[This page by Richard Millington]
Am Abend tönen die herbstlichen Wälder
Von tödlichen Waffen, die goldnen Ebenen
Und blauen Seen, darüber die Sonne
Düstrer hinrollt; umfängt die Nacht
Sterbende Krieger, die wilde Klage
Ihrer zerbrochenen Münder.
Doch stille sammelt im Weidengrund
Rotes Gewölk, darin ein zürnender Gott wohnt
Das vergoßne Blut sich, mondne Kühle;
Alle Straßen münden in schwarze Verwesung.
Unter goldnem Gezweig der Nacht und Sternen
Es schwankt der Schwester Schatten durch den schweigenden Hain,
Zu grüßen die Geister der Helden, die blutenden Häupter;
Und leise tönen im Rohr die dunklen Flöten des Herbstes.
O stolzere Trauer! ihr ehernen Altäre
Die heiße Flamme des Geistes nährt heute ein gewaltiger Schmerz,
Die ungebornen Enkel.
In the evening the autumn woods ring out
With deadly weapons, the golden plains
And blue lakes, over which the sun
Rolls more darkly; the night surrounds
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their shattered mouths.
But down by the willows red cloud,
Home of a raging god, collects quietly
The spilt blood, lunar coolness;
All roads lead to black decay.
Under stars and the golden branches of night
The sister’s shade sways through the silent grove
To greet the ghosts of heroes, the bleeding heads;
And quietly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
O prouder grief! you brazen altars
The hot flame of the spirit is fed today by an immense pain,
The unborn grandchildren.
This is Trakl’s final poem, as well as his most anthologised. The title refers to the site of the Battle of Grodek/Rawa Ruska of early September 1914, one of the largest battles on the Eastern Front in the initial stages of the First World War. From the psychiatric hospital in Kraków where he was sent for observation in October after declaring his intention to commit suicide, Trakl reported that for two days during the battle he had been left in sole charge of a group of 90 severely wounded men sheltering in a barn. After one of these had shot himself in the head, Trakl had fled outside only to be confronted by the sight of a row of trees, each with a dead man hanging from it. This experience of “mankind’s total misery” had convinced him, he said, that he could not live any longer.
The line “all roads lead to black decay” contained in “Grodek” is perhaps the most succinct expression of the thematic direction of Trakl’s entire body of poetic work, while the final image of “unborn grandchildren” even more succinctly encapsulates the catastrophic consequences of this “black decay” for humankind. Although the poem offers no prospect of escape or salvation, the speaker’s grief is ennobled (made “prouder”) by his apprehension of the cataclysm to which he is witness as part of a larger, almost cosmic plan. The awareness of this broader significance is the condition that allows him to ritualise his mourning on “brazen altars” and to perceive – even at this time of destruction and bloodshed – an underlying harmony between the natural and human worlds. In the poem this harmony is expressed in the night’s embrace of the dying soldiers and the musical accompaniment provided by the reeds at their funeral.