On November 3, 1914 one of the truly unique voices of world poetry was stilled. Georg Trakl, 27, a reserve lieutenant-pharmacist in the Austro-Hungarian army committed suicide by overdosing on cocaine while under observation at a military hospital. For those who knew Trakl’s work, this fate was “a death foretold.”
Trakl bridged the excesses of Late-19th Romanticism and the dawning of a new Modernist poetics. He is usually classed among the Expressionist poets but he could just as easy be called one of the last of the Decadents. While much of expressionist poetry was rhapsodic in tone and given over to large Whitman-esque declarations concerning Mankind and Brotherhood, Trakl’s poetry was a poetry of rooms closed up too long, of shadows descending and roses wilting in their vases. While many Decadent poets dealt in poses and fired off there lines for effect, Trakl sadly was “the real deal,” a haunted man, a desperately unhappy man. Obsessed by his sister Grete, a confirmed drug addict—whose choice of pharmacy as a career was hardly accidental—nothing, neither his growing fame as a poet nor the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s awarding him a pension that should have allowed him to live comfortably as a writer, brought him even a modicum of satisfaction.
Called to the colors at the outbreak of hostilities, this already unstable man was given the assignment to stand watch over soldiers seriously wounded in a battle fought at Grodek in the Ukraine. Unable to secure drugs to ease their sufferings or his own, he attempted to shoot himself and was promptly transferred to a military hospital in Krakow where he finally succeed in taking his own life.
“Grodek” was Trakl’s final poem.
At nightfall the autumn wood cry out
With deadly weapons and the golden plains,
The deep blue lakes, above which more darkly
Rolls the sun; the night embraces
Dying warriors, the wild lament
Of their broken mouths.
But quietly there in the pastureland
Red clouds in which an angry god resides,
The shed blood gathers, lunar coolness.
All the roads lead to blackest carrion.
Under golden twigs of the night and stars
The sister’s shade now sways through the silent copse
To greet the ghosts of heroes, the bleeding heads;
And softly the dark flutes of autumn sound in the reeds.
Oh prouder grief! You brazen altars,
Today a great flames feeds the hot flame of the spirit.
The grandsons yet unborn.
(translation by Michael Hamburger)