Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Finding Salzburg in Trakl's poems - But he descended the stony steps of the Mönchsberg

Georg Trakl was born and lived in the Georg Trakl House in Salzburg, right by the cathedral.  I suppose it was not called that at the time - otherwise, what a coincidence!  From his poems, which always seem to be out in the woods or in strangely deserted villages, I might guess that he was a country poet.  But no, he was a city kid – Salzburg, Vienna, Innsbruck.  Mostly Salzburg.

I never catch Trakl writing about Salzburg’s ubiquitous Mozart and Sound of Music kitsch, but once I start looking I can find other traces of the city.  “To One Dead Young” begins with the usual angel:

Oh, the black angel, who stepped softly from inside the tree,
When we were gentle playmates in the evening
At the edge of the bluish fountain…

A tree, a fountain, a dryad-like angel – this could be anywhere.  It is in Salzburg, though:

But he descended the stony steps of the Mönchsberg,
A blue smile on his countenance, and strangely cocooned
Into his stiller childhood, and died.

The Mönchsberg is the mountain that curves around the old city of Salzburg.  A castle is perched on one end of the mountain.  Young Trakl would have seen it every time he left his house through the front door.  At  the other end, a ways to the right (we are standing just outside the house) the ridge is now capped by a quite good Museum of Modern Art.  I suppose it was just woods in Trakl’s time.  Walls, maybe, or a watch tower.

Soul sang death, the green corruption of the flesh,
And it was the rustling of the forest,
The ardent lament of the prey.
Always the blue bells of evening rang from the dusky towers.

It is funny how what at first seemed so abstract falls into place once I put the poet up on the Mönchsberg, overlooking old Salzburg and the Salzach River.  One word does it.

I wonder if this is Salzburg, too, if these are the same bells, or perhaps, a “great city,” it is Vienna, or perhaps a fantasy.

To Those Grown Mute

Oh, the madness of the great city, where stunted trees
Stiffen at evening along the black wall;
The spirit of evil peers from a silver mask;
Light drives out the stony night with a magnetic scourge.
Oh, the sunken tolling of the evening bells.

Whore, who bears a dead infant in icy shudders,
God’s wrath whips raging the brow of the possessed,
Crimson plague, hunger, which shatters green eyes.
Oh, the hideous laughter of gold.

But a muter mankind bleeds silently in a dark cavern,
Joins from hard metals the redeeming head.

It’s like a parody of a Trakl poem, although it would be the rare parodist who would think up “magnetic scourge,” the “magnetischer Geißel” that is sonically linked to the earlier “Geist (spirit).”  The evil spirit is not simply electric light is it?

I wonder what point there is in pinning Trakl’s poems down to a specific place, even when he is the one who mentions the Mönchsberg.  The translator, Robert Firmage, informs me that Heidegger wrote about Trakl, attracted by mankind grown mute in the cavern, the “unspeakability of human experience” (217).  Heidegger is as interested in the absence in Trakl’s poems, in his “single and unspoken poem” (217, italics mine, words actually Firmage’s, not Heidegger’s).  I hope to return to Trakl soon with a little more poetic context, but I suspect I might as well give up hope if I do not limit myself to Trakl’s multiple written poems, to the sound of the bells above Salzburg, and leave the negative space to Heidegger.

Vacation looms.  No more writing until Monday.


  1. I've always meant to read some Trakl. These fragments seem reminiscent of Blake.

  2. That second poem really does have a touch of Blake, now that you mention it. Like a fragment out of one of Blake's big visionary poems. Trakl does not seem to possess any of Blake's myth-making interests.