Hello, and welcome to Poetry Soup! I’m your host, Emma Catherine Hoff. Today, I’ll be reading the poem, “There was Earth Inside Them,” by Paul Celan.
Paul Celan was born on November 23, 1920, in what was formerly Cernăuți, Kingdom of Romania, and is now Chernivtsi, Ukraine, into a Jewish family. Despite being born in Romania, Celan mainly spoke German. His father was adamant about Celan’s education in Hebrew and about Judaism in general. Around the time Celan graduated from preparatory school, he began writing poetry. Celan went to France in order to study medicine, but he went back home a year later to study language and literature.
During World War II, while Celan was away from home, his parents were sent to a concentration camp, where they both died. This is the reason why so much of Celan’s poetry is about the Holocaust. In 1952, Celan married Gisèle Lestrange, who was a French graphic artist. Paul Celan drowned himself on April 20, 1970. Much of his work was later translated by Michael Hamburger, who translated the poem I will be reading today.
There Was Earth Inside Them, and
They dug and they dug, so their day
went by for them, their night. And they did not praise God,
who, so they heard, wanted all this,
who, so they heard, knew all this.
They dug and heard nothing more;
they did not grow wise, invented no song,
thought up for themselves no language.
There came a stillness, and there came a storm,
and all the oceans came.
I dig, you dig, and the worm digs too,
and that singing out there says: They dig.
O one, o none, o no one, o you:
Where did the way lead when it led nowhere?
O you dig and I dig and I dig towards you,
and on our finger the ring awakes.
“They Had Earth Inside Them” is one of my favorite poems, and Paul Celan one of my favorite poets – all of his poetry has beautiful rhythm and metaphor. This poem is an extended metaphor, filled with beautiful language that paints images in the minds of the readers – such as a ring “awakening,” or shining on a finger.
The poem is about trying to find meaning in existence. In the poem, a group of people referred to simply as “they,” dig to discover this meaning. As “they” dig, time passes by, and they invent no “song” or “language.” In this way, the first part of the poem seems to show the search for meaning as negative. The lines, “And they did not praise God,/ who, so they heard, wanted all this,/ who, so they heard, knew all this,” suggest that religion is a sort of search for meaning as well, God being a stand-in for the meaning of life.
After the line, “there came a stillness and there came a storm,” everything changes. This line is the turn of the poem. All of a sudden, Celan breaks the parallelism, making it so not only “they” are digging, but also “I,” “you,” and, of course, the “worm,” a symbol of death, showing that life is short and that we are all trapped in the search for meaning. In the end of the poem, the ring “awakens” on a finger, almost as if it has been shined by the digging and scraping of the hands in the dirt. This line disperses all the negativity at the end of the poem – the ring symbolizes the little things that we live for, it symbolizes finding the “earth inside of them,” or the meaning that is in them, perched on their finger. The image of the poem does remain mixed, however – the ring shines, but it could also be covered in dirt from the repeated digging.
Celan managed to create this beautiful poem in just four stanzas – the power of a short poem. I hope you enjoyed this episode of Poetry Soup, and I’ll see you soon with the next one!