My Interpretation: Romantic Ideas in “Der Erlkönig”
Of the English translations I found, neither the 1885 nor the 1983 translation appears to be preferred. More so, it seems to be a matter of personal preference. I believe the 1885 version does not stray from the meter of the original poem and it also, in my opinion, it fits Schubert’s musical translation better. Therefore, for my interpretational purposes, I will be using the 1885 version of the poem translated by Arthur Bowring.
Goethe’s poem “Der Erlkönig” contains multiple characteristics of Romanticism. First, there is the appearance of nature. Like many Romantic poets, Goethe not only appreciated the peaceful and beautiful aspects of nature, but also its sinister and dangerous side. In this poem there are many references to the darker qualities of nature. The first line describes the night as “dark and drear”. In line sixteen, the father says that a “sad wind” blowing across “withering leaves” is what the child hearing – not the voice of the Elf King. He also states that the “aged grey willows” are “deceiving” his son in line twenty-four. All of these descriptions paint a picture of nature of darkness and death. The “sad wind” mourns the withered leaves and aging willows. Nature, though ominous, is undoubtedly present.
Another trait of Romanticism is the opposite of nature: the presence of the supernatural. This trait is exemplified by the Elf King. Though the father has explanations for each intrusion of the Elf King biased on reality, the son, who is able to accept the supernatural, knows better. This creature is the perfect example of Romantic Poetry’s propensity to examine the unexplainable present in reality.
Children, specifically the concept of the child, is another important element. Common in this period of time was the belief that the maturation and loss of innocence gained by moving from childhood to adulthood diminished a person. The child, uncorrupted by the world, retained a spiritual purity and was considered closer to that realm. Through experience and exposure to reality adults lost this attribute, which then could never be reclaimed. The idea that children are privy to that to which an adult is not can be seen throughout the overall narration of this poem.
These traits are all very important, but it is crucial to investigate more than the simple presence of Romanticism illustrated above. By examining the characters, it is clear that they each represent a different concept in the world.
The Elf King symbolizes corruption and false promises. He is richly dressed as a human king, described as having a crown and train. Again and again he entices the child to join him, first by inviting him to “full many a game” and shortly afterward tries to entice him with “lovely flowers” and “garments of gold”. When these material offers do not work the Elf King uses women, telling the boy that his daughters will “dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep”. In any other instance, it would seem like the Elf King is offering a life of comfort and joy. But the child can see through the empty promises of this corrupt king and refuses the offer. The child knows better than to be swayed by material possessions and promises of women and games. These offers are not good enough to persuade him to leave his father’s arms.
The father represents the majority of the population in the world. He does not see what lies beneath reality as his child does. He is not willing to believe in the horror present in reality. Instead of an Elf-King enticing his son to leave his earthly shell, the father only sees the “mist”, the “aging willows”, and hears the “sad wind”. Blind to the truth and unwilling to believe, the father marches along oblivious.
The child, therefore, represents the Poet. The Poet is constantly aware of the dark realities of the world that the majority does not seem to notice. The Poet pulls back from society to experience it from a different prospective and with that perspective comes knowledge of the truth. Like the child in this poem, the Poet then tries to share this information, asking the general population to see true beauty or darkness. Also like the child, the poet is often disregarded. Because of his passion, and his ability to see what others cannot, the Poet suffers and eventually dies.
Throughout this narrative is another, subtler character. The horse is present in both the first and the last stanzas. From beginning to end it gallops on: representing the uncaring and relentless marching of time.