Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

The meaning of Trakl’s poetry eluded critics for more than seventy years. His surprising and apparently unconnected images were dismissed by frustrated readers as the word salad of a schizophrenic whose problems were exacerbated by his dependency on cocaine. Yet the poems continued to be read for the compelling beauty of their language, which in the original German is unequalled.

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A breakthrough in understanding Trakl came in 1985, with the publication of Gunther Kleefeld’s monumental psychoanalytical study Das Gedicht als Sühne (the poem as penance). Based on the known facts of Trakl’s biography and remarks in his letters, it presents Freudian interpretations of his poetic images as products of conflicting primal forces in Trakl’s mind. The recurrent themes that emerge are Trakl’s hatred of his mother for withdrawing from her children, his resultant incestuous relationship with his sister, and his criticism of his father for not providing enough guidance and control. Dark thoughts and demoniac actions stem from the id (the unconscious, instinctual area of the psyche), which may be restrained or punished by the superego (the moral, social area of the psyche and seat of the conscience); hence, the extreme contrasts in the imagery.

Applying this schema to “Helian,” one encounters the id first of all in line 5, personified as the son of Pan asleep in gray marble. It is impossible for this side of Trakl’s personality to be banished completely. The best the superego can do is to encase the demon in stone and hope that he continues to sleep. In this opening description of summer, Helian gets through the evening and even the night safely. In the evening, he drinks brown wine in the company of friends.

Once the season turns to autumn, however, increasing the distance between Helian and the sun, on which he is so heavily reliant, the dark thoughts surface. Line 5 of this part at first seems quite out of place and nonsensical in itself: “In the evening, the white water sinks into burial urns.” This, however, is clearly the first resentful reference in “Helian” to Trakl’s mother. Reviewing the context of the preceding lines, one sees that Helian actually has three reasons to feel abandoned. Not only is the sun slowly drawing away from him, but Helian has also just witnessed the flight of the birds, who are going south for the winter. Furthermore, although it is evening again, the drinking parties on the terrace seem to have stopped for the year, leaving a void. There is nothing to drink, just as there was nothing to drink when he was denied his mother’s milk, when the white water, intended as the food of life, was misdirected to the ashes of the dead, when things went wrong right at the start. Now, everyone is leaving him again, the sun and the birds and his friends. The present emotional state is symbolically associated with a similar emotional state from early childhood. The line makes perfect sense.

As “Helian” progresses, the poem consists increasingly of such images from the subconscious, so that a very close reading is required—one, in fact, that presupposes familiarity with Trakl’s oeuvre.

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