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

By | 1 September 2013

The limitation of the agency of the group depicted at the second stanza’s opening is carried throughout the verse. The line denotes a change in orientation imposed on the subjective viewer, heading out of the city, yet captive, which could imply transportation by train. The line ‘the / double music strokes my hand’ evokes the primacy of the individual, as fear isolates him from the collective. It should also be noted that the second, and only other instance of the possessive pronoun in this poem contains references to the hands of the individual, ‘the smell comes from / shrivelled hair on my wrist,’ implying a proximal relation to the threat of the fire(s) in which bodies were burnt, and carries with it the threat of being bound. This resonates with Celan’s repetitious use of the twining of hands, in ‘Aschenglorie’: ‘Aschenglorie hinter /deinen erschüttert-verknoteten / Händen am Dreiweg.’ And connects with the later lines, ‘Aschen-/glorie hinter/ euch Dreiweg-/Händen.1 In ‘Es Lebe der König’ Prynne depicts the hands as if folded in supplication or prayer, implying the confines of bondage and that the possibilities of hope are beyond the sphere of the possible.

The individuation pronounced in the second stanza is indicative of the state of consciousness imposed by persecution. The ‘double music’ represents the precarious uncertainty of what will follow; it could be the repetitive thud of the train engine making its way through the countryside, but at the same time it intones earlier implications of Brass announcing the heraldic voice of angels and the sounds of a Nazi band playing a death march. The line also references back to an instance earlier in Brass where, in ‘The Kirghiz Disaster’, the narrative seems to depict a complicit relationship between the musicians and the violence which befalls the persecuted:

					                                                Tip tip
tip as the band refuses to watch, we don't like to  
fix it so close to the keel [...] they all stroll in 
from the drill and its wreckage: they are all here.
All disgustingly crouched along the spinet, they
spin, they catch at enamel, they gasp at the
pollen count.(158)

It is the relation of the band to the commanders and their ability to follow orders which ensures ‘they are all here’; returned from the atrocious scene they have witnessed. This ‘double music’ is articulated in the natural imagery in ‘The Kirghiz Disaster’ as ‘the fringes wither / with tight credal echoes, bringing fear into the homely / recital’ (157), and is replicated in ‘Es Lebe der Kӧnig‘ with the plaintive, ‘Give back the / fringe to the sky now hot with its glare, turning / russet and madder.’ The anthropomorphism of the image-complex underscores the consequences of the dark smoke overhead; the subject is calling for calm, to clear the air of the smoke of funeral pyres which block the sky.

The line, ‘In stoic silence by the door’ (155), presents to the reader a silent witness, paralysed by fear, positioned in full sight of the atrocity. The burning of bodies which pollutes the air hangs over the heads of those ensnared in the machinations of the system, which has destroyed all sense of order with its cacophonous noise and has destroyed any belief in God, eradicating his very idea from sight. It is this darkening of the scene which pervades the first half of the poem which forces the realisation that, ‘freedom would just / leave [them] stranded again’ (156). There is no longer any escape to be dreamed possible, even personal survival implies almost total devastation. To adopt a phrase of Jean Davie, a French poet and former friend of Celan, this is to ‘leave the survivors keeping watch over the annihilated.’2

As the poem moves from the second to the third stanza the idea of forced confinement, and transport is significant. It should be noted that the prosody of the stanza break physically divides and distances the subject’s view from the others.

			            going over and over to
the landing-stage, where we are. We stand
just long enough to see you.

					            we hear your
fearful groan and choose not to think of it. We
deny the consequence but the outset surrounds us,
we are trustful because only thus is the flame’s 
abstract review the real poison, oh true the 
fish dying in great flashes, the smell comes from 
shrivelled hair on my wrist. That silly talk is
our recklessly long absence: the plum exudes its
fanatic resin and is at once forced in, pressed
down and by exotic motive this means the rest,
the respite, we have this long.

The lines which conclude the second and open the third stanza of the poem detail the chaos which pervades the scene. Noises jar the subjects and faces flash past, a moment of recognition is depicted as a longing for action, but no such action, the poem asserts can be taken. The eradication of agency is almost complete, ‘we hear your / fearful groan and choose not to think of it.’ ‘We’ are already deprived of the possibility of action, one can only hope that your fearful groan does not become ours, does not foreshadow the end ‘we’ will face.

It is only in holding to a belief in the power of the human that the system can be overcome, however futile this may seem. The idea that the flame represents the ‘real poison’ denotes a series of philosophical debates, most of which are premised on a faith in destiny and a recognition of the banality of human evil, between the coupling of personal suffering and religious suffering as coexisting in the servitude of God, theodicy and existentialism. Despite the spiritual inclinations of the reader, the point to be insisted upon here is, as Paul Ricoeur observes, ‘evil creates an intellectual aporia that a practical response can make productive.’ Ricoeur argues that, ‘reflection on evil and suffering centres on the interpretation of scripture and myth through which persons create a narrative of religious self-understanding.’3 Not only has Prynne created an aporetic analogy set to incite discussion over the role of religion, ideology and humanism in the operations of the Holocaust, he has also indicated the exact moment in which he takes it that Celan has lost his faith.4 This is the moment at which the detained subjects are engulfed by a series of observations contingent to their captivity and they can feel the heat from the proximity of fires, which keep them alive but which may also represent their end. The proximity and complicity of the subjugated to the atrocities is evidenced as ‘the smell comes from / shrivelled hair on my wrist.’ This image-complex reiterates that many of the interned prisoners were forced to take part in the atrocities, just as musicians were forced to play by their side. And by assonantal misreading the plum[e] ‘exudes its / fanatic resin.’ The tumultuous collation of observations that culminate after the expression of hope in the opening of the stanza, eradicates any hope of a beneficent end for the prisoners, and in doing so eradicates the humanism of any music which resounds in the camps.

                                                              Only
the alder thrown over the cranial push, the
waged incompleteness, comes with the animals
and their watchful calm. The long-tailed bird
is total awareness, a forced lust, it is that
absolutely. Give us this love of murder and 
sacred boredom, you walk in the shade of 
the technical house. Take it away and set up
the table ready for white honey, choking the
white cloth spread openly for the most worthless
accident. The whiteness is a patchwork of 
revenge too, open the window and the white fleecy
clouds sail over the azure[.]

The fourth stanza attains a great deal of resonance in the poem for containing its only arboreal reference. Adding to the weight of this reference is its placement in the poem, arising after the imagery of the chaos of the transport to the internment camps and the evocation of a plum which ‘exudes its / fanatic resin.’5 The plum was used as a symbol by many German writers, with examples ranging from Herta Müller in her memories on the Holocaust, in the novel The Land of Green Plums, to the poem ‘Passover: the Injections’ by William Heyen, which open with a description of the black fruit hanging over the heads of the witnesses, a torturous interaction with soldiers, and ends with the ominous line ‘We are living in Biblical times.’6 Despite the varied inferences that can be drawn from Prynne’s usage of the word, what should be stressed is the poly-vocality of the reference, the obvious pun and the metonymic connection established between the atrocity and the weather.

  1. Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, 260.
  2. Jean Davie, Under the Dome: Walks With Paul Celan, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2009) 111.
  3. Paul Ricoeur, Beyond Theodicy: Jewish and Christian Thinkers Respond to the Holocaust (Buffalo, NY: SUNY Press, 2002) 134
  4. Ward, “Nothing but Morality: Prynne and Celan,” Contemporary Poetry Meets Modern Theory, eds. Antony Easthope and John Thomson (London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991) 145.
  5. Plums have a varying and divergent symbolism across cultures. In the Taoist garden, a plum is a symbol of winter and beauty signifying strength, longevity and the hermit. An account with obvious connotations to Celan. Another analogic description of the manner in which the social conditions of the European state allowed Auschwitz to happen can be found in Robert Eaglestone’s essay ‘Derrida and the Legacies of the Holocaust’ in which Eaglestone quotes Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Imre Kertesz, when he writes: “Auschwitz must have been hanging in the air for a long, long time, centuries, perhaps, like a dark fruit slowly ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable ignominious deeds, waiting finally to drop on one’s head,” (Eaglestone, 69).
  6. William Heyen “Passover: the Injections,” Holocaust Poetry, ed. Hilda Schiff (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1995) 60.
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