Before we discuss the first line, I want to refer to several quotes in André Breton’s Manifestos of Surrealism, translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, The University of Michigan Press, 1972, and a definition of “image” in mathematical form from John R. van Eenwyk’s Archetypes & Strange Attractors, Inner City Books, 1997.
Breton, at the beginning of his Manifesto cites Pierre Reverdy:
The image is the pure creation of the mind.
It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.
The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be-the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.
I see the image as the basic building block of poetry. In that regard, John van Eenwyk defines image mathematically in his work and shows the basis or source of tension of images. First, he defines image as image=form + content. He goes on to say that when an image possesses value, it becomes a symbol. He defines this relationship as symbol = value + image. Of course this formulate begs the question-what is value? He then defines value as value = archetype + energy. Jung defines archetypes as “deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity . . . .a kind of readiness to produce over and over again the same or similar mythical ideas . . .. recurrent impressions made by subjective reactions. “ (Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7, par.109.)
The energy referred to here is psychic energy and Jung defines psychic energy as “life energy.” Tension derived from polarity creates psyche energy; consequently, returning to Reverdy and the surrealists, we may surmise that the greater the distant between images, the greater the energy, the greater the energy the greater the impact on the reader. So when we read a surrealistic poem such as Breton’s A Nettle Branch Comes in Through the Window, we are struck first by an emotional response to the juxtaposition of the disparate images- The woman with the wallpaper body/The red snapper of the fireplaces.
It is just such a juxtaposition of images that creates the emotional resonance of Celan’s poetry; however, there is more going on in his poetry than surrealistic conjuring of discordant images. One of the dangers of surrealistic poetry is that if two images are too far apart, if the reader cannot maintain the connection, the images separate and the poem fails to move us. Instead, it appears as so much nonsense. With Celan's poetry, there is a juxtaposition of disparate images but there is also a conscious use of the poet's tools to make the poem adhere and hold. We sense a master working behind the images so the poem cannot be truly surrealistic. It may be more appropriate to say that Celan employs the surrealist's methods in a conscious and planned way.
The first line-Schimmelgrün ist das Haus des Vergessens/ the house of forgetting is mold green - provides one impossible image juxtaposed against an odd color. From a rhetorical standpoint, in my translation, we have subject + verb+ adjective. In German, it is adjective+ verb+ subject. Following the German order, the first word- Schimmelgrün – begins the poem and sets the stage. The House of Forgetting, or as Michael Hamburger translates it oblivion, is mold green.
This poem about remembering begins ironically with a reference to forgetting or oblivion. In addition, a psychical process-forgetting-is given a color-mold green. These two images juxtaposed create a polarity and an energy that animates the poem and makes it interesting and intriguing.