Georg Trakl (February 3, 1887 - November 3, 1914) was an Austrian poet, whose deeply disturbing work assaults the emotions with its powerful metaphors of destruction, death, the search for meaning, and a tenuous relationship with God.
Trakl was born and lived the first eighteen years of his life in Salzburg. His father Tobias was a dealer in hardware, while his mother Maria was a housewife with strong interests in art and music. Maria Trakl also suffered from mental illness, which she possibly passed on to some of her children - both Trakl and his sister Margarete (called Grete) exhibited similar symptoms. Grete was Trakl's closest companion: some scholars suspect that the two were incestuously involved.
Trakl attended a Catholic elementary school, although his parents were protestants. He matriculated in 1897 at the Salzburg Staatsgymnasium (humanities-based high school), where he studied Latin, Greek, and mathematics. His interests, however, lay not in his studies, but rather in drinking, smoking opium, and frequenting prostitutes. Around 1904, Trakl began experimenting with writing poetry, and, though these early efforts do not evince the power and horrific beauty of his later works, he continued honing and shaping his talents from that point onward.
After dropping out of high school in 1905, Trakl worked for a pharmacist for three years and decided to pursue pharmacy as a career. (Some have speculated that his interest in the field lay in an attempt to procure drugs.) It was at this time that he experimented with playwriting, but his two short plays, All Souls' Day and Fata Morgana, failed onstage, the second miserably so.
In 1908, Trakl moved to Vienna to study pharmacy, and fell in with a group of local artists and bohemians who helped him to publish some of his poems. Trakl's father died in 1910, shortly before Trakl received his pharmacy certificate; thereafter, Trakl enlisted in the army for a yearlong stint. His return to civilian life in Salzburg was a disaster, and he reenlisted, serving as a pharmacist in a hospital in Innsbruck. There he also met the local artistic community, which recognized his budding talent. Ludwig von Ficker, the editor of the journal Die Brenner, became his patron: he regularly printed Trakl's work and endeavored to find him a publisher to produce a collection of poems. (The result of this effort was Gedichte (Poems), published by Kurt Wolff in Vienna in the summer of 1913). Ficker also brought Trakl to the attention of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who provided him with a sizable stipend so that he could concentrate on his writing.
On the outbreak of World War I, Trakl was sent as a medical official to attend to soldiers in Galicia (modern-day Ukraine and Poland). His moodiness gave way to frequent bouts of depression, exacerbated by the horror of caring for severely wounded soldiers. During one such incident in Grodek, Trakl had to steward the recovery of some ninety soldiers wounded in the fierce campaign against the Russians. He tried to shoot himself from the strain, but his comrades prevented him. Hospitalized in Krakow and placed under close observation, Trakl lapsed into deeper depression and wrote to Ficker for advice. Ficker convinced him to contact Wittgenstein. On receiving Trakl's note, Wittgenstein went to the hospital, but found to his dismay that Trakl had died from a (possibly suicidal) overdose of cocaine three days before.
Trakl's poetry, which stands at the forefront of the literary arm of the Austro-German expressionist movement, is rich with biblical symbolism and images of night and death. It often reads like a nightmare, and has been compared to the work of Comte de Lautreamont.