BORN: 1887, Salzburg, Austria
DIED: 1914, Krakow, Poland
GENRE: Drama, poetry
Sebastian Dreaming (1915)
Die Dichtungen (1918)
Georg Trakl. Imagno / Getty Images
While the influence of Austrian author Georg Trakl’s poetry has been widely discussed, his work is best known for its lyric qualities. His controlled uses of colors, sounds, and ciphers blend into brooding meditations that speak out against the doomed existence of man. Trakl’s writing exhibits many of the techniques and themes employed by the imagists, surrealists, and impressionists, making his work difficult to classify. Many critics believe he was a modernist before his time, citing as evidence his lines that break free from traditional poetical modes in order to follow musical forms and expressions.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Emergent Schizophrenia. Trakl, born in 1887 in Salzburg, was the son of affluent parents. Throughout his short life, he suffered from mental disturbances and persistent schizophrenia. Many critics have argued that his fragile mental state was exacerbated by his parents’ unhappy marriage, his mother’s opium habit, and the Catholic schooling he and his brothers and sisters received, although they grew up in a Protestant household. His condition, coupled with his drug and alcohol abuse, led Trakl quickly to his end. By age fifteen, Trakl was experimenting with chloroform and had begun drinking heavily. By 1906, he was forced to leave school prematurely. That year, he wrote two one-act verse tragedies, All Souls Day and Eata Morgana. The former was well-received by his Salzburg audience, while the other was a failure that temporarily blocked his creative impulses.
Both he and his sister Margaret, the sibling to whom he was the closest, found the paths of middle-class life unendurable compared to the ivory towers of their art. Their relationship, debatably incestuous, haunted him even as it nourished him. Her figure appears often in his work as ‘‘the sister,’’ an alter ego, a beloved mirror-image or doppelgdnger. Even though she married and was able to play the role of the bourgeois wife, she herself committed suicide a few years after Trakl did.
Access to Narcotics. Soon after leaving the university, the patriot Trakl volunteered for a year in the Austro-Hungarian army and was assigned to the medical corps. After leaving the army and returning to work in Salzburg, Trakl began an apprenticeship in a pharmacy that, unfortunately, and ultimately, fed his future addiction to narcotics. From this point onward, events in his life are inextricably woven into his poetry. His increasing addiction to narcotics is reflected in his use of images, synaesthesia (experiencing one sense through another), and an inscrutable personal mythology. Likewise, his experiences during World War I also gave rise to a prolific period, but eventually proved too much for his fragile mental condition.
World War I. After finding the working life unendurable, Trakl reenlisted in the army and was put on active duty. In 1912, while stationed in Innsbruck, he met Ludwig von Ficker, editor of Der Brenner. Ficker became friend and mentor to Trakl for the remaining years of his short life, publishing the poet’s work regularly in his literary journal. Trakl published his first collection of poetry in 1913, Gedichte (Poems).
While Trakl was still serving in the army, World War I broke out. The war began when the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, was assassinated by a terrorist in Sarajevo, Serbia, in June 1914. Austria-Hungary soon declared war on Serbia and its allies. Entangling alliances brought nearly every European country into the conflict. Austria-Hungary allied with Germany, Turkey, and, until 1915, Italy, against France, Russia, Great Britain, and, after 1917, the United States. In August 1914, Trakl went to Austrian-controlled Poland as a medic under the command of incompetent Austrian generals.
Mental Breakdown and Death. After a bloody defeat at Grodek, which saw the Austrians lose control of the city, Trakl was left to care for ninety wounded throughout two days and two nights, without supplies or attending physicians. The battle at Grodek caused Trakl to suffer a psychotic episode upon the unit’s retreat. He threatened to shoot himself in front of his fellow officers but was disarmed and restrained.
In October, he was ordered to the hospital at Krakow for observation. Ficker hurried to Krakow to secure his release, because he knew that confinement would only cause Trakl’s condition to deteriorate. Unable to secure the release, Ficker later received a letter from Trakl and a copy of‘‘Grodek’’ and ‘‘Lament,’’ Trakl’s last two poems, the former considered to be one of his greatest lyrics. A week later, Trakl died of an overdose of cocaine. He had been working on his second collection, Sebastian Dreaming, which was published posthumously in 1915.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Trakl's famous contemporaries include:
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): This Austrian-born philosopher is widely considered one of the twentieth century's greatest. He concerned himself with matters of logic, mathematics, the mind, and language. His books include Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921).
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863-1914): The heir to the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire, Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian separatist. His death touched off a series of events that would lead to the outbreak of the First World War.
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924): This Italian composer wrote such operas as La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madama Butterfly (1904).
Aleister Crowley (1875-1947): Infamous British occultist and mystic, Crowley was a self-acknowledged hedonist, dabbling in drugs and polyamory and coining the phrase '''Do as thou wilt' shall be the whole of the law.'' His books include The Book of the Law (1904).
Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917): Legendary figure of the American Old West, Cody earned his nickname by killing more than four thousand American bison in eighteen months as part of a contract to supply buffalo meat to the railroad. As the ''Wild West'' cooled down, Cody started up a world-famous traveling exhibition of the already legendary trappings of that time, including six- gun shootouts, cowboys and Indians, and rodeos.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
Other poetic works that, like Trakl's, have focused on pain, death, and decay include:
''Another Elegy,'' a poem by Margaret Atwood. ''Fine words, but why do I want / to tart up death?'' Atwood is interested in the inevitability of death and the decay of the human body over time, and several of her poems, including ''Another Elegy'' address this theme.
''The Death of Raschi,'' a poem by Emma Lazarus. Best known for her sonnet ''The New Colossus'' (''Give me your tired, your poor...'') that appears on the Statue of Liberty, Lazarus wrote about the Jewish experience and the sense of loss that it so often entailed in nineteenth- century Europe in ''The Death of Raschi.''
''Ode on a Grecian Urn,'' a poem by John Keats. Inspired by an exhibition of Greek artifacts, Keats wrote this enduring meditation on truth and beauty and their transcendence of time and decay.
Works in Literary Context
Though he produced only a small amount of writing in his short life, Trakl is an important lyric poet in German literature of the early twentieth century. His work was influenced in part by the events around him, including World War I, as well as his own mental illness and substance addictions. He was exceedingly aware that his world, personal as well as external, was ‘‘breaking apart.’’ This mood of suffering prevails in his poetry.
Imagism, Surrealism, and Symbolism. Critics also associate his work with various modern artistic movements, and affinities with imagism have also been noted in Trakl’s strikingly visual style. In addition, the dreamlike flow of images in his poems has indicated to some commentators a compositional method similar to the automatic writing of the surrealists, with whom Trakl also shared a preoccupation with violence, perversity, and death. Trakl’s strongest literary affiliation, however, is with the French Symbolists of the nineteenth century, primarily Arthur Rimbaud, whose disordered and conflict-ridden genius is said to have incarnated in the Austrian poet.
Trakl was a dedicated perfectionist for whom the craft of poetry meant striving for absolute truth of expression, purity, and precision of language. His relatively small and cohesive oeuvre is remarkable for the extant number of variant versions of the poems. Though Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire variously influenced his development, Trakl early established a pronounced personal style. This is distinguished by great linguistic concentration, recurrent patterns in diction and imagery, individual use of color symbolism, and a fine lyricism, which set him apart as a distinctive new voice in poetry. Like Friedrich Holderlin, to whom he owes something of his elliptical conciseness and hymnic intensity, Trakl was essentially a visionary poet in whom the inner vision, the image-making faculty, takes precedence over the mimetic function of creative imagination.
Death and Decay. In Trakl’s work the melancholy and elegiac moods predominate, and his poetry heralds the calamity of World War I. The principal subject of this poetry is a darkened world of pain, death, and decay in which man is the passive suffering victim. The poet’s self is repeatedly projected into mythopoetic personae who represent pure vessels of violated humanity, yet not without an ethereal strength and some redemptive significance. In Trakl’s treatment, established religious imagery is fragmented, inverted, or distorted and projected into startling combinations that produce new resonances and meanings.
Works in Critical Context
Critics agree that though Trakl had been writing poetry from an early age, his best work dates from the final two years of his life, displaying a noticeable development from his efforts prior to 1912. Personal torment and an unrelieved sense of horror and disintegration dominated the earlier poems. Critical analysis of Trakl’s work has revealed its disjointed, fragmentary nature, summarizing it as a collection of often-repeated symbols and motifs without consistent meaning. Later poems, however, are credited with a consistency of mood and attitude that unifies them into a cohesive, though nonrational, statement. In essence, they form the poet’s protest against the corrupt, fallen condition of humankind.
Later Poems. The tone of Trakl’s later poems is more impersonal and ambiguous. In these works, Trakl transcends the extreme subjectivity of his former poetic self to universalize his existential vision. Some critics describe this new quality in Trakl’s mature poems as a mythic objectivity, while confronting the paradox that this poet’s world is essentially private, resembling that of a schizophrenic. Most critics also find that his later works were modern in nature, exhibiting an aggregate of rhythms, grammatical structures like musical scores, and poetic logic of colors, phrasings, and figures all his own. For example, Irene Morris noted in German Life & Letters that ‘‘Trakl’s last poems are completely visionary in style and apocalyptic in content.’’
Responses to Literature
1. It is generally agreed that Trakl’s poetry was at its best toward the end of his life, when he was suffering from drug addiction, depression, and schizophrenia. Do you feel Trakl’s poetry benefited from these conditions, or in spite of them? Do you feel that works produced by the mentally ill should be evaluated by the same criteria as works produced by the non-mentally ill? Write an essay that addresses these questions
2. How does Trakl’s poetry anticipate the horrors of World War I? Create a presentation that links his poetry to the war.
3. Trakl’s poetry is often seen as transitional. In an essay, discuss the following questions: What elements can you identify as belonging to earlier Symbolist poetry? What elements of German expressionism can you identify?
4. Research German expressionism and other leading expressionist poets for a paper. How did Trakl influence the movement? How did other poets’ works compare with Trakl’s in subject matter and tone?
Cagey, T. J. Manshape That Shone: An Interpretation of Trakl. London: Blackwell, 1964.
Detsch, Richard. Georg Trakl’s Poetry: Toward a Union of Opposites. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983.
Leiva-Merikakis, Erasmo. The Blossoming Thorn: Georg Trakl’s Poetry of Atonement. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1987.
Williams, Eric B., ed. The Dark Flutes of Fall: Critical Essays on Georg Trakl. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1991.
________. The Mirror and the Word: Modernism, Literary Theory, and Georg Trakl. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.
Morris, Irene. ‘‘Georg Trakl.’’ German Life & Letters 2, no. 2 (January 1949): 122-37.