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The Elf King by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Analysis

"The Elf King" is a poem by Goethe that was originally part of the 1782 Singspiel entitled Die Fischerin. The title in German literally translates to "Alder King". The English title is believed to be a mistranslation of the Danish "elverkonge" which means "king of the elves". It is based off of Danish folk tales which were translated into German by Johann Gottfried Herder.

"The Elf King" is a poem is about a child who was killed by the Erlkönig. It consists of eight stanzas with four lines each for a total of 39 lines. Each stanza has the rhyme scheme AABB with nine or more syllables in each (I think, my German is a bit rusty).

Poem

The Elf King
By 

Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He holds the boy in the crook of his arm
He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.

"My son, why do you hide your face so anxiously?"
"Father, do you not see the Erlking?
The Erlking with crown and cloak?"
"My son, it's a wisp of fog."

"You lovely child, come, go with me!
Many a beautiful game I'll play with you;
Some colorful flowers are on the shore,
My mother has some golden robes."

"My father, my father, can't you hear,
What the Erlking quietly promised me?"
"Be calm, stay calm, my child;
The wind rustles through dry leaves."

"Do you want to come with me, fine lad?
My daughters should be waiting for you;
My daughters lead the nightly dances
And will rock and dance and sing you to sleep."

"My father, my father, can't you see there,
The Erlking's daughters in the gloomy place?"
"My son, my son, I see it well:
The old willows seem so gray."

"I love you, your beautiful form entices me;
And if you're not willing, I shall use force."
"My father, my father, he's grabbing me now!
The Erlking has wounded me!"

The father shudders; he rides swiftly,
He holds in his arms the moaning child.
Barely he arrives at the yard in urgency;
In his arms, the child was dead.

Written in 1782.

Below you'll find the original German text.

Der Erlkönig


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?"
"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 gülden 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, jetzt faßt er mich an!
Erlkönig hat mir ein Leids getan!"

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

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Nationality
German

Literary Movement
Weimar Classicism, 18th Century

Subjects
Folk tale