You Dying Nations
- Poems and Prose by Georg Trakl, translated by Alexander Stillmark
Libris, 192 pp, £40.00, March 2001, ISBN 1 870352 51 3
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:
Ancient squares in sunlit silence.
Deep engrossed in blue and gold
Dreamlike gentle nuns are hastening
Under sultry beeches’ silence.
Out of brown illumined churches
Gaze pure images of death,
Lovely scutcheons of great princes.
Crowns are shimmering in the churches.
(‘The Beautiful City’)
Despite their neo-Romantic frills, the early poems are distinctive thanks to their visual density, musicality and pervasive angst. Stillmark’s decision to omit Trakl’s rhymes has its drawbacks, but it enables him to be all the more attentive to vocabulary, register and syntax. In this poem, for example, the sudden confrontation with ‘images of death’ captures the way the young Trakl set about shattering the aesthetic aura of beauty.
Even in the earliest photographs, which show his Slav features, his gloomy scowl, his penetrating stare, Trakl comes across as intense, brooding, introverted. His musical passions reflect his moods: Chopin, Liszt, Wagner. He left school early, without completing the Abitur that would have enabled him to go to university. As a schoolboy, he was already a heavy smoker, and a fellow pupil noted the stains on his fingernails and his upper lip caused by nicotine – and by the cocaine solution in which he soaked his tobacco. His first preserved letter, written in 1905, is about drugs: ‘I have been sick for eight days – in a despairing mood. At first, I worked a great deal . . . To overcome the weakening of the nerves this caused, I resorted to chloroform. The effect was terrible . . . I will resist the temptation to soothe myself with drugs like that, for I can see the catastrophe just ahead.’ But he didn’t resist, he whole-heartedly succumbed, working in a pharmacy after he left school, and then studying pharmacology in Vienna. Apart from chloroform and cocaine, he used veronal, morphine and opium. The hallucinatory visions that characterise his verse must owe something to this.
Vienna put the provincial in touch with modernity, and the city’s violence deepened his pessimism. ‘When I first came here,’ he wrote in October 1908,
it was as if I saw life as clearly as it really is for the first time, naked and ungrounded; as if I could hear every voice spoken by reality, cruel and painfully clear . . . I think it must be unbearable to live like that all the time, with complete consciousness of the animal drives that thrust life onwards through the ages. I felt the most terrible possibilities within me, smelled them, tasted them, and heard the demons howling in my blood.
After finishing college in 1910, he briefly joined the Army, then worked as a pharmacist until 1914, when he was called up to serve as a medical orderly. He had dreamed of escaping, like Rimbaud, to whom he owes so much, to more exotic places, such as the Dutch East Indies, but his plans came to nothing. A possibly incestuous liaison with his sister, for which the evidence is slim, although his verse seems to admit their guilt, is about the only other significant detail known about this shy, driven, taciturn poet, who identified with the outcast Kaspar Hauser, and in ‘Trübsinn’ (‘Melancholy’ – a poem unaccountably omitted by Stillmark) lamented his destiny: ‘In the evening again above my head,/Saturn mutely steers my dreadful fate.’
Trakl was a precocious poet: he began writing when he was at school, producing his earliest verse at 17. His first one-act play, ‘Day of the Dead’, was performed to some acclaim in 1906, but the second, ‘Fata Morgana’, flopped. In 1906 he also published his first piece in a local paper, the lyrical prose poem ‘Dreamland’, which Stillmark helpfully translates along with three other prose works. Though highly crafted, these effusions lack the ferocity of the verse. He seems to have needed the struggle with form, the discipline of line, the tussle for expression, with all their incremental ambiguities. By 1909, Trakl had effectively mastered these difficulties, and, with the help of the critic Hermann Bahr, placed some poems in a Viennese daily. That year, too, Trakl’s friend the poet Erhard Buschbeck assembled his early verse in the so-called ‘Collection of 1909’. It was not published, but signalled his resolve to make his mark. In 1913 Kurt Wolff, Germany’s leading avant-garde editor, collected some of his best work in a volume simply called Poems that was part of Wolff’s landmark series, ‘The Day of Judgment’, which included work by Werfel and Kafka.
Several poems from the ‘Collection of 1909’ found their way into Trakl’s subsequent volumes, including ‘Autumn’, later revised and retitled ‘Decay’, an affecting piece of juvenilia, that gives clear expression to the conflict between dream and reality in Trakl’s verse:
At evening when the bells are tolling peace,
I follow the wondrous flight of birds,
Which gathered long like pious pilgrims’ trains,
Vanish afar in autumn’s clear expanse.
Meandering through the garden filled with twilight
I dream about their brighter destinies
And scarcely feel the hours’ pointers move.
So follow I their paths above the clouds.
A breath of decay then makes me shudder.
The blackbird laments in leafless branches.
The red vine on the rusty railing wavers,
While like a dance of death with pallid children
Around dark rims of wells, which slowly weather,
Blue asters shivering in the wind are drooping.
Stillmark’s version captures the clash between the dreamlike octave and the desolate sestet. Details like the inversion in line 8 (‘follow I’) render Trakl’s neo-Romantic pose, though Stillmark slightly mutes the tougher imagery in the sestet: in line 12, for example, the German gives a heavily accented, desperate utterance, ‘wie blasser Kinder Todesreigen’, which could be more accurately translated as ‘like pallid children’s dance of death’. A tendency to privilege the lyrical is one of the few mistakes in Stillmark’s translations.
Trakl struggled against outmoded forms of lyricism, at first overcoming them by condensing his language in ways that have something in common with the techniques developed by the Imagists. H.D.’s line ‘The golden one is gone from the banquet’ is virtually indistinguishable from Trakl in colour and Graecising nostalgia. But if Trakl is more opaque than H.D., more passionate than Pound, he implicitly shares the latter’s view in the ABC of Reading (based on a fanciful etymology) that dichten = condensare. Trakl wrote a series of poems in regular quatrains which bear witness to what he called the ‘infernal chaos of rhythms and images’ that possessed him. This new ‘pictorial manner’, he said, involved ‘forging together four separate images in the four lines of a stanza into a single impression’, which both privileged the paratactic quality of his writing and led him to evolving forms of internal coherence based on symbolic correspondences. At the same time, he sought a more universal, objective mode by excising the first person singular. These new, tautly devised quatrains evoke a series of types – the sick, the poor, the mad – and in their portrayal Trakl fuses a phantasmagoria of disease with the distant prospect of redemption. Stillmark’s rendering of the poems from this phase, such as ‘Three Glances into an Opal’, is sinuous and well-sustained, but Trakl’s clotted imagery seems theatrical when transplanted into English.
This is not yet the mature Trakl. To find his own, increasingly oracular voice, he undid traditional forms, and in such poems as ‘De Profundis’, ‘Elis’ and ‘Psalm’ developed his own free verse. This jagged style, often resembling montage, suppresses the lyric impulse, foregrounding instead the poet’s pity at the horror of the world. In this phase Trakl hymned Karl Kraus as the ‘high priest of truth’, and Stillmark captures his tight-lipped truth-telling in a masterly version of ‘De Profundis’, which begins:
There is a stubble-field into which black rain falls.
There is a brown tree standing there alone.
There is a hissing wind encircling empty huts.
What sadness in this evening.
The German has a stranger timbre, produced by the anaphora of the solecism ‘Es ist’ which Trakl prefers to the correct ‘Es gibt’. He borrows the device from Karl Ammer, who used it to render ‘il y a’ in a passage from Rimbaud’s ‘Enfance’ which reverberates throughout Trakl’s work:
Il y a une horloge qui ne sonne pas.
Il y a une fondrière avec un nid de bêtes
Il y a une cathédrale qui descend et un lac
Rimbaud’s alchemy of the word, his ‘long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens’, combined to propel Trakl into a more irrational, blunter style. Any lyricism appears to stem from the subject itself, which in the case of ‘De Profundis’ means from the figure Trakl inserts into the barren landscape:
Past the hamlet
The gentle orphan girl still garners frugal
ears of corn.
Her eyes feast round and golden in the twilight
And her womb awaits the heavenly bridegroom.
The stanza, essentially a fractured quatrain, evokes a glory foreshadowing a vicious death. To heighten the girl’s saintliness, the poem revitalises a hackneyed metaphor associated with the imitatio Christi by taking it literally: the figurative ‘womb’ of the mystic also stands for the real vagina of a young girl (the German Schoss suggests both). In this way the types who people his world – the monk, the virgin and the orphan – become archetypes: his ‘gentle orphan girl’ is the Hebrew Ruth, a Christian martyr and a contemporary victim of sexual murder:
The shepherds found the sweet body
Decayed in the thorn-bush.
The poet is the scarred victim:
I am a shadow far from sombre villages,
I drank from the spring in the grove.
By extinguishing himself Trakl learns to transvalue suffering.
Trakl’s suicidal logic crystallises in a series of eponymous poems – ‘Elis’, ‘Sebastian in a Dream’ and ‘Helian’. A spiritual pilgrimage through a world gripped by sickness and decay, ‘Helian’ stands somewhere between ‘Mauberley’, as a portrait of the artist, and The Waste Land, as a lament for a fallen age; but, without Pound’s lucidity or Eliot’s irony, Trakl’s poem is more intimate, more tragic. Having mastered the plainer style, he now aspired to a hieratic voice, and taking the classically inspired rhythms of Hölderlin’s free verse as his model at around the same time as Rilke adapted them for his Duino Elegies, Trakl achieves a bewitching ritual music. Its sonorities can hardly be imitated in English, but Stillmark’s version is a remarkable success. His rendering of the Keatsian opulence of the opening of ‘Helian’ works by understating the original:
In solitary hours of the mind
It is lovely to walk in the sun
Passing along the yellow walls of summer.
Our soft footfall rings in the grass; yet the Son of Pan
For ever sleeps in grey marble.
Stillmark suggests both the beauty and the threat of Trakl’s lines, while retaining many original details; he finds good equivalents for the verse units, conveys the grander structure, and even captures the dense nexus of internal echoes, through which Trakl’s lamentation seems to unfold. Even the mighty apophthegms retain their force, though not everything comes off. ‘Schön ist der Mensch und erscheinend im Dunkel’ is accurately rendered as ‘Lovely is man and appearing in darkness’; yet this misses the overtone in ‘erscheinend’ (‘manifesting’/‘shining’). ‘Resplendent in darkness’ might have been better. The solemn grandeur in Trakl’s ‘Ein erhabenes Schicksal sinnt den Kidron hinab’, which echoes a line from Novalis, is perhaps untranslatable, but it is awkwardly rendered by ‘A sublime destiny is pondered down along Cedron.’ The passive ‘is pondered’ begs the question, and the colloquialism of ‘down along’ introduces a clumsiness inimical to Trakl. The clipped tone adopted for the beginning – something like ‘A noble fate is brooding down the Kidron’ – would have worked better. In his mature poems, Trakl’s language is rich in non-negotiable ambiguities. The neologism Helian, for example, recalls the Greek helios as well as the German Heiland (‘saviour’): Helian is the poem’s sensorium, both a monastic novice and a poet whose identity appears to syncretise traits drawn from, among others, Jesus, Hölderlin, Rimbaud and Trakl himself. It is hard to penetrate the inchoate solipsism of this vision, which uses Christianity to repudiate modernity, and uncovers a purity at the heart of things:
The stages of madness in black rooms,
The shades of the ancient beneath the open door,
When Helian’s soul surveys itself in the rosy glass
And snow and leprosy fall away from his brow.
Heidegger’s ‘Explication of Trakl’s Poem’ emphasises his idealism and, to support this view, repeatedly quotes the line ‘The soul is a stranger to earth’ from ‘Springtime of the Soul’. Every poet, Heidegger contended, always rewrites the same unsayable poem: a belief borne out both by the tortuous genesis of Trakl’s poems (they evolve, mutate, divide and recombine) and by the (never quite) finished product: the time is always evening, the season autumn, the mood despair. The same images recur verbatim throughout his work, functioning like hieroglyphs to indicate an inscrutable higher meaning, and the same colours – gold, red, blue, purple, white, black – are used to evoke a kaleidoscopic reality (the colours Trakl chose resemble those of the Blaue Reiter artists). Heidegger regards Trakl as the ‘singer of the hidden West’, and this certainly reflected Trakl’s own cultural ambition: in ‘The West’ he explicitly attacks the ‘great cities’ of modernity, and foresees the Western world’s impending doom – ‘Ihr sterbenden Völker!’ (‘You dying nations!’). In the manner of Novalis and Höld-erlin, though without their faith in an imminent golden age, Trakl’s poems display a historical dialectic, manifest both in the individual and in civilisation, which moves from a pristine state of being ‘unborn’ via birth, decay and death into a redemptive spirituality.
As befits a poetry in which ‘things fall apart’, Trakl’s lines often resemble shards or palimpsests. ‘Season of Life’, for example, recalls both the ‘wild roses’ in Hölderlin’s ‘Half of Life’ and the ‘ripening fruit’ that symbolises the poet himself in Goethe’s youthful ‘On the Lake’. By its very texture, ‘Seasons of Life’ invokes a tradition that stretches from the effusions of the Sturm und Drang, through the 19th century, down to Trakl himself. It is enviably translated here:
Purer in spirit the wild
Roses gleam by the garden fence;
O serene soul!
In cool vine-leaves
The crystalline sun feasts;
O sacred purity!
An aged man offers
Ripened fruit with noble hands.
O glance of love!
Trakl contradicts the bleakness in Hölderlin’s original, and presents the same imagery with wistful awe. Given the terrors he confronts, his humility when aligning himself with his predecessors is strangely endearing. But it also implicates him in their death. When Trakl apostrophises an object or a feeling in order to conjure its real presence, he betrays his helplessness in the face of an existence that propels him towards silence and destruction.
In ‘Helian’ he had already grasped the interplay between private grief and public tragedy: ‘Shattering is the decline of our race.’ By August 1914 Trakl had read the signs. ‘In the East’, which he conceived that month, imagines the impending cataclysm as a war that will engulf all civilisation. He foresees ‘a people’s gloomy wrath’ unleashing ‘the scarlet wave of battle’ to crush the ‘shattered brow’ of ‘dying soldiers’. A ‘thorny wilderness girds the city’; there is no hope for the ‘frightened women’ who are forced to flee ‘from bleeding steps’. German and English war poets tend to concentrate on the pity of battle; Trakl’s sympathy extends from the nations in their frenzy to those whom we now call collateral damage. But the actual experience of warfare was more than he could bear. After the carnage at Grodek, he was left alone to tend the wounded in an overcrowded barn when one of them blew his brains out against the wall. Despairing of his ability to help the overwhelming number of wounded men, he tried to kill himself. Another soldier prevented him, and he was placed under observation. On 27 October, he dispatched two poems to Ficker, ‘Lament’ and ‘Grodek’. In both poems the ‘sister’ is the one redeeming image amid the slaughter. Trakl left his own sister, Grete, all his possessions. A week later he was dead.