Tag Archives: Georg Trakl

Review: Sebastian Dreaming by Georg Trakl

I received a review copy of this title from Seagull Books.  These poems have been translated from the original German into this English version by James Reidel.

My Review:
sebastian-dreamingGeorg Trakl died from a cocaine overdose while recovering from a nervous breakdown in a military hospital during World War I.  He was awaiting the proofs of Sebastian Dreaming which he had requested despite the fact that the publication of this collection was put off indefinitely because of The Great War.  Sebastian Dreaming was the second, and final collection that was prepared for publication by the author himself and James Reidel’s translation of this collection is the first that has appeared in English in its entirety.  Although some of the poems have appeared in other collections, the translator has argued that these poems ought to be read as part of this single collection, which is what Trakl himself intended.

In my review of Trakl’s  first collection of poems that was also published by Seagull Books and translated by James Reidel, I argued that, although Trakl’s struggle against depression and despair is evident, an underlying sense of triumph against these demons lingers; Trakl does not let his feelings of dejection overwhelm or destroy him.  Not yet, anyway.    But Sebastian’s Dreaming, which contains more overwhelming images of decay and dying, foreshadows Trakl’s impending overdose which many speculate was a suicide;  by the time this collection was composed he had finally been overwhelmed and defeated by his emotional disturbances, excessive indulgences in drugs and alcohol and the incestuous relationship he shared with his sister.  In short, the tone of these poems is more deeply melancholic than those in the previous collection.  In  Dream and Benightment he writes:

O, cursed breed.  When every fate is consummated in filthy
rooms, death enters the household with mouldering footsteps.
O, that spring was outside and a lovely bird might sing in
the blossoming tree.  But the sparse green withers grey at
the window of those who come by night  and the bleeding
hearts still think about evil.

The collection is divided into five sections, the titles of which suggest something of a final scene, before the curtain of his life has fallen: “Sebastian Dreaming”, “The Autumn of One Alone”, “Song Septet of Death”, “Song of the Solitary,” and “Dream of Benightment.”   In the poem Passion there exists a struggle against nature and our natural surroundings which bring about our inevitable demise.  Orpheus, who was torn apart by wild beasts as he sings a lament for his lost wife, is an apt figure for the destruction that passion can wreak on a human soul:

When Orpheus strums the lyre silver,
Lamenting one dead in the evening garden,
Who are you, one reposed, under towering trees?
The autumn reeds rustle with the lament,
The blue pond,
Dying away under greening trees
And following the shadow of the sister;
Dark love
of a wild kind,
For whom the day rushes by on golden spokes.
Silent night.

Anyone familiar with Trakl’s complicated relationship with his sister Grete can’t help but notice the proximity of the word sister to those of Dark love/of a wild kind.

I found it interesting to learn from reading an introduction to Reidel’s  manuscript,  Some Uncommon Poems and Versions,  that the Austrian pediatrician who lends his name to the disorder believed that Trakl displayed the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome.  Trakl’s poetry demonstrates two of the hallmark symptoms of this syndrome:  a gift with language and an emotional remoteness.  As an expressionist poet it is natural that his poetic landscape is full of this movement’s angst, interactions with nature and vivid colors.  But after reading Reindel’s comment about Asperger’s Syndrome I viewed his poems with a different eye, one towards someone who has difficulty with intimate connections and certain emotional cues.  Trakl never tells us he is melancholy or sad or overcome with despair.  But instead he describes Love as a pink angel appearing quietly to a boy or Joy as an evening sonata playing in cool rooms.

Finally, I would like to mention the pervasive use of colors in this collection.  The pages are consumed with the various shades that Trakl sees in nature.  Colors play an interesting role in expressing our emotions; we wear black at a funeral and a red dress to a festive party.  Different colors are associated with different holidays and seasons.  Trakl’s uses of color in his poetry brought to mind the vivid and bright pieces of the Expressionist painters.  Perhaps color was the best way that Trakl knew how to deal with and process his complicated emotional struggles.  He writes about a “blue soul” and a “black silence” in Autumn Soul.  The poem By Night contains a different color in each line that captures the mood of what could be the beginning of a passionate night:

The blue of my eyes is put out in this night.
The red gold of my heart.  O! How still burns the candle.
Your blue mantel enfolds the one falling;
Your red mouth seals the friend’s benightment.

Seagull Books will publish one final collection of poetry in the Trakl series.  I look forward to reading that collection and comparing it with the previous two volumes.

About the Author and Translator:
G TraklGeorg Trakl was born in Salzburg, Austria. As a teenager he gravitated towards poetry, incest and drug addiction and published his first work by 1908, the year he went to Vienna to attend pharmacy school and became part of that city’s fin-de-siècle cultural life. He enjoyed early success and published his first book in 1913. A year later, however, he died of a cocaine overdose due to battle fatigue and depression from the wartime delay of his second book.

 James Reidel is poet, translator, editor and biographer. In addition to the works of Georg Trakl, he has translated novels by Franz Werfel and poetry by Thomas Bernhard, among others. He is the biographer of poet Weldon Kees and author of two volumes of poetry.

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Filed under German Literature, Poetry, Seagull Books

Review: Georg Trakl Poems

My Review:
G Trakl PoemsI loved the first novel I read from Seagull Books so I decided to give some of their poetry a try.  I was not disappointed; and, in fact, this small but powerful little book captivated my attention.  I had intended to read a few poems a day over the course of several weeks.  But I finished the collection in a couple of sittings because once I started reading the poems I could not put the book down.

After reading this collection of Trakl poems I was not surprised to discover that he had a very brief and tragic life.  His poems are filled with the language of decay, dying, sunset, twilight, birds of carrion and shadows.  But I got the feeling that despite his internal struggles, Trakl desperately wanted to fight his way out of the abyss and find some meaning, some bright spot, some redemption in what was otherwise a depressing existence.

A common theme in this collection of poems is nature and the natural decay that every living thing experiences.  But mixed within this decay there is also a natural, cyclical process of death and rebirth.  In the opening poem a flock of ravens sense that a meal is near.  They fight over their meal and once sated they fly away, almost gracefully “like a funeral cortege/Into winds tingling with ecstasy.”  Dinner for ravens means rot and decay is present but it is also nourishment and continues their lifespan; it is the fuel that allows them to make that flight at the end of the poem.

One of my favorite poems in the collection “In Autumn” perfectly describes Trakl’s struggle against death and decay.  Although fall is the season where everything starts to wither and die, the poet captures the beauty of this time of the year.  He describes sunflowers that “blaze along the fence” and women who labour “singing in the fields.”  And although he mentions death, the poem ends on a high note:

The dead houses have been opened wide
And painted beautiful with sunshine.

Scenes that capture the essence of autumn and winter abound in this collection.  These are my favorite seasons in New England and may be why these poems resonated so much with me.

Trakl also captures the calm of twilight and evening, the declining of the day,  in several of these poems.  In the poem “Decay,” he manages to bring together decay, autumn and the evening into one short and descriptive poem.  He asks us to imagine him following the birds “in their glorious flight” as they are “disappearing into autumn’s clear breadths.”  And as he wanders “through the twilight-filled garden” Trakl imagines the birds taking flight and he has dreams that follow them along their paths into the sky and onto “brighter destinies.”  Once again, we feel him fighting against his melancholy and wanting to take flight from it like those birds he so admires.

Finally, I have to mention the artwork that Seagull books chose to adorn the cover of this beautiful collection.  The bright red is striking against the backdrop of a scene of nature which is outlined in black.  The choice of a crow on the cover perfectly captures the themes of nature and decay contained within the volume.  Seagull has another volume of Trakl poems forthcoming which I am very eager to get my hands on.

About the Author and Translator:
G TraklGeorg Trakl was born in Salzburg, Austria. As a teenager he gravitated towards poetry, incest and drug addiction and published his first work by 1908, the year he went to Vienna to attend pharmacy school and became part of that city’s fin-de-siècle cultural life. He enjoyed early success and published his first book in 1913. A year later, however, he died of a cocaine overdose due to battle fatigue and depression from the wartime delay of his second book.

James Reidel is poet, translator, editor and biographer. In addition to the works of Georg Trakl, he has translated novels by Franz Werfel and poetry by Thomas Bernhard, among others. He is the biographer of poet Weldon Kees and author of two volumes of poetry.

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Filed under Classics, German Literature, Poetry, Uncategorized, World War I