18 pages 36 minutes read

Paul Celan

Abend Der Worte

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1950

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Summary and Study Guide


“Abend der Worte”/ “Evening of the Words” by Paul Celan, a Jewish-Romanian poet who wrote in German, was originally published in his 1955 poetry collection From Threshold to Threshold (Von Schwelle zu Schwelle). This was Celan’s third published book of poetry.

“Abend der Worte”/ “Evening of the Words” can be read as ars poetica, a Latin term that describes a poem about the process of writing poetry. It also explores the inescapability of the past and the animalistic wildness within humans. Celan’s work is heavily metaphoric and intentionally difficult to parse; he chose to write this way as the best approach to his and his family’s lived experience of World War II and the Holocaust.

This guide refers to Pierre Joris’s translation of “Abend der Worte”/ “Evening of the Words” from Celan’s 2020 collection Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry: A Bilingual Edition.

Poet Biography

Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel to a Jewish family in 1920 in Czernowitz, a city in the then Kingdom of Romania (now Chernivtsi, Ukraine). His father was a committed Zionist, and as a teenager, Celan became active in the Jewish Socialist movement. who later changed his name to Paul Ancel, and then—was born. He visited France with the intent of studying medicine there in 1938 because quotas on Jews admitted to schools prevented him from being able to study in Vienna, but returned to Czernowitz to study Romance languages and literature. In 1942, Nazis killed Celan’s parents in a Nazi internment camp in Transnistria, while Celan himself was forced into labor slavery in a Southern Moldavian work-camp. In 1944, when the Soviet Red Army pushed Nazi forces back, the camp was closed.

Celan moved to Bucharest in 1945. At the emergence of the tyrannical Communist regime in Romania, he fled to Vienna in 1947, and then to Paris in 1948, remaining engaged with Jewish intellectual circles in each city. In Paris, Celan married Gisele Lestrange, a graphic artist, in 1951, and became a French citizen. Their first son died in infancy, but their second son, Eric, lived after his father’s death. Celan separated from his wife and son around 1967. He suffered from depression, experienced violent episodes, was hospitalized on several occasions. In 1970, Celan died by suicide at the age of 49.

Celan began publishing poetry in the 1940s, gaining fame in 1947 with his poem "Todesfugue"/ “Death Fugue." During his lifetime, Celan published seven collections of poetry, all in his native German, and three collections were published posthumously. His work has been translated into English by several famous poets, such as Michael Hamburger and Rita Dove. Celan himself worked as a translator, bringing poetry by authors such as Arthur Rimbaud, William Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson across languages. He was a polyglot, speaking German, Russian, Romanian, French, and English. Celan’s work won the Bremen Prize for German Literature and the Georg Buchner Prize.

Poem Text

Celan, Paul. Translator: Joris, Pierre. “Abend der Worte”/ “Evening of the Words.” 2020. Google Books.


Celan’s poem is written in the second person.

The first stanza describes an evening spent searching for the right words. Because the searcher in the poem “you”—in other words, the reader—the poem instantly creates intimacy with the reader by making them the key part of the scene being described. You use a divining rod (dowser) as you search for words. The dowser leads you to take three steps, the marks of which cannot be blotted out by your shadow.

In the second stanza, an old wound from the passage of time opens, spilling a large amount of blood on the ground. During the night of words, mastiffs howl inside you. Their baying celebrates the wild and untamed desire for food and drink.

In the third stanza, the moon comes to help you—though the help is ominous, because this is the last moon you will experience. It throws a bone stripped of all meat—which is similar to the bare path walked in the first stanza—to the dogs. This bone does not save you. Instead, you must confront a ray of light that your actions have awoken. It approaches as a kind of foam that carries a piece of fruit. The fruit is something you bit into a long time ago.