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I have just posted my translation of one of Georg Trakl’s poems, The Song of Kaspar Hauser from the collection published posthumously in 1915 entitled Sebastian im Traum (Sebastian Dreaming.) The entire collection is haunting, a very great exercise in word sculpting and imagery, and also filled with a proximate sense of doom or death. Considering that he was an Austrian writing in the blood-filled early days of a war that was to lead to the death of nearly an entire generation—his generation—it is easy to understand these somber tones. Trakl had been called up and shipped out to the front; he experienced a brutal engagement and was sent to a field hospital for medical observation. He died from a cocaine overdose under circumstances which remain rather poetically vague. Scholars of German literature are decidedly of two minds about Trakl, some putting him in the vanguard of his generation and others adopting a rather more disparaging view. I certainly count myself in the first group: Trakl is an important figure, a leading poet of expressionism. He composes with simplicity, but he is not simple. His simplicity is powerful and in some way reminds of the classicists. But it is not neoclassical of course, it marks the arrival of a new style and relationship to language: the expressionists.
This poem is one of the more intriguing entries in the 1915 collection—it draws very heavily on an historical incident, the appearance in Nuremberg in 1828 of a sixteen year old boy who could barely speak or stand. After he was educated and taught to express himself, he explained to his hosts that he had as long as he could remember been held in a dark room with a low ceiling. He had been fed and cared for by an unknown man with whom he had hardly any contact. Kaspar Hauser, as he was named, had reached maturity without meaningful contact with other human beings, held captive in the most mysterious of circumstances. One of the few lines which Hauser could speak, however, was “So ein Reiter möcht’ ich werden wie mein Vater einer g’wen is’” (“I’d like to be a rider [horseman] just like my father was.”) To eliminate any doubt that he is indeed writing about the historical figure, Trakl uses this line, somewhat simplified, as a refrain.
After making his appearance, Kaspar Hauser was thrown in prison, but his appearance aroused much to-do among the reading public, and at length a famous legal scholar, Anselm von Feuerbach (this is the man who reformed and modernized Germany’s penal laws in the first half of the nineteenth century, also the father of five sons, each a prominent academic, and the grandfather of the famous painter by the same name), took Kaspar in, educated and cared for him. Someone, however, was very concerned about Hauser’s appearance on the public stage. He was stalked, attacked and ultimately murdered by unknown assailants. Feuerbach then wrote a compelling book about the case called Kaspar Hauser. Beispiel eines Verbrechens am Seelenleben des Menschen (Kaspar Hauser: An Example of a Crime Against a Human Soul)(1832).
The case of Kaspar Hauser was a matter of sensational curiosity in Central Europe in the 1830’s, it was arguably the first media frenzy of the modern age, often compared with the equally significant case of the Man in the Iron Mask which had attracted writers from Voltaire to Dumas. There were both sleuthing and philosophical approaches to the mystery. But in the poetic literature evolving from roughly the end of the nineteenth century, Kaspar Hauser assumed a very clear role: he stood for the natural, poetic genius lost in a strange world, lacking a home, a sense of origin and attachment, and fearing a violent but uncertain future. Paul Verlaine and Richard Dehmel both wrote pieces in this sense, but Trakl’s is perhaps the most striking of them all.
A few thoughts on the poem itself. Trakl loves seasonal images, but especially the fall—it plays a significant role throughout his work. The fall is the season of esthetic fulfillment, maturity, of fruit bearing, of artistic gift; but it is also the end period before a withering away in winter. Trakl was a young man—27 years old—as he wrote this in 1914, but it is filled with an imminent sense of death (as it turned out, quite correctly). He uses colors in a very striking way throughout the poem, though I made some translation choices that deemphasize that a bit. The sun is purple; the bird is black; joy is green; the house and twilight garden is filled with white people (I made them pale since the color use has a different sense in English), the unborn’s head is silver. Each of these colors carries a distinct meaning which plays consistently through Trakl’s work. Purple is regal, ethereal, sublime; black is associated with death, or departure (and the blackbird of course a symbol of antiquity announcing death); green is associated with sensuality, procreation, pleasure; and so forth.
There is a strong emphasis on Kaspar’s unknown potential, his artistic genius, unrevealed (“at night he remained alone with his star.”) It is easy to see how Trakl identified with Kaspar, with his self-doubt, his concern about whether his own artistry will be recognized or denied (it had already provoked controversy, he was certainly insecure about it). But most importantly, the sense of impending doom from an unknown quarter—which Trakl faced from being called up and dispatched to the front. But Trakl’s obsession with the Kaspar Hauser story goes far beyond this. I’m tempted to call it clinical—one of those cases where poetic greatness drifts into the realm of psychopathology.
Trakl’s medical records were rescued after the end of the Great War and they were found to contain this notation (my translation) from the physician who had observed him at the field hospital, and who knew nothing of Trakl’s poetry, much less of the Song of Kaspar Hauser:
As a child he attempted suicide. At the age of 5 years, he jumped into the water. His most recent attempt earlier this year. Otherwise he was ‘completely healthy’… Excellent student. University studies no difficulty. Served in 1908. During the mobilization, he volunteered for duty. Ordered to the front on August 1… For years he suffered from periodic severe psychological depressions with anxieties, then he began to drink to rid himself of the anxieties. Since his childhood he suffered from hallucinatory visions in which a man would come up from behind him with a knife. These visions had stopped for 12-14 years and suddenly resumed 3 years ago; besides that he often hears bells ringing. He does not believe that his father is really his own, rather he thinks that in the future it will be revealed to be a great lord.
Georg Trakl Dichtungen und Briefe, vol. 2, pp. 729-30.
This of course comes so close to the tale of Kaspar Hauser that it is hard to see the song as a literary affectation. Trakl’s own life is the life of Kaspar Hauser; he feels it. And that adds to the force of the work.
Several other pieces in the book remind of this poem—the imagery is very similar across the work, as is the language. And one other prose piece, Verwandlung des Bösen (The Metamorphosis of Evil) is strikingly like it. But in the end this work seems to me to be a haunting portrait of Trakl himself, drawing on a historical episode, certainly, and crafted in the emerging language of literary expressionism. A minor masterpiece.
More from Scott Horton:
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"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."