Georg Trakl

When it comes to poets of the First World War we tend to think of Owen, Sassoon, Brooke, Rosenberg etc., but pass over the equally worthy equivalents on the German side. What of radical linguistic innovator August Stramm (1874-1915), or complete unknowns like Wilhem Klemm, Anton Schnack, Hugo Ball or Alfred Lichtenstein? Trakl, who is indefinable as a poet, is generally lumped in as a war poet or an expressionist like his contemporary Georg Heym (1887-1912), but he is both and neither. Although he served in the early stages of the war as a medical orderly, and took his own life in a garrison mental hospital after suffering a breakdown in the wake of a bloody battle in November 1914, he only wrote two final poems actively related to the war, ‘Grodek’, the name of that battle and ‘In the East’.

Georg Trakl was born in Salzburg in 1887 to a middle class merchant family seeking social respectability in conservative Catholic Austria. From a young age he showed signs of anxiety, morbid depression and most ominously suicidal tendencies. Trakl devoured Rimbaud and the French symbolist poets, he was solitary, reserved, awkward, plagued by self-doubt. But out of this personal torment and as a foil against the horror of enduring, as he saw it, mankind’s perpetually relived fall from grace, he forged a rare visionary form of poetry culled from an inner dream life. Trakl became an ardent imbiber of alcohol and drugs and partly to gain access to narcotics trained to be a pharmacist in Vienna. His first prose pieces and poems appeared in 1906 but it was not until 1913 that his mentor and publisher Ludwig von Ficker published his first mature collection Poems. Since his death aged twenty-seven and the endorsement of major twentieth century German language poets such as Rilke and Celan, Trakl’s reputation has spread world-wide, influencing not only poets but composers, artists and filmmakers.

Trakl’s poems have been variously termed mood paintings, tonal poems, impressionist collages or colour-coded dream images. They are the work of a rare visionary, whose emergence at a specific point in European history, at a vital schism between the old order and the new, lends the work a special insistence and uncanny timelessness. His poems overwhelm in both a visual and an audible sense, their imagery mystical yet muscular and uncompromisingly apocalyptic.

Studies of Trakl’s poetry have explored the existential religious contours of the work, the relationship between doomed siblings (he was the brother of the pianist Grete Trakl) and the composition and symbolism of his hallmark complex dream imagery. None of the studies, including that of Heidegger, which analysed Trakl’s colour palette, is wholly successful because they do not explain how Trakl was able to encompass a mood or feeling so consummately.

Trakl was writing at the same time as Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), another connoisseur of solitude, who had the rare capacity to articulate inwardness and who could point to a third way: a space that exists but cannot be penetrated. In 1915, following Trakl’s death, Rilke wrote to Ficker about his late contemporary’s work:

‘I have discovered much in them: overwhelmed, amazed, wondering and mystified; for one soon realises that the conditions of these tones which rise and fall away are irrevocably singular, like those circumstances in which a dream might arise. I imagine that even one who stands close by must experience such spectacles and perceptions as though pressed, an exile, against a pane of glass: for Trakl’s life passes as if through the images of a mirror and fills its entire space, which cannot be entered, like the space of the mirror itself.’

In 1917, Rilke was back, seeking to define the mysterious aura:

‘For me the Trakl poem is an object of sublime existence… but now it puzzles me how its form, fleeting from the start and delicately by-passed in description, could possibly bear the weight of its own oblivion in such precise images.’

Trakl creates an alternative language, both the profoundly poetic and its aforementioned shadow, as a bulwark against an increasingly petrifying reality. Only through this dream reconfiguration of the past can the inherent absurdity of existence, and personal failure to retain spiritual authenticity in a world increasingly stripped of it, be atoned. Hounded by his demons, there is nowhere for Trakl to go but deeper into still darker places, to strip out as if from an always depleting mine seam the ore of images piled on images. The shaft he scores is impossibly narrowed through the intensity of its subjectivity: there is no deviation.

A number of composers, from Anton Webern (Austrian, 1883-1945) to Thea Musgrave (British, 1928-) and Oliver Knussen (British, 1952-), have seized on Trakl’s tortured yet painterly and lyrically profuse ‘songs’. Trakl’s poetic legacy is in a sense one long poem, or one score of music, one unceasing panoramic painting, whose content fine-tunes itself over just a few years, morphing into something far weightier, something more humanistically complex, more visibly itself.

The shade of madness accompanies the poet through St Peter’s churchyard, on the Mönchsberg in Salzburg, through dusking woods, or hovers about him in smoky taverns. It sits alongside him when he talks to prostitutes, his fallen sisters, in ‘gloomy tones’. It intervenes between him and the unseeing public with whom he must engage. The spectre of insanity and Gérard de Nerval’s black sun of melancholy are Trakl’s constant companions, ever present without explanation, impossible to despatch. In 1914, letters to Ficker show Trakl more and more concerned that he would fall prey to madness. ‘Tell me that I must still have the strength to live and do what is true. Tell me that I am not insane. A stony darkness has broken in…’

For Trakl the past is enshrined in the constructed dream state of perpetual late summer luminosity, a schizoid landscape of rural idyll and otherworldly desolation where tender or terrible apparitions make their entrance, a place infected by the horror of the new technological century, ‘onto my brow cold metal steps.’ The divine path represented by Hölderlin’s spiritually-ennobled poetry has been sullied, only decadence and destruction remains. Trakl’s anachronistic dream-land of shepherds, solitaries, monks and saints, wayfarers and lepers is a far cry from the factory floor of culture-driven Vienna and even the nerve jangling visual experiments and revolutionary zeal of expressionism.

In 1913 Trakl writes the following in a letter from Salzburg; ‘I long for the day when the soul neither will nor can live in this unholy body blighted by melancholy, that the soul will depart this absurd body filled with filth and decay – a body which is only an all too true reflection of a godless and accursed century.’


Trakl’s major works include ‘Helian’, ‘Limbo’, ‘Melancholy’, ‘The Heart’ and ‘Night’. His early works clearly show the influence of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and Maeterlinck’s Serres Chaudes. Later Holderlin exerts a powerful influence and Trakl’s explicitly tortured voice seems to ripen. The final reckoning is ‘Grodek’, a poem often cited as a First World War poem, and a work that presents all Trakl’s poetic qualities, yet with a new urgency. The catastrophe is here and knowing what followed for Europe’s young men gives the poem added weight today. But this is not a war poem per se, but a wider lament for a corrupted humankind forsaken by God. The notion of downfall is already rooted long before, most viscerally in a poem like ‘Mankind’, and the Grodek battle provides a scene of hell in real terms, the aftermath of which the poet personally witnessed.

‘Grodek’ is a backdrop onto which Trakl can conclude his existence with a desperate upholding of truth, whilst still hoping for possible future redemption through the tantalising figure of ‘the unborn grandson’ in the last line. ‘Grodek’ was scrawled on the back of Trakl’s will, sent to Ficker from the Krakow mental hospital on 27 October 1914. This is the final cry of a man who has been compressed in life by a darkening horizon and now moves like the soldiers into the path of unavoidable destruction. En route to the front in Galicia, Trakl had handed Ficker a note on boarding the train. It read: ‘Feelings in moments of death-like existence: all humans are worthy of love. Awakening you sense the world’s bitterness, in which resides all that unresolved guilt; your poem an imperfect atonement.’

In ‘Grodek’ Trakl stated ‘All roads lead to black putrefaction’, but the road to renown that lead from his premature death in a cell in a Krakow mental hospital saw the flowering of his legacy as a key voice in modern European poetry. The perennial mystery of Trakl, the tantalising nearness yet elusiveness of that third shadow language which his work alone seems to possess, guarantees his necessity.


Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt
Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunkeln Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauert ihr ehernen Altäre
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.

Grodek (1 – free version by Stone)

At nightfall the suburbs incubate
with stealthy disease and welling rage,
the pale cul-de-sacs, above which more darkly
carves the moon, the night by-passes
bereaved women, the muffled scream
of their gourded hearts.
But quietly there in the playground
famished childhood where no greed resides,
tears shed evaporate, ocean unconcerned.
Under stars unseen for the orange glow
the reaper rides the empty ring road
to greet the ghosts passed on by tactful undertakers;
and softly the horn of future sounds
through the swaying jibs of dockyard cranes.
Oh unimpeded cycle! You boarded up altars,
today a terrible affliction upsets the inspired signal,
the womb blind yet unborn.

Grodek (2 – previous direct/literal translation by Stone)

At evening the autumn woods resound
With deadly weapons, the golden plains
And blue lakes above which the sun
Rolls more darkly; night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their shattered mouths.
But silent on the pasture land
Red cloud, in which a wrathful god resides,
Gathers the blood spilled, lunar coolness;
All roads lead to black putrefaction.
Under golden shoots of night and stars
The sister’s shadow sways through the silent grove,
To greet the ghosts of heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly in the reeds sound the dark flutes of autumn.
O prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a mighty anguish feeds the hot flame of the spirit,
The grandchildren unborn.


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