Georg Trakl (1887-1914)

Despite a short life and a narrow work, Georg Trakl is one of the most important representatives of German-language poetry of the 20th century. His most important stations in his life were Salzburg, Vienna, Innsbruck and, most recently, the war front in Galicia.

Georg Trakl was born on 3 February 1887 as the fifth of seven children in the Schaffner-Haus on Waagplatz in Salzburg. His Protestant parents - his father was German-Hungarian, his mother of Bohemian descent - had immigrated from Wiener Neustadt to Salzburg in 1879. His father was a successful ironmonger and was able to open his own shop on Mozartplatz in 1893, to which the family also moved. The upbringing of the children was above all in the hands of a Catholic Alsatian governess, who was to familiarise her with the French language. The cultural interest was encouraged by visits to the theatre. The children also learned to play the piano; Trakl's youngest sister Margarethe (Grete) was almost to become a concert pianist.

Both elementary school and grammar school were located in the old town, not far from the parents' house. Trakl was initially inconspicuous as a pupil until a first crisis occurred at the end of junior high during puberty: he had to repeat the fourth grade and gradually lost interest in the school, reacting with defiance and indifference and emphasising his literary interests. His interest in Nietzsche initially led to an aestheticist understanding of art. He wrote poems with partly provocative content and read them to his classmates. When he was to repeat the seventh grade, he left school and decided to become a pharmacist, the only academic profession at that time for which the Matura was not a prerequisite.

However, this required a three-year internship, which Trakl completed at the "Apotheke zum weißen Engel" in Linzergasse (1905-1908). It was not easy for him to deal with customers, he initially preferred to associate with like-minded people in an association of poets called "Apollo" or "Minerva", from which he soon distanced himself. The locally successful playwright Gustav Streicher arranged the performance of two one-act plays at the Salzburg Stadttheater. The second, "Fata Morgana", was a failure and Trakl destroyed all textbooks. However, the first prose texts appeared in a local newspaper as a result.

Trakl had encountered the subject of "drugs" in his family (his mother took opium) as well as in school and literature. The activity in the pharmacy made it easier for him to access it (Veronal, opium, later also cocaine). He developed an anti-bourgeois lifestyle, which included reading Karl Kraus' magazine "Die Fackel" (The Torch), in which bourgeois bogus morality was the main theme at the time. On long walks, alone or with friends, he formed a view of the world in which the gap between dreamy contemplation and oppressive reality could be bridged less and less.

This became particularly clear to Trakl when he went to Vienna in 1908 to study pharmacy. He felt threatened in the big city. The inner chaos, however, became an important motivation for him to write and to tame it. The texts therefore initially had a private character and were less oriented towards the traditional understanding of nature and experiential poetry. At the same time, his sister Grete began an education at the music academy, which she dropped out of early. Both life plans - Georg as a poet and Grete as a pianist - were already in danger of failing. His close relationship to her is expressed in incestuous pictures of some of his poems. The fact that he introduced her to drugs contributed to the fate of both.

One year later his school friend Erhard Buschbeck followed him to Vienna. Buschbeck was able to make connections and tried to make Trakl's poems known, which the poet himself was not interested in. Through him Trakl also got to know important representatives of "Viennese Modernism" such as Adolf Loos, Arnold Schönberg and Oskar Kokoschka. The new art forms developed here were just as effective for his writing as his preoccupation with the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. He published several poems in the journal "Der Ruf" published by the "Akademischer Verband für Literatur und Musik", an important document of Austrian early expressionism.

In the summer of 1910 Trakl successfully completed his studies with the title "Magistrum artis pharmaceuticae", i.e. he was a pharmacist. At the same time, however, his 73-year-old father died, causing the material circumstances to deteriorate considerably. The business continued inadequately and had to be dissolved after three years. Money worries now did not let Trakl go.

First he completed the one-year volunteer year in Vienna; the literary production remained low. He then worked briefly in Salzburg in his internship pharmacy and met like-minded people in the "Literatur- und Kunstgesellschaft Pan", including the "Fackel" contributor Karl Hauer. Money worries connected both and Trakl later sold him some of his favourite books: works by Dostojewskij, Nietzsche, Rilke, Wilde, Shaw and Schnitzler. For the minor Grete, who had gone to Berlin for musical education, he took over guardianship together with his mother because of her intended marriage to Arthur Langen. This led to family tensions, which made his stay in Salzburg unpleasant. In 1912 he was offered a job in Innsbruck. On 1 April he began his probationary period at the local garrison pharmacy. At first he was unhappy and had escape thoughts. Erhard Buschbeck, however, tried to cheer him up and established contact with Ludwig von Ficker, the founder and publisher of the bi-monthly journal "Der Brenner". The poem "Vorstadt im Föhn" was the first poem to appear in the May 1 issue, and was to be followed by another 64. Ficker thus became his most important patron. Trakl was a welcome guest in the "Brenner" round, whose ideological debates did not remain without influence on Trakl, especially the emphasis on the ethical (Christianity) over the aesthetic (Nietzsche). As a fatherly friend, Ficker also gave him accommodation in his house in Mühlau or with his brother on the Hohenburg.

The activity in the garrison pharmacy bored Trakl increasingly, however, and he often fled into alcohol. He finally gave up this position and tried several times in 1913 to obtain a position in the civil service in Vienna. He took up two of them, but soon stopped working again, because his entire interest was in poetry. In the same year Trakl's first volume of poetry "Gedichte" was published by Kurt Wolff Verlag in Leipzig, mediated by Karl Kraus. At the invitation of Adolf Loos he made a trip to Venice in the second half of August. In Innsbruck he held his only public reading. At this time he was already working on his second volume of poetry, which was to be delivered with the title "Sebastian im Traum" but only after his death. When he learned in March 1914 that his sister Grete had suffered a miscarriage in Berlin, he visited her and experienced there "terrible things" which made him return to Innsbruck completely disturbed. It was the last meeting with Grete. Trakl then planned to go to Borneo or Albania as a pharmacist; both projects failed. A generous donation from the young Ludwig Wittgenstein would have considerably improved his financial situation, but he could no longer use it because of the outbreak of war at the end of July. Trakl contacted the military and waited for the mission in August 1914. At the end of the month, he moved in with a medical team to the Eastern Front in Galicia. West of Lviv he encountered the cruelty of war for the first time in the Battle of Grodek (Horodok). The Austrian army suffered a devastating defeat. Trakl should have taken care of ninety severely wounded people in a barn without medical help - the sight was unbearable to him. Many wounded asked him to put an end to their torture.

After a threat of suicide, he was taken to the garrison hospital in Krakow "to observe his state of mind". When Ficker heard about it, he immediately traveled there and tried to get his friend's release. But the chief physician did not release him, Ficker had to leave alone. Trakl then felt "almost beyond the world", wrote a testamentary letter and enclosed the last poems "Klage" and "Grodek" with it. In the night from 3 to 4 November 1914, cocaine poisoning led to death from heart paralysis. He was buried three days later at the Rakovicz cemetery in Krakow, the second burial in his homeland was arranged by Ludwig v. Ficker in 1925. Since then Trakl's grave has been at the local cemetery of Mühlau near Innsbruck.

Dr. Hans Weichselbaum