Georg Trakl Analysis

Other Literary Forms

Although Georg Trakl is remembered primarily for his poetry, he did compose two one-act plays (Totentag, performed 1906, and Fata Morgana, performed 1906), but he later destroyed the manuscripts. His letters can be found in his collected works.


Georg Trakl was one of the major poets of German literary Expressionism (with Georg Heym and Gottfried Benn). Today, he is ranked by many critics and readers as one of the outstanding poets of the early twentieth century. Like Rainer Maria Rilke, Stefan George, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who were his contemporaries, Trakl developed the heritage of Romanticism and French Symbolism into a very personal poetic diction which, in spite of its individual and original tone, shares some significant stylistic and philosophical features with the work of Trakl’s fellow expressionist writers and artists. Trakl’s rank as a poet was recognized during his lifetime only by a few (among whom was Rilke). Because the National Socialist regime in Germany and Austria rejected expressionism, claiming it to be a form of degenerate art, Trakl’s achievement was fully recognized only after the end of World War II. His work has been particularly influential in Germany, France, and the United States.

Abstract and Absolute Techniques

Because the poetic images unfold an inner landscape, the reader can no longer be sure whether he is to take them at their face value. Trakl scholars have long claimed that many images in Trakl’s mature poetry are “ciphers”—that they point to a meaning other than their own. As part of a code, they have to be “deciphered,” since they are poetic signs which stand for a signified meaning. Trakl’s poetry, however, defies reduction to a system of ciphers, the meanings of which can be revealed by comparing all the contexts of a given cipher in the poet’s work. Often such a contextual comparison yields a variety of different meanings, some of which are contradictory. This is true particularly in the case of Trakl’s use of colors. Almost none of his color adjectives or nouns can be given a fixed meaning. An exception is the color “blue.” It frequently appears in the context of images referring to God, to biblical scenes, to childhood, or to animal life. The common semantic ingredient in all these images is the concept of innocence. The words “blue” and “blueness” also sometimes convey the idea of salvation. The cipher “blue” thus stands for a positive semantic content, one that is opposed to the notions of darkness, death, decay, or decline which are prevalent in Trakl’s poetry.

Some scholars have maintained that in those cases in which a cipher cannot be assigned a constant meaning abstracted from contextual comparison, Trakl...

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Philosophical Perspective

In spite of all the melodic obscurities in Trakl’s poems, it is possible to abstract from his texts a relatively comprehensive view of life. Although Trakl does not offer a full-fledged and systematic “philosophy,” his poems are informed by a rather consistent and, at the same time, diversified philosophical perspective that is based on his rejection of many aspects of modern reality. Like most of the expressionists of his generation, Trakl experienced modern industrialized society with its metropolitan cities as a pain-inflicting alien world of which he wanted no part. In Trakl’s case, this phobia concerning modern reality was almost paranoiac. The poet’s patron, Ludwig von Ficker, reported that he once took Trakl to a large bank in order to deposit a certain sum in Trakl’s name. The sight of this institution made Trakl physically ill, and he left the building trembling and perspiring heavily.

If there is an underlying guiding principle in Trakl’s thought and poetic style, it is his dread of life in a totally administered, technologically manipulated, and utterly commercialized world. His poetry becomes the expression of his unwillingness to cope with such a life. This is why poetry is the theater of his inner visionary world, which ignores the accepted rules and laws of normal reality. Literature functions as a sanctuary which, while it still reflects some of the evil of life, contains the features of a better antiworld. Trakl’s poetic...

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The mood in many of Trakl’s poems is one of melancholy, anxiety, and desperation. Subdued emotions such as melancholy, however, prevail over the harsher expressions of negative emotions. The poet frequently establishes a connection between expressions of negative emotions and the themes of decay and sinfulness, which are in turn interrelated.

Trakl’s view of life and human destiny is a somber and often gloomy one. Having become alienated from his world, especially from the world of the big city, man finds no comfort in religion and thus blindly pursues a meaningless life, drifting in the stream of time. Because everything ends in decay or death, time can be equated with suffering. In such a view, reality is difficult to love or even to accept. Nevertheless, life offers beauty and peace to those who know how to look for them in a hostile world. In Trakl’s poems, one indeed finds a peculiar fusion of threatening and attractive features. It is hard to decide whether the positive ingredients belong to the descriptive-mimetic dimension in Trakl’s work—which is, after all, still present to some degree—or whether they are the product of his inner poetic intuition. Nonmimetic expression and mimetic rendering of perceived impressions are often hardly distinguishable in Trakl’s texts.

Stylistic Devices

A closer look at Trakl’s principles of poetic composition reveals that the expressionist style breaks down in many different ways the established, “normal” modes of perception and logical thinking. The new expressionist “perspective” that emerges as Trakl’s poetry matures is one that disengages the reader from the customary and conventional manner in which he grasps phenomenal reality as it appears to him—to his senses and his mind.

Trakl’s “arsenal” of images, protagonists (the sister, the boy, the dreamer, the lovers, the child, the hunters, the shepherd, the farmer, the monk, the lepers), and abstract concepts is surprisingly small. The immense variety of the real world has been drastically reduced to a small number of images and concepts which are presented in various guises and which appear in ever-new configurations. This reduction represents a subtle first step toward the expressionist, nonmimetic mode of poetic composition.

Another stylistic device derived from the same basic artistic premises might be called “defocusing.” Trakl likes to use nouns derived from past participles or adjectives. In the first stanza of his poem “The Occident I,” one finds expressions such as ein Totes (something dead) or ein Krankes (something sick). The image has been reduced to its essential core (being dead, sick, and so forth), but no further individualizing details are given. It is almost impossible for the reader to “picture” anything concrete when such blurred images are evoked.

A very effective as well as expressive technique, the nonmimetic thrust of which goes far beyond mere defocusing, is the tendency to present images which denote destruction, dismemberment, and dissolution. This is a stylistic device used by many expressionist writers and artists. Here is an example taken from one of Trakl’s late poems: “. . . the black face,/ That breaks into heavy pieces/ Of dead and strange planets.” This “destructionism” can be interpreted either as a symptom of the broken and fragmented quality of reality itself (Trakl wrote to his friend Ficker in November, 1913: “It is such a terrible thing when one’s world breaks apart”) or as the poet’s attempt to destroy symbolically a world with which he can no longer identify....

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Graziano, Frank, ed. Georg Trakl: A Profile. Durango, Colo.: Logbridge-Rhodes, 1983. This biographical study of Trakl’s work concentrates on the poet’s family relations, drug addiction, poverty, and depression as well as the influence of World War I.

Sharp, Francis Michael. The Poet’s Madness: A Reading of Georg Trakl. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1981. Critical interpretation of selected poems by Trakl. Includes the texts of poems in English and German.

Williams, Eric. The Mirror and the Word: Modernism, Literary Theory, and Georg Trakl. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993. A critical study of Trakl’s works that focuses on his contributions to modernism...

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