The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Grodek” is a free-verse poem of seventeen lines. The title is highly significant; Georg Trakl served in the Austrian medical services during the World War I battle at Grodek in Galicia in 1914. He was charged with the care of some ninety wounded soldiers at an inadequately supplied field hospital; unable to ease their suffering, he himself broke down and was hospitalized for psychiatric observation. “Grodek” was the last poem Trakl wrote before his death from a cocaine overdose—perhaps a suicide—shortly after his breakdown. It quickly became one of the best-known war poems of World War I.

Though not separated into stanzas, four complete sentences (in the original) divide the poem thematically as well as syntactically. The first six-line sentence describes the close of a day of battle; as evening comes the sounds of combat—tones of “deadly weapons” and the “wild lament” of “dying warriors”—are embraced and surrounded by the approaching night.

Trakl’s opening image of the human and mechanical sounds of battle echoing through the woods into the evening twilight is cut off by the “But” which begins the second, four-line sentence: “But,” says the poet, even though the battle continues, the spilled blood of the day also “gathers” “quietly there in the pastureland” under the coolness of the moon. This silent return of shed blood to the earth points to the endless circle of life and death, which is at work even on the battlefield. The first ten lines of the poem remind the reader of a pastoral scene because of their familiar...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most obvious formal aspect of Trakl’s late poems is their difficult syntax. Like many of his expressionist contemporaries, he bends grammar past the breaking point, a technique which forces the reader to concentrate on the associations between clusters of images. In “Grodek” there is neither a “story” nor pure impressionistic description; instead, Trakl presents a series of images which are at first familiar, then strange to the reader. His images of nature recall a pastoral landscape tradition, yet the traditionally positive connotations of “golden plains” or a “silent grove” are estranged by their unsettling juxtaposition with a “more darkly” rolling sun or warriors’“bleeding heads.”

The tradition of the German elegy, a poem of lament for the dead often written in distichs, is recalled by the use of the word “lament” in line 5, as well as by the mention of “grief” and the associations made with sacrifice and mourning through the “brazen altars” in line 15. Yet the poem’s free-verse form contradicts the expected metrics of the traditional elegy, and its lack of a dominant personal and subjective voice—an important facet of the modern elegy—defeats further comparison.

The sounds in “Grodek” recall for German ears an important aspect of medieval Germanic heroic poetry, the heroic alliterative line, best known from a ninth century Old High German poem, the Hildebrandslied (The Song of Hildebrand, 1957). Alliteration—in lines 3 (Seen/Sonne), 5 (Krieger/Klage), and elsewhere—is the oldest form of Germanic rhyme. Through its use Trakl makes reference to the earliest Germanic war poetry, in which were sung the glories of the solitary warrior in his ultimately tragic search for honor through battle. Trakl’s allusions to the past serve not only to recall the heroic tradition in poetry but also to ironize it through the all-too-obvious differences between warriors a millennium apart.

“Grodek” introduces and confounds several well-known poetic modes in its attempt to capture the results and implications of this battle. The complex of images the poem presents, then, is left to stand on its own, outside poetic tradition, and the reader sees but this silent progression of pictures, as in a film; only in the final sentence does the voice of a commentator cry out in grief at the momentous loss.