January 21, 2008KR BlogUncategorized

I Want To Be A Rider…

George TraklKaspar HauserWittgenstein
On a day that’s supposed to be the most depressing this year, I’m reading the Austrian poet Georg Trakl. Robert Bly noted in introducing his and James Wright’s translations (available in their entirety here) that the poems “have a magnificent silence in them.” In image, which is accessible in translation, and in sound, which is less so, Trakl’s supremely detached speaker etches fraught landscapes. Nothing happens, but something has happened or is just about to. What isn’t said leaves the sense of something dire. A sample, from Margitt Lehbert’s translation:

The Ravens

At noon, across black nooks in haste
The ravens pass with their hard cry.
Past the hind their shadows fly
And then you see them sullenly rest.

O how they mare the brownish calm
In which ploughed fields lie in delight
Like a woman bewitched by growing fright
And now and then you hear them brawl

Over carrion they’ve sensed somewhere,
And suddenly to the north they’ll head
And fade like a procession for the dead
Into the lustful, trembling air.


He truly loved the sun descending purple down the hill,
The paths of the forest, the black singing bird
And the pleasure of green.

Serious was his living in the shade of a tree
And pure his countenance.
God spoke a gentle flame to his heart:
O human!

Softly his step found the town by evening;
The dark lament of his mouth:
I want to be a rider.

But bush followed him and beast,
House and twilight garden of pale people
And his murderer looked for him.

Spring and summer and lovely the autumn
Of the just man, his quiet step
Outside the dark rooms of those dreaming.
At night he remained alone with his star;

Saw that snow fell onto bare branches
And in the twilight hall his murderer’s shadow.

The head of the man unborn sank away like silver.

Such an odd ending! When a friend turned me on to Trakl a few months ago, he included a link to this story from Harpers. The Kaspar Hauser in Trakl’s “The Song of Kaspar Hauser” is a historical figure for whom communication was a problem. From the Harper’s article:

“[The Song of Kaspar Hauser]” is one of the more intriguing entries in the 1915 collection–it draws very heavily on an historical incident, the appearance in Nuremberg in 1828 of a sixteen year old boy who could barely speak or stand. After he was educated and taught to express himself, he explained to his hosts that he had as long as he could remember been held in a dark room with a low ceiling. He had been fed and cared for by an unknown man with whom he had hardly any contact. Kaspar Hauser, as he was named, had reached maturity without meaningful contact with other human beings, held captive in the most mysterious of circumstances. One of the few lines which Hauser could speak, however, was “So ein Reiter m??cht’ ich werden wie mein Vater einer g’wen is’” (“I’d like to be a rider [horseman] just like my father was.”) To eliminate any doubt that he is indeed writing about the historical figure, Trakl uses this line, somewhat simplified, as a refrain.”

And what happened to Kaspar Hauser? He grew up and was educated–although it’s unclear to what extent he attained typical speech–but was “ultimately stalked, attacked, and murdered by unknown assailants.” As if there were people who didn’t want him to speak.

Also shiver-inducing, to me, is the fact that, by chance and without really knowing his work, Wittgenstein–of “whereof one cannot speak, one must remain silent” fame–became Trakl’s patron. At one time Wittgenstein was looking for worthy artists in need of support, and a friend of the impoverished Trakl recommended him. It’s a weird constellation–Trakl and Wittgenstein, with Hauser as their mascot–of isolated minds for whom communication was inherently problematic, for whom silence had to be the default.