Martin Heidegger Michael Hamburger - Essay

Michael Hamburger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The mere fact that Heidegger has thought Trakl worthy of his particular form of exegesis, which combines what seems like close textual analysis with the most far-reaching philosophical deductions, implies one kind of affinity between Trakl and the other German poets—Hölderlin and Rilke—to whom Heidegger has devoted [studies similar to his Georg Trakl]; this affinity, of course, is one of perception, and it undoubtedly exists. But only a poet who uses words with the utmost precision, and with the utmost consistency as well, can be expected to bear the weight of Heidegger's exegesis; and Trakl's use of imagery, on which every interpretation of his poems must rest, was not consistent. (p. 250)

[It] is from Hölderlin that [Heidegger] derived many of his ideas about the function of poetry, and it is in the light of these ideas that he examines Trakl's work, inevitably linking it to Hölderlin's. Heidegger believes that the function of poets is "to name what is holy"; but this naming, he writes, "does not consist in merely giving a name to something already known, but only when the poet speaks the significant word is the existent nominated into what it is. Poetry is the institution in words of being." This view is not very different from Rilke's conception of poetry as affirmation and praise of the visible world, and its transformation in the poet's "inwardness" into pure significance. Heidegger goes further than Rilke only in clearly stating that poets "institute being", rather than merely affirming it in words. Hölderlin, however, had a more modest end in mind when he wrote—at the end of Patmos—that the function of poets is to see that "the existing be well construed". The difference, once more, is that between a religion of the logos and a religion of the heart. If the logos was at the beginning, there is no need for poets to create the world all over again by endowing it with meaning. The question, in Trakl's case, is whether his poems were intended to "institute being" or merely to construe it.

Heidegger sees Trakl as the poet of the transitional age of which Hölderlin wrote in Broad und Wein, an era of Night in which there is no divine revelation, but only waiting and preparation for a new epiphany. It is certainly true that, in a very different sense from the later Expressionists, Trakl wrote of a "new humanity" or at least of a humanity different from that of the present day; but he did so in the form of images and of those mythical personages who inhabit his poems, not in the form of statements which one can easily quote in support of an argument. It is also true that his images of decay, his nocturnes, autumnal landscapes and visions of doom are often relieved by images of regeneration which point to a reality quite distinct from his immediate circumstances. These images Heidegger interprets as intimations of a regenerate Occident.

Trakl wrote poems that refer explicitly to the Occident. These are Abendländisches Lied and Abendland. The first, which is the earlier poem, begins with images of a past, feudal and pastoral, way of life; it is difficult to place these images historically, for there are allusions to shepherds, to "blood blossoming beside the sacrificial stone", to the crusades and "glowing martyrdom of the flesh", to the "pious disciples" now turned into warriors, to "peaceful monks who pressed the purple grape", to hunting and to castles. The general impression is that the poem moves from a remote pastoral age to New Testament times, then to the early and later Middle Ages…. [In the last stanza of Abendländisches Lied] Trakl sees the present as "the bitter hour of decline, when in black waters we gaze at a stony face"—images that suggest a narcissistic isolation and the guilt which, as in other poems of Trakl's, petrifies every faculty; and that the next three lines express a hope of regeneration. It is the nature of that regeneration which is obscure; for "die Liebenden" could be lovers "lifting up silvery eyelids" to look at each other; they could be Christian worshippers raising their eyes after prayer towards the altar. The ambiguity is maintained in the next line; for "ein Geschlecht" could mean "one sex", "one kind" or "one generation". And the "rosy cushions" from which incense wafts could conceivably be hassocks, if one takes the colour epithet to be symbolical. Perhaps Trakl intended both meanings: the fusion into one of the sexes, which symbolizes an integration of the psyche—so that the individual is redeemed from narcissistic solitude; and the fusion of Christian worshippers into one...

(The entire section is 1912 words.)