Trakl’s Helian, An Utterly New Thing

Updated: Jul 27

Trakl called “Helian” “the most precious and painful [poem] I have ever written.”  He wrote it between December 1912 and January 1913.  I believe that the poem earned his description by dealing in entirely new ways with related themes that were difficult for him, as they would be for anyone:  the decline of family, and of civilization, and the various fragmented forms of an individual character in this disintegrating and disorienting world.  The poem hints throughout at a broader narrative or broader themes that are not revealed or fully described, and it does so in a compelling train of obsessive images, some angelic,  some chthonic, both necessary.  The powerful imagery makes the poem easy to read, and the several burdens it bears make it harder to analyze; it is clear at the level of those images, but difficult at the level of what we might call classical critical discourse.  The heart understands, as does the spirit; but the mind struggles.  It could not have been an easy poem to write.

In order to make this poem, Trakl developed a new form for his writing, moving even beyond the groundbreaking changes and innovations of “Psalm.” In this new form, there is no plot as such, but there is a narrative which is entirely composed at the level of the images.  He addresses his broad themes of the decline of western civilization in a rich train of images that convey the beauty of disintegration, and parallel to it, describes a family’s loss, as disease, spiritual prostitution, and the ultimate ruin of death.  The theme of the decline of western civilization—a Spenglerian theme, some have called it—shows in such lines as “The ruin of a generation is shattering” or “Evening, & the bells that no longer ring sink down, / The black walls on the town-square fall to ruin, / The dead soldier is calling to a prayer.”  And the generational loss of family as a unit and spiritual force shows in lines like:  “A pale angel, / The son enters the empty house of his fathers.  // The sisters have gone far away to white old men.”  He interweaves another layer into these already complex related themes, with the Christian archetypal imagery of death and resurrection, shown in the way Helian survives bodily decay and leprosy to resurrect at the end of the poem, when “The silent god lowers his blue lids over him.”