|Austrians on the Eastern Front, Library of Congress|
Just months after the war began in the early autumn of 1914, Georg Trakl, a young Austrian poet and pharmacist, joined the Austro-Hungarian army as a medical officer and was posted to the Austro-Hungarian province of Galacia (what is today part of the Ukraine and Poland). Even before the war, Trakl had battled drug addiction and suicidal tendencies. What he witnessed on the Eastern Front in Galacia inspired some of the most haunted poetry of the war.
Eastern Front Im Osten
The wrath of the people is dark, Den wilden Orgeln des Wintersturms
Like the wild organ notes of winter storm, Gleicht der Volkes finstrer Zorn,
The battle’s crimson wave, a naked Die purpurne Woge der Schlacht,
Forest of stars. Entlaubter Sterne.
With ravaged brows, with silver arms Mit zerbrochnen Brauen, silbernen Armen
To dying soldiers night comes beckoning. Winkt sterbenden Soldaten die Nacht.
In the shade of the autumn ash Im Schatten der herbstlichen Esche
Ghosts of the fallen are sighing. Seufzen die Geister der Erschlagenen.
Thorny wilderness girdles the town about. Dornige Wildnis umgürtet die Stadt.
From bloody doorsteps the moon Von blutenden Stufen jagt der Mond
Chases terrified women. Die erschrockenen Frauen.
Wild wolves have poured through the gates. Wilde Wölfe brachen durchs Tor.
(trans. Christopher Middleton)
In his book on Trakl’s poetry, James Wright says, “patience is the clue to the understanding of Trakl’s poems. One does not so much read them as explore them. They are not objects which he constructed, but quiet places at the edge of a dark forest where one has to sit still for a long time and listen very carefully.”*
|Russian hospital on the Eastern Front, Library of Congress|
In a letter written near the end of his short life, Trakl wrote, “It is a nameless unhappiness when one’s world breaks in two.”†† In “Eastern Front” and other poems, Trakl struggles to communicate the unhappiness that cannot be named, the deep sorrows of a world torn apart by war.
*Twenty Poems of George Trakl, James Wright and Robert Bly, p. 4.
†“Review: To the Silenced, Selected Poems of Georg Trakl,” Stephen Watts.
††Quoted in 1910: The Emancipation of Dissonance, Thomas Harrison, p. 45