You Dying Nations

Jeremy Adler

In the spring of 1914 Wittgenstein gave a third of the annual income from his inheritance – 100,000 Austrian crowns – to Ludwig von Ficker, the editor of the journal Der Brenner, to be shared out between worthy poets. When Ficker chose Georg Trakl as one beneficiary, Wittgenstein said that he didn’t understand Trakl’s poems, but felt they bore the stamp of ‘genius’. In the autumn Wittgenstein was serving on the Eastern Front and tried to meet his protégé, but reached the hospital in Cracow where Trakl was under psychiatric observation just too late. Trakl had died at the age of 27 of a cocaine overdose, a response to the Battle of Grodek. He left behind a poem that expresses the suffering he had witnessed:

At evening the autumn woods resound
With deadly weapons, the golden plains
And blue lakes, the sun overhead
Rolls more darkly on; night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
Yet silently red clouds, in which a wrathful god lives,
Gather on willow-ground
The blood that was shed, moon-coolness;
All roads flow into black decay.
Under the golden boughs of the night and stars
Sister’s shadow sways through the silent grove,
To greet the spirits of the heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark pipes of autumn sound in the reeds.
O prouder sorrow! You brazen altars,
The spirit’s ardent flame today is fed by mighty grief,
The unborn generations.

Despite its seemingly traditional, almost Schubertian cadences, ‘Grodek’ embodies an ideal of linguistic truth-telling curiously close to the later Wittgenstein. Indeed, in addition to the biographical link between the two, there are deeper affinities, including their shared admiration for Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos; but above all, both came to reject the concept of truth as logical correspondence, replacing it with a notion of inner coherence.

Trakl occupies a central place not just among the German Expressionist poets who exhibited what he once called the ‘universal nervousness of our century’, but in the grander line that stretches from Hölderlin to Rilke and Celan. Unlike them, however, he is little known in Britain. Michael Hamburger’s translations established Hölderlin and Celan in English, but he was less fortunate with Trakl, and Decline, his pamphlet of 1952, was not reprinted. There was a larger selection by James Wright and Robert Bly in 1961; and Hamburger’s sometime collaborator Christopher Middleton edited another in the much missed Cape Editions in 1968. Yet these did not gain Trakl the attention he deserves. It is odd that an English sensibility so well attuned to Sylvia Plath’s intensities never quite managed to rise to Trakl; the composer Oliver Knussen recognised the affinity, and coupled poems by Trakl and Plath in his Second Symphony, and Peter Maxwell Davies has also set Trakl to music. This new collection is the most substantial so far published in England, and should finally win Trakl wider recognition. Alexander Stillmark’s selection of around 125 poems, including most of the major ones, is well designed, reflecting Trakl’s wish for individual poems to be printed within larger cycles, and the translations themselves are accurate, unfailingly thoughtful and often very moving.

Where Hölderlin attempted to restore a lost idyll in his verse, Trakl was concerned with the irresolvable conflict between idyll and reality, the former conceived as a dream, the latter as fallen, sick and evil. ‘Feeling at moments of deathlike being: all human beings are worthy of love. Waking you feel the bitterness of the world; therein lies all your unresolved guilt; your poem an imperfect penance.’ The vatic poet wishes to redeem the darkness by his art. As Rilke, another beneficiary of Wittgenstein’s largesse, was among the first to recognise, Trakl’s verse ‘encircled’ the trauma of modernity. But it was not just what Trakl said that mattered, it was how he captured the unsayable. As Rilke notes, Trakl’s longest poem, ‘Helian’, revolves around its silences:

The rise and fall of this poem possesses an unutterable sweetness, and what moved me most were its inner distances. It seems as if the poem were built up on its pauses, a few encirclements around the infinite silence: that’s how the lines come to stand. Like fences in a flat land, beyond which the encircled territories continuously merge again into a great, inalienable plain.

Rilke described Trakl’s personality as ‘Linos-like mythic’ (‘linoshaft mythisch’), linking him with a figure whose death, according to Homer, inaugurated the history of lament. For Rilke, Linos and his modern incarnation are Orphic beings, poets who by their sacrifice produce art from silence. This notion informs Rilke’s own mythology, the heroic scenery of death in the last Duino Elegy, and its subtler elaborations in the Sonnets to Orpheus. Thirty years on, ‘Helian’ provided Celan with a model for his own threnody, the Death Fugue.

Trakl’s life follows the tragic pattern of the poètes maudits. He was born in Salzburg in 1887, and grew up in a comfortable middle-class home. The picturesque, musical city is a constant presence in his cloying, Fin-de-Siècle early verse, some of which is included here:

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