Georg Trakl, a drug addict with mental health problems, died young of a drug overdose, possibly a suicide. He was also a poet – one of those poets, like Rimbaud and Baudelaire, derangers of the senses.
This is how he sounds in English, or one way he sounds:
Rest and Silence
Shepherds buried the sun in the naked forest.
With a net of hair
A fisherman hauled the moon from the icy pond.
The pale man dwells
In a blue crystal, his cheek at rest against his stars,
Or he bows his head in crimson sleep.
But the black flight of birds always touches
The watcher, the holiness of blue flowers;
The nearby silence thinks forgotten things, extinguished angels.
Again the brow turns night in moonlit stone;
A radiant youth,
The sister appears in autumn and black putrefaction.
Trakl’s only book was published in 1913, the year before he died, but otherwise I do not know how to date his poems; this one could have been written years earlier. I took this translation from Robert Firmage’s ideal Song of the Departed: Selected Poems (Copper Canyon, 2012), but there is a lot of Trakl in English.
Trakl’s favorite words (or those of Firmage's Trakl): silence, stillness, angel, and then colors, primary mostly but also silver and black and white. “Crimson” is almost too fussy, but Firmage is working with a problematic word, “purpur,” that does not quite overlap with English color words. Mostly it is “brown wine,” “white water,” “black destruction,” “the yellow walls of summer” (all from “Helian”). Seasonal words, those should go on the list, too.
With a little simplification, the pale man is just the man in the moon (“a blue crystal”) so of course his cheeks brush the stars. Why the shepherds bury the sun is a puzzle – they didn’t murder it, did they? The forest is naked because of the season, I see at the end, so a bit of early strangeness becomes plain description. But then should the blue flowers be there? They allude to Novalis and German Romanticism, a century in the past at this point. The strangeness of the silence “thinking,” and what it thinks (“erloschene Engel”), remains.
Firmage matches the poem’s form and, as far as I can tell, images. He makes no attempt at its rhythm or sound. Trakl sometimes rhymes:
Perhaps some readers would enjoy the German. In this case, Firmage sacrifices literal sense for rhyme and meter.
from The Accursed
The night is black. The nightshirt of the child,
Who wanders, bloats out ghost-white in the wind.
And tenderly snakes the dead woman’s hand
Into his mouth. Sonia smiles, fair and mild.
Die Nacht is schwarz. Gespenstich bläht der Föhn
Des wandelnden Knaben weißes Schlafgewand
Und leise greift in seinen Mund die Hand
Der Toten. Sonja lächelt sanft und schön.
This does not sound like fair and mild German to me, but perhaps someone else will hear it differently.
I could have fun just pulling out lines:
Lepers, who rot away perhaps at night,
Read convoluted omens of birdflight. (“Dream of Evil”)
Unspeakable the flight of birds, a meeting
With the dying; dark year follows year. (“Afra”)
Immersed in the gentle string music of his madness (“Helian”)
Across the footbridge of bone, the hyacinthine voice of the boy,
Softly reciting the forgotten legends of the forest. (“At Mönchsberg”)
Tomorrow I will see if I can make anything of Georg Trakl. Meine Frau reminds me that I have been to his childhood home. That should help.