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.”
I also see something very personal in the poem, though this may be an idiosyncratic reading on my part. It is in the enactment of the movement of the poet’s mind, which shows in the rapid imagistic movement in the poem, and it is in the several fragmented guises of the protagonist. Trakl talks about this psychic movement and the nature of self in a 1908 letter to his older sister Minna: “I have experienced, smelled, touched, the most frightening possibilities within myself, have heard the demons howling in my blood, the thousand devices with their spurs which drive the flesh mad.” Following this he says he has become “all living ear, again listen[ing] to the melodies inside me, and my winged eye again dreams its images, which are more beautiful than all reality.” [Quoted from a translation by Herbert Lindenberger in Georg Trakl (Twayne Publishers, 1971]. This extreme alternation between the demonic and the angelic is also a characteristic of this poem, and as well of the poems that follow. I suggest that the exchange between the two precisely enacts on the page an emotional picture of the movement of the poet’s mind, and it creates the dynamic structure of the poem and of poems to follow. As for the protagonist, he appears in several forms—walking in the sun in the lonely hours of the spirit, the youth who enters the house, and the stranger, the young novice, the mad boy, the “soul [that] looks at itself in the rosy mirror,” among others. The personality presented does not grow or progress; rather it is discontinuous, shifting, and perhaps, if all these forms are taken together, comprehensive, a hall of mirrors that in all reflects a single person.
It is hard, perhaps, to recover now the shock that readers must have felt at reading “Helian” the first time. Nothing could have prepared them for this, or for the other major Symbolist German poem written at that time, Rilke’s Duino Elegies. They would have looked for easy or conventional readings in vain. Despite its Christian imagery, the poem fits no Christian allegorical interpretation, nor is it a poem describing the author’s personal or intimate feelings or experiences. Its personal motifs are presented in a post-Romantic way, much as in “The Wasteland,” without overt personal reference or as an expression of the writer’s experience. It is an entirely new thing. Nothing like it had existed before. Trakl had brought poetry to a new place with this major poem.
In the lonely hours of the spirit It is beautiful to walk in the sun Along the yellow walls of summer. The footsteps soft in the grass; still The son of Pan sleeps on in gray marble.
Evenings on the terrace we used to get drunk on brown wine. The peach has a red glow in the leaves; Gentle sonata, happy laughter.
The night-quiet is beautiful. On a dark plain We meet shepherds & white stars.
When autumn comes There is a sober clarity in the grove. We walk along the red walls, calm now, & our round eyes follow the flights of the birds. In the evening, white water sinks in the funeral urns.
The sky rests in bare branches. The peasant carries bread & wine in pure hands & the fruit ripens peacefully in a sunny room.
How solemn the faces of the beloved dead. Yet the soul delights in righteous contemplation.
How powerful the silence of the ruined garden, When the young novice garlands his forehead with brown leaves, & with his breath drinks in the icy gold.
Hands touch against the age of blue waters Or on a cold night the white cheeks of the sisters.
The walk past friendly rooms is quiet & harmonious, Where there is solitude & the rustle of the maple, Where the thrush, perhaps, still sings.
Man is beautiful, shining in the darkness, When amazed, he moves his arms & legs, & his eyes roll silently in their purple caves.
At vespers, the stranger loses his way in the black destruction of November, Under branches that are rotting, along walls full of leprosy, Where once the holy brother walked, Absorbed in the soft string music of his madness.
How lonely the evening wind when it ends. Slowly dying, the head sinks in the dark of the olive tree.
The ruin of a generation is shattering. In this hour, the eyes of the one who watches fill With the gold of his stars.
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.
A pale angel, The son enters the empty house of his fathers.
The sisters have gone far away to white old men. At night the sleeper found them under the pillars in the entrance-hall, Returned from their sad pilgrimages.
How stiff their hair from filth & worms, As he stands there with silver feet, & these dead ones emerge from bare rooms.
You psalms that come in the fiery rain of midnight, When the servants beat the gentle eyes with brambles, & the childlike fruits of the elderberry Bow astonished over the empty grave.
Softly the yellow moons roll Over the fever-sheets of the youth, Until even the silence of winter follows him.
A great destiny thinks its way down the Kidron River, Where the cedar, the gentle creature, Opens under the blue brows of the father. At night a shepherd leads his flock across the meadow. Or there are cries in sleep, When the bronze angel approaches the man in the grove, & the saint’s flesh melts away on the fiery grate.
The purple vines climb around huts of mud, The yellow grain sounds in its sheaves, There is the humming of bees, the flight of the crane. At night those who have risen from the dead meet on rocky paths.
The lepers are reflected in the black waters; Or they open their filthy robes Crying to the fragrant wind that blows from the rosy hill.
The thin servant-girls grope through the alleyways of night, To find the shepherd of love. On Saturdays, gentle singing in the huts.
Let the song also remember the boy, His madness, & his white brow & his final departure, The ruined one, who opens his blue eyes. How sad to meet again like this.
In black rooms, steps of madness, Shadows of old men under the open door, As Helian’s soul looks at itself in the rosy mirror & snow & leprosy sink from his brow.
On the walls the stars are extinguished & the white figures of the light.
The grave-remnants rise from the carpets, The silence of decayed crosses on the hill, The incense sweet in the purple of the night-wind.
You shattered eyes in black mouths, When the grandson in his gentle night-madness Thinks of the darker end in solitude, The silent god lowers his blue lids over him.