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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 467 words.)