Trakl’s Helian, An Utterly New Thing

Trakl called “Helian” “the most precious and painful [poem] I have ever written.”  He wrote it between December 1912 and January 1913.  I believe that the poem earned his description by dealing in entirely new ways with related themes that were difficult for him, as they would be for anyone:  the decline of family, and of civilization, and the various fragmented forms of an individual character in this disintegrating and disorienting world.  The poem hints throughout at a broader narrative or broader themes that are not revealed or fully described, and it does so in a compelling train of obsessive images, some angelic,  some chthonic, both necessary.  The powerful imagery makes the poem easy to read, and the several burdens it bears make it harder to analyze; it is clear at the level of those images, but difficult at the level of what we might call classical critical discourse.  The heart understands, as does the spirit; but the mind struggles.  It could not have been an easy poem to write.

In order to make this poem, Trakl developed a new form for his writing, moving even beyond the groundbreaking changes and innovations of “Psalm.” In this new form, there is no plot as such, but there is a narrative which is entirely composed at the level of the images.  He addresses his broad themes of the decline of western civilization in a rich train of images that convey the beauty of disintegration, and parallel to it, describes a family’s loss, as disease, spiritual prostitution, and the ultimate ruin of death.  The theme of the decline of western civilization—a Spenglerian theme, some have called it—shows in such lines as “The ruin of a generation is shattering” or “Evening, & the bells that no longer ring sink down, / The black walls on the town-square fall to ruin, / The dead soldier is calling to a prayer.”  And the generational loss of family as a unit and spiritual force shows in lines like:  “A pale angel, / The son enters the empty house of his fathers.  // The sisters have gone far away to white old men.”  He interweaves another layer into these already complex related themes, with the Christian archetypal imagery of death and resurrection, shown in the way Helian survives bodily decay and leprosy to resurrect at the end of the poem, when “The silent god lowers his blue lids over him.”

I also see something very personal in the poem, though this may be an idiosyncratic reading on my part.  It is in the enactment of the movement of the poet’s mind, which shows in the rapid imagistic movement in the poem, and it is in the several fragmented guises of the protagonist. Trakl talks about this psychic movement and the nature of self in a 1908 letter to his older sister Minna:  “I have experienced, smelled, touched, the most frightening possibilities within myself, have heard the demons howling in my blood, the thousand devices with their spurs which drive the flesh mad.”  Following this he says he has become “all living ear, again listen[ing] to the melodies inside me, and my winged eye again dreams its images, which are more beautiful than all reality.”  [Quoted from a translation by Herbert Lindenberger in Georg Trakl (Twayne Publishers, 1971].  This extreme alternation between the demonic and the angelic is also a characteristic of this poem, and as well of the poems that follow.  I suggest that the exchange between the two precisely enacts on the page an emotional picture of the movement of the poet’s mind, and it creates the dynamic structure of the poem and of poems to follow.  As for the protagonist, he appears in several forms—walking in the sun in the lonely hours of the spirit, the youth who enters the house, and the stranger, the young novice, the mad boy, the “soul [that] looks at itself in the rosy mirror,” and the other figures.  The personality presented does not grow or progress; rather it is discontinuous, shifting, and perhaps, if all these forms are taken together, comprehensive, a hall of mirrors that in all reflects a single person.

It is hard, perhaps, to recover now the shock that readers must have felt at reading “Helian” the first time.  Nothing could have prepared them for this, or for the other major Symbolist German poem written at that time, Rilke’s Duino Elegies.  they would have looked for easy or conventional readings in vain.  Despite its Christian imagery, the poem fits no Christian allegorical interpretation, not is it a poem describing the author’s personal or intimate feelings or experiences.  Its personal motifs are presented in a post-Romantic way, much as in “The Wasteland,” without overt personal reference or as an expression of the writer’s experience.  It is an entirely new thing.  Nothing like it had existed before.  Trakl had brought poetry to a new place with this major poem.

 

Helian 

I

In the lonely hours of the spirit
It is beautiful to walk in the sun
Along the yellow walls of summer.
The footsteps soft in the grass; still
The son of Pan sleeps on in gray marble.

Evenings on the terrace we used to get drunk on brown wine.
The peach has a red glow in the leaves;
Gentle sonata, happy laughter.

The night-quiet is beautiful.
On a dark plain
We meet shepherds & white stars.

When autumn comes
There is a sober clarity in the grove.
We walk along the red walls, calm now,
& our round eyes follow the flights of the birds.
In the evening, white water sinks in the funeral urns.

The sky rests in bare branches.
The peasant carries bread & wine in pure hands
& the fruit ripens peacefully in a sunny room.

How solemn the faces of the beloved dead.
Yet the soul delights in righteous contemplation.

II

How powerful the silence of the ruined garden,
When the young novice garlands his forehead with brown leaves,
& with his breath drinks in the icy gold.

Hands touch against the age of blue waters
Or on a cold night the white cheeks of the sisters.

The walk past friendly rooms is quiet & harmonious,
Where there is solitude & the rustle of the maple,
Where the thrush, perhaps, still sings.

Man is beautiful, shining in the darkness,
When amazed, he moves his arms & legs,
& his eyes roll silently in their purple caves.

At vespers, the stranger loses his way in the black destruction of November,
Under branches that are rotting, along walls full of leprosy,
Where once the holy brother walked,
Absorbed in the soft string music of his madness.

How lonely the evening wind when it ends.
Slowly dying, the head sinks in the dark of the olive tree.

III

The ruin of a generation is shattering.
In this hour, the eyes of the one who watches fill
With the gold of his stars.

Evening, & the bells that no longer ring sink down,
The black walls on the town-square fall to ruin,
The dead soldier is calling to a prayer.

A pale angel,
The son enters the empty house of his fathers.

The sisters have gone far away to white old men.
At night the sleeper found them under the pillars in the entrance-hall,
Returned from their sad pilgrimages.

How stiff their hair from filth & worms,
As he stands there with silver feet,
& these dead ones emerge from bare rooms.

You psalms that come in the fiery rain of midnight,
When the servants beat the gentle eyes with brambles,
& the childlike fruits of the elderberry
Bow astonished over the empty grave.

Softly the yellow moons roll
Over the fever-sheets of the youth,
Until even the silence of winter follows him.

IV

A great destiny thinks its way down the Kidron River,
Where the cedar, the gentle creature,
Opens under the blue brows of the father.
At night a shepherd leads his flock across the meadow.
Or there are cries in sleep,
When the bronze angel approaches the man in the grove,
& the saint’s flesh melts away on the fiery grate.

The purple vines climb around huts of mud,
The yellow grain sounds in its sheaves,
There is the humming of bees, the flight of the crane.
At night those who have risen from the dead meet on rocky paths.

The lepers are reflected in the black waters;
Or they open their filthy robes
Crying to the fragrant wind that blows from the rosy hill.

The thin servant-girls grope through the alleyways of night,
To find the shepherd of love.
On Saturdays, gentle singing in the huts.

Let the song also remember the boy,
His madness, & his white brow & his final departure,
The ruined one, who opens his blue eyes.
How sad to meet again like this.

V

In black rooms, steps of madness,
Shadows of old men under the open door,
As Helian’s soul looks at itself in the rosy mirror
& snow & leprosy sink from his brow.

On the walls the stars are extinguished
& the white figures of the light.

The grave-remnants rise from the carpets,
The silence of decayed crosses on the hill,
The incense sweet in the purple of the night-wind.

You shattered eyes in black mouths,
When the grandson in his gentle night-madness
Thinks of the darker end in solitude,
The silent god lowers his blue lids over him.

Trakl: the Elis Poems

Trakl’s brilliant Elis poems, “To The Boy Elis” and “Elis,” were written between spring, 1913, and early 1914, part of the late flowering that began with the masterpieces “Helian” and “Psalm.”  The Elis figure is literary, from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale, “The Mines at Falun.”  In that story Elis Frobom is a 17th century Swedish miner who dies in the mines on his wedding day.  His body is recovered fifty years later, still youthful, perfectly preserved.  Seeing the corpse, his now-aged wife embraces him, and his body crumbles to dust.  The story, like the poems, sets up a series of oppositions about youth and age, the passing of time, innocence and experience (see my note below).  Here is the first Elis poem:

To The Boy Elis

When the blackbird calls in the black wood,
Elis, this is your descent.
You drink the coolness of the blue rock-spring.

When your forehead gently bleeds
Give up the ancient legends
& the dark interpretations of the bird’s flight.

But you walk softly into the night,
Where the grapes hang full & purple,
& you move your arms more beautifully in the blue.

The thorn-bush sounds
Where your moonlike eyes are.
How long, Elis, you have been dead.

Your body is a hyacinth,
The monk dips his waxen fingers into it.
Our silence is a black cave,

Sometimes a gentle animal steps out of it
& slowly lowers his heavy lids.
A black dew gathers at your temples,

It is the final gold of the ruined stars.

The striking imagery here is part of the so-called “blue world” that occupied Trakl’s poems in the final 18 months of his life, with related figures and objects drawn from opposing categories of pastoral idyl and demonic disintegration.  We see the idyll images in wood, spring, the gentle animal, the blackbird, the grapes, the blueness.  The demonic shows in the black cave, the black dew, the bleeding forehead, the ruined stars, the effort at prophecy from an interpretation of the bird’s flight, the monk who dips his fingers into the flowering of the dead body.  The sounding of the thorn-bush is an echo of the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses.  The world, or worlds, conjured by this long-dead Elis are so fragile that at last even the stars are ruined and can only share their final gold.

Blue is an important color or adjective for Trakl.  Some scholars see his “blue world” imagery as an influence from the blue flower of the German poet, author, and philosopher Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, May 2, 1772 – March 25, 1801), one of the early exemplars of German Romanticism.  The blue flower is appears in Novalis’ novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen.  In the book the young Heinrich rejects bourgeois materialism to search for artistic and spiritual fulfillment, symbolized by a perfect blue flower. “It is not treasures that I care for,” Heinrich said to himself, “but I long to see the blue flower. I cannot rid my thoughts of the idea, it haunts me.”  The image became a symbol of the German Romantic movement.

Trakl clearly knew about the blue flower.  He dedicated one of his poems to Novalis, and in an early draft mentioned the blue flower. But his adoption of the blue imagery is not slavish, and the images and landscapes he describes in these final poems are variable, even provisional.  The blue as he uses it, for example, is a dual symbol, invoking the color of the world before dawn and at evening, in other words it is the blue of beginnings and endings.

The narrative os this poem moves from life to death:  from “you move your arms more beautifully in the blue” to “How long, Elis, you have been dead,” from grapes to black dew, from the thorn-bush with its suggestions of the divine to the animal that lowers its heavy lids, from the call of the blackbird to the ruined stars. It is a narrative told in images not actions, a gradual passing of life and innocence to death and ruin.  It is easy to get carried away by the beauty of the images and lose the narrative thread that pitches us to the loss of life and beauty.  Not so with the second Elis poem, which ends in nothingness, the wind’s lonely desolation:

Elis

1.
How perfect the stillness of this golden day.
Under the ancient oaks
You, Elis, appear in perfect repose with your round eyes.

Their blueness that mirrors the sleep of lovers.
On your mouth
Their rosy love-sighs were silenced.

Evening & the fisherman pulled in the heavy nets.
The good shepherd
Leads his herd along the forest’s edge.
How righteous your days, Elis.

The blue stillness
Of olive-trees sinks softly along bare walls,
Gently the mysterious song of the old man dies away.

The golden boat
That is your heart, Elis, trembles in a lonely heaven.

2.
The bells sound softly in Elis’ breast
In the evening,
When his head sinks into the black cushion.

The blue deer
Bleeds gently in the thorn‑bush.

A brown tree stands alone there, dead;
The blue fruits fell from it.

Signs & stars
Disappear softly into the night‑pond.

It is winter behind the hill.

At night
Blue doves drink the icy sweat
That falls from Elis’ crystal brow.

God’s lonely wind sounds endlessly along black walls.

As in the first Elis poem, this one includes a direct address, speaking to an Elis who appears in perfect repose in the perfect stillness of this golden day.  That this is reminiscent of the first Elis poem is no surprise:  Apparently the two began as a single poem, but then at some point Trakl realized that the sections were pulling apart, and separated them.

But unlike “To The Boy Elis,” this poem brings with it a large range of associations, many traced by critics, so much so that one critic called it “almost a pastiche”:  for example, the images of the fisherman and the shepherd are drawn from the Gospel of John, the moon as a golden boat in the sky is from Neitzche’s Also Sprak Zarathustra, the image of Elis sinking his head on the black cushion is from Hoffman’s “Mines of Falun” and the old man’s song from Hofmannsthal’s version of the same tale, the icy sweat and God’s wind from a translation of Rimbaud into German by KL Ammer, and the whole image structure with its opposed visions of life from a poem by Holderlin, “Halfte des Lebens” (“Middle of Life”).  This is wonderful critical work, though it doesn’t do much to explain the large mysterious power of the poem for readers unaware of these sources.

My own sense is that the power of the poem has to do with its grasp and description of archetypal images and transitions.  The poem opens in an Eden, a place of perfect silence and perfect days, and slowly, over its 29 lines, moves us to the loss of innocence and the final vision of desolation—God’s lonely wind sounding endlessly on black walls.  Elis when we first meet him in this version is a figure of love, like Cupid, with blue eyes that mirror the sleep of lovers and a mouth where rosy love-sighs are silenced by (I assume) kisses.  In the righteousness of his days he sees the fisherman pull in his nets and the shepherd lead his herd along the forest’s edge.  Beautiful pastoral images.  But night comes then, ending the perfect day, and Elis’ heart trembles in a lonely heaven.  The world was beautiful, but now Elis is separated from it, in a lonely heaven, not part of this anymore.  Innocence and beauty and perfection are lost.

The second part of the poem describes this loneliness and loss:  the head on black cushions, meaning that he is dead, and the blue deer that is dead, and the brown tree that is dead, the night pond that absorbs the light from the skies, and the new season, winter, come behind the hill.  The world is turned not to the demonic but to death, the absence of life.  The final image is of the wind from God blowing over a lifeless place.  It is a thoroughly beautiful and completely depressing poem.

My sense is that in these archetypes and images, the poem continues to open out, to expand its range of —”meanings” is too strong a word—its allusions.  Many tales and interpretations could come from this sequence of words and images:  for example, the poem could be about aging, the process of moving from the world of innocence and youth to age and death, the loss of the ripe world to the world of winter and decomposition, even, some readers have suggested, a kind of mythopoeic history of the world.  Whatever it suggests, and however you read it, it is an extremely powerful and allusive poem, whose meanings continue to broaden out long after you have finished your reading.

NOTE:

The story of E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Mines of Falun.”  I am grateful to notes on this from Kyle Marshall Bigbee, at Cultural Vivisection blog for detail about the story of Elis Fröbom, who had wanted to make money to support his family.  The last of the family has died off.  An old miner appears and talks to him about the glories of mining, saying that there awaits an underground world of wealth and stone. Elis dreams of a crystal world and a Queen to whom promises himself.  The next day he heads off for the mines, but instead of finding something wonderful he sees an abyss of slag and  burned-out ores, and sulfuric gases.  He wants to leave but then meets some of the miners, and is so impressed that he announces his intention to become a miner. He befriends the chief official, Pehrson Dahlsjö, and falls in love with his daughter, Ulla. One day the older miner shows up again, and mocks him for his love for Ulla and his lack of commitment to the underground world before scrambling away. The old miners turns out to be Torbern, a legendary miner from more than a hundred years before, who was devoted to the earth and who disappeared in a cave-in caused by the greedy over-extension of other miners.  Ulla agrees to marry him, but Torbern continues to appear, quarreling with Elis over his infidelity to the Queen underground. On the day he is to marry Ulla he decides to quickly go underground looking for “the cherry red sparkling almadine … on which is inscribed the chart of our life. You must receive it from me as a wedding present.” But while everyone is preparing for the wedding a cave-in destroys the excavation. Fifty years later, miners working at the site uncover the perfectly preserved corpse of a youth. Just then an old woman—Ulla—arrives and explains that this is Elis, and that she heard fifty years ago from Torbern that she would see him once again. She hugs his body, which crumbles to dust just as she expires.

 

Trakl: The Dark Paths Of Men Are Strange

Trakl’s four mature prose poems written after 1913 all use the new style begun in “Psalm” and “Helian.”  All are strange and mysterious, fragmentary narratives that hint at a greater story lurking just beyond what we can easily see.  As with all things that hint of narrative, once we are swept up in it, once we engage, we take overt from what the poem has given us and create the sense of completeness ourselves—it’s something we insist on mentally, a sense of sequence and cohesion, moreso perhaps in prose than poetry.

That sense of cohesion is a necessary element given the length and speed of development of these prose poems.  Absent the sense of a story being told, the train of images would be chaotic, utterly disorienting.  The poems wold fail, on their own terms, and on ours.

The four prose poems are:  “Verwandlung des Bösen” (“Transformation of Evil”), “Winternacht” (“Winter Night”), “Traum und Umnachtung” (“Dream & Madness”), and “Offenbarung und Untergang” (“Revelation & Decline”).  The latter two are especially rich in imagery and astounding in the way they develop, finding hidden passageways between images and ideas.  I have taken up only one of them here, “Revelation & Decline,” and to give a sense of the movement and strangeness of the poem, I try to show it in two ways:  first as a prose poem, and then as a poem in a more traditional form, broken into sections and line breaks.

The narrative of the poem appears to center on a dream of the sister, in a world where death is the under text and incest, or the threat of it, is a constant mental companion, an ongoing source of guilt that cannot be expunged, and from which the only escape is a plunge into the abyss.  The poem opens with a vision of the world inhabited by dreamers.  Everyone is asleep, their rooms are stone, the light of each person small, motionless.  The narrator dreams that he is sleepwalking through it, an orphan whose father has died, a notion stated on one of the most beautiful lines in the poem:  “In this hour of the death of my father I was the white son.”  The speaker is haunted by dreams of his own madness and of the dead sister, and of his guilt, which is cause less but real.  There is death around him, bitterness in the world, storms, blood, a dead horse–what does he have to do with any of this?  Did he cause it?  Are these merely tokens of a world he lives in, or markers of any interior nightmare?  Or–as these are not exclusive options–both?  The poem is extraordinarily rich, very beautiful, and haunting.  We can feel the truth of it without necessarily knowing why, at every moment, it is true.

Here is the poem.  Note that the numerical section separators, shown in other versions, do not appear in the actual poem.  I do not include them in the prose version, but I do in the poetic version that follows:

Revelation & Decline

The dark paths of men are strange. When I was sleepwalking I passed rooms of stone & in each there burned a small motionless lamp, a copper candlestick, & when I collapsed freezing on my bed at its head the black shadow of the strange woman stood there again, & slowly & silently I buried my face in my hands. The hyacinth at the window had also blossomed into blue, & the old prayer came to Odmenden’s purple lips, the world-bitterness bringing crystal tears. In this hour of the death of my father I was the white son. The night-wind shivered, from the hill in blue rain, & with it the dark cry of the mother was fading again, & I saw the black hell in my own heart —that moment of glittering quiet.  Softly, a face that I cannot describe emerged from the chalky wall—it was a dying youth, the beauty of a race returning home. Moon-white, the coolness of stone embraces the waking temple, the footsteps of shadows fade on the ruined stairs, & the dance among the roses in the little garden.

 

I sat silent & alone, drinking wine in the abandoned inn under charred wooden beams; a shining corpse bent over the dark one & a dead lamb lay at my feet. The pale figure of the sister emerged then from the decayed blue, her mouth bleeding, saying: Black thorn, pierce. Alas, still I hear the ringing of silver arms from the fierce storms. Blood, flow from the lunar feet that bloom on dark paths the shrieking rat flits past. Stars flare in my arched eyebrows, & gently the heart sounds in the night. A red shadow with a burning sword broke into the house, then fled with a brow of snow. O bitter death.

Then a dark voice spoke from within me: I broke the neck of my black horse in the night-forest, because there was madness in his purple eyes; the shadows of elms fell on me, the blue laughter of the fountain & the black coolness of the night, & I was a wild hunter pursuing the snow-white deer; my face died away in a hell of stone.

Then a glittering drop of blood fell in the wine of the Lonely One; & as I drank it, it was more bitter than the poppy; & a black cloud enveloped my head, the crystal tears of the drowned angels; & gently the blood ran from the sister’s silver wounds & a fiery rain fell on me.

 

I want to be a silent thing walking at the wood’s edge, one from whose mute hands the sun of hair descends; a stranger at the hill of night who weeps & opens his eyes over the city of stone; a deer standing motionless in the peace of the ancient elder; o the brain filled by twilight casts about, listening restlessly, or the hesitant footsteps follow the blue cloud on the hill, & the grave constellations.  Nearby, the green corn goes along silently, & the timid young deer comes with us on the mossy wood-paths. The huts in the villages are closed up & silent & the blue lament of their mountain torrent is frightening in the black calm of the wind.

But as I climbed down the cliff-path, madness seized me & I cried out into the night; & as I bent with silver fingers over the silent water, I saw myself faceless. And the white voice spoke to me: Kill yourself! The shadow of the child groaned & rose up in me & saw me radiant with his crystal eyes, so that I fell weeping under the trees, the enormous vault of the stars.

 

The restless journey through the wild rock so far from the towns of evening, & the birds returning home; far away the sun lowers itself & grazes in the crystal pasture, its wild song shaking us like something violent, the bird’s lonely cry died in the blue calm. But you come softly in the night as I lay still awake on the hill or when madness has taken me in the spring thunder-storm; the sad clouds darken above the head of the dead one, horrible flashes of lightning terrify the dark spirit, your hands tear to pieces my breast from which all breath is gone.

 

As I entered the twilight garden & the black form of evil had abandoned me, the hyacinth calm of night embraced me; & I sailed in my arched boat over the calm water, & a sweet calm touched my petrified brow. I lay dumb under the old willows & the blue sky above me was high & filled with stars; my thinking self died away & fear & sorrow died their heavy deaths in me; the blue shadow of the boy rose up shining in the darkness, singing softly; it rose then, on moon-like wings above the crystal reefs, the white face of the sister.

 

I climbed down the thorny steps with silver soles & entered the whitewashed chamber. The candlestick burned quietly within & I buried my head silently in purple linen.  The earth threw out a child-like corpse, a creation of the moon, that slowly stepped from my shadow, & the lid of stone sank down on smashed arms, flakes of snow.

 

And here is the version of the poem broken into poetic lines.  Attentive readers will note some impositions and additions, making this perhaps more a version than a translation.  One might argue that every translation is a version, there being only one original, and that in another language; and that no langauge translates easily or accurately into the idiom of another.  Both comments are fair:  first, that it is a version and second, that liberties are taken but only in an effort to enhance the flow of the poem, or to follow the logic of this or that image, including an entire twist on the concluding lines.  It is not the original, or an accurate transcription, but I hope it is yet pleasurable on its own terms.

Revelation & Decline

1.

The dark paths of men are strange.
Sleepwalking I passed rooms of stone,
& in each there burned a small motionless lamp.
The flames above the copper candlesticks wavered
As when breath is taken or given back.

But when I collapsed freezing on my bed,
I saw the black shadow of the strange woman again,
& slowly & silently buried my face in my hands.

________________________

The hyacinth at the window blossomed into the blue
& the old prayer came again to Odmenden’s purple lips,
The bitterness of this world bringing crystal tears.

In this hour of the death of my father I was the white son.

________________________

The night-wind shivered from the hill
In blue rain,
& with it the dark cry of the mother faded again,
& I saw the black hell that is my own heart again:

In that moment of glittering quiet
Softly, a face I cannot describe emerged from the chalky wall—

It was a dying youth,
Containing all the the beauty of a race returning home.
O moon!  O whiteness!
O coolness of stone embracing the waking temple!

Now the footsteps of shadows fade on the ruined stairs,
The dance finally ended among the roses in the little garden.

2.

I sat silent & alone, drinking wine in the abandoned inn
Where the charred wooden beams still showed.
A shining corpse bent over the dark one
& a dead lamb lay at my feet.

The pale figure of the sister
Emerged then from the decayed blue,
Her mouth bleeding as she said:
Black thorn, pierce—

But all I could hear was the ringing of their silver arms
& the fiercer storms that waited.

________________________

Blood, flow now from the lunar feet
That bloom on dark paths
That the shrieking rat flits past—

Stars flare in my arched eyebrows,
& gently the heart sounds in the night.

A red shadow with a burning sword broke into the house
Then fled with a brow of snow….  O bitter death.

________________________

A dark voice spoke from within me:
It said I had broken the neck of my black horse in the night-forest,
Because there was madness in his purple eyes;

& then the shadows of elms fell on me,
& I heard the blue laughter of the fountain

& in the black coolness, pursuing the snow-white deer,
I was the wild hunter

Whose face had died away in a hell of stone.

A glittering drop of blood fell in the wine of the Lonely One;
It seemed more bitter even than the poppy as I drank it,

& a black cloud enveloped my head,
& the crystal tears of the drowned angels;

& gently the blood ran from the sister’s silver wounds
& a fiery rain fell on me.

3.

I want to be a silent thing walking at the wood’s edge,
One from whose mute hands the sun of hair descends,
A stranger at the hill of night who weeps & looks out over the city of stone,
A deer standing motionless in the peace of the ancient elder tree….

The brain filled by twilight casts about, listening restlessly,
The hesitant footsteps follow the blue cloud on the hill,
& the grave constellations.

________________________

Near us now the green corn goes along silently,
& the timid young deer comes with us on the mossy wood-paths,
The huts in the villages are closed up & silent,
& the blue lament of the mountain torrent
Is frightening in the black calm of the wind.

But as I climbed down the cliff-path,
Madness seized me
& I cried out into the night,
& as I bent with silver fingers over the silent water,
I saw myself as one of those who lack a true face;

The white voice spoke to me:  Kill yourself!
& the shadow of the child groaned & rose up in me

& I saw myself radiant with his crystal eyes,
& I fell weeping & exhausted under the trees,
Under the enormous vaults of the stars.

4.

The restless journey through the wild rock
So far from the towns of evening,
& the birds returning home;

Far away the sun lowers itself
& grazes in the crystal pasture,
Its wild song shaking us like something violent;

The bird’s lonely cry died then in the blue calm.

But you come softly in the night
As I lay still awake on the hill

Or when the madness has taken me,
In the spring thunder-storm,
& the sad clouds darken

Above the head of the dead one,
& horrible flashes of lightning
Terrify the dark spirit,

& your hands tore to pieces my breast,
From which breath is already gone.

5.

As I entered the twilight garden
& the black form of evil had abandoned me,
Hyacinth calm of night embraced me;

& I sailed in my arched boat over the calm water,
& a sweet calm touched my petrified brow.

I lay dumb under old willows
& the blue sky above me was high & filled with stars;

My thinking self had died away
& fear & sorrow died their heavy deaths in me;

The blue shadow of the boy rose up shining in the darkness,
Singing softly,

& on moon-like wings, it rose then,
Above the crystal reefs:  the white face of the sister.

6.

I climbed down
The thorny steps with silver soles
& entered the whitewashed chamber.

The candlestick burned quietly within
& I buried my head silently in purple linen.

From the earth came a child-like corpse,
Violently, thrown out,
A creation of the moon—

It slowly stepped from my shadow,
& plunged with shattered arms
Down the stony abyss

Realities
Scattered around me like flakes of snow….

 

More of the Brilliant Trakl Poems of 1914

Here are more of my translations of the great Trakl poems of 1914.   These include the terrifying war poem, “In The East,” the odd and lovely and desolate “Homecoming,” and a first version of “Lament.”  This is not the famous “Klage,” one of Trakl’s last poems, but neither is it an early version.  It stands on its own.  All of these poems were published in the magazine Brenner in 1914-1915.

Trakl’s work has had an interesting publication history, reception, and influence. In his lifetime, only his Gedichte (Poems) was published, in 1913.  In 1915, the year after his death the extraordinary Sebastian im Traum (Sebastian in the Dream) was published, a volume he had prepared prior to his suicide.  Both books proved popular, and in 1918 his publisher brought out a collected poems, Die Dichtungen.  As his fame grew, translations appeared in Czech, Rumanian, and English in the 1920’s, and musical settings of some of the poems were published in 1922 by Paul Hindemith.   Appreciation was wide, though there was not much critical commentary or deep analysis, perhaps because the poems seem to travel directly into our appreciation and sensibility without much room for the usual kinds of critical analysis.  In fact, there was not much deep critical commentary on Trakl until the 1950’s.  Interest grew markedly with the publication in 1961 of Robert Bly and James Wright’s Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl (Sixties Press (Madison), 1961).

One of the more interesting comments came in 1915, from Rilke in a private letter on Sebastian I’m Traum that was published much later:  “I imagine that even those standing close shall still experience these views and insights as if through a window-pane: since Trakls’ experience goes as if in reflections and fills his whole room, which is unenterable, like the room in a mirror. (Who could he have been?)”  I like these comments a lot, that description of wide vistas in enclosed space circling back endlessly on itself.  Heidegger has also made some wonderful and fascinating comments on the poems, in the way they open and close, present and distance themselves and their objects and images.  I also like this by Robert Bly:  “The poems of Georg Trakl have a magnificent silence in them. It is very rare that he himself talks—for the most part he allows the images to speak for him.”

The images speak, not the poet.  It is a brilliant comment, and perfectly describes the feeling we get reading the poems:

 

Homecoming 

The coolness of dark years,
Pain & Hope
Preserved by cyclopean rock,
Abandoned mountains,
Autumn’s gold breath,
Evening cloud—
Purity!

Crystal childhood
Looks on with blue eyes;
Under dark spruce
Love, Hope,
Dew that falls
From fiery eyelids onto the stiff grass—
Incessantly!

There:—
The gold path
Breaks in the snow
Of the abyss!
The dark valley
Breathes blue coolness,
Faith, Hope!
Lonely churchyard, welcome!

Lament (I)

Child, from your crystal mouth
Your gold gaze sank into the valley;
The woods trembling red & lifeless
Wave in the black evening hour.
Evening strikes such deep wounds!

Fear! The dream-sickness of death,
The withered grave & the spent
Year gazes from the tree & deer;
A sallow field, & an acre of land.
The shepherd calls the frightened sheep.

Your blue brows, sister,
Beckon gently in the night.
The organ groans & hell laughs
& the heart is seized with horror—
It would rather look upon star & angel.

The mother must fear for her child;
The ore sounds red in the pit,
Lust, tears, stony sorrow,
The dark legends of the Titans,
Sadness!  Sad cries of solitary eagles.

Night Surrender

Holy Sister, let your darkness embrace me,
Your mountains so cold & blue!
The dew bleeds down & is dark;
The cross looms up against the glittering stars.

When the mouth & the lie finally broke
There was purple in the room’s decaying coolness;
Then the laughter shone, then the gold game,
Then the last windings of the clock.

A cloud across the moon! At night,
Wild fruit falls black from the tree,
& the room becomes a grave,
& this earthly pilgrimage a dream.

In The East

The grim anger of nations,
Like the wild organ-sounds of the winter storm,
The purple wave of battle,
Stars that have shed their leaves.

With shattered foreheads & silver arms
Night calls to the dying soldiers.
The spirits of the battle-dead groan
In the shadow of autumnal ash.

A desert of thorns surrounds the city.
The moon chases the terrified women
From steps that are bleeding.
Wild wolves have broken through the gate.

 

NOTE:  
Let me conclude this blog entry with James Wright’s wonderful description of his own experience of Trakl’s poetry, made in his 1975 Paris Review interview.  He was talking about a time in the 1950’s, just after reading a copy of Robert Bly’s magazine The Fifties, which contained a translation of a poem by Trakl:

Some years earlier, at the University of Vienna, I had read in German the poetry of Trakl and I didn’t know what to do with it, though I recognized that somehow it had a depth of life in it that I needed. Trakl is a poet who writes in parallelisms, only he leaves out the intermediary, rationalistic explanations of the relation between one image and another. I would suppose that Trakl has had as much influence on me as anybody else has had. But the interesting thing is that when I read Robert Bly’s magazine, I wrote him a letter. It was sixteen pages long and single-spaced, and all he said in reply was, “Come on out to the farm.” I made my way out to that farm, and almost as soon as we met each other we started to work on our translation of Trakl.

It resulted in one of the great Bly-Wright collaborative books of translation, mentioned above, Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl.  Wright was so taken by that experience that Trakl’s modes influenced some of his subsequent poems.  You can see the influence for example in a poem like “Rain”:

It is the sinking of things.

Flashlights drift over dark trees.
Girls kneel.
An owl’s eyelids fall.

The sad bones of my hands descend into a valley
Of strange rocks.

I spent hours with that poem as an undergraduate at Hobart, as I was trying to learn the craft of writing poetry, understand the taxonomy and power of images.  This poem overwhelmed me as tried to understand how Wright had composed it, and how he balanced out the relative weight of these apparently so simple lines to reach that extraordinary conclusion.  How does a line like “Girls kneel” manage to occupy the same space and weight—for it does—as the “sad bones” line.  What are those “strange rocks,” and how do they receive this sinking?  There is something magical in all of that, an set of invisible relations, an ordering of things that resists analysis, and that, as in so much of Trakl’s work, makes the poetry.

Trakl: More Late Period Poems

Here are more of my translations from Trakl’s extraordinary May-July 1914 outpouring that produced “Das Herz” (“The Heart), “Der Schlaf” (“Sleep”), “Der Abend” (“Evening”), “Die Nacht” (“Night”), “Die Schwermut” (“Melancholy”), and “Die Hedmkehr” (“Homecoming”).  These, and the poems to come, are all affected by the impending sense of doom and of the war that would begin in August of that year.  The proximate trigger for World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie in June, 1914.  But well before this an arms race had begun—between 1908 and 1913, the military spending of the European powers increased by 50%.  There was a first and second Balkan War, with territories lost and gained, and great powers maneuvering for influence.  Bosnia and Herzegovina were called the “powder keg of Europe.”  Reading these poems you can feel the poet’s sense of doom and even apocalypse, as he senses a world sliding inexorably toward the bloody conflict.

Evening

Moon, you fill
The silent forest with
The dead shapes of heroes,
Crescent moon—
With the soft embrace
Of Lovers,
Shadows of the great ages
Around the decaying rock;
The light shines bluish
Toward the city
Where cold & wicked
A decaying race
Prepares a dark future
For the white grandsons.
Their moon-twisted shadows
Sigh in the empty crystal
Of a mountain‑lake.

Night

I sing you, wild cliffs,
Towering mountains,
In the night‑storm;
You gray towers
Overflowing with faces of hell,
Fiery beasts,
Rough ferns, pines,
Crystal flowers,
Eternal torment,
You sought God
Gentle spirit,
Groaning in the cataract,
In the swaying pines.

The fires of nations
Burn gold everywhere.
Drunk with death
The whirlwind of light
Plunges over black cliffs,
The blue wave
Of the glacier
& the bell
Thunders in the valley:
Flames, curses,
& the dark
Games of lust,
A petrified head
Storms the heavens.

Sadness

Dark moon
Immense, inward
Shaped by autumn clouds,
& the stillness of gold evenings;
A green mountain‑stream in twilight,
Shadow‑zone
Of shattered pines;
A village
Devoutly fading in brown sepia‑prints.

See the black horses run
In the misty pasture.
Soldiers!
Laughing blood pours
From the hill where the sun rolls dying….
Under the silent
Oaks!
O bitter sadness
Of the army; a shining helmet
Sank clattering from a purple brow.

Autumn night comes
Cool, shining with stars,
Like a silent nun
Above the shattered remains.

Critics see four phases in Trakl’s work:  youth or juvenilia, followed by  an expressionist phase from about 1909 to 1912, a third phase which begins more or less with “Psalm” in 2012, and then a too-brief fourth and final phase which begins in 1914 and lasts until his death in November of that year.  These poems are from his final year, and point to the incredible brilliance yet to come, of “Grodek” and “Klage.”

Trakl: The Storm That Is The World & The Home

“Storm” is one of the half-dozen or so poems completed by Trakl in 1914 in the months before his suicide.  It is a significant further development from the style of “Psalm” and the great poems “Helian” and “Elis.”  It maintains their technique of narrative construction as a form of symbolic argument, but much else is new.  There is, for example, the jarring mix of concrete and symbolic images set in opposition to each other, the abrupt changes of context, the use of  plural nouns—mountains, fathers, mothers, eagles, spirits, etc.—as if to describe an entire world by its classes and categories, and the underlying inescapable sense of violence or potential violence that occupies this world:

Storm

You wild mountains, noble
Grief of eagles.
Gold clouds
Smoke above the stony waste.
The pines breath a patient stillness,
& the black lambs on the abyss,
Where the blue suddenly
Grows strangely mute,
The soft hum of bees.
O green flower—
O Silence!

Dark & dreamlike, spirits of the torrent
Terrify the heart.
Darkness
That breaks in upon the gorges!
White voices
Straying through terrible vestibules.
Terraces torn apart,
Immense & violent anger of fathers,
Sad cries of mothers,
The boy’s gold battle-cry,
& the unborn
Groaning with blind eyes.

O grief, fiery vision
Of immense spirits!
Already in the black tumult
Of horses & carriages,
The rose‑terrible bolt of lightning
Flashes in the ringing spruce.
Magnetic cool
Hovers around this proud head,
The burning sorrow
Of an angry God.

Fear, venomous snake,
Black one, die in stone!
Now wild streams
Of tears run down,
Storm‑pity,
Echoing in menacing thunder
Around the snowy peaks.
Fire
Purifies the torn night.

Is there a story being told here?  There is one, or at least, the hint of one that comes, as in so many of Trakl’s poems, in fragments we must assemble.  I think the meaning is in the opposition, the narrative in the images.

We don’t learn much about the speaker.  He speaks directly to the mountains and the items of this world, and describes its elements and metamorphoses; but he does not speak to us or talk about himself to us.  We overhear him describe his fear as a snake and tell it to die, and describe his tears, and his works, and the purifying fire in the short breathless phrases and quick motions of hysteria, in the confusion of lines and images of someone overwhelmed by emotions:  We move rapidly from calmness to rage to fear and anger, each metamorphosing into the next emotional state, each attended by a sequence of external and internal images.

We notice how the poem moves from the static silence of stanza one, to the natural and familial terror of stanza two, then the fear and noise of stanza three, all culminating in the purification by fire in the final stanza.  Perhaps we notice also how the poem moves from the gold clouds of the first stanza, to the burning sorrow of the God of the third stanza, to the purifying fire of the final lines.  Or the way the mountains that are the “noble / Grief of eagles” become the setting for menacing thunder and wild streams of tears. By these means, the poem is telling us that something has taken place during its course that rends the night and is purified by fire.  The poem does not go so far as to say that it must be purified that way, only that it is; yet I find it hard to read those last lines as anything other than the fatal necessary conclusion of the story being told.

The nub of the story seems to me to be in the second stanza, when mountains and gorges turn into vestibules, thus symbolically becoming homes and houses.  We hear about the anger of the fathers (not a singular father, but all fathers!) and the sad cries of the mothers (ditto!), and the boy’s (singular!) battle cry.  Something is being birthed, and unless these reactions are endemic to this world, something is causing this conflict, something that is “Groaning with blind eyes.”  What?  We don’t know; it is unborn, in the German it is an abstract neuter-noun, thus a thing, alive enough to groan.

Whatever is going on here, all the fathers and all the mothers are caught up in the same reactions of anger and sadness, while the boy fights back.  Does he fight at them?  It looks that way, but we cannot be sure.  Perhaps he fights at the world thus created, full of angry fathers and lamenting mothers and white voices and homes that are really wild mountains in storm.  We get a hint of some such possibility with the image in the first stanza of the “black lambs on the abyss,” where the blue goes mute and the silence grows like a green plant.  In Trakl, blue is a special color, the color of beginnings and endings, that is, the color of pre-dawn and dusk.  In this formulation, the beginnings and endings of things are suddenly silent, which I take to mean that they are unjudging and neutral, as a tarnished innocence perches over the abyss (how else construe a black lamb but as tarnished innocence?).

The third and fourth stanzas carry this sense of the violent correspondence of the inner and outer worlds further, in the third stanza with the “black tumult / Of horses & carriages” finding an equal weight with “The rose‑terrible bolt of lightning” in the spruce, and the “burning sorrow / Of an angry God.”  In the fourth stanza the wild streams become tears and the pity of the storm joins the mountains.  Notice how these two stanzas join, how the burning sorrow of the angry God joins to the fire that purifies the night.  One might construct a conclusion to this poem that says that in this house which is a mountain filled with storms of angry fathers, lamenting mothers, and an unborn blind thing which is groaning not into this life but only into a significance, the only release possible for the son with his battle-cry in the world of tears he lives in, and for this angry God who oversees it, is this purifying and perhaps divine fire.

I am sure that others will find other significance and correspondences in the poem, for this is a poem that encourages us to see them and to move with them.  This is the same May-early July time period of composition that produced the extraordinary works, “Das Herz” (“The Heart), “Der Schlaf” (“Sleep”), “Der Abend” (“Evening”), “Die Nacht” (“Night”), “Die Schwermut” (“Melancholy”), and “Die Heimkehr” (“Homecoming”).  Later would come the masterpieces “Grodek” and “Klage,” about World War I, written just before his death.  I will write about those, but chose this poem to translate because it marked another turning point in the development of his extraordinary art.

 

Finding His True Voice: Trakl’s “Psalm”

The moment when a poet finds his or her true voice is incredibly exciting.  “Psalm” by Georg Trakl, written in 1912, is such a moment.  It is an unrhymed poem—not new for the poet, but this is his first successful usage—and longer than any of his earlier poems, with a new tone and new ambition.  It is visionary and inclusive, an opening of the field, to borrow a phrase from Robert Duncan. From here on his work becomes ever more visionary and other-directed, both more comprehensive and more mysterious.  It becomes recognizably the mature poetry of this extraordinary poet.  Here is my translation of the poem:

Psalm (2nd Version)

There is a light the wind blows out,
There is a tavern the village drunkard leaves in the afternoon,
There are holes filled with spiders in the black scorched vineyard,
There is a room they have whitewashed with milk.
One day the Mad One died.  There is an island in the South Seas
That will receive the Sun-God.  When the drums sound,
The men begin their war-dances.
The women shake their hips covered in vines & poppies
When the ocean sings.  O lost paradise!

The nymphs leave their forests of gold.
They bury the Stranger.  A glistening rain begins.
The son of Pan appears as a common laborer
Who sleeps through noon on the burning asphalt.
There are young girls in the courtyard in dresses of heart-rending poverty!
There are rooms filled with chords & sonatas.
There are shadows that embrace in front of a blind mirror.
The sick warm themselves at the hospital windows.
A white steamer carries the bloody pestilence up the canal.

The strange sister appears again in someone’s evil dream.
Resting in the hazel-bush she toys with his stars.
The student, or perhaps his double, gazes after her a long time from the window.

Behind him stands the dead brother, or he descends the worn winding-stairs.
In the dark of the chestnut-trees, the figure of the young novice grows pale.
It is evening in the garden.  Commotion of bats in the cloister.
The children of the caretaker stop their play & seek the gold of heaven.

Final chord of a quartet.  The little blind girl runs trembling through the avenue,
Later her shadow gropes along cold walls, surrounded by fairy- tales & holy legends.

There is an empty boat that drifts down the black canal at evening.
Human ruins decay in the dusk of the old asylum.
The dead orphans lay on the garden wall.
Angels with filth-stained wings step from gray walls.
Maggots fall from their yellowed eyelids.
The square in front of the church is dark & silent, as in the days of childhood.
Former lives glide past on silver feet
& the shadows of the damned sink down to groaning waters.
In his grave the white magician toys with his serpents.

Silently God’s gold eyes open over Golgotha.

Several things in this poem are different than his earlier work.  The long lines, for instance, which you can feel in reading are necessary to the development of the poem and the credibility of the images.  The use of parallel syntax and sentence structures is also new (the “There is… structure and the extended use of simple declarative sentences depicting actions in ways that come to seem parallel, so that all seem to acquire an equal weight:  I would argue that this parallel syntax is its metric).  Others may have helped him develop this structure.  He may have learned or seen this use of lines and syntax from Whitman and Rimbaud, as I point out in a note below.  He modified whatever he saw, and fitted it to his own usage.  To say that he saw such techniques elsewhere does not detract from the originality or the scope of his achievement here.  (It is interesting to note that he did not use these long lines again, a possible way of distancing himself from this debt.)

Several actions and images in the poem are mysterious and fragmentary.  I think the poem earns all of its mystery.  Think of those actions that seem barely defined yet important to the narrative of the poem (“They bury the Stranger.”  “The dead orphans lay on the garden wall.”)  There are tales of the South Seas and exotic or erotic dances but also of the scorched orchard:  the idyll cohabits a space with the desolate, the Garden with the wasteland that comes after the apocalypse.  This is not a standard narrative structure; it is rather, I believe, a way of making an argument, and of describing a world.  More, if you will, “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” than “Gawain and the Green Knight.”  There is a story being told, and we glimpse it, but never see it full; because the story is the argument.

And then there is that final line, so astounding in the way it brings in the extra-sensual level of reality:  God watches all.  A needed final statement to the argument.  We feel its necessity as we read it, its weight, its power:  We feel that its placement is exactly where it needs to be.  The statement is not a judgment on what has gone before it in the poem, not an inversion like in a sonnet’s end-lines, or a poetic conclusion in any ordinary sense, but rather the opening of a door to another consideration, an invitation to look again and feel again all that we have witnessed in the poem.  This God is not an actor.  He is silent in his gazing, more a deist God than the intervenor God of Christianity.  He sees what is here, but he does not act upon it, does not speak, does not judge.  He only watches over Golgotha as the poet describes this doomed world in tones that seem totally objective, factual, without intrusion or judgment by the poet.  His eyes are gold.  Gold!

An astounding poem.

NOTE:
Are there influences here from other poets?  I think so.  You can see or feel Whitman lurking behind some of the lines, for example:

15
The pure contralto sings in the organ loft,
The carpenter dresses his plank, the tongue of his foreplane whistles  its wild ascending lisp,
The married and unmarried children ride home to their Thanksgiving dinner,
The pilot seizes the king-pin, he heaves down with a strong arm,
The mate stands braced in the whale-boat, lance and harpoon are  ready,
The duck-shooter walks by silent and cautious stretches,
The deacons are ordain’d with cross’d hands at the altar,
The spinning-girl retreats and advances to the hum of the big  wheel,
The farmer stops by the bars as he walks on a First-day loafe and looks at the oats and rye,
The lunatic is carried at last to the asylum a confirm’d case…. 

And there is some Rimbaud, perhaps sections II and III from the poem Childhood from A Season in Hell:

II
It is she, the little girl, dead behind the rosebushes.

– The young mamma, deceased, comes down the stoop. – The cousin’s carriage creaks on the sand. – The little brother (he is in India!) there, before the western sky in the meadow of pinks. The old men who have been buried upright in the rampart overgrown with gillyflowers.

Swarms of golden leaves surround the general’s house. They are in the south. – You follow the red road to reach the empty inn. The chateau is for sale; the shutters are coming off. The priest must have taken away the key of the church. Around the park the keepers’ cottages are uninhabited. The enclosures are so high that nothing can be seen but the rustling tree tops. Besides, there is nothing to be seen within.

The meadows go up to the hamlets without anvils or cocks. The sluice gate is open. O the Calvaries and the windmills of the desert, the islands and the haystacks!

Magic flowers droned. The slopes cradled him. Beasts of a fabulous elegance moved about. The clouds gathered over the high sea, formed of an eternity of hot tears.

III
In the woods there is a bird; his song stops you and makes you blush.

There is a clock that never strikes.

There is a hollow with a nest of white beasts.

There is a cathedral that goes down and a lake that goes up.

There is a little carriage abandoned in the copse or that goes running down the road beribboned.

There is a troupe of little actors in costume, glimpsed on the road through the border of the woods.

And then, when you are hungry and thirsty, there is someone who drives you away…

 

But these are influences, not the core of the poem, not its subject or its vision.  They are the ladders, if you will, that Trakl had to climb to find his voice somewhere in that second or third story of the house of poetry, and that he then left behind.