Georg Trakl at Venice lido, 1913
In this essay I have attempted to illuminate what for want of a better phrase one might call ‘the anatomy of movement’ in the vision of the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914), to try and identify perhaps the most crucial strand leading to the infection of images that lends his work such an unrivalled visionary intensity and singularity in modern European poetry. To take a conventional approach one might accept something in the order of the following. ‘There is in the work of Trakl a muscular, highly elastic imagery, encompassing complex fusions of dream-like visions and the memory of real events and experiences propelled by an ever-deepening morbid anxiety. This language of the imagination is the consummation of a visionary impulse born of chronic despair and longed for transcendence from an almost impossibly deranged and precarious existence.’ But what does such an academically fully fleshed pronouncement really tell us? One could say the same of a good number of poète maudit cases, or those possessing what appears to be a genuine visionary faculty.
First let us tackle the word itself. The word ‘visionary’ is bandied about almost as gratuitously as ‘genius’ in today’s sound-bite ravenous culture, so much so that it loses any coherent meaning. But what exactly constitutes the genuine visionary image and how does anyone beyond its creator recognise it and endorse it as such? An excerpt from Coleridge’s famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner may serve as an example. By examining a section of the Coleridge poem it gives some idea of what one in fact means by the visionary image and how through the combination of a series of movements both real and dream-like, it acts powerfully on the reader’s own imagination to produce the feeling of having shared in the poet’s image ‘design’. Furthermore, it sustains that image for the reader as something fluid and without boundaries, a living vision which can be extended by the individual imagination, a baton passed on.
Coleridge’s memorable image of the sun above the surface of the sea being transformed into a ‘broad and burning face’, peering as if through a ‘dungeon’s grate’, when the ‘naked ribs’ of the ghost ship pass between it and the viewer, has all the hallmarks of the visionary about it. There is not only the poet’s transfiguration of the sun into a being with a face, but the fact that this being is incarcerated, trapped behind the bars of a prison cell and is peering through towards the onlooker, perhaps in the hope of escape or sympathy, in rage either impotent or menacing, or potentially none of these. Although the idea of the sun having a face and being an entity like the moon is hardly original, even by Coleridge’s time, it doesn’t seem to matter here. The face image retains its unlikely impact because of the artful melding of ship and sun, a poetic double act, where two separate entities interact and reconstitute through movement. The ability of the poet to endow objects with a supernatural meaning, indeed with any meaning at all, is what elevates the scene to visionary status. Coleridge confirms towards the end of the sequence that indeed this is the timber carcass of the ghost ship, ‘the naked ribs’, passing spectre-like before a sun resting just above the ocean’s surface. This motion of ship against sun enables a temporary juxtaposition of objects to arise, in effect a magnet, which attracts the iron filings of visionary impulsion to cluster around it and form a shape, an image. The poet ensures the reader knows how that image came into being, but waits for six or seven lines before explanation. This gives the image space to ripen in the individual imagination, to sink a root but not be left entirely without mystery or further enquiry. However, by the time the reader reaches the explanatory line about the ‘naked ribs’ the image has already anchored in the reader’s imagination and the mind raced obediently through the options of how exactly to perceive it. Once it has the reassurance of the ‘ribs’, the reader’s imagination is secure and is therefore ready to embellish the image, reinforce it, frame it and make it permanent.
Coleridge’s genius, like that of Trakl, lies in the creation of images which are the product of a mind unable or unwilling to accept reality and therefore, in order to exist, must find alternative realities which for them are more valid. Such a path leads to a kind of momentary truth nourished by its brief exposure and ephemeral nature, a truth seemingly captured in its elusive purity, that dies a little at the moment it moves into focus, truth captured subconsciously at the heart of the image-making process, but belaboured by the very language, the very construction of words that gave birth to it. However, it is a truth that without the poet’s language, acting as a makeshift bridge to the human mind, would have remained isolated and never been detected at all. The poet is really saying ‘I alone had the means to feel this. I sensed, as fully as such a sensation can be recorded, the sun become an incarcerated being at that moment the ship passed before it. I welcome a truth whether it be coaxed out by opium, dream or madness. I invite you to join me and perhaps even go further than I, to extend the image by absorbing it.’
In the case of the Coleridge example and as will soon be evident, in the poetry of Trakl, movement is the key, both of the ship itself and the surface of the sun. The gradual grafting of the ghost ship’s petrified timber skeleton onto the contrasting so vital inferno behind it, causes a kind of quivering derangement, the uncanny notion of that broad flaming sun’s face peering through the bars of the ship’s bones. This trembling image, both forceful and insecure in equal measure, attracts the sympathetic reader and infects them. They see the masts and ribs of the ship with the sun reaching round them. They sense the almost imperceptible gliding movement of the ship, the silhouette of the timbers passing over the sun like a feeble eclipse, the metamorphosis of a burning sun’s face suddenly confronted by ‘bars’. This is an unforeseen apparition, defying rationality, something temporary, the fantastic product of a procession of movements, momentarily seized, then fading completely to be transmogrified into the permanence of poetry.
Like Coleridge, Trakl employs the visionary image as the principle means to express both his dissatisfaction with existence and his innate desire for transcendence. But unlike Coleridge and other romantics who interspersed their visions with a framing language to support their occasional sublime images, such as political references, awed wonder or fear at natural surroundings or a rationally elucidated despair at mankind’s folly etc, there is no space in Trakl’s work for such conscious construction in the traditional way a poem behaves. For Trakl scores one single furrow deeper than anyone else before or since. The imagery itself has become the entire poem, or one might say the world of Trakl is one long uninterrupted visionary image, a plethora of dream sequences cut and pasted into individual poems. All Trakl’s existential concerns become an essential part of this new language and cannot be separated from it. Rarely does Trakl break out from the image enclosure and show himself, and although there is an ‘I’ evident, especially in the earlier work, one cannot be wholly sure if this is the poet himself or one of his transitory entities, those elusive shades, the mysterious ‘Elis’, ‘Sebastian’ or ‘Helian’. Nowhere does he dare weaken the bond he has forged with this all-powerful unconscious. This is just one decisive factor which contributes to the feeling of total sacrifice, almost a heroic martyrdom to the visionary element and thereby a sense of true greatness shadows the uncompromising nature of Trakl’s vision. Although Trakl’s torment and despair at the fallen state of mankind could hardly be more explicit, the message is filtered through the imagery he has crafted to relieve the intolerable pressure on his psyche and so comes at us in pictorially-created fashion. The poet’s most deep-held fears and forebodings are sieved through a series of unlikely images onto our minds via dream-like, hallucinatory scenes and settings, rather than through mere rational telling. In this way the angst is both borne by the image and artistically sanctioned by it. Although all genuine visionary poetry has something of this faculty, in Trakl’s case the process appears strengthened by the relentless provision of a dream-like setting, the haunting, eerily beautiful and often obscure fictional fragment which peels back in the Trakl poem and quickly seduces or unsettles the reader, often from the very first line. ‘Shepherds buried the sun in the bare forest…’, ‘Oh, the dark angel which stepped from the tree…’, ‘With dead hero forms, moon you are filling…’, ‘I sing you wild fissure in the night storm…’. These are obviously not the standard fayre of opening lines from any period of poetry. One is immediately plunged into the image landscape, like a parachutist suddenly falling from the sky into the dark unknown. One falls fast through what seems to be incoherence, then as the chute opens one slows dramatically and becomes gradually acclimatized to the extraordinary descent. The rate of images, like that of Coleridge’s ghost ship, is in the work of Trakl increased ten-fold.
Certain images often appear to have no connection to those that follow or precede them, so to some people reading Trakl for the first time, it may appear to be a random display, seemingly incoherent, colours dabbed in at will, delirious gestures and morbid ravings with no graspable meaning beyond their shock impact. But on closer reading, when one becomes accustomed to the harmony of the imagery, one soon realises that there is a distinct pattern. This is usually primed in the setting of the poem, which although set in a dream state, will have recognisable features as well. For example, the famous chant-like opening lines of De Profundis. ‘There is a stubble field where a black rain falls / there is a tree which brown stands lonely here’ immediately evokes a scene which anyone can tell is going to be a supremely melancholy one. We immediately register the dreary field and the empty huts wreathed by a hissing wind. Trakl has the reader primed. He has employed a sparseness of description which brilliantly echoes the landscape which mirrors his own despair. After the scene is set the poem skews suddenly into a sub-biblical human dimension, with shepherds encountering the doomed orphan child’s ‘sweet remains rotting in the thorn bush’. No sooner have we absorbed the first effects of this powerful image, than we are faced with an abrupt change of pace and a solemn pronouncement on personal alienation with ‘a shadow I am far from darkened villages’, followed by the morbid almost sci-fi terror of ‘onto my brow cold metal steps, spiders seek my heart’ and ending with the arresting yet perplexing ‘In the hazel copse crystal angels have chimed again’. Although these different parts of the poem seem unconnected, they produce a seductive almost mantra-like effect as they drop away into each other, their unlikely fluidity feeding the visionary artery. This idiosyncratic but highly effective combining of hermetic image clusters to produce a poem’s definitive picture, or painterly canvas of mood, is repeated obsessively throughout Trakl’s work.
The repetition of colour and its ambiguities has been much discussed elsewhere resulting in something of a quagmire, sparked no doubt by Heidegger’s contentious arguments on that subject, but little thought appears to have been given to the question of movement in all its variations. In Trakl’s poetry there is a notable glut of walking, falling, stepping and sinking. Climbing, bending, leaping, stirring, gliding, floating and leaning follow close behind. This veritable tapestry of movement is carefully positioned in the poems to create an effect which emphasises the dominant theme wishing to be expressed, habitually that of melancholy or decline, but it is done in such a way that the tonal qualities of the poem are profoundly enhanced. As indicated before, the visionary power of the image is increased by the state of flux, the fluidity or impermanence suggested by actions such as walking, sinking or stepping, as well as the drawn-out nature of such an act as sinking for example. The image is somehow stretched by the movement, lengthened yes, but also broadened, deepened by the time given to action and gesture involved in a dream sequence. This idea of a detached landscape of imagery existing simultaneously with a reality which is unable to grasp it, is embodied in a statement by the poet Rilke, a contemporary of Trakl, who was also a sensitive admirer of his poetry. ‘I imagine that even one who stands close by must experience such spectacles and perceptions as though pressed, an exile, against a pane of glass: for Trakl’s life passes as if through the images of a mirror and fills its entire space, which cannot be entered, like the space of the mirror itself.’
Variations in movement suggest a change of pace. The image of sinking, falling and inclining slows events down, suggesting reflection, melancholy, extinction, whilst conversely the image of leaping, striding or dancing creates an atmosphere of freedom, spontaneity, or madness. In the poem To The boy Elis there are several incidences of this movement mosaic. ‘Your body is a hyacinth into which a monk dips his waxen fingers’, ‘you walk with soft steps into the night which is heavy with purple grapes and move your arms more beautifully in the blue’. Then later, ‘Our silence is a black cavern from which at times a gentle animal steps and slowly lowers heavy lids’. One notes that a substantial part of this poem is based on such dream movements. In another instance from the poem ‘My Heart Towards Evening’, Trakl uses a movement of reality with the line ‘heavenly it is to lurch drunkenly through the dusking wood’, but on the whole the images have the ethereal dream quality I have described. As if that were not enough the poem has myriad subsidiary actions going on as well. ‘the blackbird calls’, ‘your lips drink’, ‘your brow bleeds’, ‘a thorn bush sounds’, ‘black dew drips’. The Trakl poem is seething with action and motion, with beginning and completion, with unresolved gesture. The narrator talking to Elis, describes his visionary universe. Everything flows on a current of individual movement and yet, as in De Profundis, the subject of each stanza has little relation to the one before or after it, like those in Birth which contains the lines ‘A pale thing wakes in a musty room. Two moons. The eyes of the old stone woman are shining’. In Trakl’s poetry one action seems to lead languidly into another as if there could be no other way but this one. In To the Boy Elis for example, the monk has only just dipped his waxen fingers, when the gentle animal steps from a black cavern. Separate and unaware of each other’s existence, they yet combine to create a story which only has meaning within the poem’s solitary and detached landscape. These otherworldly beings and beasts carrying the colour assigned to them, who step gently from one place to another have a holiness and purity about them, a sure purpose and inner certainty alien to mankind. Theirs is a world which as Rilke says we cannot enter, but only gaze at as if trapped behind glass. It is unsullied, indefinable and easily extinguished.
Trakl is leading us somewhere he does not know himself. The image is a lure only, asking to be followed, nothing is definitive. The Trakl line gives us so much to interpret and absorb because in its visionary state it throws up a bewildering range of ambiguities and possibilities. We see the image not as a dead thing, a finite picture but perhaps more as a cinematic image lacking a visible boundary forever replayed in our minds. The desperate search for a bearable reality through poetic remoulding of existence creates, in Trakl’s eyes, a need for purification of some kind from what he sees as the spiritual mutilation of a rationally yoked mankind. The awareness that this transcendence may only be achieved through the extinguishing of the body itself becomes more insistent as time passes, resulting in the forceful visions of annihilation characteristic of the later poems. Personal experience of the modern battlefield in the early months of the First World War only seals this premonition.
By way of conclusion this single line from the masterful long poem Helian shows the highly effective mix of movement in the Trakl poem and the possibilities of interpretation for the reader: ‘Beautiful is man and emerging in darkness, when marvelling he moves his limbs and silently his eyes roll in crimson hollows.’ The image evolves from normal anatomical movement crucially infiltrated by delirium. The unlikely scene is given sufficient credence through movement, which act as the joints as it were of the image sequence, binding the elements together and justifying its survival. Just a handful of such images would have meant that Trakl did not suffer his particularly arduous existence in vain, but to have such a prodigious supply of them is nothing short of a miracle. Trakl is the supreme modern exponent of the visionary impulse. Through him we have arrived at a place in poetry where it seems impossible to go any further, at least in the one direction he steered in. He got further down that road than anyone else, before or since, but when he finally broke down no-one could reach him.
From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part III
The western wave was all a flame, The day was well nigh done! Almost upon the western wave Rested the broad bright Sun; When that strange shape drove suddenly Betwixt us and the Sun.
And straight the Sun was fleck’d with bars (heaven’s mother send us grace) As if thro’ a dungeon grate he peer’d With broad and burning face.
Alas (thought I, and my heart beat loud) How fast she neres and neres! Are those her Sails that glance in the Sun Like restless gossameres?
Are those her naked ribs, which fleck’d The Sun that did behind them peer? And are these two all, all the crew, That woman and her fleshless Pheere?
Oh the black angel who stepped softly From the heart of the tree Through their long hair rolls A fiery wheel, the round day Earth agony without end. Moon, as though a dead one Stepped from a blue cavern The sun has sunk in black linen; forever This bygone evening returns And angels step softly from the blue Eyes of lovers who more calmly bear their torment When in sleep he descended the darkening spiral stair When stonily he launched himself before black horses galloping Softly sinks on stark walls the olive trees blue stillness From which at times a gentle animal steps and slowly lowers heavy lids Heavenly to lurch drunkenly through the dusking wood Figures stride wax-stiffened through embers and smoke A red wolf which an angel is strangling A heart stiffens in snowy silence Oh my brother, our blind hour hands climb towards midnight
- translated by Will Stone