Prints in the New Snow: Notes on ‘Es Lebe der König’, J.H. Prynne’s Elegy to Paul Celan

By | 1 September 2013

Later, in the first stanza of the poem, after ‘we’ have re-entered the small house, the subjective group is led to by those whose ‘throats fur / with human warmth,’ when ‘we too are numbered like / prints in the new snow.’ In the first instance the ‘we’ who enter the small house recalls the heroic wanderer or shepherd returning to the comforts of home, whose past vanishes after he is received into the warmth of ‘the small house.’1 pastoral has always borne a connection to loss and elegy, as well as a connection to epithalamion and fertility.” These patterns of extenuating conditions applied to the characteristics of the pastoral simultaneously weigh on the references to sanctuary found within ‘Es Lebe der König’.] There is also a thorough indication that these houses, to which the subjective ‘we’ are led, is indicative of another of the voids within the poem, an eradication of the past, signified by a naming of the void of history. By naming these houses Prynne indicates that place retains the only testament to the atrocities committed at Auschwitz. The ‘fur’ of their throats resonates with Führer (German for ‘guide’ or ‘leader’), the famous epithet of Adolph Hitler.2 in ‘Aschenglorie’ and its various connotations, pervading and disclosing the meaning of the poem’s central phrase: “Niemand / zeugt für den /Zeugen.”] It is because of these connotations that the throat voices the persecutorial dictum of command and carries with it orders of coming atrocities, forcing the throat to occupy a precarious position of transmogrifying this animalistic intent into action.

The solemnity, vigilance and comfort offered by the pastoral symbolism of the house also has the vile implication that as they enter the ‘houses’ of Auschwitz, the subjects are ‘numbered like / prints in the new snow,’ and are limited in their capacities to maintain the impression of where they have been. The pastoral antecedents presupposed by the English tradition of pastoral elegy3 do not negate this possibility but the idea of transit and of losing one’s way in the action cements this loss of hope, and directs us to the train station, on the way to the internment camps, ‘going over and over to / the landing-stage, where we are.’

Prynne’s use of snow in the line, ‘we too are numbered like / prints in the new snow’ works contiguously in Brass in a metonymic pattern not dissimilar to the natural depiction of events which Celan’s repetitions of Schnee, Nacht, and Asche evoke in his own poems. The symbolic presence of snow, sky and clouds marks them as fundamental to the sensory experience of the poem and hence the connotations of Celan’s usage resonate all the more definitively in ‘Es Lebe der Kӧnig’. For a poet strongly engaged with the association of winter to the last moments of his mother’s life, (as she was shot by a German officer and died in a road-side snowdrift in the Ukraine) the representation of ‘snow’ for Celan was laden with personal history. In ‘With a Changing Key’ Celan addresses himself:

With a changing key
you unlock the house where  
the snow of what's silenced drifts.
Just like the blood that bursts from
your eye or mouth or ear,
so the key changes.

Changing the key changes the world
that may drift with the flakes


The snow for Celan is not only a symbolic representation of past violence and the sanctity of memory but also the guilt of surviving. In the final couplet of ‘With a Changing Key’ the same evocation is found, unifying Celan’s suffering and that of his mother’s life to the blinding obliteration of death: ‘Just like the wind that rebuffs you / the snow packs around the world.’5

Prynne’s use of snow in Celan’s elegy, ‘Their throats fur / with human warmth, we too are numbered like / prints in the new snow’, and in the collection Brass, must be read with a cognisant awareness of Celan’s usage and the lexical relationship established between trauma and the transfigurative account of nature in the metonymic system of his poetic. Therefore ‘we too are numbered like / prints in the new snow’ is both a vigilant look to the past and an evocation of memory as a means to gather strength in the face of coming adversity. It carries within it the comfort offered by its traditional use in pastoral poetry as well as the heinous implication of the ash-strewn snow which falls in ‘Black Flakes,’ which threatens to annihilate the possibility of testimony itself.6

The opening line of the second stanza, which harkens, ‘It is not possible to / drink this again’ spurs the reader to think of Celan’s most famous poem, ‘Todesfuge’, which describes the conditions of life in the Nazi camps, and contains the ominous refrain: ‘Black Milk of daybreak we drink it at evening / we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night / we drink and we drink.’7 All substances for Celan contain the notion of transfiguration, bestowing a beneficence which can and does suddenly alter. Prynne’s line replicates Celan’s usage of the substantive, of which Prynne asserts we can bear no more. ‘It is not possible to / drink this again’ references the historical circumstances which gave rise to the Holocaust, indicating that systemic violence justified through an ethical imperative leads to ‘the poem’s elemental gesture, a timing of degradation, a senseless inescapable cycle, such as Nietzsche called “the most dreadful aspect of eternal recurrence.”’8

Prynne’s statement, ‘it is not possible to / drink this again,’ is a call to cease replicating the trauma as well as a notice to the final end of the subject’s physical ability to consume the drink. The second instance of limiting the agency of the subjective group ‘we’ within the poem comes at exactly the moment when ‘the beloved enters the small house. / The house becomes technical.’ Prynne closes the line with a full-stop, and in doing so subsumes the possibility of any comfort asserted by the house’s pastoral antecedents and traditional usage. The line which claims, ‘The house becomes technical’ represents the transfiguration of a place of comfort to a machination ruled by precise order, and condemns those who have entered the house to bear the processes for which it was designed. This limiting of agency has the imperative of denigrating the subjective ‘we’ by reducing its claims to the operations of their own will, thus depriving them of any claim to individuation. That ‘The house becomes technical’ is also to raise an issue with Heidegger and his support of the Nazi party.9 As it appears in Prynne’s work the transformative function of the ‘house’ rearticulates concepts of its ideological operation, and highlights the problematized relation with Heidegger’s concept of dwelling.

                                         It is not possible to
drink this again, the beloved enters the small house.
The house becomes technical, the pool has
copper sides, evaporating by the grassy slopes.
The avenues slant back through the trees; the
double music strokes my hand. Give back the
fringe to the sky now hot with its glare, turning
russet and madder, going over and over to
the landing-stage, where we are. We stand
just long enough to see you.
  1. Susan Stewart and John Kinsella, “An epistolary pastoral/an introduction,” Tri-quarterly 116 (Summer 2003) 6. Taken from Stewart’s introduction, this notion of being received into the comfortable and well-known pastoral surroundings or sanctuary is usually defined by an absence which entails a violent occupation. Stewart argues that; “From Virgil’s eclogues forward, the historical opposition between pastoral and violence is inseparable from a concern with the interface of morality and necessity. Returning veterans of war and the crisis of hospitality they evoke can be found in Virgil and Wordsworth alike: such veterans wander in pastoral landscapes that are their source and eventual refuge.” She continues her argument, asserting that not only in post-war conditions is the pastoral a poetic form which mediates through aggregates of violence but that this is one of its very conditions due to the contingency and complicity of its economies to the harvesting of animals. “As an artistic form, pastoral is not tied, as tragedy is, to a demand for sacrifice, yet pastoral is shadowed but the slaughter of animals and is evident in carnival’s etymology, communal, or village festivity is often organised around a plenitude of meat. […
  2. Jacques Derrida, “The Self Unsealing Poetic Text,” Revenge of the Aesthetic: The Place of Literature in Theory Today, ed. Michael Clark (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000) 201. In this essay Derrida denotes Celan’s usages of the word Für [lower case
  3. Rodríguez, “Enlarging History: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne,” 94-5.
  4. Paul Celan, “With a Changing Key,” Select Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, 65.
  5. Celan, “With a Changing Key,” Select Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, 65.
  6. Derrida, “The Self-Unsealing Poetic Text,” 183.
  7. Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan,31.
  8. Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, 35.
  9. Jacques Derrida, Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question, trans. Bowlby Bennington (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991). Also see Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Heidegger, Art and Politics: The Fiction of the Political, trans. Chris Turner (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990). And David Wood, Of Derrida, Heidegger, and Spirit (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1993).
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