Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan: Heart's Time wrapped in Darkness


Paul Celan was born in 1920 in Bucovina, Romania. He became one of the most prominent 20th century poets. Celan committed suicide in Paris, in 1970, before turning 50.

Ingeborg Bachmann, was born in 1926 in Klagenfurt, Austria. She wrote poems, libretti, novels and is considered one of the most talented German – Austrian writers of the 20th century. Bachmann died in rather strange circumstances in a fire in Rome, in 1973.  She was 47 years old.

Heart’s Time (Herzzeit) is the title of a book published in Germany in 2008 (the English translation has been published in 2010) containing more than 200 items of correspondence between the two lovers, friends.

Dr. Klaus Hübner observes in his review of the book’s publication:

“Love is always a very private matter, and it is only by means of the extent to which the lovers are known that an element of public awareness and interest is added to it. This is surely true in the case of the relationship between Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–1973) and Paul Celan (1920–1970). The works of these two writers belong to the essential core of German-language literature after the end of the Second World War, and they also belong to it because, in their different ways, they are marked by the collapse of German civilisation during the Nazi era, above all by the industrialised murder of many millions of Jews and its unspeakable and unending consequences. What would German lyric poetry be without Bachmann’s Die gestundete Zeit from 1953 (title poem of this collection variously translated as Mortgaged Time, The Respite, and Time Borrowed) or Anrufung des Großen Bären from 1956 (i.e. invocation of the Great Bear)? Without Celan’s Mohn und Gedächtnisfrom 1952 (i.e. poppies and memory) or Sprachgitter from 1959 (i.e. language-grille)? What would the memory of the ‚Fifties and ‚Sixties be without the celebrated Gruppe 47? Our view of the post-war period would be incomplete without Bachmann’s and Celan’s verses, voices and photos.”

“Glorious news” the 21-year old Ingeborg Bachmann writes in a letter to her parents, the “surrealist poet” Paul Celan has fallen in love with her. It is May 1948, Vienna. Celan sends Bachmann his poem In Ägypten (in Egypt) with the dedication: “For Ingeborg. To one who is painfully precise (peinlich genau), 22 years after her birth, from one who is painfully imprecise.

Celan visits Bachmann in Vienna and stays there for a month or so. He then goes to Paris where he is going to stay until his death in 1970.

Visit “Once upon an Autumn” to read “Corona”,  the last poem that Celan wrote before leaving Vienna in 1948.

In 1950, Bachmann received her Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Vienna with her dissertation titled “The Critical Reception of the Existential Philosophy of Martin Heidegger,”

Bachmann writes to Celan in 1949:

“Sometimes I’d like nothing better than to get away and come to Paris, to feel you touch my hand, how you touch me completely with flowers and then not to know yet again where you come from and where you are going.  To me you come from India or from a more distant dark, brown land, to me you are the desert and the sea and everything secretive. I know nothing about about and that is why I am often so afraid for you, I cannot imagine that you are doing the same things the rest of us are doing here, I should have a castle for us and bring you to me, so that you can be my enchanted lord, we will have many tapestries in it and music and invent love. I have often thought that “Corona” is your most beautiful poem, it is the most perfect anticipation of a moment where everything becomes marble and exists forever. But here it is not my “time”.  I hunger for something that I will not get, everything is flat and vapid. tired and used-up even before it is used.   in mid-August I will be in Paris just for a few days. Don’t ask me why, but be there for me, for one evening, or two or three. Take me to the Seine, we want to look down into it for a long time until we’ve become small fish and recognize each other again. ”

Although they are no longer “lovers” in the exact sense of the word, the correspondence continues stronger than ever. Ina Hartwig in her Frankfurter Rundschau review (published in 2008) relates.

“In September 1950 she will mention her first “nervous breakdown” and tell Celan that she is “lost, desperate and embittered”. She writes: “I have such desire for a little comfort” and she entreats him: “Please try to be good to me and hold me tight!” He obviously senses a good portion of stylisation here, in any case he soon cautions his now most sought-after companion to be “a little more sparing with your demands”. Because, he continues, she has “had more from life” than most of her contemporaries. Jealousy? This is the astoundingly sober reply to a letter from June 1951, in which she admits: “I love you and I don’t want to love you, it is too much and too difficult…””

Bachmann and Celan

In his article “Expressing the Dark“, Hans-Gunnar Peterson observes:

“What impelled her was a wish to work with death as a motif and with reflections on the hidden forces of violence and oppression in society. She was appalled and yet fascinated by the fact that crimes against humans are being committed on such a large scale also outside of the boundaries of war. “Since long have I pondered the question of where fascism has its origin. It is not born with the first bombs, neither through the terror one can describe in every newspaper … its origin lies in the relations between a man and a woman, and I have tried to say … in this society there is permanently.””

Bachmann with Henze

In 1953 Bachmann goes to Rome, where she works with Hans Werner Henze, the German composer, and writes two libretti for his operas: the Prince of Homburg, and The Young Lord.

In 1957 the two “lovers” meet again and their relationship is revitalized. But it is only an interlude. They go back to their own separate lifes until 1961, when Ingeborg experiences a writer’s block wen it comes to her correspondence with Celan.

Paul Celan
No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
No one.
Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower
A nothing
we were, are, shall
remain, flowering;
the nothing-, the
no one’s rose.
With our pistil soul-bright
with our stamen heaven-ravaged
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, 0 over
the thorn.

Bachmann writes to Celan shortly before the “blockage” in her writing in 1961: “I really think that the greatest disaster is inside you. The wretched stuff that comes from outside – and you don’t need assure me of the truth of this, because I am well aware of much of it – is certainly poisonous, but it can be overcome, it must be possible to overcome. It is up to you now to confront it properly, after all you see that every explanation, every event, however right it might have been, has not diminished the unhappiness inside you, when I hear you speaking, it seems to me as if … it meant nothing to you that many people have made an effort, as if the only things that counted for you were dirt, maliciousness, folly. … You want to be the victim, but it is up to you to change this…” (Ina Hartwig ).

Bachmann with Henze in Rome

“Enigma” 1967

Ingeborg Bachmann

Nothing more will come.

Spring will no longer flourish.

Millennial calendars forecast it already.

And also summer and more, sweet words

such as “summer-like”–

nothing more will come.

You mustn’t cry,

says the music.


no one



After 1967 Bachmann almost sopped writting poetry and turned to prose. Marjorie Perloff explains:

“Why did Bachmann stop writing lyric poems?  In an interview, she remarked: “I have nothing against poems, but you must try to understand that there are moments when suddenly, one has everything against them, against every metaphor, every sound, every rule for putting words together, against the absolutely inspired arrival of words and images.”  What she means here, I think, is that, in the writing of lyric, she couldn’t seem to get around the male and patriarchal voice so powerful in German poetry.  “I had only known,” Bachmann admitted in 1971, “how to tell a story from a masculine position.  But I have often asked myself: why, really?  I have not understood it, not even in the case of the short stories.”  Then, too, Bachmann feared, as did her contemporary Paul Celan, that German lyric too easily falls into the trap of “harmony,” the harmony which, as Celan puts it, “no longer has anything in common with that ‘harmony’ which sounded more or less unchallenged, side by side with the most dreadful.”  The reference here is of course to the Holocaust: Bachmann was well aware of the difficulty Celan speaks of.”

‘For me it is not a question of a woman’s role, but the phenomenon of love – how you love. […] Love is a work of art, and I don’t believe many have the capacity for it.’ Ingeborg Bachmann said this in an interview in 1971. By then, her correspondence with Paul Celan was long over. In the early 1960s, Celan had been in the midst of an existential crisis that clouded his relationship with her. (Angelika Reitzer)

In late spring 1970, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, estranged wife of the poet Paul Celan, wrote to the Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann, an early love and life-long friend of the poet’s: “In the night from Monday to Tuesday, 19 to 20 April, he left his apartment, never to return… ” (Bachmann-Celan Correspondence, p. 197). (Ina Hartwig).

“My life is over, for during the transport he has drowned in the river’, says the dream ‘self’ in Bachmann’s novel Malina; and ‘he was my life. I loved him more than my life.’ (Malina: A Novel. Translated by Philip Boehm. Holmes & Meier, 1990.)” (Angelika Reitzer)


  1. Κώστας Καρυωτάκης-Μαρία Πολυδούρη,η πρώτη σκέψη που έκανα,παράλληλες και τόσο όμοιες σχεδόν οι πορείες τους.
    κορυφαίες οι φράσεις:
    “Love is a work of art, and I don’t believe many have the capacity for it”
    “I love you and I don’t want to love you, it is too much and too difficult…”

    υγ.’εγραψα και το πειραχτικό μου σχόλιο αλλά το σβήνω
    (κάτι για καλοκαίρι έγραφα,ήλιο,θάλασσα,…μύγδαλα,χάπι εντ,χταποδάκια)

    • the words you have chosen are the words of tur love, which is like salvation and damnation at the same time
      lets not forget that the romantic lovers like Tristan and Isolde sought the culmination of their true love in Death
      otherwise it was much too painful!

  2. reading this post was like sailing in a deep blue sea, walking on the mountains of freedom, touching the gold soul of existence, listening to the poetic melody of love…

    how far and at the same moment how near…

    • the man and the woman were thrown into a pit of dust and heat by their very own existence
      there are no winners or losers as the drama of life unfolds and envelops them

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