No Comment — July 28, 2007, 4:29 pm

A Note on Trakl’s ‘Song of Kaspar Hauser’

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).

kaspar

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

November 2018

The Tragedy of Ted Cruz

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Rebirth of a Nation

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Combustion Engines·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
Article
Rebirth of a Nation·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Donald Trump’s presidency signals a profound but inchoate realignment of American politics. On the one hand, his administration may represent the consolidation of minority control by a Republican-dominated Senate under the leadership of a president who came to office after losing the popular vote by almost 3 million ballots. Such an imbalance of power could lead to a second civil war—indeed, the nation’s first and only great fraternal conflagration was sparked off in part for precisely this reason. On the other hand, Trump’s reign may be merely an interregnum, in which the old white power structure of the Republican Party is dying and a new oppositional coalition struggles to be born.

Illustration by Taylor Callery (detail)
Article
Blood Money·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the past three years, the city of South Tucson, Arizona, a largely Latino enclave nestled inside metropolitan Tucson, came close to abolishing its fire and police departments. It did sell off the library and cut back fire-truck crews from four to three people—whereupon two thirds of the fire department quit—and slashed the police force to just sixteen employees. “We’re a small city, just one square mile, surrounded by a larger city,” the finance director, Lourdes Aguirre, explained to me. “We have small-town dollars and big-city problems.”

Illustration by John Ritter (detail)
Article
The Tragedy of Ted Cruz·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When I saw Ted Cruz speak, in early August, it was at Underwood’s Cafeteria in Brownwood. He was on a weeklong swing through rural central Texas, hitting small towns and military bases that ensured him friendly, if not always entirely enthusiastic, crowds. In Brownwood, some in the audience of two hundred were still nibbling on peach cobbler as Cruz began with an anecdote about his win in a charity basketball game against ABC’s late-night host Jimmy Kimmel. They rewarded him with smug chuckles when he pointed out that “Hollywood celebrities” would be hurting over the defeat “for the next fifty years.” His pitch for votes was still an off-the-rack Tea Party platform, complete with warnings about the menace of creeping progressivism, delivered at a slightly mechanical pace but with lots of punch. The woman next to me remarked, “This is the fire in the gut! Like he had the first time!” referring to Cruz’s successful long-shot run in the 2011 Texas Republican Senate primary. And it’s true—the speech was exactly like one Cruz would have delivered in 2011, right down to one specific detail: he never mentioned Donald Trump by name.

Cruz recited almost verbatim the same things Trump lists as the administration’s accomplishments: the new tax legislation, reduced African-American unemployment, repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, and Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. But, in a mirror image of those in the #Resistance who refuse to ennoble Trump with the title “president,” Cruz only called him that.

Photograph of Ted Cruz © Ben Helton (detail)
Article
Wrong Object·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

H

e is a nondescript man.

I’d never used that adjective about a client. Not until this one. My seventeenth. He’d requested an evening time and came Tuesdays at six-thirty. For months he didn’t tell me what he did.

The first session I said what I often said to begin: How can I help you?

I still think of what I do as a helping profession. And I liked the way the phrase echoed down my years; in my first job I’d been a salesgirl at a department store counter.

I want to work on my marriage, he said. I’m the problem.

His complaint was familiar. But I preferred a self-critical patient to a blamer.

It’s me, he said. My wife is a thoroughly good person.

Yawn, I thought, but said, Tell me more.

I don’t feel what I should for her.

What do you feel?

Photograph © Joseph S. Giacalone (detail)

Chance that a homeless-shelter resident in a major U.S. city holds a full- or part-time job:

1 in 5

Turkey hunting was deemed most dangerous for hunters, though deer hunting is more deadly.

The unresolved midterms; Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III replaced; the debut of the world’s first AI television anchor

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today