Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Georg Trakl - Grandsons Unborn

Georg Trakl, The Ravens, 1913

Over the black crevice
at noon the ravens rush with rusty cries.
Their shadows touch the deer’s back
and at times they loom in gnarled rest.

O how they derange the brown stillness,
in the one acre itself entranced,
like a woman married to grave premonitions,
and at times you can hear them bicker

about a corpse they sniffed-out somewhere,
and sharply they bend their flight towards north
and dwindle away like a funeral
march in the air, shivering with bliss.

 Otto Dix, Sunrise, 1913

One year after Georg Trakl's poem and Otto Dix' painting, visions of the impeding disaster, both men were called to the military. World War I had begun. In July 1914, shortly before being drafted by the Austro-Hungarian Army, Georg Trakl received a large monetary gift from the then unknown philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who was distributing his enourmous inheritance to artists. Unfortunately, Trakl never was able to use the money. His emotional instability became worse under the strains of war and he was hospitalized numerous times as a result of depression and suicide attempts. After several bloody defeats at the hands of the Russians, Trakl was left to single handedly care for 90 wounded men in a barn near Grodek where he wrote the following poem:

 Albin Egger-Lienz, Den Namenlosen (Those Who Have Lost Their Names), 1914

Georg Trakl, Grodek, 1914

At evening the autumn woodlands ring
With deadly weapons. Over the golden plains
And lakes of blue, the sun
More darkly rolls. The night surrounds

Warriors dying and the wild lament
Of their fragmented mouths.
Yet silently there gather in the willow combe
Red clouds inhabited by an angry god,

Shed blood, and the chill of the moon.
All roads lead to black decay.
Under golden branching of the night and stars
A sister's shadow sways through the still grove

To greet the heroes' spirits, the bloodied heads.
And softly in the reeds Autumn's dark flutes resound.
O prouder mourning! - You brazen altars,
The spirit's hot flame is fed now by a tremendous pain:
The grandsons, unborn.

Trakl could not adequately relieve the pain of his patients on his own, and he witnessed the splattered brains of one soldier who shot himself. Trakl then went outside, and after seeing some of the local Ruthenians hanging from trees, suffered a mental breakdown and threatened to shoot himself. In October, Trakl was hospitalized in Cracow, Poland, and received a visit from a friend who encouraged Trakl to send for his benefactor Wittgenstein. Unfortunately, Trakl injected himself with a fatal dose of cocaine, a probable suicide attempt, on November 3, 1914, three days before Wittgenstein arrived (three years later, Trakl's sister Grete shot herself at a party after failing to overcome her drug addiction).

Telegram of Georg Trakl to his publisher Kurt Wolff: "I should be very delighted if you would send me a copy of my new book Sebastian in Dream. Being ill and hospitalized here in Garnisonsspital Krakau - Georg Trakl."

Kurt Wolff published Sebastian in Dream in 1915, which would garner Trakl a small, but loyal following in Germany and Austria.  Wittgenstein's opinion of Trakl's poems was this: "I do not understand them; but their tone pleases me. It is the tone of true genius."

You can find the above telegram (and countless other treasures) in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Yale University.

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