Here are more of my translations from Trakl’s extraordinary May-July 1914 outpouring that produced “Das Herz” (“The Heart), “Der Schlaf” (“Sleep”), “Der Abend” (“Evening”), “Die Nacht” (“Night”), “Die Schwermut” (“Melancholy”), and “Die Hedmkehr” (“Homecoming”). These, and the poems to come, are all affected by the impending sense of doom and of the war that would begin in August of that year. The proximate trigger for World War I was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife Sophie in June, 1914. But well before this an arms race had begun—between 1908 and 1913, the military spending of the European powers increased by 50%. There was a first and second Balkan War, with territories lost and gained, and great powers maneuvering for influence. Bosnia and Herzegovina were called the “powder keg of Europe.” Reading these poems you can feel the poet’s sense of doom and even apocalypse, as he senses a world sliding inexorably toward the bloody conflict.
Moon, you fill The silent forest with The dead shapes of heroes, Crescent moon— With the soft embrace Of Lovers, Shadows of the great ages Around the decaying rock; The light shines bluish Toward the city Where cold & wicked A decaying race Prepares a dark future For the white grandsons. Their moon-twisted shadows Sigh in the empty crystal Of a mountain‑lake.
I sing you, wild cliffs, Towering mountains, In the night‑storm; You gray towers Overflowing with faces of hell, Fiery beasts, Rough ferns, pines, Crystal flowers, Eternal torment, You sought God Gentle spirit, Groaning in the cataract, In the swaying pines.
The fires of nations Burn gold everywhere. Drunk with death The whirlwind of light Plunges over black cliffs, The blue wave Of the glacier & the bell Thunders in the valley: Flames, curses, & the dark Games of lust, A petrified head Storms the heavens.
Dark moon Immense, inward Shaped by autumn clouds, & the stillness of gold evenings; A green mountain‑stream in twilight, Shadow‑zone Of shattered pines; A village Devoutly fading in brown sepia‑prints.
See the black horses run In the misty pasture. Soldiers! Laughing blood pours From the hill where the sun rolls dying…. Under the silent Oaks! O bitter sadness Of the army; a shining helmet Sank clattering from a purple brow.
Autumn night comes Cool, shining with stars, Like a silent nun Above the shattered remains.
Critics see four phases in Trakl’s work: youth or juvenilia, followed by an expressionist phase from about 1909 to 1912, a third phase which begins more or less with “Psalm” in 2012, and then a too-brief fourth and final phase which begins in 1914 and lasts until his death in November of that year. These poems are from his final year, and point to the incredible brilliance yet to come, of “Grodek” and “Klage.”