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:
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.
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.
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.
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.