Trakl

[This page by Richard Millington]

Georg Trakl (1887-1914)

Philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein noted of Trakl’s poetry that although he didn’t understand it, its tone delighted him: “it’s the tone of a true genius.” The mixture of fascination and incomprehension in Wittgenstein’s response can be considered representative of the reception of Trakl’s work more broadly. For a century now his poetry has enchanted readers and inspired tributes and imitations from writers as diverse as Else Lasker-Schüler, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Walser, Rose Ausländer, Max Frisch, Franz Fühmann, Friederike Mayröcker, and Thomas Bernhard. At the same time, it has proved extraordinarily resistant to definitive interpretation, and like the stories of Trakl’s contemporary Franz Kafka, only on a smaller scale, it has generated a wealth of different, often contradictory attempts to make sense of it.

Faced with what the editors of the most recent critical edition of Trakl’s work (the Innsbruck Edition) describe as his poetry’s “primary obscurity,” and encouraged by the veiled autobiographical references in the texts themselves, many critics have turned to the poet’s biography as an aid to interpretation. Two apects of Trakl’s short, troubled life have attracted particular attention: on the one hand, the maladjustment reflected in his inability to hold down a regular job, in his drug and alcohol abuse, his occasionally eccentric behavior, and his tendency to brooding and melancholy, and on the other, his close relationship with his younger sister Margarete (1891-1917), whose life was no less troubled (speculation that their relationship was incestuous is common but unsupported by any evidence). Interest in this second aspect relates to the importance of sister figures in the poetry itself, which is also populated by mysterious, androgynous creatures typically designated either by the addition of the feminine suffix -in to nouns that normally only occur in the masculine (Fremdlingin, Jünglingin, Mönchin), or by nominalised adjectives with the neuter ending -es to refer to human figures (ein Dunkles, ein Krankes). Both these techniques present considerable challenges to translators.

Trakl’s poetry is chiefly concerned with plotting parallel processes of decay in the natural and human worlds. It is usually classified as Expressionist and his name features prominently in most anthologies of Expressionist poetry and in studies of the movement, such as the seminal one by Walter Sokel. Qualities that mark it as Expressionist include, on a thematic level, its apocalyptic imagery and pervasive sense of historical crisis, and on a stylistic one, the technique now known as Reihungsstil (juxtaposing disparate images without clear syntactical or logical links) and its abundant use of stark and often surprising colours. However, Trakl had no serious affiliation with any Expressionist programme, and as an Austrian who spent the years leading up to World War One shifting restlessly between his native Salzburg, the Imperial capital Vienna where he studied pharmacy, and Innsbruck where he trialled as a military pharmacist, he was detached from the major circles of Expressionist activity in Berlin and Munich. Moreover, the strongest influences on his poetry came not from any contemporaries, but from various 19th-century poets, especially Friedrich Hölderlin and Arthur Rimbaud, from both of whom he borrowed substantially in his own lyric production.

Almost all Trakl’s extant poems date to the years 1909-1914. In this time he compiled three collections:

The first, known as Sammlung 1909 (Collection 1909) and containing what is now considered juvenilia, was first published only in 1939.

The second, Gedichte (Poems, including “Zu Abend mein Herz” and “De profundis”), appeared in 1913.

The third, Sebastian im Traum (Sebastian in Dream, including “Kaspar Hauser Lied” and “Untergang”), appeared posthumously in 1915.

Trakl did not live long enough to collate his last poems, which include some of his best known work (including “Das Herz” and “Grodek”).

After volunteering for service in the Austrian army in August 1914, Trakl was sent to the Eastern Front, where he was severely traumatised by the experience of battle. He died following a cocaine overdose in November of that year.

English Translations

Daniele Pantano (trans.), The Collected Works of Georg Trakl (New York: Black Lawrence Press, 2013)

Jim Doss and Werner Schmitt (trans.), Georg Trakl – The Last Gold of Expired Stars: Complete Poems 1908-1914 (Sykesville: Loch Raven, 2010)

Alexander Stillmark (trans.), Georg Trakl: Poems and Prose (London: Libris, 2001)

Further Reading

Patrick Bridgwater, The German Poets of the First World War (London: Croom Helm, 1985)

Neil H. Donahue (ed.), A Companion to the Literature of German Expressionism (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2005)

Frank Graziano, Georg Trakl: A Profile (Manchester: Carcanet, 1984)

Martin Heidegger, ‘Language in the Poem: A Discussion of Georg Trakl’s Poetic Work’, in On the Way to Language, trans. by Peter D. Hertz (New York, Evanston, San Francisco, London: Harper & Row, 1971), pp. 159-98

Maire Jaanus Kurrik, Georg Trakl (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1974)

Herbert Lindenberger, ‘Georg Trakl and Rimbaud: A Study in Influence and Development’, Comparative Literature 10:1 (1958), 21-35

Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, The Blossoming Thorn: Georg Trakl’s Poetry of Atonement (London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1987)

Walter Methlagl and William E. Yuill (eds.), Londoner Trakl-Symposion (Salzburg: Müller, 1981)

Richard Millington, ‘From the Evening-Land to the Wild East: Symbolic Geography in Three Poems by Georg Trakl’, German Life and Letters 64:4 (2011), 521-35

Richard Millington, Snow from Broken Eyes: Cocaine in the Lives and Works of Three Expressionist Poets (Bern: Peter Lang, 2012)

Richard Millington, ‘Georg Trakl’s Ghosts: Haunted Poems at the End of History’, The German Quarterly 90:3 (2017), 267-82

Ben Morgan, ‘Georg Trakl (1887-1914) in Context: Poetry and Experience in the Cultural Debates of the Brenner Circle’, Oxford German Studies 41:3 (2012), 327-47

Francis Michael Sharp, The Poet’s Madness: A Reading of Georg Trakl (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1981)

Walter H. Sokel, The Writer in Extremis: Expressionism in Twentieth Century German Literature (Stanford University Press, 1959)

Andrew Webber, Sexuality and the Sense of Self in the Works of Georg Trakl and Robert Musil (London: Modern Humanities Research Association, 1990)

Andrew Webber, ‘Georg Trakl, “Abendland”’, in Landmarks in German Poetry, ed. by Peter Hutchinson (Bern: Peter Lang, 2000), pp. 167-82

Eric Williams (ed.), The Dark Flutes of Fall: Critical Essays on Georg Trakl (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1991)

Eric Williams, The Mirror & the Word: Modernism, Literary Theory and Georg Trakl (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1993)


Web Link in German

https://diglib.uibk.ac.at/obvuibnl/nav/classification/5687566

Georg Trakl online archive in Innsbruck, Austria