Georg Trakl 1877–1914
Austrian poet and dramatist.
While the eminence and influence of Georg Trakl's poetry has been widely discussed, his work is best known for its lyric qualities. His controlled use of colors, sounds, and ciphers blending into brooding meditations, as well as the exquisite tone of his cries against man's doomed existence are two hallmarks of his work. These tendencies closely align him with German Expressionism, and both Ranier Maria Rilke and French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud were inspired by his work. Conversely, Trakl's writing exhibits many of the techniques and themes employed by the Imagists, Surrealists, and Impressionists, making his work difficult to classify. Many critics believe he was a modernist before his time, citing as evidence his paratactical lines which break free from traditional poetical modes to follow musical forms and expressions to a great degree.
Trakl, born in 1887 in Salzburg, was the son of affluent parents. His brief, troubled life spans years of great upheaval: the apex and decline of the Habsburg monarchy, the Jahnhundertwende of 1900, and the outbreak of the first World War. While this period gave rise to much artistic and cultural innovation—Freud, Mahler, Wittgenstein and Klimt were among Trakl's contemporaries—this turn-of-the-century era was in spirit marked by an awareness of the decay of all social structures and of the danger this change posed to the future of mankind. In this vein Trakl's verse proceeds: he was exceedingly aware that his world, personal as well as external, was "breaking apart," entzweibricht, a term he coined, causing "Leid," a state of suffering. This mood prevails in his poetry.
The disparity in ages between his parents, his mother's opium habit, or the Catholic schooling he and his brothers and sisters received although growing up in a Protestant household—these may have caused deep disturbances in Trakl's personality, and contributed to the schizophrenia from which he suffered. This condition, coupled with his drug and alcohol use, led Trakl quickly to his end. By age fifteen, Trakl was experimenting with chloroform and had begun drinking heavily; by 1905 he had left school prematurely. Both he and his sister Margaret, the sibling to whom he was the closest, found the paths of middle-class life unendurable compared to the towers of their art. Their relationship, debatably incestuous, haunted him even as it
nourished him. Her figure appears often in his work as "the sister," an alter ego, a beloved, a mirror-image or doppelganger. Even though she married and was able to play the role of the bourgeois wife, she herself committed suicide a few years after Trakl did.
After being forced to leave school, Trakl began an apprenticeship in a pharmacy that, unfortunately and ultimately, fed his future addiction to narcotics. From this point onward, events in his life are inextricably woven into his poetry. His increasing addiction to narcotics is reflected in his use of images, synaesthesia and an inscrutable personal mythology. Likewise, his experiences during World War I also gave rise to a prolific period, but eventually proved too much for his fragile mental condition.
In August of 1914, Trakl went to Austrian-controled Poland as medic under the command of incompetent Austrian generals. After a bloody defeat at Grodek, Trakl was left to care for ninety wounded throughout two days and two nights, and without supplies or attending physicians. The battle at Grodek caused Trakl to suffer a psychotic episode upon the unit's retreat. He threatened to shoot himself in front of his fellow officers but was disarmed and restrained, and in October, ordered to the hospital at Cracow for observation. His mentor, Ludwig Ficker hurried to Cracow to secure his release because he knew that confinement would only cause Trakl's condition to deteriorate. Unable to secure the release, Ficker later received a letter from Trakl and a copy of "Grodek" and "Lament," Trakl's last two poems, the former considered to be one of his greatest lyrics. A week later, Trakl died of an overdose of cocaine.
As early as 1904, Trakl was writing poetry. Having been influenced by Charles Baudelaire and the symbolist idea of music as the pure, non-referential art form, and having played piano himself, he joined a poet's club of young writers inspired by the spirit of the Jahrhundertwende. Trakl's early poetry itself was fueled by the tension be tween Nietzschean frenzy and Dostoevskian despair.
After being forced to leave school in 1906, Trakl wrote two one-act verse tragedies, Totentag and Fata Morgana; the former was well-received by his Salzburg audience. The other's failure temporarily blocked his creative impulses, but eventually he resumed work on a third, a threeact tragedy, Don Juans Tod, which was destroyed in 1912. While working toward finishing his studies, Trakl continued to write poetry and, by the time he received his master's degree in pharmacy in 1910, his work exhibited a technical mastery, and he was beginning to make his own mark on Romantic and symbolist imagery.
Trakl's patriotism led him to volunteer for a year as a medic with the Austro-Hungarian army stationed in Vienna. After that term, he was unable to adjust to working in Salzburg again and so requested to return to active duty, this time in Innsbruck. It was during 1912 that he met Ludwig von Ficker, the editor of Der Brenner, a literary journal of the highest caliber that was to publish a poem of Trakl's in every issue from 1912 to 1914. Ficker also provided criticism, spiritual advice, and succor to Trakl as his life deteriorated. In 1913 Trakl suffered a bout of depression in Ficker's home even as his first collection of poems, Gedichte, was being readied for publication. Although Trakl's mental health became increasingly unstable, he continued to be very prolific through much of 1914, the last year of his life. He revised his second collection, Sebastian im Traum, was published posthumously in 1915.
Most critics concur that Trakl's work had a major impact on German Expressionism. Many others agree that his later works were modern in nature, exhibiting an aggregate of rhythms, grammatical structures like musical scores, and poetic logic of colors, phrasings, and figures all his own. As he developed in his craft, his poems become more impersonal, devoid of the first-person pronoun, employing what some critics call "mythic objectivity." As philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Trakl's patron, said, "I do not understand them; but their tone pleases me. It is the tone of true genius." This objective style may be written proof of Trakl's schizophrenia; on the other hand, it may have been Trakl's superlative, horrific statement against man's corrupted condition. Indisputably his work is despairing, violent, obsessive, even perverse at times, but many argue that his Christian faith may yet serve to provide possible redemption in his work. Trakl saw himself in a hell from which he had no "absolution" to leave, his visions of heaven always too distant from earth. The nearest Trakl comes to expressing an affirmation of life comes from his pantheism, learned from Hölderlin, which imbues his work with compassion. His mature poetry makes a definitive statement or analysis of his poetry difficult, so it is that Trakl's compressed, carefully revised verse remains as a testament of this poet's life.