Enigma of the East

He was addicted to language and wrote poetry, which had an addictive effect on others. Georg Trakl (1887-1914), nowadays regarded as a leading voice in European poetry, indulged in experimenting with words and their sounds as well as with drugs. Strangely, the very substance derived from the omnipresent symbol of remembrance, the poppy, was as close to Trakl as was cocaine, an overdose of which put an end to his life after he had seen the horrors of the first major battle of the war on the Eastern front near Grodek in Galicia. There, Trakl, who was also a pharmacist, was ordered to come to the aid of wounded soldiers with virtually no medical equipment at hand. The Battle of Grodek inspired him to write his last poem, which was to become the best-known war poem in German. The battle also revealed the appalling scale of under-supply in the Austrian army at the beginning of the war.

One of Trakl’s poems can now be seen in London Underground trains between advertisements for fertility treatment and management training courses; it is the second of his two war poems, “In the East”. Its first stanza (in David Constantine’s fine translation) gives a flavour of the difference between Trakl’s and, say, Siegfried Sassoon’s or Wilfred Owen’s approach to war poetry: “Like the wild organ music of/the winter storm/Is the dark rage of the people,/The crimson wave of battle,/Of leafless stars.” It is the striking, if not disarming, metaphor that carries Trakl’s poetry; poetic images one is unlikely to forget; and a resounding use of language which owes as much to Hölderlin as to Rimbaud and Baudelaire.

Trakl was the master of transfiguration and poetic enigma. His poetry uses colour, rhyme and repetition to unmatched effect. The expressive quality of his poetry never amounts to Expressionism as a quasi-dogmatic attitude but relates, and reflects, the deeper qualities of introspection. His poetry originated in feelings of guilt (he had induced his sister also to misuse drugs) and in a sense of desolation. To him, the self-destruction of Western culture was a certainty years before the outbreak of the First World War. There is the enigmatic figure of the monk, the stranger and wanderer, all of them loners and losers, sharing the guilt of being born. The faint glimmers of redemption vanish in his poetry before they can take effect on the soul of the reader. With Trakl now regarded as only second to Rilke in terms of his poetic achievements, German verse had acquired an unheard-of tone expressing the uncanny beauty of decay.

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