Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Georg Trakl: An Introduction and the Elis Poems

For almost two years now, I have been working with a friend of mine in Germany, Werner Schmitt, on a project to translate all of Georg Trakl’s known writings into English. It has been a laborious task and I appreciate Werner’s tenacity to stick with it. Our site can be found on the web at Wersch's Trakl Site. It has been a dream of mine since college to complete this project and I’m glad I have a collaborator to make up for my language deficiencies. As a matter of principle we have decided to do near-literal renders of these poems, resist the translator's temptation to rewrite, and in the rhymed poems to preserve meaning rather than try to replicate meter or rhyming schemes.

I assume most readers have never heard of Georg Trakl so I will start off with a little biographical information:

Georg Trakl (1887 - 1914) - born in Salzburg, trained as a dispensing druggist, was one of the most visionary and original of the 20th Century Austrian poets. In 1912, he found a patron and publisher in Ludwig von Ficker, editor of Der Brenner, and devoted his time to producing the poems for which he owns his posthumous fame. Two collections were accepted for publication in his lifetime. Extreme melancholy and guilt pushed him to drugs and alcohol. In August 1914, he was sent to Galicia, part of modern-day Poland, with the medical corp. After the Battle of Grodek, he was put in charge of approximately one hundred seriously wounded soldiers, but could do little to help. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a military hospital in Krakow for observation of his mental state. Fearing court-martial, he died in November 1914 from a self-inflicted overdose of cocaine.

In reality, little is known of Trakl’s life and what is known is rather unremarkable, almost nothing for a biographer to sink their teeth into. There are few significant events in his life, other than finding a literary sponsor in Ludwig von Ficker, and, though living the lifestyle of a poet maudit, he had few contacts with any artists close to his stature. But there is no denying that Trakl’s poetry reveals a rich inner life that had little outward manifestation. His poetry is odd and out of step with his time, and he stubbornly clung to his own artistic sensibilities, in spite of the advice of others. The “I” is used sparingly throughout his mature work. Instead, he relies on a series of images, sometimes mysterious or grotesque, to invoke an emotional response from the reader. Some readers and critics may even talk of a personal mythology of images constructed throughout his poetry, or even its pure lyric nature, almost total absence of irony, and decidedly pessimistic tone. However, my goal is not to analyze, but to present it for others to appreciate and evaluate. To that end, I have selected two related poems from Trakl’s second book Sebastian in Dream, published posthumously in 1915 by the Kurt Wolff publishing house, to begin this series.

To the Boy Elis

Elis, the blackbird's call in the black woods,
This is your decline.
Your lips drink the coolness of the blue rock-spring.

Leave, when your brow bleeds softly
Ancient legends
And dark interpretations of the flight of birds.

Yet with tender steps you walk in the night
That hangs full of purple grapes
And you move the arms more beautifully in the blueness.

A thorn bush tinges
Where your moon-like eyes are.
O, how long, Elis, you've been dead.

Your body is a hyacinth
Into which a monk dips his waxy fingers.
Our silence is a black cavern

From which a gentle animal steps at times
And slowly lowers heavy eyelids.
On your forehead drips black dew,

The last gold of expired stars.



Perfect is the stillness of this golden day.
Under ancient oaks
You appear, Elis, as one at rest with round eyes.

Their blue mirrors the slumber of lovers.
Against your mouth
Their rosy sighs fell silent.

In the evening the fisherman hauled in the heavy nets.
A good shepherd
Leads his flock along the forest's edge.
O! how righteous, Elis, are all your days.

The olive tree's blue silence sinks along bare walls.
The dark song of an old man fades away.

A golden boat
Rocks your heart, Elis, in the lonely sky.


A soft chiming of bells sounds in Elis' breast
In the evening,
When his head sinks into the black pillow.

A blue animal
Quietly bleeds in the thorn bushes.

A brown tree stands isolated there;
Its blue fruits have fallen away.

Signs and stars
Sink down quietly in the evening pond.

Behind the hill it has become winter.

Blue doves
Drink at night the icy sweat
That runs down Elis' crystal forehead.

God's lonely wind sounds along black walls.

                 © 2005 - 2006 Jim Doss and Werner Schmitt

Much speculation has arisen over the enigmatic boy character Elis, who he was modeled after, and what he represents. One of the most viable explanations I’ve found is that Trakl based Elis on the 17th century Swedish miner, Elis Forebom, who died falling into a mine shaft on his wedding day and was discovered many years later perfectly preserved in his youth while his bride had become an old woman. The account of Elis Forebom was documented in the E. T. A. Hoffmann novel, “The Miners of Falum,” 1818 and the Hugo von Hofmannsthal verse drama fragment, “The Miners of Falum,” 1906. It is conceivable that Trakl had access to both of these texts.

In the future, I will post status on our Trakl translation work and sample poems with commentary one to two times per month.


SarahJane said...

i know so little about Trakl and have always wanted to read more. I will be back to check out your link.

Jim Doss said...


Glad you stopped by to take a look at the Trakl entry. There will be more to come on this odd but fascinating poet. In meantime, I encourage you to take a look at the site
english/index-trakl-e.htm. It is still a work in progress, but is the most comprehensive Trakl site on the web with many photographs and other information about Trakl. We are in the process of translating his complete writings into English.


Xamyul of Florin said...

I have in my hands the Doss/Schmitt translation....thank you so much!! Yhese poems speak to me even more so than my beloved Baudelaire and Hölderlin. Yet do they go beyond meaning? Akin to Mallarme? Or is there a key I am missing? Ulrich and his sister in Robert Musil's great novel connects me to Georg and his sister I wrong to see this? I have found a book to help me along this path of interpretation. With my own soul mate I have these same...feelings. It's difficult to articulate, but then, that is the point, yes?