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.
Gedichte [Poems] (1913)
Sebastian im Traum [Sebastian Dreaming] (1915)
Die dichtungen (1918)
Aus goldenem kelch (1939)
Decline: Twelve Poems by G. Trakl, 1998-1914 (1952)
Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl (1961)
Selected Poems (1968)
In the Red Forest (1973)
Other Major Works
Fata Morgana (drama) 1906
Totentag [All Souls Day] (drama) 1906
*Don Juans Tod [Don Juan's Death] (unfinished drama) 1907
Dichtungen und briefe (poetry, prose poems, and letters) 1969
*The manuscript to this three-act verse drama is believed to have been destroyed in 1912.
Theodore Holmes (review date 1962)
SOURCE: A review of Twenty Poems of Georg Trakl, in Poetry, Vol. C, No. 5, August, 1962, pp. 322-24.
[In the following excerpt, the reviewer points out the singular appeal of Trakl's abstract poetry, commenting also on Bly's and Wright's translations.]
George Trakl died young, and his poems are the work of a young poet; they combine the social concern of Auden with the vague romanticism of unresolved emotion we find in so much of Goethe—there is a spectral quality to them that is all their own. They are the immediate violent reaction of the youthful heart to the deep numbness it feels in the face of the brutality and injustice of the world. In them there is...
(The entire section is 759 words.)
D. J. Enright (review date 1968)
SOURCE: A review of Selected Poems, in The Listener, Vol. 80, No. 2065, October 24, 1968, p. 542.
[In the following favorable review, Enright attempts to position Trakl within a particular school of poetry, at times comparing him to Holderlin.]
Georg Trakl, an Austrian, died in 1914, at the age of 27, of an overdose of drugs. This makes him, in the Germanic language of classification, an Expressionist. It only remains to find out what he expressed.
Trakl makes use of a quite constricted range of references and images (the word-counter would have an easy job here!), and many of his poems look like variations on each other. The range of meaning...
(The entire section is 1195 words.)
Michael Hamburger (essay date 1970)
SOURCE: "Georg Trakl," in Reason and Energy: Studies in German Literature, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1970, pp. 291-323.
[In the following essay, Hamburger follows the "microcosm" of Trakl's verse vis-a-vis the poet's life.]
Of all the early Expressionists, Trakl was the least rhetorical and the least dogmatic; and he was an Expressionist poet only insofar as he was a modernist poet who wrote in German. Expressionism happened to be the name attached to modernist poetry written in German; but Trakl would not have written differently if there had been no movement of that name. Nor did he have any contact with the initiators of the movement, all of whom were active in...
(The entire section is 10199 words.)
Theodore Fiedler (essay date 1972)
SOURCE: "Holderlin and Trakl's Poetry of 1914," in Friedrich Holderlin: An Early Modern, The University of Michigan Press, 1972, pp. 87-105.
[In the following excerpt, Fiedler shows how specific rhetorical patterns used by Holderlin were developed in Trakl's work as it matured; he asserts that the latter poet was "modern" in his poetical achievement.]
Trakl's interest in Hölderlin, a matter whose significance has all too readily been exaggerated by some and dismissed out of hand by others, can be traced throughout his oeuvre. As early as 1906, for example, in a rather hapless prose poem entitled "Barrabas. Eine Phantasie," Trakl employed the striking title of...
(The entire section is 4801 words.)
Martin Anderle (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "Georg Trakl: The Emergence of His Expressionist Idiom," in Review of National Literatures: German Expressionism, Griffon House Publications, Vol. 9, 1978, pp. 70-75.
[In the following excerpt, Iraki's brief body of work is examined by way of his problematic metaphors, the absence of the poetic self, and his poetic vision.]
Georg Trakl … is considered by many to be the foremost poet of the German Expressionist movement, even though he was not given the time to develop into a figure of public acclaim or controversy as was the case with some other Expressionists, notably Bertolt Brecht and Gottfried Benn. The First World War put an end to the life and...
(The entire section is 4716 words.)
Patrick Bridgwater (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Georg Trakl," in The German Poets of the First World War. Croom Helm, 1985, pp. 19-37, 168-70.
[The following excerpt analyzes Trakl's work from its perspective on war, highlighting its Kafkaesque images and techniques while citing "Kafka's verdict, that Trakl had too much imagination…. [and] the imagination which drove him out of his mind also made him a superb poet."]
Georg Trakl was the most considerable Austrian poet to see active service in 1914-18. The war, when it finally came, must have seemed a mere extension of his inner world, for he lived in a haunting and at times terrifying world of Spenglerian visions, a 'proving-ground for world-destruction'...
(The entire section is 8430 words.)
Dennis Sampson (review date 1989)
SOURCE: A review of Song of the West, in The Hudson Review, Vol. 42, No. 3, Autumn 1989, pp. 508-10.
[Trakl's fevered, Christian mysticism is discussed in the following excerpt.]
Baudelaire said that Chopin's music was "like a bird of bright plumage fluttering over the horrors of the abyss," and this is an appropriate image for anyone wanting to understand the poetry of Georg Trakl. Asked why he never entered a monastery, that mysterious early twentieth-century German poet responded that he was a Protestant and had "no right to depart from hell." Does this give you an idea what to expect from this writer? Song of the West, translated by Robert Firmage, is...
(The entire section is 538 words.)
Edward Foster (review date 1990)
SOURCE: A review of Autumn Sonata: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl and Song of the West: Selected Poems of Georg Trakl in American Book Review, Vol. 12, No. 1, March-April 1990, pp. 17-18.
[In the following excerpt, Foster compares Simko's translation with that of Firmage, noting the task is to "find the poem before it is set in language. "]
Rilke thought Trakl's books important in liberating "the poetic image." Scholars and critics have expended great effort showing that what he really liberated were his sex ual repressions and his religious obsessions. Was Trakl involved with his sister? Was he a suicide? Was he, in spite of all those ugly rumors, really...
(The entire section is 1008 words.)
Karl E. Webb (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Georg Trakl and Egon Schiele: The Effects of Rimbaud on the Themes of Their Works," in Crossings—Kreuzungen, Camden House, 1990, pp. 154-63.
[In the following excerpt, the author compares Rimbaud's and Trakl's alienation from the city and God in their work.]
It is unclear just when and under what circumstances Georg Trakl first encountered Rimbaud, though it was probably late in 1911 or in 1912. He undoubtedly learned of Rimbaud's poetry, as critics such as Reinhold Grimm have pointed out, through K. L. Ammer, the pseudonym for Karl Klammer, an Austrian military officer who published the first German translations in 1907. This volume contained a...
(The entire section is 1644 words.)
Eric Williams (essay date 1992)
SOURCE: "Georg Trakl's Dark Mirrors," in Modern Austrian Literature, Vol. 25, No. 2, 1992, pp. 15-35.
[The following essay explores modes common to much of Trakl's verse: its reflexivity, revisionism, and its many "mirror motifs."]
In meiner Seele dunklem Spiegel
Sind Bilder niegeseh'ner Meere,
Verlass'ner, tragisch phantastischer Länder
Zerfliessend ins Blaue, Ungefähre.
"I imagine," wrote Rainer Maria Rilke after reading George Trakl's first volume of poetry, published posthumously in 1915, "that even the initiated experiences...
(The entire section is 6872 words.)
Sharp, Francis Michael. "Georg Trakl." In Major Figures of Austrian Literature: The Interwar Years 1918-1938, pp. 459-86. Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1995.
Argues that despite his slight oeuvre and short life, Trakl sustains his appeal to readers.
Brown, Russell E. "Attribute Pairs in the Poetry of Georg Trakl." Modern Language Notes Vol. 82, No. 4 (October 1974): 439-45.
Investigates Trakl's innovations with German syntax, especially his word pairs, which fragment his worldview and creates a modernistic sense of "free-floating...
(The entire section is 466 words.)