Reading: Verwandlung by Georg Trakl

Today I read a poem by my famous German expressionist, Georg Trakl (1887-1914). I couldn’t find a translation of die Verwandlung online, so I created one myself. There is a website where you can contribute poetry translations, and I added this one. This is what the great German, who died at 27 (sounds familiar) from an overdose of cocaine, looks like through my lense:

Along the gardens, scorched with the crimson colors of the fall:
We see the life of a diligent man.
Who carries the brown grapes in his hands,
While in his look the sullen pain descends.

In the evening: Steps sound on the dark ground
Appearing in the silence of a red beech.
A blue beast wants to bow before death
And an empty garb decays in horror.

In front of a tavern music softly plays,
A drunken face lies buried in the grass.
elderberries, soft flutes and the feminine,
around which the scent of sweet reseda sways.

I quote the German original:

Entlang an Gärten, herbstlich, rotversengt:
Hier zeigt im Stillen sich ein tüchtig Leben.
Des Menschen Hände tragen braune Reben,
Indes der sanfte Schmerz im Blick sich senkt.

Am Abend: Schritte gehn durch schwarzes Land
Erscheinender in roter Buchen Schweigen.
Ein blaues Tier will sich vorm Tod verneigen
Und grauenvoll verfällt ein leer Gewand.

Geruhiges vor einer Schenke spielt,
Ein Antlitz ist berauscht ins Gras gesunken.
Holunderfrüchte, Flöten weich und trunken,
Resedenduft, der Weibliches umspült.

So, what do we have? Autumn gardens with beautiful reddish colors and a diligent (’tüchtig’) man who picks the newtestamentical ‘brown grapes’. The habit makes this bearable, the human condition is one of soft pain. In the evening, a blue animal (this is a recurring theme in Trakl, and I can’t help thinking of the Blue Man group and Avatar) comes to die. His soul is separated from his body, since what stays behind is an empty robe/garb (leer Gewand). Christian one might say, however: grauenvoll is the decay.

But the people don’t notice: The music that is played in front of the tavern (the autumn is not too cold) is ‘geruhig’. Someone smashed face down in the grass, and even the flutes are inebriated. This is clearly Dionysian and probably influenced by Nietzsche. The smell of reseda/mignonette is something Trakl remembers from Salzburg. The transformation is quite obviously the change from the ‘sanfte Schmerz’ of the habitual, tough life to the bacchanal that is held in denial of death.

I couldn’t get the rhyme to work in English. Perhaps you have a suggestion? Meanwhile, if you like Trakl, I found some other Trakl poems in English translation here.


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