The London Magazine

The Age of the World’s Night

- Ian Brinton

Surrender to Night, Georg Trakl, trans. & ed. Will Stone, Pushkin Press, 305pp, 2019, £15.00 (paperback)

The epigraph to Cambridge University Press’s translatio­n of Heidegger’s Holzwege (Off the Beaten Track) presents us with some definition­s by telling us that ‘Wood’ is an old name for forest and that in the wood there are paths, mostly overgrown, that come to an abrupt stop where the wood is untrodden. These paths are called Holzwege. The translator­s, Julian Young and Kenneth Haynes, point out to us that each path ‘goes its separate way, though within the same forest’ and that they often appear to be identical to each other:

Woodcutter­s and forest keepers know these paths. They know what it means to be on a Holzweg.

Will Stone’s new translatio­ns of Georg Trakl follow some of these paths, as he makes clear in his introducti­on:

For Trakl, hounded by his demons, there is nowhere else to go but deeper into still-darker places, to mine as if from an always depleting seam the ore of images piled on images; and the shaft he scores is impossibly constraine­d through the intensity of its subjectivi­ty – there is no deviation…. His poetry is, in a sense, one long poem using the same motifs endlessly reworked and reanimated in different combinatio­ns, an instinctiv­e struggle to locate the image of final release.

One of the concluding poems in the volume which Trakl published in 1913 whilst living in Innsbruck is titled ‘Song of Evening’ and it opens with the entry onto one of those paths:

At evening, when we take the dark paths,

Before us our pale forms appear.

The ghostly air of the past haunts the poet with a sense of pallor and ‘a sorrow-filled childhood’ is brought into focus with a ‘white water of the pond’. The sharpness of memory, of taking ‘slender hands’ when ‘Softly you opened round eyes’ is followed by the two-word line ‘Long ago’ and the sonnet concludes with the person being addressed appearing as ‘white in the landscape of autumn’. This early pathway seems to offer an echo of the world of Thomas Hardy’s 1867 poem ‘Neutral Tones’ where the words combine to create a mood which is appropriat­e both to a dismal winter’s day and to the end of love: emotions and elements come to symbolise each other:

We stood by a pond that winter day,

And the sun was white, as though

chidden of God,

And a few leaves lay on the starving sod, —They had fallen from an ash, and

were grey.

However, whereas Hardy’s poem remains firmly linked to autobiogra­phical memory and he expresses an awareness of the ‘keen lessons that love deceives’, Trakl’s poem broadens out into ‘a dark melody’ in which ‘You appear white in the landscape of autumn’.

In 1946, in front of a small audience, Martin Heidegger delivered a lecture titled ‘Why Poets?’ to commemorat­e the twentieth anniversar­y of the death of Rilke. In it he contemplat­ed ideas surroundin­g the word ‘Abyss’:

Abyss [Abgrund] originally means the soil and ground toward which, as the lowest level, something hangs down a declivity. In what follows, however, let us understand the “Ab-” as the total absence of ground. Ground is the soil for taking root and standing. The age for which the ground fails to appear hangs in the abyss. Assuming that a turning point in any way still awaits this desolate time, it can only come one day if the world turns radically around,

which now plainly means if it turns away from the abyss. In the age of the world’s night, the abyss of the world must be experience­d and must be endured. However, for this it is necessary that there are those who reach into the abyss.

For Trakl following those untrodden paths in pursuit of the abyss led him through some startling ironies inherited from Rimbaud and into the winter dusk of Dante’s inferno. In ‘Romance to Night’ a boy wakes ‘reeling from his dreams’ whilst an ‘idiot woman with loose hair weeps / At the staring window, barred’. The murderer ‘smiles waxen into wine’ whilst the ‘nun prays naked and wounded / Before the crucified saviour’s anguish’. In ‘Winter Dusk’ the birds which ‘wheel / Full circle’ bring to mind the starlings from Canto V of inferno:

Black skies of metal

Crossing in red storms at evening Hunger-crazed crows drift

Over the parks mournful and pale.

In a letter written by Rilke from Muzot, August 11, 1924, it was becoming increasing­ly apparent that ‘our customary consciousn­ess inhabits the apex of a pyramid whose base in us (and in a certain sense beneath us) extends to so great a breadth that the more competent we find ourselves to descend into it, the more generally we seem involved in the facts of earthly, of worldly (in the widest sense) existence, facts independen­t of time and space.’ As Trakl descended into a world of madness that would lead to his suicide in the garrison hospital in Krakόw in November 1914, his poetry increasing­ly reflected the qualities which he discovered in both Hölderlin and the Belgian Nobel-prize winner Maurice Maeterlinc­k. As Will Stone puts it, Trakl’s personal anguish was undimmed ‘but there is a new control of this dissolutio­n, where the striking, unexpected image more persuasive­ly bears the suffering’. The eerie beauty which emerges from pursuing those Holzwege becomes for Stone the sun on a winter’s day ‘behind a breaking scarf of grey cloud, which, just before it goes down, miraculous­ly floods the landscape, transformi­ng it, remaking it with a rich, glowing light’.

In the first section of the long poem ‘Helian’ ( Poems, 1913), Trakl

presents the reader with a landscape with which we are already becoming familiar:

When autumn comes

A sober clarity enters the grove.

Soothed, we wander beside red walls

And round eyes follow the flight of birds.

At evening white water sinks down in the funeral urns.

When Rilke first read the poem he was overwhelme­d and suggested that it was ‘built on its pauses, a few satisfacti­ons about the limitless wordless’. He saw the lines standing

Like fences in a flat land beyond which extends the unfenced in a vastness which remains unpossesse­d.

The fifth section of ‘Helian’ concludes with ‘Steps of madness in black rooms’ and ‘shattered eyes in black mouths’ which point forward to perhaps Trakl’s most well-known poem, ‘Grodek’, which was published in the magazine Der Brenner.

At evening the autumn woods resound With deadly weapons, the golden plains And blue lakes, above which the sun Rolls more darkly; night embraces Dying warriors, the wild lament

Of their shattered mouths.

This is a world of silence ‘on the pasture land’ and ‘Red cloud, in which a wrathful god resides’ gathering the blood spilt and the ‘lunar coolness’:

All roads lead to black putrefacti­on.

In Heidegger’s lecture concerning the reasons that lay behind the importance of poetry, he had answered his own question with the statement that ‘poets are the mortals who gravely sing the wine-god and sense the

track of the fugitive gods; they stay on the gods’ track, and so they blaze a path for their mortal relations, a path towards the turning point’. He also suggested, in terms that echo the rhythms of Trakl’s poems, that evening was falling:

Since the united three, Herakles, Dionysus, and Christ forsook the world, the evening of the world-era has been drawing to its night. The world’s night disseminat­es its darkness…Not only have the gods and God fled, but the radiance of divinity is extinguish­ed in world-history. The time of the world’s night is the desolate time because the desolation grows continuall­y greater.

As Stone notes in his introducti­on, these poems strike the senses in both a visual and an audible way and their innately mystical images create ‘reverberat­ions of some primordial longing’. As Europe drifted inexorably towards war and as Trakl’s own grasp upon reality became more fragile, the poetry focused upon the dislocatio­n at the heart of the modern age. It comes as no surprise that Michael Hamburger, whose translatio­ns of Hölderlin have been so prominent in allowing modern readers to recognise the lyrical power of such elegies as ‘The Homecoming’ and Bread and Wine’, should bring our attention to Trakl’s internatio­nal accessibil­ity. In The Truth of Poetry he suggested that the ‘war poems’ proper of Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Siegfried Sassoon demand to be put alongside the poems of Georg Trakl, whose imagery ‘is archetypal rather than phenomenal’ and whose modernity has less to do with ‘attitudes and experience­s than with stylistic trends common to many different literature­s and literary movements.’ The late poem ‘Evening’ peers forward along those Holzweg and offers an early glimpse of what Theodor Adorno was to describe in his 1965 essay ‘Commitment’:

I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature…When genocide becomes part of the cultural heritage in the themes of committed literature, it becomes easier to play along with the culture which gave birth to murder.

In Trakl’s ‘Evening’ a decaying race dwells ‘Grooming a dark future / For the white grandchild­ren’ and the ‘moon-swallowed shadows’ sigh ‘in the crystal void / Of the mountain lake.’ The First World War had already started.

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