Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The quality of Georg Trakl’s poetry has never been disputed, but its meaning has eluded critics for decades. Attempts to interpret his work within the Christian context were necessarily selective. Studies of particular images found that they could mean different things in different poems. When the pieces simply did not fit together, the last critical resort was always to the biographical fact of Trakl’s dependency on cocaine, which supposedly rendered the logic of his visions unreproducible. Certainly, the surface picture is often confoundingly complex.

It was not until 1985, more than seventy years after his death, that Trakl’s work was decoded in a monumental psychoanalytical study by Gunther Kleefeld, Das Gedicht als Sühne (the poem as penance). His title, taken from one of Trakl’s letters, emphasizes the highly personal nature of the poetry. Trakl did not consciously set out to construct a clever system of cryptic symbols. In fact, he himself may not have known why his poems took the shape they did. Images arose in free association out of the deep structures of a disturbed psyche, much as they do in dreams, and the psychoanalytical approach has proved to be the best method of deciphering their meaning.

The task of interpreting Trakl’s poetry is simplified by the small size of the cast of characters who may appear (although in any number of forms). He deals with himself, his sister, his father, and his mother, and continually reworks his...

(The entire section is 608 words.)