Georg Trakl (1887-1914)
If every poet’s work has its chromatic wavelength, one that could be played on Rimbaud’s mystical organ for synaesthetic vowels, then Georg Trakl monopolizes the far end of the spectrum, lilac shading into violet into intense near-blackness—purpur. This is the Tyrian colour of the grapes awaiting the boy Elis in the poem of the same title, the extravasated flower of haemoglobin known to the medical profession as purpura, the body of man shattered on the “horrible reefs” in the poem “Lament”. It is the imposing toga colour of authority; it is also the colour of pain and penitence.
Almost every poem by Trakl has at least one colour epithet; it can hardly be co-incidental that Vassily Kandinsky, Franz Marc and Der blau Reiter school were all experimenting with pigments in the Bavarian village of Murnau, south of Munich, at the same time as Trakl was writing his poems. The attractive short poem “Landscape” has a rearing black horse with purple nostrils, a maid with hyacinth hair, yellow autumn flowers, a blue lake, and a tree flaming into red—all in the space of eight lines. His present translator suggests that “colour is used as an attribute of no fixed meaning”, but I would suggest there is at least a vestige of a Pythagorean or mystical system of colour symbolism behind Trakl’s image-led verse; after 1912, the occasional flare of sensual reds and transcendental “final gold” over a near total extinction of light makes for an eerie pyrotechnics. Somewhere underneath is a plain brown expanse of what may be trenches, and not a symbol in sight.
Georg Trakl was born into a bourgeois family in Salzburg in 1887, the “beautiful city” of some of his early poems; not quite a century later Thomas Bernhard was to call the same city a “thoroughly and murderously misanthropic architectonic-archdiocesal-feebleminded-national-socialist-catholic death trap”. Though the family was Lutheran, Trakl received a Catholic education. The fourth of sixth children, his closest family attachment was to his younger sister Grete, who became a concert pianist and settled in Berlin. Whether their relationship was actually as incestuous as some of the early poems like “Blutschuld” seem on a literal reading to suggest has always been debated. Brother-sister love is an ideal of self-integration as old as Aristophanes’ description in The Symposium of a bisexual perfect being, the distant endogamy from which we all descend, although for William Blake, this aspiring to a state of total self-sufficiency was satanic—“Forlorn of Eden & repugnant to the forms of life”. Trakl’s countryman and contemporary Robert Musil, a very different kind of writer, was also haunted by the image of his “lost” sister, Elsa, who died in infancy before he was born: the only emotionally charged relationship in his great novel The Man without Qualities is that between the hero Ulrich and his sister, Agathe—“the very last love story there can be.”
Brother-sister love has a long pedigree in German literature: Hegel celebrates it in his Phenomenology as the highest possible ethical relationship, and rhapsodised in his lectures on aesthetics about Goethe’s play Iphigenia: “the pure and holy Iphigenia is the sister, the divine image, and the protector of the house”. It was the devastation of learning about his sister’s death in childbirth in 1777 which drove Goethe to articulate his thoughts on sister-love; and although a similar hermaphroditic fantasy of completeness, a refusal to enter the world of phenomena and be differentiated, may have sustained Trakl in his misery, it also racked him with guilt. “My life is a hesitation before birth”: Kafka told his diary in 1922, but the confession could have come from Trakl: both had at least one literary father in common. The Austrian poet was apparently much given to quoting bits of Dostoevsky to his friends and acquaintances, as if he were Prince Myshkin’s little brother, and even gave the name Sonja—that of the prostitute in Crime and Punishment—to one of his poems about the destitution of spiritual beauty.
Trakl’s drug addiction seems to have started at the end of his school years when he chloroformed himself and talked to his friends about suicide. In 1908, he started a two-year course in pharmacy in Vienna. By 1912, he was a highly regarded poet, contributing mainly to the famous Innsbruck journal Der Brenner, and living between Salzburg and Innsbruck. He fiercely admired Karl Kraus’ dedication to purity in language, and dedicated a psalm, “There is a light which the wind has extinguished,” and quatrain to him, “White high priest of truth…” The main body of his work amounts to about a hundred poems and prose poems; they were written in the two years before the outbreak of war. In August 1914, he was posted to the Galician front as a lieutenant in the medical corps of the Austrian army; being left as sole orderly in charge of a room of ninety severely wounded men, some of whom blew their brains out in front of him, proved too much to take. Confined to a psychiatric hospital in Cracow and tormented by the fear of being court-marshalled and shot for dereliction of duty, he took a fatal overdose of cocaine. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, also stationed in Poland, arrived just too late to help; he had, a few months previously, made an anonymous donation to the financially struggling Trakl through the offices of Der Brenner.
Georg Trakl was 27 when he died. It is hard to imagine him, hypersensitive and introverted, in battle at all. His unreserved compassion undid him long before men learned to “harden” themselves against the systematic derangement of the senses by cordite and phosphorus. In fact, his poems of early 1914 are notable for their total lack of any sense of war as rejuvenation or catharsis: Trakl is seized with forebodings of doom. For him, the most unmasked of poets, war could only be an artillery salvo to the lurid sunset of “God is dead”.
Rainer Maria Rilke, who did write some fairly conventional poems to the god Mars in 1914 [Rüdiger Safranski, in his biography of Heidegger, suggests that as many as one and a half million war hymns were written by Germans in that year], recognised that Trakl’s work, for all its nocturnal gloom and lamenting, was essentially affirmative and Christian; it is underwritten by a vision of wholeness. But perhaps not entirely the orthodox version: his line “The soul is an alien thing upon earth” points more obviously to a Gnostic turn. Trakl once told a friend that he was “only half born”—this is the innocent condition of the Kaspar Hauser he addressed in one poem, the hero of German culture’s most popular negative fairy tale. Two of his poems which later prompted a long exegesis from the philosopher Martin Heidegger bear the title “Abendland”—the West as the land where the sun goes down (and not only that, as Paul Celan wrote in one of his prose pieces).
Whatever else can be wrenched from these poems’ petrified sense of isolation and occasional faint glimmer of redemption, it is clear that Trakl was obsessed, throughout his short writing career, by a pervasive sense of a grand culture’s waning. In the poem “Decline” a glacial wind “blows from the stars”; the blind minute-hands “climb towards midnight”. The true spiritual order has been obscured; even the gold of the godhead, as in the poem “The Heart”, has tarnished and become “a grey cloud”. A note sent to his friend and editor Ludwig von Ficker not long before his mobilisation reads: “The sensation in moments of deathlike being: all humans are worthy of love. Awakening, you feel the world’s bitterness; in that lies all your unresolved guilt; your poem is incomplete atonement.”
With one eye trained to the horizon of that absolute knowledge he calls “love”, a kind of libidinal, undifferentiated charity, Trakl could do nothing to forestall the rumbling machinery the social order was about to liberate in the form of catastrophe. Poetry—an Orphic silvering—was all the penance there could be, an “imperfect penance”.
Trakl is not easy to translate into English, neither the rhymed poetry up to 1912 nor the free verse that follows; and I am not always convinced that Alexander Stillmark’s new versions, which attempt “to achieve as truthful a rendering of Trakl’s language as possible,” improve on the poems to be found in the earlier, but less complete Georg Trakl: A Profile (1984). It is difficult to transpose the vertically-intense, dream-like choreography of the original German into English without risking unintentional parody (and there are some intriguing intentional parodies of Trakl by the Anglo-American poet John Ash). Written before Trakl had refined his unique way of arguing from image, his early poems seem to be either too colour-coded or line-bound. And take the hypnotic spondee of that fetishised purpur: how is the poor English translator to avoid simply being purple, which word doesn’t even have a rhyme in English? (Answer: he opts, like Stillmark, for “crimson”, which is not the same colour at all. As Nabokov pointed out in an interview, “the shades… of, say, a fox, a ruby, a carrot, a pink rose, a dark cherry, a flushed cheek, are as different as blue is from green or the royal purple of blood (Fr. ‘Pourpre’) from the English sense of violet blue.) Christopher Middleton’s version of the short poem “Mankind” in the earlier volume seems to me to break the hinges of visionary intensity more convincingly than any other Trakl poem in English, but then Middleton’s version aims for—and achieves—a truthfulness beyond the literal.
In his translation of one poem “Along” (“Entlang”), Stillmark entirely misses the drastic implication of the line: “Sag wie lang wir gestorben sind” is not “Say how long we took in dying”. Trakl has made death a condition: say how long it is we have been dead—a line which Adorno purloined for one of his mini-essays in Minima Moralia on the deathly state of thoughtlessness that breeds out of the mutual estrangements of bourgeois society.
All the same, this bilingual edition, which includes the body of Trakl’s completed poems, including some prose sketches and a dialogue, will be an indispensable guide to the work of a severely withdrawn poet who, in his refusal to conform to the ordinary terrestrial laws of violence, managed to make heard above the hellish din of war his concern, in the closing line of the last poem he wrote, “Grodek”, for “the unborn generations”.
© Iain Bamforth
Review of Georg Trakl: Poems and Prose, edited and translated by Alexander Stillmark (Libris), in the Times Literary Supplement, 5 October 2001.