Trakl: the Elis Poems

Trakl’s brilliant Elis poems, “To The Boy Elis” and “Elis,” were written between spring, 1913, and early 1914, part of the late flowering that began with the masterpieces “Helian” and “Psalm.”  The Elis figure is literary, from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale, “The Mines at Falun.”  In that story Elis Frobom is a 17th century Swedish miner who dies in the mines on his wedding day.  His body is recovered fifty years later, still youthful, perfectly preserved.  Seeing the corpse, his now-aged wife embraces him, and his body crumbles to dust.  The story, like the poems, sets up a series of oppositions about youth and age, the passing of time, innocence and experience (see my note below).  Here is the first Elis poem:

To The Boy Elis

When the blackbird calls in the black wood, Elis, this is your descent. You drink the coolness of the blue rock-spring.

When your forehead gently bleeds Give up the ancient legends & the dark interpretations of the bird’s flight.

But you walk softly into the night, Where the grapes hang full & purple, & you move your arms more beautifully in the blue.

The thorn-bush sounds Where your moonlike eyes are. How long, Elis, you have been dead.

Your body is a hyacinth, The monk dips his waxen fingers into it. Our silence is a black cave,

Sometimes a gentle animal steps out of it & slowly lowers his heavy lids. A black dew gathers at your temples,

It is the final gold of the ruined stars.

The striking imagery here is part of the so-called “blue world” that occupied Trakl’s poems in the final 18 months of his life, with related figures and objects drawn from opposing categories of pastoral idyl and demonic disintegration.  We see the idyll images in wood, spring, the gentle animal, the blackbird, the grapes, the blueness.  The demonic shows in the black cave, the black dew, the bleeding forehead, the ruined stars, the effort at prophecy from an interpretation of the bird’s flight, the monk who dips his fingers into the flowering of the dead body.  The sounding of the thorn-bush is an echo of the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses.  The world, or worlds, conjured by this long-dead Elis are so fragile that at last even the stars are ruined and can only share their final gold.

Blue is an important color or adjective for Trakl.  Some scholars see his “blue world” imagery as an influence from the blue flower of the German poet, author, and philosopher Novalis (Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, May 2, 1772 – March 25, 1801), one of the early exemplars of German Romanticism.  The blue flower is appears in Novalis’ novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen.  In the book the young Heinrich rejects bourgeois materialism to search for artistic and spiritual fulfillment, symbolized by a perfect blue flower. “It is not treasures that I care for,” Heinrich said to himself, “but I long to see the blue flower. I cannot rid my thoughts of the idea, it haunts me.”  The image became a symbol of the German Romantic movement.

Trakl clearly knew about the blue flower.  He dedicated one of his poems to Novalis, and in an early draft mentioned the blue flower. But his adoption of the blue imagery is not slavish, and the images and landscapes he describes in these final poems are variable, even provisional.  The blue as he uses it, for example, is a dual symbol, invoking the color of the world before dawn and at evening, in other words it is the blue of beginnings and endings.

The narrative os this poem moves from life to death:  from “you move your arms more beautifully in the blue” to “How long, Elis, you have been dead,” from grapes to black dew, from the thorn-bush with its suggestions of the divine to the animal that lowers its heavy lids, from the call of the blackbird to the ruined stars. It is a narrative told in images not actions, a gradual passing of life and innocence to death and ruin.  It is easy to get carried away by the beauty of the images and lose the narrative thread that pitches us to the loss of life and beauty.  Not so with the second Elis poem, which ends in nothingness, the wind’s lonely desolation:

Elis

1. How perfect the stillness of this golden day. Under the ancient oaks You, Elis, appear in perfect repose with your round eyes.

Their blueness that mirrors the sleep of lovers. On your mouth Their rosy love-sighs were silenced.

Evening & the fisherman pulled in the heavy nets. The good shepherd Leads his herd along the forest’s edge. How righteous your days, Elis.

The blue stillness Of olive-trees sinks softly along bare walls, Gently the mysterious song of the old man dies away.

The gol