Goethe's (1749-1832) Erlkönig (1782) is probably the most famous and well known German poem in the German language and otherwise, lack of punctiliousness not withstanding the knowing of it. (That probably should have been a German sentence.)

Every school child learns this poem; it is now a common collection of recognized phrases, each with a form that lends itself to reference under all circumstances - and so to myriad parodies. The form of any one line is sufficient to create a parody, only because each one is a cultural icon - and should be. It really is one of the great pieces of German poetry. Viz. "Twisted Tales From Shakespeare.": the lines of Shakespeare are so well known that we often forget who wrote them. Perhaps another good reason for the (nervous) parodies is the poem's deeply seated emotional and archetypal content.

In parody there is, e.g., a short version, "Eine Kurzfassung" (unknown author) for the impatient or lazy reader with a sense of humor:

               Vater und Kind
               reiten geschwind
               durch Nacht und Wind.

               Kommt ein Mann,
               Quatscht sie an,
               ob der Kleine mitkommen kann.

               Vater sagt "Nee!",
               Kind sagt "Bääh",
               Kommen nach Haus,
               Kind tot - aus!

   Possibly not especially funny, unless you know the original and
   understand it as an abstraction of iconic words and phrases.
   If you don't like those last two lines, substitute:

		Im Morgenrot, Not:
		Kind lebt, Pferd tot.

   Perhaps, even a funnier aspect of this short form is its
   direct relationships to the structure of the Dies Irae.
   OK - this really is a morbid sense of humor that I have not seen
   recognized elsewhere.

Now for the serious content.

An original German text by Goethe, with modern spelling, as punctilious in accuracy as it is likely to get, after much internal battling over fly specks.

There is a lesser English version, The Erl-King by Sir Walter Scott, loosely based on Goethe's poem, and a machine translation from German to "English", by Babelfish.

There are footnotes on Goethe's German text concerning variations that are seen, history and translational difficulties, but no attempt at a translation - mostly because I do not like, or "believe in" translations. Understanding the meaning, in words, meter and sound is the goal and point here. Avoiding the nature and characteristics of the German language in that respect, is impossible. There are things that can be said in German which no other language can hope to encompass; that is true, of course, of any language. The poetry of a language makes that quite clear, without any foolish philosophizing over the matter.

These footnotes cover only the tricky parts of Goethe's artistry and why they are there. The intended audience is probably a student of German with some familiarity with German and the German text, and a general vocabulary and grammar, who is able to use a dictionary when necessary.

This material is followed by the text of the poem "Erlkoenigs Tochter" by Herder, from which Goethe's classic poem is certainly derived.

It was Goethe who said, immature artists imitate; mature artists steal. This is a perfect example of exactly what he meant by that, with significant improvement on the Herder.


                Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
                Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
                Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
                Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.

                "Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?"2 -
                Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
                Den Erlenkönig3 mit Kron'4 und Schweif? -
                "Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif."

                "Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
                 Gar schöne Spiele, spiel'4  ich mit dir;
                 Manch'4 bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
                 Meine Mutter hat manch'4 gülden Gewand."

                 Mein Vater, mein Vater, und hörest5 du nicht,
                 Was Erlenkönig mir leise verspricht? -
                 "Sei ruhig, bleibe ruhig, mein Kind;
                 In dürren Blättern säuselt der Wind."

                 "Willst feiner Knabe, du mit mir gehn?6
                  Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
                  Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,6,7
                  Und wiegen und tanzen und singen dich ein."

                 Mein Vater, mein Vater, und siehst du nicht dort
                 Erlkönigs Töchter am düstern Ort? -
                 "Mein Sohn, mein Sohn, ich seh'4 es genau:
                 Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau."

                 "Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
                 Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch'4 ich Gewalt."
                 Mein Vater, mein Vater, jetzt faßt er mich an!
                 Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!8 -

                 Dem Vater grauset's9 , er reitet geschwind,
                 Er hält in 10 Armen das ächzende Kind,
                 Erreicht den Hof mit Müh'11 und Not;
                 In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

                         --- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)


Footnotes On Goethe's Text

   1. The origin, etymology and exact meaning of "Erlkönig" is at very
      best obscure.  The usual translation as "Elf King" makes little
      sense since "Erl" is not found as a German root.  The folktale
      upon which Herder wrote, however, is from Denmark.  Danish is a
      Germanic language where the etymology of "Erl-" might be found
      in the Danish "Alder-".

      Erlkönig is at once an archetypal figure who can be associated
      with various figures from various mythologies.  He is death,
      of a particularly sexual sort, Odin/Wotan, the wild hunstman,
      the Pied piper of Hamlin.  He does not simply cause death,
      but seduces the innocent with promises of a life filled with
      sensuous pleasures, and without pain.  (In the Buddhist sense,
      the character can be seen as a sophisticated joke, since life
      defines pain.)  However, if the child or other is not willing
      to surrender, he will, eventually, use force.  This is a clear
      example (or metaphor) for rape:

         Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch' ich Gewalt."

      Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.

      You can, if you like, make the sexual content of Goethe's
      poem into an expression of homoeroticism, and that might not
      be completely invalid, but it would be missing the overall
      general content by restricting it to some rather narrow,
      simplistic interpretation.  That is not to say that the
      homoeroticism is not there, which it most certainly is, it is
      merely to say that the full complexity should not be ignored.
      Goethe is one of Germany's greatest geniuses, and should be
      understood exactly so in all his complexity.

      Erlkönig is here an embodiment of
      all forbidden sensuousness as that is taught by western religions
      for purposes of political control and domination.
      Maybe, an interesting aspect of the poem is that this prohibition of
      all sensousness is not vanquished in the end of the poem, but in fact
      triumphs over the stultifying control of the state.  Goethe
      was, after all, a towering intellect with scientific mind who
      gave one of the first theories of human vision and color perception;
      he was decidedly not a servant of the state, though in fact, he
      did serve as one, nominally.  Some geniuses are
      loved not only for their genius, but for their humanity and
      their understanding of humanness, and ultimately Goethe was
      a humanist.

      This is not "simply" a very great poem by a very great poet;
      Goethe was much more than a poet, and that shows in his poetry.
      He used poetic language to convey deep understandings that are
      beyond poetic language.  He could also be very funny, and
      a master of clever sexual inuendo.

   2. The first of some of the unusual locutions in the poem.
      With "was", one might expect "warum", which would be too many
      syllables.  With insistence on making sense in English translation
      translate the German "was" as English "that", leaving it as an
      elliptical question as to why the boy is "hiding his face with
      fear or trembling".  This elliptical form is natural in German
      and arcane in English.

   3. "Erlenkönig" seems to be an equivalent secondary form whose
      purpose is essentially metrical and cadential.  It is used
      first by Herder, and then Goethe.  If you believe that
      Erlkönig means something like "Elfking", then perhaps
      understand Erlenkönig as "king of the elves", where "Erlen"
      is a possible plural of "Erl".  The earliest form of the
      word in the Danish folksong suggests that what would be called
      "elf" in English is what was originally intended.

   4. One of the many elisions of weak endings that Goethe
      uses to avoid breaks in sound that would impede the breathlessness
      of delivery.  Where the vowel 'e' is the terminal letter and it is
      missing, it's absence is marked for a grammatical sense by an
      apostrophe.  It is fairly clear that Goethe did not have in mind
      a slow, stately recounting of this tiny tale of terror, simply
      because of the deliberate and consistent choices in sound that he
      made.  In his setting of the poem, Schubert (1797-1828)
      understands its inherent quality of urgency.

      Great poetry, mostly, cannot be set to music without being
      diminished, except by exceptional composers like Schubert,
      who set brilliantly many of Goethe's poems, his setting of
      this poem being an apex.

   5. Using "hörest" with the added syllable 'e' for cadential and
      dramatic purpose, instead of "hörst".

   6. Implicit elision of the vowel 'e' in the -en ending.

   7. Perhaps the most puzzling line of the poem, which can be understood as
      follows:  "Reihn", and not homophonically as some texts seem to
      make it, "Rhein", is the implied elision for "Reihen".  But then the
      gender does not seem to make sense, since it is "die Reihen" a
      plural (necessarily feminine since the singular "die Reihe" is
      is feminine) and the German article "den" is accusative singular
      masculine, and "führen" does take the accusative.  But, one cannot
      understand "Reihn" as simply an elided form "Reihen" since as written
      this is a plural, and context demands a singular, masculine accusative
      form.  Goethe has created a word and a small puzzle for us to
      figure out.

      Translate "nächtlichen" as either "nightly" or "nocturnal" (it
      works either way: the German is ambiguous), and in the context of
      the "tanzen" of the following line, ultimately understand "Reihn"
      correctly as "der Reihentanz", which is a line dance and has
      the correct gender since compound nouns take the gender of the
      last root, which is the masculine, "der Tanz".  Therefore in the
      accusative, "den nächtligen Reihn".

      See also medieval dances [Mittelalterliche Tänze] as, Reigentänze, 
      of which it seems "Reihentänze" and "Kreistänze" are subcategories.
      Lines differ from circles (at least conceptually to a mathematician)
      by only one point.

      NB: Another difficulty in all of this is the meaning of the word
      "die Reihe".  It translates into English, depending on context,
      as array, level, order, queue, rank, row, sequence, series (in
      mathematics), sequence, set, tier, or twenty other words.  The
      sense of die Reihe is contained in the construction of "Tonreihe",
      the "tone row" of music introduced by Schoenberg, and the foundation
      of serialism in musical composition.  There is a collection of items,
      and loosely speaking, there is a linear arrangement of the items
      that gives form to the collection.  Strict, linear ordering of the
      items is not always required, but in most contexts a strict ordering
      of items is understood.  Nevertheless, there are contexts in which
      Reihentanz can be understood in the English sense of a circle
      dance.  Notice that in the Herder text below (stanza 2, line 2),
      Erlkönigs Tochter says,
	  "Tritt hier in die Reihen und tanz mit mir."

      This is a good indication of the complexities of subtle meanings
      (especially since the German preposition 'in' takes the dative case).

      As additional inducement to this understanding of meaning in "Reihn",
      compare the very same usage in this text of Herder which
      came before Goethe's poem and which influenced Goethe, even to
      the couplete structure, metrical structure and vocabulary - and,
      of course, all the riding, and the precipitous announcement of
      death at the end.  Both the differences and similarities
      between the Herder and Goethe are interesting.  It seems that
      Herder had put into poetic form, not only a Danish folktale,
      but one that had already been embodied in song, and lyrics,
      and so there is also the matter of translation of word and
      meaning fron Danish into German.

   8. Another slightly strange sentence, especially with the 's'
      terminating "Leids", which has no grammatical reason to be there,
      and there is that "ein" which suggests only a bit of hurt;
      finally, the past participle should properly be "angetan",
      not "getan": not simply "done", but "done to".

      It is a confluence of small strangenesses that work together,
      once again, to provide the precision of cadence, meter and
      smoothness of sound required.  If the 's' were not there,
      there would be an unavoidable sonic break between the 'd'
      and 'g'.  That sonic problem would not exist if the past
      participle were "angetan", but that would ruin the cadences
      - not to mention sounding all wrong, metrically.

   9. An unusual poetic contraction of "grauset es", and so literally,
      "Dem Vater grauset's" is "To the father it is horrifying".

  10. There is a missing definite article "den" (dative plural) here
      that has been left out by Goethe as understood, again for
      purposes of cadence and sonic flow - but whose absence to
      anyone sensitive to German grammar draws attention to itself
      as a quickening - an alert, as a musician would create a
      transition to a coda, that the end of the poem was near.

  11. Some texts show "Mühe", and some "Müh'".  On the basis of
      structural and sonic consistency at every turn speaking for
      the uninterrupted line, I go with the second form, because
      to take seriously the first form, an essential glottal stop
      would be necessary to separate the two vowels 'e' and then 'u'.

      If you believe that Goethe had specifically in mind a
      "pleonastic ritardando" in the ending of the recitation of
      the poem, you might be of the opposite opinion.

   See also,
   Linkname: Der Erlkönig - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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I've known this poem since - or even before I was in high school, first from the Schubert song which elucidates in music the four speaking voices: narrator, son, father and erlking. After the Schubert setting, there is no point in it ever being set to music again. The poem and music together condense the content of a full opera into one short piece for voice and piano.

Franz Liszt (1911-1886) was sufficiently enamored of Schubert's song, certainly one of his finest, that he wrote a knotty piano transcription (1838), during his 'virtuoso period'; it is still occasionally played by the technically advanced and adventurous.

There is also an almost impossibly difficult, Grande Caprice on Schubert's Der Erlkönig, Op. 26 (1854) by violin virtuoso, Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst (1814-1865). This is hardly a caprice, being almost exactly a transcription of Liszt's transcription, whose name is never mentioned in the score. There is a wonderful recording by Rachel Barton.

This poem taught me something about memory and it's peculiar nature. In a high school German class, we were to memorize and recite a chosen poem. I knew every word already and could sing the entire Schubert song (after a fashion, but certainly in my head), and so never bothered to work out a reciting version, assuming that I could extemporize. When the time to recite arrived, I discovered to my shock, horror and embarrassment that I could not actually recite the poem. The words had become in my mind so intertwined with the song, that I had to get every line of recitation by singing to myself internally. Needless to say, there were *very* long pauses between phrases, which made for a recitation that was considerably less than poetic.

There is poetic translation by Sir Walter Scott that is not horrible, but, of course, misses the onomatapoetic sounds and cadences of the original German.

                              The Erl-King

                 O who rides by night thro' the woodland so wild?
                 It is the fond father embracing his child;
                 And close the boy nestles within his loved arm,
                 To hold himself fast, and to keep himself warm.

                 "O father, see yonder! see yonder!" he says;
                 "My boy, upon what dost thou fearfully gaze?"
                 "O, 'tis the Erl-King with his crown and his shroud."
                 "No, my son, it is but a dark wreath of the cloud."
                               The Erl-King Speaks
                 "O come and go with me, thou loveliest child;
                 By many a gay sport shall thy time be beguiled;
                 My mother keeps for thee many a fair toy,
                 And many a fine flower shall she pluck for my boy."

                 "O father, my father, and did you not hear
                 The Erl-King whisper so low in my ear?"
                 "Be still, my heart's darling--my child, be at ease;
                 It was but the wild blast as it sung thro' the trees."

                 "O wilt thou go with me, thou loveliest boy?
                 My daughter shall tend thee with care and with joy;
                 She shall bear thee so lightly thro' wet and thro' wild,
                 And press thee, and kiss thee, and sing to my child."

                 "O father, my father, and saw you not plain
                 The Erl-King's pale daughter glide past thro' the rain?"
                 "Oh yes, my loved treasure, I knew it full soon;
                 It was the grey willow that danced to the moon."

                 "O come and go with me, no longer delay,
                 Or else, silly child, I will drag thee away."
                 "O father! O father! now, now, keep your hold,
                 The Erl-King has seized me--his grasp is so cold!"

                 Sore trembled the father; he spurr'd thro' the wild,
                 Clasping close to his bosom his shuddering child;
                 He reaches his dwelling in doubt and in dread,
                 But, clasp'd to his bosom, the infant was dead.

                                    -- Transliterated by
                                       Sir Walter Scott (1731 - 1832)

For fun, "alternative versions" of the Poems

For the last Erlkönig story here, but historically first there is Herder's poetic recounting of the Danish folktale, in its final published form.

		            Erlkönigs Tochter

		  Herr Oluf reitet spät und weit,
		  Zu bieten auf seine Hochzeitleut'.
		  Da tanzen die Elfen auf grünem Land',
		  Erlkönigs Tochter reicht ihm die Hand.

		  "Willkommen, Herr Oluf! Was eilst von hier?
		  Tritt hier in die Reihen und tanz mit mir."
		  "Ich darf nicht tanzen, nicht tanzen ich mag,
		  Frühmorgen ist mein Hochzeittag."

		  "Hör an, Herr Oluf, tritt tanzen mit mir,
		  Zwei güldne Sporne schenk' ich dir.
		  Ein Hemd von Seide so weiß und fein,
		  Meine Mutter bleicht's mit Mondenschein."

		  "Ich darf nicht tanzen, nicht tanzen ich mag,
		  Frühmorgen ist mein Hochzeittag."
		  "Hör an, Herr Oluf, tritt tanzen mit mir,
		  Einen Haufen Goldes schenk' ich dir."

		  "Einen Haufen Goldes nähm ich wohl;
		  Doch tanzen ich nicht darf noch soll."
		  "Und willt, Herr Oluf, nicht tanzen mit mir,
		  Soll Seuch und Krankheit folgen dir."

		  Sie tät einen Schlag ihm auf sein Herz,
		  Noch nimmer fühlt' er solchen Schmerz.
		  Sie hob ihn bleichend auf sein Pferd:
		  "Reit heim nun zu dein'm Fräulein wert."

		  Und als er kam vor Hauses Tür,
		  Seine Mutter zitternd stand dafür.
		  "Hör an mein Sohn, sag an mir gleich,
		  Wie ist dein' Farbe blaß und bleich?"

		  "Und sollt sie nicht sein blaß und bleich,
		  Ich traf in Erlenkönigs Reich."
		  "Hör an, mein Sohn, so lieb und traut,
		  Was soll ich nun sagen deiner Braut?"

		  "Sagt ihr, ich sei im Wald zur Stund,
		  Zu proben da mein Pferd und Hund."
		  Frühmorgen, und als es Tag kaum war,
		  Da kam die Braut mit der Hochzeitschar.

		  Sie schenkten Met, sie schenkten Wein;
		  "Wo ist Herr Oluf, der Bräutigam mein?"
		  "Herr Oluf, er ritt in Wald zur Stund,
		  Er probt allda sein Pferd und Hund."

		  Die Braut hob auf den Scharlach rot,
		  Da lag Herr Oluf, und er war tot.

		  -- Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744 - 1803)


I thank scholar and good friend Martina Schubert for her patience, wit, brilliance, help and scholarship in tracking down and clarifying many of the specificities of the Goethe text, German language generally, its idioms and history that are here - or not here in the expansion and revision of this webpage. We cannot tell everything. All errors of typology, thought, history, fact and knowledge are still mine; I can blame no one else. [sigh]

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Created: 1997
Last Updated: May 28, 2000
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