Paul Celan — “Psalm”

60 years ago today Paul Celan wrote the poem “Psalm,” in Paris most likely. Below my translation, the original & the commentary by Barbara Wiedemann & myself (from Memory Rose into Threshold Speech).



NoOne kneads us again of earth and clay,
noOne conjures our dust.

Praised be thou, NoOne.
For your sake we
want to flower.

A Nothing
we were, we are, we will
remain, flowering:
the Nothing-, the

pistil soul-bright,
stamen heaven-desolate,
the corona red
from the scarlet-word, that we sang
above, O above
the thorn.



Niemand knetet uns wieder aus Erde und Lehm, 
niemand bespricht unsern Staub. 

Gelobt seist du, Niemand. 
Dir zulieb wollen 
wir blühn. 

Ein Nichts 
waren wir, sind wir, werden 
wir bleiben, blühend: 
die Nichts-, die 

dem Griffel seelenhell, 
dem Staubfaden himmelswüst, 
der Krone rot 
vom Purpurwort, das wir sangen 
über, o über 
dem Dorn. 



“Psalm” / “Psalm” 

January 5, 1961. 

T Psalm / Psalm 6 Wir blühn / we flower: See Psalm 103:15: “As for man, his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.” 

1 Niemand knetet uns wieder aus Erde und Lehm / Noone kneads us again of earth and clay, 2 unsern Staub / our dust, 16 Staubfaden / stamen: See Gen 2:7: “And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul”; “All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again” (Eccles. 3:20) and “And I will make thy seed as the dust of the earth: so that if a man can number the dust of the earth, then shall thy seed also be numbered” (Gen. 13:16). In Bloch: “The Golem was to be found there too, not just in the pre-mechanical region in which Rabbi Löb as a cabbalist wanted to attempt the business of creation, with a lump of clay and a magic slip of paper” (p. 631). On February 5, 1961, Celan translated Shakespeare’s sonnet LXXI: “O! if, I say, you look upon this verse, / When I perhaps compounded am with clay, / Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;” / “Du laß, ruh einst dein Blick auf diesen Worten, derweil ich Staub bin, Staub bin und nicht mehr” (verse 9f., GW V, p. 339). 

4 Gelobt seist du, Niemand / Praised be you, Noone: Allusion to verse 15 of “Es war Erde in ihnen” / “There was earth inside them”: “O one, O no one, O noone, O you.” See also Psalm 119:12: “Gelobt seist du, Herr,” which the King James Version translates as “Blessed art thou, O Lord.” (Gelobt, from loben, means “praised,” more than “blessed,” and the literal translation of the German version would be: “Praised be thou, O Lord.”) 

Concerning the change of the pronoun “niemand” / “no one” into a name, see Odysseus’ ruse to overcome the giant Polyphemus in Homer. Also Kafka’s story “Der Ausflug ins Gebirge / Excursion into the Mountains,” translated into Romanian by Paul Celan, here in English by Michael Hofmann: “‘I don’t know,’ I cried in a toneless voice, ‘I really don’t know. If nobody comes, then nobody comes. I’ve done nobody any harm, nobody ever did me any harm, yet nobody wants to come to my aid. Nobody upon nobody. But that’s not it either. Only nobody comes to help me—nobody upon nobody would be fine. I would quite like—and why wouldn’t I?—to go on an excursion with a crowd of nobodies. Into the mountains, of course, where else? The way those nobodies would crowd together, all their crossed and linked arms, their many feet, separated by minute steps!” See also Celan’s “Conversation in the Mountains”: “They do not talk, they speak, and who speaks does not talk to anyone, cousin, he speaks because nobody hears him, nobody and Nobody” (translated by Rosmarie Waldrop; originally in GW III, p. 171). See also verse 21 of “Radix, Matrix.” And in Microliths, this, from the fragmentary dialogue #148: “Karl: Understood. So, I hear no one. (After a pause, with irony) Den Herrn Niemand. Mister Nobody, thus.” 

12f. die Niemandsrose / the NoOnesRose: See the title of this volume. Concerning the rose in the conteext of Judaism, see also verse 8 of the poem from SU, not retained in Poppy and Memory: “Dein Haus ritt die finstere Welle, doch barg es ein Rosengeschlecht;” / “You house rode the wave of darkness, though saved by a rose-descendance/house/family.” See also the comparison of Israel to a rose in Hosea 14:6, though in English versions of the Bible, the rose is replaced by the lily. 

17 Krone / the corona, 18 Purpurwort / crimson word, 20 Dorn / thorn: See the Passion of Christ: “And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe. And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, . . . and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matt. 27:28f.). Regarding the connection between rose and the cross in the alchemical secret society of the Rosicrucians, see Bloch: “Cross and rose, the first the symbol of pain and dissolution, the second the symbol of love and life, thus united allegorically in the ‘work of perfection’” (p. 637). 

See also “The flower of joy has also symbolized sorrow. Fading quickly, it has been identified with death and with the evanescence of earthly beauties. Surrounded by thorns, it has been identified with pain and with the ambivalence involved in mor-tal love and in most mortal values. Even as a religious symbol of eternal promise, it has often been related to the thorns of anguish that surround its glory and the blood of martyrs shed for its sake” (Barbara Seward, The Symbolic Rose [New York: Columbia University Press, 1960], p. 6; quoted by Shimon Sandbank in: “The Sign of the Rose: Vaughan, Rilke, Celan,” Comparative Literature, Vol. 49, No. 3 (Summer, 1997), pp. 195-208. 

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