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Dance of Death by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Analysis

"Dance of Death" is a poem by Goethe about the skeletons of men and women who have died dance in the middle of the night. When their shrouds fall across the graveyard, the warder picks one up. When the dead try to go back into their tombs, the one whose shroud was taken stays awake. He seeks out the warder and seeks the warder's death unless he returns it.

"Dance of Death" is a poem written in the rhyme scheme ABABCCD. It is made up of seven stanzas with seven lines in each. Essentially, each stanza is comprised of a single thought, which can also be thought of as a paragraph. The paragraph is then divided up into the lines that are seperated by some form of punctuation with each line ending with a period (or on one occasion, an exclamation point).

Poem

Dance of Death
By 

The warder looks down at the mid hour of night,
On the tombs that lie scatter'd below:
The moon fills the place with her silvery light,
And the churchyard like day seems to glow.
When see! first one grave, then another opes wide,
And women and men stepping forth are descried,
In cerements snow-white and trailing.

In haste for the sport soon their ankles they twitch,
And whirl round in dances so gay;
The young and the old, and the poor, and the rich,
But the cerements stand in their way;
And as modesty cannot avail them aught here,
They shake themselves all, and the shrouds soon appear
Scatter'd over the tombs in confusion.

Now waggles the leg, and now wriggles the thigh,
As the troop with strange gestures advance,
And a rattle and clatter anon rises high,
As of one beating time to the dance.
The sight to the warder seems wondrously queer,
When the villainous Tempter speaks thus in his ear:
"Seize one of the shrouds that lie yonder!"

Quick as thought it was done! and for safety he fled
Behind the church-door with all speed;
The moon still continues her clear light to shed
On the dance that they fearfully lead.
But the dancers at length disappear one by one,
And their shrouds, ere they vanish, they carefully don,
And under the turf all is quiet.

But one of them stumbles and shuffles there still,
And gropes at the graves in despair;
Yet 'tis by no comrade he's treated so ill
The shroud he soon scents in the air.
So he rattles the door–for the warder 'tis well
That 'tis bless'd, and so able the foe to repel,
All cover'd with crosses in metal.

The shroud he must have, and no rest will allow,
There remains for reflection no time;
On the ornaments Gothic the wight seizes now,
And from point on to point hastes to climb.
Alas for the warder! his doom is decreed!
Like a long-legged spider, with ne'er-changing speed,
Advances the dreaded pursuer.

The warder he quakes, and the warder turns pale,
The shroud to restore fain had sought;
When the end,–now can nothing to save him avail,–
In a tooth formed of iron is caught.
With vanishing lustre the moon's race is run,
When the bell thunders loudly a powerful One,
And the skeleton fails, crush'd to atoms.

Translation by Edgar Alfred Bowring, E. A. B. London, 1874

Below is the original German:

Der Totentanz


Der Türmer, der schaut zu mitten der Nacht
Hinab auf die Gräber in Lage;
Der Mond, der hat alles ins Helle gebracht:
Der Kirchhof, er liegt wie am Tage.
Da regt sich ein Grab und ein anderes dann:
Sie kommen hervor, ein Weib da, ein Mann,
in weißen und schleppenden Hemden.

Das reckt nun, es will sich ergötzen sogleich,
Die Knöchel zur Runde, zum Kranze,
So arm und so jung und so alt und so reich;
Doch hindern die Schleppen am Tanze.
Und weil nun die Scham hier nun nicht weiter gebeut,
Sie schütteln sich alle: da liegen zerstreut
Die Hemdlein über den Hügeln.

Nun hebt sich der Schenkel, nun wackelt das Bein,
Gebärden da gibt es, vertrackte;
Dann klippert's und klappert's mitunter hinein,
Als schlüg' man die Hölzlein zum Takte.
Das kommt nun dem Türmer so lächerlich vor;
Da raunt ihm der Schalk, der Versucher, ins Ohr:
Geh! hole dir einen der Laken.

Getan wie gedacht! und er flüchtet sich schnell
Nun hinter geheiligte Türen.
Der Mond, und noch immer er scheinet so hell
Zum Tanz, den sie schauderlich führen.
Doch endlich verlieret sich dieser und der,
Schleicht eins nach dem andern gekleidet einher,
Und husch! ist es unter dem Rasen.

Nur einer, der trippelt und stolpert zuletzt
Und tappet und grapst an den Grüften;
Doch hat kein Geselle so schwer ihn verletzt,
Er wittert das Tuch in den Lüften.
Er rüttelt die Turmtür, sie schlägt ihn zurück,
Geziert und gesegnet, dem Türmer zum Glück:
Sie blinkt von metallenen Kreuzen.

Das Hemd muß er haben, da rastet er nicht,
Da gilt auch kein langes Besinnen,
Den gotischen Zierat ergreift nun der Wicht
Und klettert von Zinnen zu Zinnen.
Nun ist's um den armen, den Türmer getan!
Es ruckt sich von Schnörkel zu Schnörkel hinan,
Langbeinigen Spinnen vergleichbar.

Der Türmer erbleichet, der Türmer erbebt,
Gern gäb' er ihn wieder, den Laken.
Da häkelt - jetzt hat er am längsten gelebt -
Den Zipfel ein eiserner Zacken.
Schon trübet der Mond sich verschwindenden Scheins,
Die Glocke, sie donnert ein mächtiges Eins,
Und unten zerschellt das Gerippe.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Nationality
German

Literary Movement
Weimar Classicism, 18th Century

Subjects
Death, Night