Georg Trakl was born in Salzburg, on February 3, 1887. During high school, he decided to become a pharmacist. After serving his pharmaceutical apprenticeship, he studied pharmacy for four semesters in Vienna and earned his degree in 1910. Trakl wrote two one-act plays (Totentag and Fata Morgana), both of which were performed in Salzburg. The failure of the latter prompted him to destroy the manuscripts of both plays.
Trakl’s earliest poems were written during the last years of the first decade of the twentieth century. In 1910 and 1911, Trakl served in the military as a dispensing pharmacist. After several unsuccessful attempts at a career as a pharmacist, he fell into severe depression and sought refuge from a hostile reality in drugs, to which he had easy access. He would have been unable to cope had it not been for the friendship and patronage of Ludwig von Ficker, publisher of the Austrian journal Der Brenner. Ficker published in his journal almost all Trakl’s poetry written between 1912 and 1914. He was one of the few who recognized Trakl’s poetic genius during the poet’s lifetime. Besides his friendship, Ficker offered Trakl shelter and financial help.
In late August of 1914, with the outbreak of World War I, Trakl, who was serving as a lieutenant in the medical corps, was sent into combat. After the battle of Grodek in Galicia, he was ordered to care for ninety seriously wounded fellow soldiers who were housed in a barn. Not having the medical training and expertise necessary to help the wounded, Trakl was overwhelmed by the gruesome experience and suffered a nervous breakdown. Comrades prevented him from shooting himself. A few weeks later, he was sent to the garrison hospital at Krakow for observation and psychiatric care. There, he was confined to a cell with another officer who was suffering from delirium tremens. On the night of November 3, 1914, Trakl died from an overdose of cocaine. The question of whether his death was accidental has remained unanswered.
Even though Georg Trakl (TRAHK-uhl), in his shockingly short lifetime, produced only a slender number of poems, many critics consider these among the greatest to have been produced in the twentieth century, ranking with the work of Rainer Maria Rilke, Federico García Lorca, William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Osip Mandelstam, and Anna Akhmatova. In 1917 Rilke declared that “Trakl’s poetry is to me an object of sublime existence . . . [which has] mapped out a new dimension of the spirit.” Trakl’s life was filled with almost incessant suffering caused by depression, incest, and addiction to drugs. He was born into a prosperous Protestant family in Salzburg’s overwhelmingly Catholic society. His mother was a taciturn woman who suffered from depression, became addicted to opium, and often retired to her room for days on end. The father also held himself aloof from his seven sons and single daughter. Georg formed a close attachment to his sister, Grete, and he focused in many of his poems on the erotic attraction between a brother and a sister. Most Trakl scholars accept the likelihood of an incestuous intimacy between Georg and his sister. Grete Trakl, who suffered from emotional disturbances similar to those of her brother, shot herself three years after his death.
Trakl was an indifferent student at school, but, having been taught French by an Alsatian governess, he read the Symbolist poets Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, and Arthur Rimbaud as well as the German poets Friedrich Hölderlin, Eduard Mörike, and Stefan George, and the Austrian Hugo von Hofmannsthal. His thought was also strongly influenced by Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and particularly Fyodor Dostoevski. In early adolescence he was introduced to narcotics by a pharmacist’s son, and toward the end of his school years he grew moody and unsociable, began to talk of suicide, drank heavily, carried a bottle of chloroform around with him, and dipped his cigarettes in an opium...
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