The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Psalm” ushered in what is known as Georg Trakl’s middle period, in which his poems were longer and his imagery more complex than had been the case in his previous work. The influence of the French poet Arthur Rimbaud is well documented. “Psalm” is written in long, flowing lines of free verse. In the original German, it contains the mellifluous language that ensured that Trakl would continue to be read, even if he was not entirely understood.

“Psalm” has four stanzas of nine lines each, and a single, isolated line at the end. Semantic associations between adjacent lines are not always readily apparent.

Although everything is described in the third person, the poem is highly autobiographical, as is all of Trakl’s work. The title seems to indicate a devotional poem, but “Psalm” is devotional only in that for Trakl, the act of writing was a means of atoning, at least in part, for his sins.

The first stanza is a good illustration of the extreme contrasts that characterize Trakl’s poetry. Four consecutive subjects are operated on by negative forces. They are extinguished, abandoned, burned, and misused. A madman dies and is replaced, exactly halfway through the stanza, by the sun god in an idyllic South Sea island paradise, an image qualified only by the closing observation that it is a paradise lost.

At first, the second stanza seems to consist of nine unrelated images. The sense of danger, though, is...

(The entire section is 459 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most conspicuous structural device in “Psalm” is Trakl’s prominent use of anaphora. He employed this rhetorical device of repetition in only one other poem, “De Profundis.” By setting apart consecutive subjects with the formula “It is a . . .” Trakl has heightened the evocative power of each image and has lent the poem the air of an incantation. Images that might be questioned in a more relaxed format tend to be accepted when stated so absolutely. Trakl has applied the technique to both negative and positive images. It is a compelling way of presenting the realities of his mind, and it is because his inner world is portrayed so convincingly that he is considered the foremost poet of German expressionism.

Trakl’s poems are extraordinarily closely knit. He wrote them slowly, and his manuscripts show many revisions and alternative wordings. In the final version, everything is significant. Adjacent lines are associated, no matter how disparate their content may seem, and the more structurally important their position in the poem, the more interpretive weight may be placed on them. For example, the climax and turning point in “Psalm” occurs halfway through the poem, the key lines being the last line of stanza 2 and the first line of stanza 3: “A white steamer carries bloody scourges up the canal./ The strange sister appears again in someone’s bad dreams.” The first line suggests sadistic sex; the second line identifies the victim....

(The entire section is 433 words.)