Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 530 words.)