The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466

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The poem’s German title, “Abendland,” usually translated as “The Occident,” names the West as the land of evening (Abend), the land where the sun sets. In Georg Trakl’s time, the word referred primarily to the Western European nations. In haunting imagery of evening and approaching night, the poet found a perfect metaphor for what he saw as the late hour in the decline of Western culture, a powerful tool for expressing his sense of foreboding about the depth of night to which that decline might lead. The poem was written in the last months before the outbreak of World War I. The very name the Occident (Abendland) invoked for Trakl this imagery of evening and this sense of lateness.

“The Occident” is divided into three sections. In the first, the central tension of the poem is established in the contrast between two stanzas. The first contains remarkable images of death and decline, and the second centers on the image of Elis, a boy who seems to be unaffected by decline and to await a time of rebirth or springtime. Elis, a subject of two other poems by Trakl in the same volume, represents the original world from which the real world has declined, as well as the rebirth that will come after decline reaches its nadir.

The second section of the poem evokes a quiet tone of lament for the heartbreaking beauty and peace of late evening. The world of evening is lovely and restful, but it is fragile and is only a distant echo of its pure source and beginnings. Its beauty is always about to be lost in night. Uneasiness about what will come surfaces as singers wander with hesitant steps near thorns and people are said to have wept in their sleep. The peace seems to be an ominous quiet before the storm.

The final section turns to the cities on the plain, above which angry clouds are forming. By the end of the section, and the poem, the apocalyptic storm is breaking, and even the stars are falling from the sky. This last image echoes the book of Revelation, in which the world at the end of time descends into increasing darkness until the stars themselves fall before the resurrection. (Trakl used this allusion and the theme of a decline to absolute darkness earlier in his poem “Helian.”)

When one considers the title again after reading the poem, “Abendland” or “The Occident” seems a land filled with portentous evening light, about to lose itself in the depths of darkness, with lightning bursting in the sky above its dying people. The poem seems to invest decline with an uncanny force, as if the West, the land of evening, were being carried to its fate by the irresistible forces of spiritual history.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

Trakl, like Else Lasker-Schüler, to whom this poem is dedicated, is a poet of the German expressionist movement. The expressionists, who viewed the image as the basic unit of poetry, sought to intensify the vividness and expressive power of their images. They composed their poems of intense images much as one might compose music of notes or musical phrases. The coherence of a sequence of images is thus often thematic or emotional instead of logical, temporal, or spatial.

In “The Occident,” Trakl’s images are not connected with spatial transitions, as one might expect in the realistic description of a landscape, and one cannot piece together a story that the poem might tell. His sentence structures are also often incomplete or interrupted, so the images do not fall into a logical pattern of explanation. The first word of the poem, for example, the noun “Moon,” appears in isolation, and serves no identifiable grammatical function in a sentence. A dependent clause compares the moon to something indefinite but pale, a “dead thing” as it would look if it were to step from a blue cave, but here the sentence breaks off and is never completed. As a result, the moon seems to loom symbolically. The reader can see this moon, with a patch of the sky lit up to a shade of blue around it, and has a sense of its eerie, deathlike presence. It stays before the mind, and a strong tone is established. Rather than subduing the image by means of description or a logical context, Trakl instead presents the reader with a series of other images, of petals falling across a stone path, a “sick thing” that is silver weeping by the “evening pond,” and lovers who “died over” on a black boat.

In most poems by Trakl, one can reconnect the isolated images in a stanza by imagining them to be fragments of a landscape, but not without first sensing a strong undercurrent, a unity of tone and theme that makes the images and the landscape seem symbolic. Here the tone is uncanny and eerie, as if the strange moon were inscrutably related to the petals falling and the sick thing weeping. Thematically, the images all seem connected to decay, decline, and death.

Similarly, in each of the remaining stanzas, a symbolic landscape must be pieced together out of fragmentary images and the discovery of the unifying sense of tone and theme. In the second stanza of the first section, Elis walks in a grove full of hyacinths, seemingly free of the decline of the first stanza. In the second section, a quiet evening landscape is troubled by uneasiness and seems to be only a reprieve before a storm. In the last, cities on a plain are surrounded by a storm and dying peoples fall into apocalyptic darkness.

Trakl’s apparently disjointed images present a series of symbolic landscapes that are not necessarily related spatially, or in the context of a narrative, or in a framework of logical development of ideas. Once one observes how these landscapes change color and tone and mood, however, one begins to grasp the feelings of lamentation and foreboding that Trakl sought to express. One accepts his vision of things to the extent that one finds his tone and imagery emotionally compelling.

Trakl also often reuses elements of images that he has developed in other poems. The moon, the pond, the cave, and the boat of the first stanza, for example, and later the grove, the footsteps, the hillside, the thunder, the wall, the hedge, and the thunderclouds, are all elements used in other poems in the same volume. Trakl constantly shifts color words in combinations with these elements, so that there is a red pond in another poem, a black hill in another, and a golden boat in a third.

Trakl also reuses symbolic figures he has created and developed elsewhere. The boy Elis and the lovers who may be spared decline by early death appear in several poems. The wanderer in the third section is the figure of the alienated artist that is familiar in Trakl’s work.

For the reader of Trakl’s poetry, these recurring figures and elements of imagery seem familiar, even though they appear in new contexts and combinations and their meanings change. Trakl seems to work with a basic set of symbolic elements and a kind of underlying grammar for their combinations in the symbolic landscapes of his poetry. The shifting combinations and variations make the vocabulary and grammar he has created seem flexible enough to express powerfully the truth of different types of spiritual climates.