The Poem

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 468

Georg Trakl wrote “Helian” in December of 1912 and January of 1913, in the darkest time of the year. Shortly afterward, he referred to it in a letter as the most precious and most painful thing he had written. As is all of his work, it is highly autobiographical.

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“Helian,” at ninety-three lines, is Trakl’s longest poem. The stanzas are short and of irregular length, ranging from two to seven lines, and are grouped into five main sections. Some of the material from the “Helian” manuscripts subsequently found its way into shorter poems, so critics now speak of the “ ‘Helian’ complex,” which consists of “Helian,” “Evening Song,” “Rosary Songs,” and “Decline.”

There has been considerable speculation about the origin and meaning of the title, with critics comparing it to names and titles having variant spellings. Only Gunther Kleefeld has been able to relate the name Helian as it stands to a discernible pattern in Trakl’s work; namely, the linguistic juxtapositioning of brother and sister pairs. Elis is the brother of Elisabeth, Georg of Georgine, Narziss of Narzisse, and Helian of Helianthus. Helianthus is the botanical name for a sunflower, which Trakl identifies in one poem as Helian’s sister. He himself often appears in his poems as the sun god or the sun boy. He expressed the need for the sort of living conditions in which sunflowers thrive: plenty of light, plenty of warmth, and a quiet beach. In reading “Helian,” one should keep in mind that it was written at the time of the year when the sun boy would feel most alienated.

The opening lines of the poem establish the positive effects that the sun, its color, yellow, and the summer have on Helian. He is at peace with himself, his friends, and the world. Likewise, the almost parallel account of autumn that follows contains mainly realistic descriptions of the beauty of the season. The sun is still present, shining into storerooms, and one is almost inclined to disregard the few lines that seem ominously out of place.

The second section of the poem, lines 22 through 38, is framed by depictions of a ravaged garden and black November destruction. Nature is no longer beautiful, but threateningly ugly. Only when walking past friendly rooms does Helian experience harmony that is reminiscent of his mood in summer. Once fully inside, however, in the house of his fathers, Helian is horrified by the decline of his family. His sisters are degraded. His soft eyes are beaten with nettles, and he falls ill. Winter follows.

Section 4, lines 60 through 80, is tripartite. Visions of idyllic existences are contrasted with the agonies of the tortured, the leprous, and the decomposed. The poem ends with Helian’s madness in black rooms. He ponders the darker end, and God silently sinks his blue eyelids over him.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

“Helian” is an extraordinarily complex poem. The overall process it describes is one of tragic personal decline. One may assume that the poetic persona is Trakl. In the progression of the poem, there is a complete inversion in outlook. The first section contains only two negative lines, the last only two positive ones. Serenity and clarity give way to horror and blackness. The most beautiful landscapes yield to nightmarish visions. The best of the outer world is replaced by the worst of the inner world. Trakl has carried to extremes the literary convention of using the changing seasons to represent the human life cycle. In “Helian,” the warmth and light of summer turns into the cold and dark of winter, forcing the main character from the healthy outdoor environment back into his parents’ house, from extroversion to introversion, from sanity to madness.

Walls play a major role in “Helian.” The transformation they undergo in the first half of the poem parallels Helian’s mental deterioration. Walls are rigid constructions that in Trakl’s work represent self-control and the successful repression of certain urges. The fact that Helian is not surrounded by walls but is walking along them indicates that he is continuing to function with a sense of direction.

In the opening lines, the walls are yellow, a reflection of Helian’s sunny mood in the summer season. In autumn, he walks along red walls, perhaps a warning signal, since red is the color of fire and of blood. It is not entirely clear that things have gone wrong, however, until in November he walks along walls full of leprosy. Trakl views ugliness as a product of hatred. He is beginning to resent the self-imposed restrictions and describes the veneer of civilization as loathsome. Significantly, there follows a sympathetic reference to the poet Hölderlin, the “holy brother,” who became mad. Finally, in the third and central section of the poem, the walls come down. Black walls collapse on the spot. Helian has let down all restraints; he enters the empty house of his fathers, and malign elemental forces are unleashed.

Just as warm, sunny days may occur in late autumn, “Helian” derives much of its poignancy from the fluctuations between sanity and madness within the overall process of decline. Repeatedly, the poet presents the reader with positive images that give rise to the hope that Helian will be able to pull himself back up out of the depths. Each time, however, he sinks back lower than he was before. These are the steps of madness to which he refers in the fifth section. The suspense one feels in view of these sustained vacillations is heightened by Trakl’s repeated references to evening and to night, which keep the poem hovering symbolically on the edge of light.

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Themes