Erlking

[The following translation was originally published in Per Contra.]

Erlking

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(translation by Okla Elliott)

Who rides so late through windy night?
A father holding his child tight.
He has the youngster well in his arm,
He keeps him safe. He keeps him warm.

“My son, what twists your face with bother?”
“Don’t you see the Erlking, father?
The Erlking with crown and shroud?”
“My son, it’s but a sliver of cloud.”

Lovely, lovely child, come with me.
Such wondrous games you will see.
What bright flowers there are by the shore,
What royal clothes my mother has in store.

“Father, my father, are you listening
To what the Erlking is promising?”
“Child, calm yourself, be calm, please.
It’s just the wind rustling dried leaves.”

Sweet boy, don’t make such a fuss;
My daughters are waiting on us.
My daughters sing the nightly tunes
to cradle you beneath the moon.

“Don’t you see, father, Erlking’s daughters
Luring me into darkness, father?”
“My son, my son, it’s just a willow
That on this night so grayly glows.”

My lovely, if I can’t coerce
Your sweet form, I’ll have to use force.
“Father, my father, I’m in his grasp!”
The child wails his pain. Erlking laughs.

The father pushes his steed.
Holding the crying child, he speeds
Toward the farm farther ahead;
When he arrives, the child is dead.


Erlkönig

von Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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, bleib 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 den Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not;
In seinen Armen das Kind war tot.

__________

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was one of the world’s most accomplished polymaths, producing revolutionary works in drama, fiction, poetry, politics, science, and translation. His verse drama, Faust, is widely considered the greatest long poem in European literature, and his work in entomology influenced many thinkers, including Charles Darwin.

About Okla Elliott

I am currently an assistant professor at Misericordia University in northeast Pennsylvania. I hold a PhD in comparative literature from the University of Illinois, an MFA in creative writing from Ohio State University, and a legal studies certificate from Purdue University. My work has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Harvard Review, The Hill, Huffington Post, Indiana Review, The Literary Review, New Letters, Prairie Schooner, A Public Space, and Subtropics, as well as being listed as a "notable essay" in Best American Essays 2015. My books include From the Crooked Timber (short fiction), The Cartographer’s Ink (poetry), The Doors You Mark Are Your Own (a coauthored novel), Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker (translation), and Bernie Sanders: The Essential Guide (nonfiction).
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2 Responses to Erlking

  1. John Zussman says:

    Great choice, Okla. Its punch, even today, demonstrates why Goethe was the father of Romanticism, inspiring not only intellectuals like Darwin but artists and composers like Schubert, Brahms, and Schumann. Your translation is lovely and graceful. Thank you.

    • oklaelliott says:

      Thank you for the kind words about the translation. And, yes, Goethe was almost superhuman in his massive output, its influence on nearly every serious thinker after him, and the range of his genius.

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