2: Text excerpt, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s "Faustus," eighteenth century, and biblical excerpt, Song of Songs 1:5.
“Deathfugue” repeatedly makes reference to two women: Margareta and Shulamith. The Margareta in Celan’s poem shares a name with the heroine of Faustus written by the German writer Goethe. Celan’s mother had exposed him to the works of the great German poets, such as Rilke and Schiller, inspiring in him a deep love for German language and literature. In using the name Margareta in his poem, Celan invokes the Romantic German feminine ideal, as well as German Romanticism and the Enlightenment more generally.
While Celan’s mother insisted on educating him in German language and literature, his father stressed his son’s Jewish education. As a boy, Celan attended a Jewish school—Safah Ivriah, meaning “the Hebrew language”—for at least three years and studied Hebrew with a tutor after that. Scripture pervades Celan’s poetry, which strongly suggests that his use of “Shulamith” is in reference to the bride in the Song of Songs, who is described as “black” (or "dark") and “comely.”
Suggested Activity: Ask students to consider why Celan uses the name Margareta. How can we see her as not just a character in the poem (the one to whom the “man in this house” writes) but as symbolic of German culture as a whole? Additionally, how does this allusion to German high culture add irony to the poem?
Ask students to discuss why Celan uses the name Shulamith. How does he use her as a contrast to the “golden haired Margareta”? How does the inclusion of this Jewish feminine ideal shape our understanding of the poem’s meaning? The sounds of the name “Shulamith” also call to mind the words shalom and Yerushalayim (Hebrew for “peace” and “Jerusalem,” respectively). How might these indirect allusions play into our interpretation of the poem?
Sources: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Faust I: Scenes VII to XV,” translated by A.S. Kline, Poetry in Translation, 2003, https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/German/FaustIScenesVIItoXV.php.
The Jewish Publication Society, “Song of Songs, Chapter 1,” Sefaria, 2013, https://www.sefaria.org/Song_of_Songs.1?lang=bi.