About The Poem
Johann Wolfgang Goethe published “Der Erlkönig” in 1782 (Middleton, 87). At this point in his life, he had been employed by Duke Karl August in Weimar, Germany for six years. As before mentioned, his position with the Duke was extremely demanding and Goethe only wrote in what little spare time he had. Ballads were popular at the Duke’s court, and Goethe’s earliest ballads were written during his employment there (Dieckmann, 66).
The form of the ballad, in which “no one expects rational explanations of irrational events, and where the supernatural occurs next to the purely human” (Dieckmann, 67), greatly appealed to Goethe. In fact, many of his works during this time include a sense of the supernatural. His ballad “Der Fischer”, a work that is occasionally referenced alongside “Der Erlkönig”, is about a fisherman lured to his death by a water-dwelling nymph (Dieckmann, 87). Though Goethe was interested in science and the natural world, he retained a fondness for the unexplainable.
This particular poem takes place in a dark and drear forest. As a father rides at night with his young son in his arms, the son claims to see the Elf-King. Twice, the Elf-King sweetly attempts to enchant the boy away from his father and each time his father assures him that his visions are just a figment of his imagination. In the end, the Elf-King decides to take the boy by force, and the child cries out in terror. His father, finally frightened, rushes through the forest only to find, once he reaches his destination, that the child has died.
A Word on Translations
The reluctance which must naturally be felt by any one in venturing to give to the world a book such as the present, where the beauties of the great original must inevitably be diminished, if not destroyed, in the process of passing through the translator’s hands, cannot but be felt in all its force (Bowring, 3).
Difficulties arise for any who wish to dig deeper into Goethe’s words but are not schooled in the German language. Those people must settle for translations and understand what the act of translating may do to a written work. Translating a poem must include the right blend of linguistic imagination and dedication to the original. Meter, rhyme, and poetic meaning must all be balanced to create a successful translation. Many times this is not enough, even in the eyes of the translator as seen in the quote above. But, according to Bowring, the best translations can be achieved by a “literal rendering of the original as is consistent with good English, and also a very strict adherence to the meter of the original” (6); anything less “is not a translation, but a paraphrase” (6).
Bowring’s translation of “Der Erlkönig” was one of three translations found in a random sampling from the University of Minnesota, Duluth’s college library. His original publication was only twenty years after the death of Goethe (Bowring, 5), but this particular book was published in 1885. The same translation was found in a 1902 Weimar publication titled Poems of Goethe, suggesting that Bowring’s may have been the accepted translation of the poem between these two dates. The third discovery of an English translation of “Der Erlkönig”, however, was different from the previous two. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Selected Poems was published in 1983 and its translations are by Christopher Middleton. In his introduction, Middleton states: “he [Goethe] has been translated till now in ways that simulate a ‘period’ style trashy in any age” (22). Middleton did not agree with the grandeur for its own sake attitude present in the previous translations. He chose to forgo the extreme formalities and present this poem in what he believed to be a simpler, but purer form.
Which translation is preferred depends on the reader’s opinion. Below is the original “Der Erlkönig”, followed by each translation mentioned above.
The Original Work and Two Translations
Original poem as it appears on page 86 of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Selected Poems, edited by Christopher Middleton and published in 1983:
Ver reitet so spat durch Nacht und Wind?
Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
Er faßt ihn sicher, er halt ihn warm.
Mein Sohn, was birgst du so bang dein Gesicht?
Siehst, Vater, du den Erlkönig nicht?
Den Erlenkönig mit Kron und Schweif?
Mein Sohn, es ist ein Nebelstreif.
“Du liebes Kind, komm, geh mit mir!
Gar schöne Spiele spiel ich mit dir;
Manch bunte Blumen sind an dem Strand,
Meine Mutter hat manch gulden Gewand.”
Mein Vater, Mein Vater, und hörest 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?
Meine Töchter sollen dich warten schön;
Meine Töchter führen den nächtlichen Reihn,
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 es genau:
Es scheinen die alten Weiden so grau.
“Ich liebe dich, mich reizt deine schöne Gestalt;
Und bist du nicht willig, so brauch ich Gewalt.”
Mein Vater, mein Vater, jezt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!
Dem Vater grausets, er reitet geschwind,
Er halt in Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.
Translation as it appears on page 102 of Poems of Goethe: Translated in the Original Metres, by Edgar Alfred Bowring, C.B, published in 1885:
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasped in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.
“My son, wherefore seek’st thou thy face thus to hide?”
“Look, father, the Erl-King is close by our side!
Dost see not the Erl-King, with crown and with train?”
“My son, ‘tis the mist rising over the plain.”
“Oh, come, thou dear infant! Oh, come, thou with me!
Full many a game I will play there with thee;
On my strand, lovely flowers their blossoms unfold,
My mother shall grace thee with garments of gold.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not hear
The words that the Erl-King now breathes in mine ear?”
“Be calm, dearest child, ‘tis thy fancy deceives;
‘Tis the sad wind that sighs through the withering leaves.”
“Wilt go, then, dear infant, wilt go with me there?
My daughters shall tend thee with sisterly care;
My daughters by night their glad festival keep,
They’ll dance thee, and rock thee, and sing thee to sleep.”
“My father, my father, and dost thou not see,
How the Erl-King his daughters has brought here for me?”
“My darling, my darling, I see it aright,
‘Tis the aged gray willows deceiving thy sight.”
“I love thee, I’m charmed by they beauty, dear boy!
And if thou’rt unwilling, then force I’ll employ.”
“My father, my father, he seizes me fast,
Full sorely the Erl-King has hurt me at last.”
The father now gallops, with terror half wild,
He grasps in his arms the poor shuddering child:
He reaches his courtyard with toil and with dread,
The child in his arms finds he motionless, dead.
Translation as it appears on page 87 of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Selected Poems, edited by Christopher Middleton and published in 1983:
Who rides by the night in the wind so wild?
It is the father, with his child.
The boy is safe in his father’s arm.
He holds him tight, he keeps him warm.
My son, what is it, why cover your face?
Father, you see him, there in that place,
The elfin king with his cloak and crown?
It is only the mist rising up, my son.
“Dear little child, will you come with me?
Beautiful games I’ll play with thee;
Bright are the flowers we’ll find on the shore,
My mother has golden robes fullscore.”
Father, O father, and did you not hear
What the elfin king breathed into my ear?
Lie quiet, my child, now never you mind:
Dry leaves it was that click in the wind.
“Come along now, you’re a fine little lad,
My daughters will serve you, see you are glad;
My daughters dance all night in a ring,
They’ll cradle and dance you and lullaby sing.”
Father, now look, in the gloom, do you see
The elfin daughters beckon to me?
My son, my son, I see it and say:
Those old willows, they look so grey.
“I love you, beguiled by your beauty I am,
If you are unwilling I’ll force you to come!”
Father, his fingers grip me, O
The elfin king has hurt me so!
Now struck with horror the father rides fast,
His gasping child in his arm to the last,
Home through the thick and thin he sped:
Locked in his arm, the child was dead.