Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Trakl’s poem was completed in June, 1914, a few months before the outbreak of World War I. In August, 1914, Trakl was drafted into the Austrian army as a pharmacist-lieutenant, and after three months of service in which he witnessed scenes of horrible carnage, resulting in his being placed under observation for psychological trauma, Trakl died of a cocaine overdose in November, 1914. As a result, the tone and subject of the poem seem eerily prophetic, and the disjointed syntactical arrangement of images is often thought to reflect the pressure of the time and the unraveling of logic in a world on its last legs, about to collapse into war.
“The Occident,” then, is a marvelous expressionistic portrait of an era in which a civilization was carried irresistibly toward destruction. In his search for the expressive potential of the image, Trakl managed to reach a level of expression that is beyond the expression of personal feelings. He captured the anxiety of a period of history. In a language that is, in its repetition of elements and its portentous symbolic tone, so reminiscent of the language of prophecy, Trakl managed to anticipate the calamity in which the entire world would be involved.
The poem, however, is not concerned solely with decline. Trakl’s poetry, prior to his last military assignments, is never a poetry of ultimate pessimism. The wanderer, the figure of the poet, turns aside from the materialistic current of the times to seek, uncertainly, a new idealism. The boy Elis, developed in several poems in Trakl’s last volume, does not undergo the prevailing decline but awaits a time that will come after the decline has reached its lowest point. Such figures in Georg Trakl’s poetry represent hope for the reawakening of spiritual values after the magnificent and terrifying sunset of the first decades of the new century, and after the night that would follow. They represent the hope of a new dawn.