Das Herz; The Heart
Military conflict is a motif that recurs with particular frequency in the poems Trakl wrote in the final year of his life after completing work on the collection Sebastian im Traum. Most of his poems from this period, including “Das Herz”, were composed before the outbreak of the First World War in late July 1914. Trakl can thus be added to the list of “prophetic” early Expressionists whose war poems anticipated the destruction and suffering that would soon engulf the European continent, a list headed by Georg Heym, author of “Der Krieg” (War, 1911). Although this emphasis on armed conflict in Trakl’s final phase extends the thematic scope of his poetry, this amounts to a new ingredient in – not a reconfiguration of – his apocalyptic vision, as the war motif is integrated into the broader depiction of natural and human decline already established in his earlier work. Unlike the best known British war poets, who in the following years would respond to the experience of combat by protesting against the cruelty and senselessness of war and the detachment and hypocrisy of generals and politicians, Trakl takes an almost mythological view of war as the definitive act of self-destruction of a collapsing civilisation. This view is apparent in “Das Herz”, in which the most disturbing image is the scene from civilian life of “rotten flesh and entrails” being given to the women at the slaughterhouse, while the portrayal of battle itself is reduced to a few stylised brushstrokes: the “peal of trumpets” and the “tattered flag / fuming with blood”. The appearance of the mysterious, possibly supernatural “she-youth” in the aftermath of battle can also be linked to a broader pattern in Trakl’s late verse. Once the killing has stopped (here perhaps implicit in the reference to burial at the end of the second section), his battlefields are typically visited and consecrated by Valkyrie-like figures. Their visitations underline the mythical quality of his depictions of war.