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Trakl: The Storm That Is The World & The Home

“Storm” is one of the half-dozen or so poems completed by Trakl in 1914 in the months before his suicide.  It is a significant further development from the style of “Psalm” and the great poems “Helian” and “Elis.”  It maintains their technique of narrative construction as a form of symbolic argument, but much else is new.  There is, for example, the jarring mix of concrete and symbolic images set in opposition to each other, the abrupt changes of context, the use of  plural nouns—mountains, fathers, mothers, eagles, spirits, etc.—as if to describe an entire world by its classes and categories, and the underlying inescapable sense of violence or potential violence that occupies this world:


You wild mountains, noble Grief of eagles. Gold clouds Smoke above the stony waste. The pines breath a patient stillness, & the black lambs on the abyss, Where the blue suddenly Grows strangely mute, The soft hum of bees. O green flower— O Silence!

Dark & dreamlike, spirits of the torrent Terrify the heart. Darkness That breaks in upon the gorges! White voices Straying through terrible vestibules. Terraces torn apart, Immense & violent anger of fathers, Sad cries of mothers, The boy’s gold battle-cry, & the unborn Groaning with blind eyes.

O grief, fiery vision Of immense spirits! Already in the black tumult Of horses & carriages, The rose‑terrible bolt of lightning Flashes in the ringing spruce. Magnetic cool Hovers around this proud head, The burning sorrow Of an angry God.

Fear, venomous snake, Black one, die in stone! Now wild streams Of tears run down, Storm‑pity, Echoing in menacing thunder Around the snowy peaks. Fire Purifies the torn night.

Is there a story being told here?  There is one, or at least, the hint of one that comes, as in so many of Trakl’s poems, in fragments we must assemble.  I think the meaning is in the opposition, the narrative in the images.

We don’t learn much about the speaker.  He speaks directly to the mountains and the items of this world, and describes its elements and metamorphoses; but he does not speak to us or talk about himself to us.  We overhear him describe his fear as a snake and tell it to die, and describe his tears, and his works, and the purifying fire in the short breathless phrases and quick motions of hysteria, in the confusion of lines and images of someone overwhelmed by emotions:  We move rapidly from calmness to rage to fear and anger, each metamorphosing into the next emotional state, each attended by a sequence of external and internal images.

We notice how the poem moves from the static silence of stanza one, to the natural and familial terror of stanza two, then the fear and noise of stanza three, all culminating in the purification by fire in the final stanza.  Perhaps we notice also how the poem moves from the gold clouds of the first stanza, to the burning sorrow of the God of the third stanza, to the purifying fire of the final lines.  Or the way the mountains that are the “noble / Grief of eagles” become the setting for menacing thunder and wild streams of tears. By these means, the poem is telling us that something has taken place during its course that rends the night and is purified by fire.  The poem does not go so far as to say that it must be purified that way, only that it is; yet I find it hard to read those last lines as anything other than the fatal necessary conclusion of the story being told.

The nub of the story seems to me to be in the second stanza, when mountains and gorges turn into vestibules, thus symbolically becoming homes and houses.  We hear about the anger of the fathers (not a singular father, but all fathers!) and the sad cries of the mothers (ditto!), and the boy’s (singular!) battle cry.  Something is being birthed, and unless these reactions are endemic to this world, something is causing this conflict, something that is “Groaning with blind eyes.”  What?  We don’t know; it is unborn, in the German it is an abstract neuter-noun, thus a thing, alive enough to groan.

Whatever is going on here, all the fathers and all the mothers are caught up in the same reactions of anger and sadness, while the boy fights back.  Does he fight at them?  It looks that way, but we cannot be sure.  Perhaps he fights at the world thus created, full of angry fathers and lamenting mothers and white voices and homes that are really wild mountains in storm.  We get a hint of some such possibility with the image in the first stanza of the “black lambs on the abyss,” where the blue goes mute and the silence grows like a green plant.  In Trakl, blue is a special color, the color of beginnings and endings, that is, the color of pre-dawn and dusk.  In this formulation, the beginnings and endings of things are suddenly silent, which I take to mean that they are unjudging and neutral, as a tarnished innocence perches over the abyss (how else construe a black lamb but as tarnished innocence?).

The third and fourth stanzas carry this sense of the violent correspondence of the inner and outer worlds further, in the third stanza with the “black tumult / Of horses & carriages” finding an equal weight with “The rose‑terrible bolt of lightning” in the spruce, and the “burning sorrow / Of an angry God.”  In the fourth stanza the wild streams become tears and the pity of the storm joins the mountains.  Notice how these two stanzas join, how the burning sorrow of the angry God joins to the fire that purifies the night.  One might construct a conclusion to this poem that says that in this house which is a mountain filled with storms of angry fathers, lamenting mothers, and an unborn blind thing which is groaning not into this life but only into a significance, the only release possible for the son with his battle-cry in the world of tears he lives in, and for this angry God who oversees it, is this purifying and perhaps divine fire.

I am sure that others will find other significance and correspondences in the poem, for this is a poem that encourages us to see them and to move with them.  This is the same May-early July time period of composition that produced the extraordinary works, “Das Herz” (“The Heart), “Der Schlaf” (“Sleep”), “Der Abend” (“Evening”), “Die Nacht” (“Night”), “Die Schwermut” (“Melancholy”), and “Die Heimkehr” (“Homecoming”).  Later would come the masterpieces “Grodek” and “Klage,” about World War I, written just before his death.  I will write about those, but chose this poem to translate because it marked another turning point in the development of his extraordinary art.

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