The Sweet Poison of the White Swan
The delicate relationship with the sister: Georg and Grete Trakl
by Rolf Schneider

February 1887. A son is born as the fourth child to the Salzburg inhabitant hardware merchant Tobias Trakl and his wife Maria: Georg. Five years later a girl comes into the world as the sixth and last of brothers and sisters: Margarethe, called Grete. Brother Georg begins to attend school in the same year, which will become a succession of failures for him.
Salzburg, at this time, is not much more than a dozing provincial nest, inhabited by officials, merchants, and the military. All life runs stiffly, small-urban-narrow-minded. The air is full of rot and grief.
The Trakls are well-to-do people, the hardware business flourishes. The father has a happy and boisterous nature; the mother an artistic-minded neurotic.
The young Georg Trakl attends a Catholic educational institution, in addition to the Protestant Christian's apprenticeship. At home he has a governess, who comes from Alsace and supplies him equally with the French language and a kind of hysterical Catholicism. The first year of the new century brings a deep humiliation: Georg Trakl is not promoted in school and must repeat the class. He writes poems. He secludes himself more and more; he irritates his contemporaries by statements of his lethargy. He reads Feodor Dostoevsky and Friedrich Nietzsche. He smokes. He drinks vast amounts of wine. In secret he experiments with narcotics, chloroform and ether. He becomes a frequenter at both local houses of pleasure. This would be a sufficient enough reason to expel him immediately from the High School which he attends, but still more is suggested in his consistent and persistent underachievement. In 1905 he leaves school and begins an apprenticeship as a druggist.
The social fall which this signifies is considerable, and at the same time not bottomless. Somehow it can be justified in literary terms. Hadn't Fontane and Ibsen also been pharmacists? Above all the cellar of the pharmacy To The White Angel , situated on the other side of Salzburg, where the castle Mirabell is to be found, offers a rich, problem-free assortment of consciousness drugs.
The five year younger Grete is his favorite sibling. She is described as a powerful, impulsive, sensuous person, not evenly prettily, but in that she is like Georg; she is similar to him in other respects, in appearance as well as being. As an eleven-year old child, she is sent to the boarding school of an English woman in Lower Austria, and later still to a Catholic Community Home in Vienna. The pious prudes, who teach at such institutions, seem to have challenged her.
Artistically she is highly sensitive, like Georg, and she is uninhibited like him. They both carry on together in such a manner, that Georg sometimes calls it, "breaking swords off in the heart". The first discovery they make together is the conjoining feeling of being different from other people, and possibly, one of the impulses of their later behavior is the defiant intention to confirm just this.
Georg Trakl teaches his sister how to handle narcotics, and Grete descends into the sweet poison much more radically than Georg as she also appears in her remaining actions more energetic and heedless than her brother. She begins an affair with one of Georg's most intimate friends. Later on she also didn't observe sexual loyalty very strictly. The reaction of Georg is furious fantasies of jealousy .
In 1908, he concludes his practical druggist training and goes to Vienna. He shall study pharmacy. The large city torments him, he feels alone and wretched, he numbs his feelings as usual with poison. The year after, 1909, his sister becomes a pupil at the Viennese music academy.
He has her around him again, "the strangeress” and "the youthtress", the "most beautiful girl", the "greatest artist" and the "rarest woman". He sees himself thrown back and locked up into the self-perpetuating cycle of longing, intoxication, disillusionment and futile regret. His dependence on the narcotics becomes stronger. In his verses the pictures of desolation accumulate, and he writes ever more frequently about death.
In 1910 Tobias Trakl, the father, dies. The economic situation of the family is no longer secure, as one was allowed to assume up to then. The prosperity was only simulated. Decline and dissolution is everywhere.
The sister goes from Vienna to Berlin to continue her piano studies there with Ernst von Dohnányi. Georg alternates between despair and intoxication, and periods of wild activity. He completes his exams for a Master of Pharmacy with reasonable results.
"Night threatens at the bed of our kisses. / Somewhere a whisper: who absolves your guilt? / Still trembling from the sweetness of nefarious lust / We pray: Forgive us, Mary, in your mercy."
This is the first strophe of a Trakl poem with the clear title "Blood Guilt". He seems to understand himself now only as a castaway, deeply intertwined with his feelings of sin.
In Innsbruck a cultural magazine appears entitled "Der Brenner", a clever, sometimes unmanageable gazette. The publisher is a wealthy man. He prints Trakl's verses, in addition to worrying about the well being of the poet. He accepts the complex personality of the man from Salzburg, with his drug dependence and the awkward relationship with the sister leniently. He probably feels that this is a substantial part of Trakl's extraordinary literary gift, one without the other one would not exist.
Meanwhile, Margarethe Trakl still studies in Berlin. She lives in a Wilmersdorfer pension, whose owner has a nephew, Arthur Langen, a bookseller by profession. The student is interested in him. She becomes involved with him. The two marry finally, in the year 1912.
The brother reacts panic-stricken to the news: "Hit me pain! The wound glows. I do not want to look at this agony." He retreats into an almost feverish literary productivity. Except for his verses there is no record of how he took the news of his sister's wedding. Their metaphorical ambiguities protect their possible destruction. In contrast, the letters between Georg and Grete, which must have been numerous, are altogether lost: disposed of, it is commonly accepted, by the family, who were already aware of the scandal, but determined to keep it out of the public eye.
Grete and her Berlin bookseller in the meantime did not have a fortunate marriage. If this was an attempt to enter into civil normality, it thoroughly fails. Grete makes acquaintances, her drug dependency subsists. The connection to Georg remains unchanged. She has an abortion. Georg travels hastily to Berlin to stand by her. It is March of the year 1914. Many say this speaks to the fact that he was the father of the unborn child.
The summer of 1914 finds the twenty-seven-year-old Trakl once again in a state of heavy depression. He strives to support his sister Grete, but is unable. He tries to work through his own professional advancement and fails. The outbreak of war appears almost like a deliverance.
Obediently he engages himself as a medical officer, and is sent to the Austrian eastern front. Immediately, the first battle he sees is an action of bloody mass extermination; the sight of the corpses, the uninterrupted contacts with mutilated soldiers and morbidity overwhelm him. He breaks down.
He is taken immediately to a military hospital, where he is examined for his mental condition. He must fear he will come before a court-martial. He takes a deadly overdose of cocaine from a secret stash. The most ingenious poet of Austria in this century dies at the beginning of November 1914.
How his sister took the news of the demise of her brother is unknown. Her condition was probably a cause for concern. Her husband has left her. She will try to live on in Berlin alone. Twice she decides to undergo withdrawal treatments - both without success. Finally she fires a bullet into her head: three years and eighteen days after the date of Georg Trakl's death.


(With the permission of the Berliner Morgenpost, published there 8/30/1998.)