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                                                                                                Georg Trakl

Dream Country     Abandonment

 

Georg Trakl (1887 - 1914) - born in Salzburg, trained as a dispensing druggist, was one of the most visionary and original of the 20th Century Austrian poets. In 1912, he found a patron and publisher in Ludwig von Ficker, editor of Der Brenner, and devoted his time to producing the poems for which he owns his posthumous fame. Two collections were accepted for publication in his lifetime. Extreme melancholy and guilt pushed him to drugs and alcohol. In August 1914, he was sent to Galicia with the medical corp. After the Battle of Grodek, he was put in charge of about hundred seriously wounded soldiers, but could do little to help. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was sent to a military hospital in Krakow for observation of his mental state. Fearing court-martial, he died in November 1914 from an overdose of cocaine.

 

   

Dream Country

An Episode

Sometimes I must think back to those silent days, which are like a wondrous, fortunately spent life to me, which I could unquestionably enjoy like a gift from kindly, unknown hands. And that small city in the valley rises again in my memory with its broad main street, through which a long avenue of gorgeous lime trees drags on, with its angular alleyways filled by the secret working lives of small buyers and craftsmen — and with the old town fountain in the middle of the plaza, that so dreamily splashes in the sunshine, and where at evening love-whispers sound in the murmur of water. The city however seems to dream of a past life.

And gently curved hills, over which solemn, taciturn forests of fir stretch, lock the valley away from the external world. The summits cling softly together against the far, light-filled sky and in this contact of sky and earth it seems to one that space is part of the homeland. All at once the figures of people come to my senses, and before me again the life of their past renews, with all its small sufferings and joys, which these people dare to confide to one another without shyness.

I spent eight weeks in this remoteness; these eight weeks are to me like a detached, own part of my life — a life for itself — full of an inexpressible, young happiness, full of a strong longing after far, beautiful things. Here my boyish soul received for the first time the effect of an important experience.

I see myself again as a schoolboy living in a small house with a small garden in front of it, somewhat remote from the city, hidden almost completely by trees and bushes. There I inhabited a small garret, which was decorated with wonderfully old, faded pictures and I dreamed some evenings away there in the silence, and the silence took into itself and lovingly preserved my sky-high, foolishly-fortunate boyish dreams and later brought them back to me often enough — in the lonely dusk hours. Often in the evenings, I went down to my old uncle who spent nearly the entire day by his ill daughter Maria. Then we three sat for hours in silence together. The tepid evening wind blew in through the window and bore all sorts of confused noise to our ears, simulating indeterminate dream images. And the air was filled with the strong, intoxicating scent of roses, flowering by the garden fence. The night slowly crept into the room and then I stood up, said “good night,” and went back to my room to dream for still another hour into the night outside.

At first I felt something like a fearful anxiety in the presence of the small invalid, which later changed into a holy, reverent shyness at this silent, strangely poignant suffering. When I saw her, a dark feeling arose in me that she will have to die. And then I was afraid to look at her.

When I roamed the forests during the day, I felt glad in the isolation and silence, when I stretched myself out tiredly then in the moss, and glanced into the light, flickering sky for hours, which one could see so far into, when a strange, deep feeling of happiness befuddled me there, then I suddenly thought of the ill Maria — and I stood up, overpowered by unexplainable thoughts, wandered around aimlessly and felt a dull pressure in head and heart that made me want to weep.

And when sometimes in the evening I went through the dusty main street, which was filled with the scent of flowering lime trees, and saw whispering couples in the shade of the trees standing around; when I saw how two people slowly strolled near the quietly splashing well in the moonlit, nestled close together as if they were one, and there an ominous hot shiver flowed over me, at that the ill Maria came into my senses; then a quiet yearning to something unexplainable overtook me, and suddenly I saw myself with her, strolling arm in arm down the street in the shadow of the fragrant lime trees. And in Maria’s large, dark eyes a strange glimmer shone, and the moon let her narrow face appear still more pale and transparent. Then I fled back to my garret, leaned at the window, saw in the dark sky where the stars seemed to expire, and for hours I was gripped by confusing daydreams until sleep overtook me.

And still — and still — I have not exchanged ten words with Maria. She never spoke. I sat by her side for hours and looked into her sick, suffering face and felt again and again that she had to die.

In the garden, I lay in the grass and inhaled the fragrance of a thousand flowers; my eyes grew drunk on the blooms’ bright colors over which sunlight flooded and I listened to the silence in the air, only occasionally interrupted by the call of a bird. I heard the fermenting of the fruitful, sultry earth, the mysterious noise of the eternally creating life. At the time I darkly felt the greatness and beauty of life. At that time it also seemed that life belonged to me. But then my gaze fell on the bay window of the house. There I saw the sick Maria sitting — silent and immobile, with eyes closed. And all my thoughts were again drawn in by the suffering of that one being, and remained there — became a grievous, only shyly admitted yearning, which I found puzzling and confusing. And shyly, silently, I left the garden, as I had no right to remain in this temple.

Whenever I came by the fence there, I broke off one of the large, shiny red, heavily scented roses like in my thoughts. Quietly I wanted to scurry past the window, as I saw the trembling, delicate shadow of Maria’s shape defined against the gravel path. And my own shadow touched hers as if in an embrace. Yet I now came to the window, as if kept by a fleeting thought, and placed the rose I just broke off in Maria’s lap. Then I slipped away noiselessly, as if I was afraid of being caught.

How often has this little process that seemed so significant for me been repeated! I don’t know. For me, it was as if I put one thousand roses into the ill Maria’s lap, as if our shadows embraced innumerable times. Never has Maria mentioned this episode; but I have felt from the gleam of her large shinning eyes that she was happy about it.

Perhaps these hours, since we two sat together and silently enjoyed a large, calm, deep happiness, were so beautiful that I did not need to wish any more beautiful. My old uncle approved of us silently. One day, however, when I sat with him in the garden amid all the bright flowers, over which dreamily large yellow butterflies hovered, he said to me with a quiet, thoughtful voice: “Your soul goes to the suffering, my boy.” And he lay his hand on my head and appeared to want to say something more. But he was silent. Perhaps he also did not know what he had awaken thereby in me and what has revived powerfully in me since that time.

One day, when I again came to the window where Maria usually sat, I saw that her face was deathly pale and had solidified. Sunbeams flitted over her light, tender figure; her free-flowing golden hair fluttered in the wind, it seemed to me as if she had not been carried off by an illness, as if she would be dead without a visible cause — a mystery. I put the last rose into her hand, she took it to the grave.

Soon after Maria’s death, I traveled off to a large city. But the memory of those silent days filled with sunshine stayed alive in me, perhaps more alive than the noisy present. I will never see that small city in the valley again — yes, I avoid visiting it once more. I believe I could not do it, even if sometimes a strong longing overcomes me after those eternally recent memories of the past. Because I know I would only look in vain for what went by without a trace; I wouldn’t find there what is only still alive in my memory — like the present — and that would probably be for me a useless agony.

   

Abandonment

   

1.

Nothing interrupts the silence of abandonment anymore. Over the dark, age-old tops of the trees the clouds expand and are reflected in the greenish-blue waters of the pond that shines like an abyss. And the surface rests unmoving, as if sunken in mournful surrender — day-in, day-out.

In the middle of the taciturn pond, the castle rises up to the clouds with pointed, ramshackled towers and roofs. Weeds grow rampantly over the black, burst walls, and round, blind windows recoil the sunlight. In the gloomy, dark yards pigeons fly around and look for a hiding place in the chinks of the walls.

They seem to always fear something, because they fly timidly and scurry past the windows. Down there in the yard, the fountain splashes quiet and fine. The thirsty pigeons drink now and then from a bronze well.

Sometimes through the narrow, dusty hallways of the castle, a musty breath of fever streaks, so that the bats flutter up frightened. Otherwise nothing disturbs the deep peace.

The bedroom however is full of black dust. High and bleak and frosty and full of deceased objects. Sometimes a tiny light passes by the blind windows that is absorbed by the dark again. Here the past died.

Here it stiffened one day into a single, distorted rose. In its unsubstantialness, time passes carelessly.

And everything is permeated with the silence of abandonment.

   

2.

No one is able to penetrate into the park anymore. The branches of the trees are entangled a thousandfold, the whole park is nothing more than one gigantic organism.

And eternal night weighs under the vast roof of leaves. And deep silence! And the air is soaked with vapors of decay.

Sometimes however the park awakes from heavy dreams. Then it floats out a rememberance to cool, starry nights, to deeply hidden, clandestine places, where it eavesdropped on feverish kisses and embraces, to summer nights full of glowing splendor and glory, when the moon conjured up confusing images on the black ground, to people who strolled with a graceful gallantry full of rhythmic movements under its roof of leaves, who murmured sweet, kind words to each other with fine, promising smiles.

And then the park sinks again into its death-sleep.

The shadows of blood-beeches and firs sway on the waters, and from the pond’s depth comes a dull, sad mumbling.

Swans pull through the shining floods, slowly, motionless, their slender necks upright. They move along! Around the deceased castle! Day-in, day-out!

Pale lilies stand at the edge of the pond among sharply colored grasses. And their shadows in the water are paler than they are.

And when they die away others come from the depths. And they are like the small, dead hands of a woman.

Large fish swim curiously around the pale flowers with rigid, glassy eyes, and then dive into the depth — soundlessly!

And everything is permeated with the silence of abandonment.

   

3.

And up there in a cracked tower, the count sits. Day-in, day-out.

He looks after the clouds, which move over the tops of the trees, brightly and purely. He likes to view the sun glowing in the clouds in the evening before it sinks. He listens to the noises in the heights: to the cry of the bird that flies past the tower or to the sounding roar of the wind when it sweeps around the castle. He sees how the park sleeps, dull and heavy, and sees the swans gliding by the glittering floods — which swim around the castle. Day-in! Day-out!

And the waters shimmer greenish-blue. The clouds moving over the castle, however, reflect in the waters; and their shadows shine in the floods, radiant and pure, like themselves. The water lilies wave to him, like the small, dead hands of women, and rock in the quiet chimes of the wind, sadly dreamy.

On everything that surrounds him here dying, the poor count glances like a small, crazy child over whom a doom stands, and who no longer has the strength for living, who fades like a morning shadow.

Only he listens more to the small, sad melody of his soul: the past!

When evening comes, he lights his old, sooted lamp and reads from huge, yellowed books about the greatness and glory of the past.

He reads with a fevered, resounding heart, until the present where he does not belong sinks away. And the shadows of the past rise up — gigantic. And he lives the life, the superb, beautiful life of his fathers.

At night, when the storm hunts around the tower so that the bedrock of his walls creak and birds shriek fearfully by his windows, the count is overcome with a nameless sadness.

Doom weighs on his centuries-old, exhausted soul.

And he presses his face to the window and looks into the night outside. And there everything appears to him a vast dream, ghostly! And frightful. Through the castle he hears the storm race, as if it wanted to sweep all the dead ones out and scatter them into the air.

But if the confused phantom of the night sinks away like a conjured shadow — everything is permeated again with the silence of abandonment.

 

— Translated from the German by Jim Doss and Werner Schmitt

   

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Loch Raven Review Fall 2005 — Vol. I, No. 1
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