Der Erlkönig; The Erl King
Der Erlkönig; The Erl King (written and published 1782)
This early ballad of Goethe’s is one of the spookiest poems ever written, anticipating the macabre Gothic rhymes of the American poet and illustrator Edward Gorey by two centuries. However: Gorey’s children come to grief through brutal accidents, but in Goethe’s poem, the nightmarish powers of nature, disease and sexual temptation combine to cause the boy’s death.
‘The Erl King’ was inspired by Herder’s translation of a Danish ballad about the daughter of an ‘ellerkonge’ (Elf King): the night before his wedding, Oluf strays into the Elf King’s kingdom. The Elf King’s daughter wants him to dance with her, but he refuses:
“Willkommen, Herr Oluf, was eilst von hier?
Tritt her in den Reihen und tanz’ mit mir.”
“Ich darf nicht tanzen, nicht tanzen ich mag,
Frühmorgen ist mein Hochzeitstag.”
“Welcome, Herr Oluf, what’s the hurry to leave?
Step into the line here and dance with me.”
“I must not dance, dance not I may,
Tomorrow is my wedding day.”
She curses him with sickness and death. Oluf returns home and dies on the morning of his wedding.
The poem uses a ballad metre: iambic with four stressed syllables per line and occasional extra unstressed syllables, forming dactyls. Rhyming couplets, always with stressed syllables (so-called ‘masculine’ rhymes) give a sense of urgency. Except for the first line, strophes 1 and 8 are composed of third-person narrative, whereas strophes 2-6 are formed of dialogue. The even-numbered strophes feature the father-son dialogue (strophes 2, 4 and 6); the demonic Erl King speaks in the odd-numbered strophes (3, 5 and 7).
The first strophe starts with a question and is followed by three answers. But the second strophe has three questions. The father’s question in line 5 is answered by two more anxious questions posed by the son, and only one (barely reassuring) answer from the father. The son’s emotional volubility, shown by the repetition of ‘Erlkönig’ in lines 6 and 7, and the repeated question marks, contrasts with the father’s terse, dismissive reply in line 8. Indeed, with his superficial rationalism, the father is utterly incapable of perceiving the demonic power which afflicts the boy.
Notice that the second time the name ‘Erlkönig’ appears (in line 7), it has an extra vowel sound which dilates the name, making it seem even more uncanny. In line 7 we learn that the Erl King is a strange hybrid: he has a royal crown but also a demonic tail. In lines 10-12 there is some hypnotic alliteration. In lines 18-19 the Erl King tries to tempt the boy, using his daughters as bait. Line 20 is a row of hurrying dactyls which hasten the boy to his end, already prefigured by the separable verb ‘einsingen’ (to sing someone to sleep). In line 26, note the ambivalence between inner will and external force.
By the time we get to the final strophe, even the father is losing his composure: he shudders, sensing the deadly force which has encroached upon his son (line 29). Note the assonance in line 30 (the repetition of ‘ä’). The father arrives home but it is too late: the final word of the poem is appropriately final: ‘tot’ (dead).
This ballad has been set to music by Corona Schröter (1782), Johann Friedrich Reichardt (1793/1809), Bernhard Klein, Carl Friedrich Zelter (1807), Franz Schubert (1815), Carl Loewe (1817) and Louis Spohr (1856).
Ignace Feuerlicht, ‘Erlkönig and the Turn of the Screw’, Journal of English and Germanic Philology 58 (1959), 68-74
James Simpson, ‘Freud and the Erl King’, Oxford German Studies 27 (1998), 30-63