’s name occurs last. Hamburger’s translation makes it appear as if the “he” is the last persona to speak, whereas Celan’s original German line means “he speaks her name last.” The word “zuletzt” (last) modifies the naming itself and not the “he.” This is a subtle difference, but an important one. The persona is not the last persona to speak, but rather that the spoken words are the last to appear in the poem. Celan is emphasizing that the act of naming is the single most important action and the goal of the poem. Following the utterance of the lady’s name, the persona now has to carry what the speaker has said; he has to carry the poem itself. Comparing the words to a bundle proposes that these words still need to be unpacked. Del Caro points out that this persona’s “burden is composed of the poet’s very words” (73). Consequently, the image of the clock carrying “its worst hour” depicts a slow and perhaps painful movement. Despite being a burden, this movement allows the clock to exist—time determines the clock. And so the words of the poet determine the being of the “he.” The words are a burden, because they have to be unpacked and take on meaning; and yet, the words open the previously closed gates. Now we are moving from “threshold to threshold”; a crossing takes place between the persona and the speaker, and with this crossing the poem arrives at its final destination, which is the persona’s speech.
The penultimate stanza picks up the repetition of the third and fifth stanzas and paints exactly the opposite scenario. With the words of the poet, the “he” loses, “walks to the window,” and “speak(s) her name.” Del Caro succinctly writes, “The one which actually dares is truly closest to the poet’s assessment of his dilemma as a poet” (74). The poet cannot shut him- or herself away from outside influences; the poet always observes and always articulates what he or she perceives. The last line of Celan’s poem, “With the tulips that one’s beheaded,” is testimony to this dilemma. The poet finds himself beheaded by his or her own words, because he or she cannot truly name what is being observed. Language is a limited tool in describing the world. With the persona’s beheading by “the silent one,” due to the utterance of her name, the poem has come to a full circle. We began with the act of beheading, and we end with beheading.
In his famous “Meridian” speech Celan confessed that poetry is ultimately “an eternalization of nothing but mortality, and in vain” (52). The contradictions between silence and speech, between human consciousness and death are present in his poem “Chanson of a Lady in the Shade.” The poem has travelled a distance, only to arrive back at the point of its departure. And yet, the carrying of the speaker’s words gives the “he” a voice and makes it possible for him to name what he perceives, however vain it may be. Without language, the very thing that limits understanding of the world, Celan would not be able to arrive at this conclusion.
Celan, Paul. “The Meridian.” Collected Prose. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. New York: Routledge, 2003. 37-55. Print.
Celan, Paul, and Michael Hamburger. Poems of Paul Celan. revised & expanded. New York: Persea Books, 2002. Print.
Del Caro, Adrian. “The Desperate Nature of Dialogue.” The early poetry of Paul Celan: In the beginning was the word. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997. Print.