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.
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.
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.
Are there influences here from other poets? I think so. You can see or feel Whitman lurking behind some of the lines, for example:
And there is some Rimbaud, perhaps sections II and III from the poem Childhood from A Season in Hell:
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.
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…