The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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.

“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...

(The entire section is 468 words.)