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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Number 39: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe "The Erl King"

The Erl-King

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 clasp’d 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 charm’d by thy 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.


Hap Notes: Had I but world enough and time I would just sit around reading Goethe all day. He must have been made out of verses he wrote so many of them and most of them are awesome. And no, I didn't think you were stupid when I separated the speakers in colors for the poem- I just thought it would be easier to read if you didn't have to fight through the brambles of all those separate quotation marks.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), born in Frankfurt, Germany, was a true polymath. His I.Q. has been estimated at anywhere between 180-240. He's one of the most famous names and forces in literature so I'm assuming you've heard of him. His name is pronounced, for all intents and purposes, "Gerdta"- or at least that's close enough so that you won't be calling him 'Go-Eth'. He was an incredible intellect; he did early writings on evolution (pre-Darwin) and plant morphology, discovered a bone in the human jaw, wrote plays and poems, painted and drew, wrote influential works on color theory, and was interested in mineralogy and linguistics. Dig this- his poetry has been set to music or inspired works by Beethoven, Mozart, Berlioz, Gounoud, Listz, Wagner, Mahler, Schumann and Schubert, just to name a few.

Want something a little closer to home? You know that cute Mickey Mouse cartoon in Fantasia about the sorcerer's apprentice with the brooms and the buckets of water? That's based on a 14 stanza poem by Goethe, "Der Zauberlehrling " (or in English- the magic student or the sorcerer's apprentice), The music by Dukas was inspired by Goethe's poem.

Goethe wrote so much and was influential to so many that it's hard to explain his impact in Europe for the last couple hundred years. No European school child is unfamiliar with him (I interviewed a Norwegian techno-dance band in 2003 and the band guys were thrilled that I knew Goethe's work- Johann has still got some pull.) He's, at the very least, the Shakespeare of the German speaking world.

Goethe said he was inspired to write this poem after seeing a man taking his young son to a doctor in the middle of the night. The son was wrapped in a blanket and the man was hurrying along worriedly. You can project that the child in the poem was seeing things in the delirium of fever, if you want. But I like to think of the Erl-King as mystical and real.

The Erl-king, literally means the "Alder King." The alder is a tree (see picture above) and I like the idea of the Erl-King being a king of the woods. The images in the poem sort of point to an army of tree-creatures. However, many prefer to translate it as the "Elf King" and you can also think of him that way, too.

The Erl King/Elf King was originally found in Danish folk tales that Goethe had read. In the folk tales, the daughters are the ones trying to snare the humans.

Goethe wrote dozens of story poems and ballads like this one. We'll see more of him this year, too. If my German was better I'd have translated this myself but I stuck to one that rhymed. Many people have translated his work so you can find other versions of this poem, too.

Here's a wonderful Goethe quote: "Every day we should hear at least one little song, read one good poem, see one exquisite picture, and, if possible, speak a few sensible words."

You can not only find more Goethe here, you'll find a whole book with illustrations:

1 comment:

  1. Love your comment and the line coloring! WOuld you mind sharing where that final quote is from? I'd love to read up on that :)