The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

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“Evening Song” is a short lyric poem written in a symmetrical structure that contributes to the poem’s cyclical effect. The poem is only fourteen lines long, the same length as a sonnet, although Georg Trakl’s poem does not function quite like a sonnet. Trakl creates his structure by repeating the pattern of a three-line stanza enclosed by two-line stanzas. In German, stanzas 3 and 4 contain the same number of syllables, which reinforces the poem’s symmetrical nature as well as acting as an echo. All of these elements lend a feeling of closure to the poem.

Although “Evening Song” is technically written in free verse, some of the couplets form end rhymes, which extends the symmetry of the poem. This technique and the intricate rhythms of the language are lost in translation, but the overall rhythms of Trakl’s poem come through in English, combining with the poem’s motion to create a circular, unified result.

Trakl begins “Evening Song” in the same way that he begins many of his poems: The speaker is somewhere unknown, walking on a dark path. Even in English, Trakl’s language reinforces the idea of walking. The rhythm of the language is steady and methodical, but occasionally pauses, reminding one of walking.

Despite the fact that Trakl goes to some effort to construct a sensation of motion for the reader, he is most concerned with what happens on the walk. Between stanzas 3 and 4, the fulcrum of the poem, a shift occurs, which, in effect, divides the poem in half. In the first part (stanzas 1-3), the functions of the speaker are those of observation and narration, but in the second part (stanzas 4-6), the function of the speaker is introspection.

In the first three verses, the speaker employs the first-person-plural “we” and speaks in the present tense only of activities: “When we are thirsty,/ We drink the white waters of the pool.” These three stanzas depict a landscape experienced equally by both parties. In the final three stanzas though, the speaker shifts from “we” to “I” and from present to past tense: “When I took your slender hands/ You opened your soft round eyes.” This deviation signals the end of the outward journey and the beginning of an inward one.

From here, the poem shifts its visionary plane back to the present, and the speaker experiences a moment of insight—what James Joyce might have called an “epiphany.” These two final lines give significance to the speaker’s “walk” and to his introspection, because the “you” he speaks to appears “white” “when a darker melody visits the soul.” Traditionally, and in this poem, white serves as a symbol of purity. Therefore, the walk leads the speaker to the realization of his friend’s purity when the soul is at its most impure. Furthermore, the use of “dark” and “appear” in the final couplet echoes their appearance in the opening couplet. The circular motion of the poem is realized, and, in effect, the end becomes the beginning.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Because “Evening Song” is such a short poem, there is not much room for weighty or repetitive poetic techniques, such as one might find in Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies” or Vicente Huidobro’s Altazor. Trakl does, however, infuse the lines of his poem with a mysterious force that derives from his use of adjectives and concrete nouns.

Almost no noun in the entire poem appears without an adjective, yet many of the adjectives are not particularly precise. In “Spring clouds rise over the dark city,” spring does not really describe the clouds, nor dark the city, because the function of these adjectives is not one of description but one of evocation. The images of spring clouds and of a dark city do not so much characterize the objects as create a mood. The images in a Trakl poem express auras and possess tonality and ambience, like the colors in a painting by the Russian Wassily Kandinsky.

“Spring clouds” rising above a “dark city” suggests that life or rebirth (something archetypally associated with spring) is commandeering the dark city, which seems to represent death or decay. The whiteness of the clouds contrasts with the darkness of the city, just as, in the final couplet, the “white” of the friend contrasts with the “darker melody” of the soul.

Trakl’s images may appear arbitrary and disjointed because they do not work progressively in the poem. The images seem to be linked mysteriously, like arms reaching through a fog, and it seems that the images contain the weight of myth, but only within the world of the poem. In “Evening Song,” such a phenomenon helps to reinforce the circular connections that are already at work in the poem.

Another interesting poetic device that Trakl employs in almost every one of his poems is silence. No sounds occur in the poem at all. There is a “melody” in the final couplet, but it makes no noise; it simply “visits.” Not even the “gray gulls” make noise; the speaker and his friend watch them without hearing them.

Trakl is also fond of silencing objects that cannot speak anyway. In stanza 4, the dark city is “Silenced by the monks of nobler times.” Often Trakl silences birds, trees, stones, even God, but in “Evening Song,” Trakl the poet does not do the silencing; instead, it is the monks who silence. Because they hail from nobler and no doubt purer times, the monks are imbued with more power of voice than the dark city.

All these silences affect the tone of the poem. Because there are no sounds, the poem seems to exist within a void, unable to reach beyond itself. Perhaps this is why Trakl’s images operate internally and why they do not reflect his voice, but speak so powerfully for themselves.