Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 427

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“The Heart” is about social disintegration and the destruction of not only an empire but also a way of life and a historical period, as well as about the strength of the human spirit, which can transcend adversity by means of goodness of the heart. This is the basic theme of the entire oeuvre of the Austrian Georg Trakl, who gave an apocalyptic interpretation of the impending collapse of the Austrian Empire during World War I. In Trakl’s poetry, the doom of his native country is foreshadowed by a sense of decay and the social disintegration that affected both the family and the individual.

Trakl’s vocabulary denoting decay and his extensive use of color were strongly influenced by the French Symbolist poet Arthur Rimbaud. In the context of Trakl’s poems, this imagery acquired new significance, as it came to cluster around his premonitions of the social and political disintegration of his country and his search for personal resolution in poetry and feeling, which he considered redemptive.

Trakl’s sense of social disintegration is often conveyed in his presentation of a polarized sister-brother relationship, the friendship, love, guilt, and suffering of two figures who are envisioned as both the same and irrevocably divided. The female figure, which may be associated with the anima or spiritual part of a person, is usually sublimated or envisioned as a consoling superior being in Trakl’s poems.

This theme is based on the poet’s passionate and tragic relationship with his sister, but it is strongly influenced by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevski’s figure of Sonia, the heroine of Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886): Sonia’s innate goodness contributed to the preservation of the purity of her heart in spite of adverse and debasing circumstances in her life and to her recognition of the redemptive capabilities of love and the human spirit.

In “The Heart,” polarization in the context of the brother-sister theme takes the form of a movement from a wild, fearful, enervated heart that is aware only of decay to the image of a radiant heart that spreads its light over white snow. The associations of redemption touch upon an awareness of the Austrian landscape; the sense of stability and firmness of the past, conveyed by the image of the fortification; and Catholic associations of the pale moons that surround the youthful female figure to whom the radiant heart belongs. Thus Trakl gathers his tradition and heritage in a few lines and extends the hope for personal redemption in spite of a tragic historical event.