Michael Hamburger

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1912

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)

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[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 community by the act of worship and their redemption by Christian love. The concluding line—"and the sweet song of the resurrected"—accords with both interpretations.

Neither interpretation, however, accords with Heidegger's argument; for the regeneration of which he speaks is one peculiar to his own philosophy…. Heidegger admits the ambiguity of Trakl's poetry—indeed, he writes that "it speaks out of an ambiguous ambiguity"!—but his awareness of the ambiguity does not prevent him from interpreting the whole of Trakl's work in the most general terms.

The main obstacle to such a sweeping interpretation is that Trakl used the same images and epithets for different purposes, sometimes descriptively, sometimes symbolically. This applies even to his favourite colour epithets—"golden coolness", "purple stars", "black pillow", "blue animal", "rosy sighs" and even "the white night"; but "brown tree", "yellow corn", "red flowers", "blueish pond", "green boughs". After deciding in every instance whether a colour epithet is to be taken literally or not, one has to go on to the much more difficult question of whether the non-realistic epithets are strictly symbolic or whether they amount to nothing more than an emotive synaesthesia.

Certain painters and poets of the Expressionist era were greatly interested in the symbolism of colours; but Trakl's colour symbolism was certainly not traditional and most probably not even conscious. His critics and interpreters, too, disagree over this vital point…. Heidegger sees all Trakl's colours as symbolic—even where they conform to the conventions of realism—but believes that this symbolism is ambiguous. (pp. 251-54)

The "silver mask" of the third line [of An die Verstummten could] … be interpreted in terms of Heidegger's ambiguous symbolism. The epithet "silver", he points out, "is the pallor of death and the twinkling of stars". The inference is that Trakl's symbols and symbolic epithets are ambiguous because of his simultaneous perception of two orders of reality, of the present and the timeless (or future) aspect of any scene. This Heidegger attributed to Trakl's belief in a homecoming ("Heimkunft") after the transition ("Übergang") of this life and the departure ("Abschied") of death. This homecoming Heidegger interprets as that of a new generation or race ("Geschlecht") that will eventually succeed the "degenerate" one of the present. "Trakl", Heidegger writes, "is the poet of the still hidden Occident."

Very few, if any, of Trakl's poems bear out this interpretation, which simply ignores the contradictions in Trakl's work. One of these contradictions appertains to his use of colour epithets. The "silver mask" in the above poem, for instance, has no primary connection with either death or the stars, but an obvious one with the artificial lights which "drive off the night" and prevent the city-dwellers from facing their guilt and seeking redemption. In other cases, Trakl's colour epithets serve to induce that "systematic derangement of the senses" which Rimbaud prescribed. Nor does his colour symbolism—where it is a symbolism—always agree with the traditional one preserved by the alchemists; to them, the metal silver corresponded not with the stars, but with the moon, and its colour was grey.

It is the last lines of the poem, with their allusion to "the redeeming head", that may seem to support Heidegger's thesis of a future regeneration: but these lines raise the question of Trakl's own beliefs. From the evidence of his poetry alone, his precise beliefs remain doubtful. Much of his imagery derives from Roman Catholic rites, though Trakl was a Lutheran; he went so far as to call one sequence of poems Rosenkranzlieder (Rosary Songs). The question of his orthodoxy must remain open here; but there can be no doubt at all that Trakl was a Christian…. [Any] interpretation of his symbolism must take Trakl's Christian faith into account, allowing for the influence of Kierkegaard and the wholly undogmatic nature of Trakl's poetry. Like Rimbaud, Trakl was "an alchemist of the word"; but even alchemists could be orthodox in their acceptance of dogma…. The real issue is whether Trakl's poetry can be interpreted as a whole or whether the seeming consistency of his later work—due to his use of recurrent images and epithets—is deceptive.

Heidegger evades this issue by assuming that Trakl is a great poet and that his practice was consistent. "Every great poet creates his poetry out of a single poem", he claims; and adds that "this poem remains unspoken." I doubt that this is true of all great poets, at least on a level that permits discussion; but since the archetypal poem remains "unspoken", it is almost useless to object that some great poets may well have more than one of these archetypal poems to draw on. Even if one succeeded in showing that certain great poets derived from two or more of such archetypes, these, in turn, could be traced back to an archetype even more archetypal; but here we leave the domain of literary criticism, which is not qualified to deal in the unspeakable. (pp. 255-58)

Heidegger cites Trakl's two last poems, Klage and Grodek, as evidence that Trakl was not a Christian poet. He asks why Trakl does not invoke God or Christ in the extremity of his despair, a despair which, Heidegger claims, "is not even Christian despair". The answer is that poetry is not prayer, nor a substitute for prayer; Trakl himself said that it was an "imperfect penance". Direct references to the deity are rare even in the earlier poems of Trakl which contain unmistakable allusions to Christian sacraments—unmistakable, that is, to all but Heidegger. In the second part of Sebastian im Traum, for instance, Christ is quite clearly invoked, but Trakl leaves the name "unspoken."… Christ is referred to as "der Mensch", which could mean either "Man" or "the man". In the same way, few would doubt that Trakl aludes to Christ in his poem An die Verstummten, since the "redeeming head" of the last line has a more explicit counterpart in Abendländisches Lied [where Trakl refers to "God's living head".]… It is very strange that Heidegger, who looks only for Trakl's "unspoken" poem throughout the greater part of his essay, persistently ignoring such literal evidence …, should suddenly require literal proof of Trakl's Christian faith where it isn't provided. But Heidegger despises logic as much as he despises "values", his philosophy reduces the world to its primal chaos and then proceeds to re-create it in the shape of Heidegger's mind. Since his literary criticism is an extension of his philosophizing, one must not expect it to balk at mere facts; but it is illuminating in its own right, as pretextual rather than contextual criticism. (pp. 263-65)

Michael Hamburger, "Georg Trakl," in his Reason and Energy: Studies in German Literature (reprinted by permission of the author), Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1957, pp. 239-71.∗

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