- The Gentle Apocalypse: Truth and Meaning in the Poetry of Georg Trakl by Richard Millington
The Gentle Apocalypse: Truth and Meaning in the Poetry of Georg Trakl begins by situating Georg Trakl in his time at the close of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the dissolution of the Hapsburg empire, setting the stage for Richard Millington's primary thesis, that Trakl's poetry is deeply embedded [End Page 116] in his time and obsessively consumed with giving form to the cultural, social, and spiritual dissolution in the human world parallel to the decay of nature. Millington's unusual choice of the word "gentle" to describe Trakl's "apocalyptic" vision refers to the poet's particular ethical and historical stance. Millington's insightful close readings of examples from each of the four recognized phases of Trakl's development as a poet explore Trakl's ethical stance toward the vulnerable and the reviled, a deep empathic kinship that stands decidedly apart from the explosive power and oftentimes ironic stance adopted by other contemporary Expressionist writers.
As Millington argues, Trakl's poetic innovations work within conventional lyric forms, demonstrating strong connections to nineteenth-century poets Rimbaud, Hölderlin, and Lenau—connections revealed in many studies previous to Millington. As he explains, "Trakl's poetry does not present itself as a challenge to the literary tradition; instead it seeks to reimagine a certain strand within it, attune itself to it, and stylize itself as its final instantiation. What sets it apart is that rather than deconstructing an established worldview, it is more concerned with constructing a new one" (232). In Millington's close reading of "Nachtlied" from Trakl's earliest collection of poems, Sammlung 1909, for example, the author argues that one could read the poem as a retread of clichéd Romantic nature tropes, but this poem is illustrative because of its place in Trakl's development. It demonstrates a recurring motif of nature as "the only reliable sounding board" for the lyrical speaker's own emotional state, and Trakl's later poetic methods for engaging with this motif become increasingly sophisticated, for example the shift from Reihungsstil to free verse and the increasing subordination of the subjective viewpoint. In Millington's assessment, "one of Trakl's great achievements is that he succeeded in radically modernizing the tradition of the nature lyric without deflating it through irony or satire" (32). At the end of his study, Millington provides a close reading of Trakl's last and best-known poem, "Grodek" (1914), demonstrating how the natural landscape, so characteristic of Trakl's mise-en-scène and woven into all of his poems, gives way to "the speaker's role as poet of the apocalypse" (228), as he laments the destruction of war and bears witness to the end of times.
To illuminate how Trakl's poetry constructs a new worldview, Millington endeavors to trace chronologically various developmental strands from Trakl's earliest works to his last. By choosing to read Trakl's poetic body of work from beginning to end, Millington demonstrates how the poet arrived at a poetic [End Page 117] form and voice that are entirely his own to engage with the recurring themes encompassing personal and social-historical concerns: familial kinship and kinship with the vulnerable and rejected, rural settings as an Arcadian ideal superior to bourgeois values and civilization, mediation between the natural and supernatural worlds demonstrating a historical consciousness and a yearning for a lost world, and a blending of pre-Christian and Christian beliefs.
Most importantly, Millington counteracts a long reception history of Trakl's poetry that claims his work is hermetic and therefore largely incomprehensible. The subtitle of the book, in emphasizing truth and meaning, echoes a comment Trakl made in a letter to a friend, referencing revisions to a recent poem: "Ich bin überzeugt, dass es dir in dieser universellen Form und Art mehr sagen und bedeuten wird, denn in der begrenzt persönlichen des ersten Entwurfs" (126). Trakl goes on to explain that his role as poet requires...