To understand the Austrian poet Georg Trakl (1887-1914) it is helpful to illuminate what, for want of a better phrase, one might call ‘the anatomy of movement’ in his vision. In this way it is possible to identify perhaps the most crucial strand leading to the infection of images that lends his work such an unrivalled visionary intensity and singularity in modern European poetry. To take a conventional approach one might accept something in the order of the following. ‘There is in the work of Trakl a muscular, highly elastic imagery, encompassing complex fusions of dream-like visions and the memory of real events and experiences propelled by an ever deepening morbid anxiety. This language of the imagination is the consummation of a visionary impulse born of chronic despair and longed for transcendence from an almost impossibly deranged and precarious existence.’ But what does such an academically fully-fleshed pronouncement really tell us? One could say the same of a good number of poète maudit cases, or those possessing what appears to be a genuine visionary faculty.

What exactly constitutes the genuine visionary image and how does anyone beyond its creator recognise it and endorse it as such? An excerpt from Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ may serve as an example. Examining a section of the poem gives some idea of how, through the combination of a series of movements both real and dream-like, it acts powerfully on the reader’s imagination to produce the feeling of having shared in the poet’s image ‘design’. Furthermore, it sustains that image for the reader as something fluid and without boundaries – a living vision which can be extended by the individual imagination, a baton passed on.

Coleridge’s memorable image of the sun above the surface of the sea being transformed into a ‘broad and burning face’, peering as if through a ‘dungeon’s grate’, when the ‘naked ribs’ of the ghost ship pass between it and the viewer has all the hallmarks of the visionary about it. There is not only the poet’s transfiguration of the sun into a being with a face, but the fact that this being is incarcerated, trapped behind the bars of a prison cell and is peering through towards the onlooker, perhaps in the hope of escape or sympathy, in rage either impotent or menacing, or potentially none of these. Although the idea of the sun having a face and being an entity like the moon was not original even by Coleridge’s time, it does not matter here. The face image retains its unlikely impact because of the artful melding of ship and sun, a poetic double-act, where two separate entities interact and reconstitute through movement. The ability of the poet to endow objects with a supernatural meaning, indeed with any meaning at all is what elevates the scene to visionary status. Towards the end of the sequence Coleridge confirms that, indeed, this is the timber carcass of the ghost ship – ‘the naked ribs’ passing spectre-like before a sun resting just above the ocean’s surface. This motion of ship against sun enables a temporary juxtaposition of objects to arise, in effect a magnet attracting the iron filings of visionary impulsion to cluster around it and form a shape, an image. The poet ensures that the reader knows how the image came into being but waits for six or seven lines before explanation. This gives the image space to ripen in the individual imagination, to sink a root but not be left entirely without mystery or further enquiry. However, by the time the reader reaches the explanatory line about the ‘naked ribs’ the image has already anchored in the reader’s imagination and the mind raced obediently through the options of how exactly to perceive it. Once it has the reassurance of the ‘ribs’, the reader’s imagination is secure and is therefore ready to embellish the image, reinforce it, frame it and make it permanent.

Coleridge’s genius, like that of Trakl, lies in the creation of images which are the product of a mind unable or unwilling to accept reality. In order to exist, therefore, the images must find alternative realities which for them are more valid. Such a path leads to a kind of momentary truth nourished by its brief exposure and ephemeral nature, a truth seemingly captured in its elusive purity that dies a little at the moment it moves into focus. Without the poet’s language, however, the truth would have remained

isolated and never been detected at all. The poet is really saying ‘I alone had the means to feel this. I sensed, as fully as such a sensation can be recorded, the sun become an incarcerated being at that moment the ship passed before it. I welcome a truth whether it be coaxed out by opium, dream or madness. I invite you to join me and perhaps even go further than I, to extend the image by absorbing it.’

In the case of the Coleridge example, as in the poetry of Trakl, movement is the key. The gradual grafting of the ghost ship’s petrified timber skeleton onto the contrasting inferno behind it causes a kind of quivering derangement. This trembling image, both forceful and insecure in equal measure, attracts sympathetic readers and infects them. They see the masts and ribs of the ship with the sun reaching round them. They sense the almost imperceptible gliding movement of the ship, the silhouette of the timbers passing over the sun like a feeble eclipse and the metamorphosis of a burning sun’s face suddenly confronted by ‘bars’. This is an unforeseen apparition, defying rationality. It is something temporary, momentarily seized, then fading completely to be transmogrified into the permanence of poetry.


Like Coleridge, Trakl employs the visionary image as the principle means to express both his dissatisfaction with existence and his innate desire for transcendence. Coleridge, and other romantics, interspersed their visions with a framing language to support their occasional sublime images, such as political references, awed wonder, fear at natural surroundings or a rationally elucidated despair at mankind’s folly. In Trakl’s work, however, there is no space for such conscious construction in the traditional way a poem behaves. For Trakl scores one single furrow deeper than anyone else before or since. The imagery itself has become the entire poem, or one might say the world of Trakl is one long, uninterrupted visionary image, a plethora of dream sequences cut and pasted into individual poems. All Trakl’s existential concerns become an essential part of this new language and cannot be separated from it. Rarely does Trakl break out from the image enclosure and show himself, and although there is an ‘I’ evident, especially in the earlier work, one cannot be wholly sure if this is the poet himself or one of his transitory entities, those elusive shades, the mysterious ‘Elis’, ‘Sebastian’ or ‘Helian’. Nowhere does he dare weaken the bond he has forged with this all-powerful unconscious. This is just one decisive factor which contributes to the feeling of total sacrifice, almost a heroic martyrdom to the visionary element. Thereby a sense of true greatness shadows the uncompromising nature of Trakl’s vision. Although Trakl’s torment and despair at the fallen state of mankind could hardly be more explicit, the message is filtered through the imagery he has crafted to relieve the intolerable pressure on his psyche and so comes at us in pictorially created fashion. The poet’s most deeply held fears and forebodings are sieved through a series of unlikely images onto our minds via dream- like, hallucinatory scenes and settings, rather than through mere rational telling. In this way the angst is both borne by the image and artistically sanctioned by it. Although all genuine visionary poetry has something of this faculty, in Trakl’s case the process appears strengthened by the relentless provision of a dream-like setting, the haunting, eerily beautiful and often obscure fictional fragment which peels back and quickly seduces or unsettles the reader, often from the very first line. ‘Shepherds buried the sun in the bare forest…’, ‘Oh, the dark angel which stepped from the tree…’, ‘With dead hero forms, moon you are filling…’, ‘I sing you wild fissure in the night storm…’ These are obviously not the standard fayre of opening lines from any period of poetry. One is immediately plunged into the image landscape. As a parachutist, one falls fast through what seems to be incoherence, then as the chute opens one slows dramatically and becomes gradually acclimatised to the extraordinary descent. The rate of images, like that of Coleridge’s ghost ship, is in the work of Trakl increased ten-fold.

Certain images often appear to have no connection to those that follow or precede them. On reading Trakl for the first time it may appear to be a random display, seemingly incoherent, colours dabbed in at will, delirious gestures and morbid ravings with no graspable meaning beyond their shock impact. But on closer reading, when one becomes accustomed to the harmony of the imagery, one soon realises that there is a distinct pattern. This is usually primed in the setting of the poem, which although set in a dream state, will have recognisable features as well. For example, the famous chant-like opening lines of ‘De Profundis’: ‘There is a stubble field where a black rain falls/there is a tree which brown stands lonely here.’ Immediately a scene is evoked which anyone can tell is going to be a supremely melancholy one. We immediately register the dreary field and the empty huts wreathed by a hissing wind. Trakl has the reader primed. He has employed a sparseness of description which brilliantly echoes the landscape in turn mirroring his own despair. After the scene is set the poem skews suddenly into a sub-biblical human dimension, with shepherds encountering the doomed orphan child’s ‘sweet remains rotting in the thorn bush’. No sooner have we absorbed the first effects of this powerful image, than we are faced with an abrupt change of pace and a solemn pronouncement on personal alienation with ‘a shadow I am far from darkened villages’, followed by the morbid almost science-fiction terror of ‘onto my brow cold metal steps, spiders seek my heart’ and ending with the arresting yet perplexing ‘In the hazel copse crystal angels have chimed again’. Although these different parts of the poem seem unconnected, they produce a seductive, almost mantra-like effect as they drop away into each other, their unlikely fluidity feeding the visionary artery. This idiosyncratic but highly effective combining of hermetic image clusters to produce a definitive picture, or painterly canvas of mood, is repeated obsessively throughout Trakl’s work.

The repetition of colour and its ambiguities has been much discussed. This has resulted in something of a quagmire, sparked no doubt by Heidegger’s contentious arguments on that subject, but little thought appears to have been given to the question of movement in all its variations. In Trakl’s poetry there is a notable glut of walking, falling, stepping and sinking. Climbing, bending, leaping, stirring, gliding, floating and leaning follow close behind. This veritable tapestry of movement is carefully positioned to create an effect which emphasises the dominant theme wishing to be expressed, habitually that of melancholy or decline, but it is done in such a way that the tonal qualities of the poem are profoundly enhanced. As indicated before, the visionary power of the image is increased by the state of flux, the fluidity or impermanence suggested by actions such as walking, sinking or stepping, as well as the drawn out nature of such an act as sinking for example. The image is somehow stretched by the movement, lengthened yes, but also broadened, deepened by the time given to action and gesture involved in a dream sequence. This idea of a detached landscape of imagery existing simultaneously with a reality which is unable to grasp it, is embodied in a statement by the poet Rilke, a contemporary of Trakl, who was also a sensitive admirer of his poetry. ‘I imagine that even one who stands close by must experience such spectacles and perceptions as though pressed, an exile, against a pane of glass: for Trakl’s life passes as if through the images of a mirror and fills its entire space, which cannot be entered, like the space of the mirror itself.’

Variations in movement suggest a change of pace. The image of sinking, falling and inclining slows events down, suggesting reflection, melancholy, extinction, whilst conversely the image of leaping, striding or dancing creates an atmosphere of freedom, spontaneity, or madness. In the poem ‘To the Boy Elis’ there are several incidences of this movement mosaic. ‘Your body is a hyacinth into which a monk dips his waxen fingers’, ‘you walk with soft steps into the night which is heavy with purple grapes and move your arms more beautifully in the blue’. Then later, ‘Our silence is a black cavern from which at times a gentle animal steps and slowly lowers heavy lids’. One notes that a substantial part of this poem is based on such dream movements. In another instance from the poem ‘My Heart Towards Evening’, Trakl uses a movement of reality with the line ‘heavenly it is to lurch drunkenly through the dusking wood’, but on the whole the images have the more familiar ethereal dream quality. As if that were not enough the poem has myriad subsidiary actions going on as well: ‘the blackbird calls’, ‘your lips drink’, ‘your brow bleeds’, ‘a thorn bush sounds’, ‘black dew drips’. It is seething with action and motion, with beginning and completion, with unresolved gesture. The narrator, talking to Elis, describes his visionary universe. Everything flows on a current of individual movement and yet, as in ‘De Profundis’, the subject of each stanza has little relation to the one before or after it, like those in Birth’, which contains the lines ‘A pale thing wakes in a musty room. Two moons. The eyes of the old stone woman are shining’.

In Trakl’s poetry one action seems to lead languidly into another as if there could be no other way but this one. In ‘To the Boy Elis’, for example, the monk has only just dipped his waxen fingers when the gentle animal

steps from a black cavern. Separate and unaware of each other’s existence, they combine to create a story which only has meaning within the poem’s solitary and detached landscape. These otherworldly beings and beasts, carrying the colour assigned to them, step gently from one place to another. They have a holiness and purity about them, a sure purpose and inner certainty alien to mankind. Theirs is a world which, as Rilke says, we cannot enter but only gaze at as if trapped behind glass. It is unsullied, indefinable and easily extinguished.

Trakl is leading us somewhere he does not know himself. The image is a lure only, asking to be followed. Nothing is definitive. The Trakl line gives us so much to interpret and absorb because in its visionary state it throws up a bewildering range of ambiguities and possibilities. We see the image not as a dead thing, not as a finite picture but perhaps more as a cinematic image lacking a visible boundary, and forever replayed in our minds. Trakl’s is a desperate search for a bearable reality through the poetic remoulding of existence. He sees a need for a kind of purification from the spiritual mutilation of a rationally yoked mankind. The awareness that this transcendence may only be achieved through the extinguishing of the body itself becomes more insistent as time passes, resulting in the forceful visions of annihilation characteristic of the later poems. Personal experience of the modern battlefield in the early months of the First World War only seals this premonition.

A single line from the masterful long poem ‘Helian‘ demonstrates Trakl’s highly effective use of movement and the possibilities of its interpretation: ‘Beautiful is man and emerging in darkness, when marvelling he moves his limbs and silently his eyes roll in crimson hollows.’ From normal anatomical movement the image becomes crucially infiltrated by delirium. The unlikely scene is given sufficient credence through movement – the joints of the image sequence that bind the elements together and justify its survival. A mere handful of such images would have meant Trakl’s particularly arduous existence was not suffered in vain, but to have such a prodigious supply of them is nothing short of a miracle. Trakl is the supreme modern exponent of the visionary impulse. Through him we have arrived at a place in poetry where it seems impossible to go any further, at least in the one direction he steered in. He went further down that road than anyone else, before or since, but when he finally broke down no one could reach him.

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