Two Poems based in Folklore – German Literature Month 2012

The German Literature Month 2012 is hosted by Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy at Lizzy’s Literary Life. The first week is for novellas, plays and poems. I read two books of poems, one by Goethe and another by Heinrich Heine. This post is about two fascinating poems, which are based, to an extent, on folklore.
The first is a poem called Der Erlkoenig or The Elfking / Alder King / Erlking by Goethe. You can read it here, along with the literal translation and English adaptation. The poem is best of course, in its original language, but here is another loose adaptation of the poem in English by Sir Walter Scott. There are actually many translations of the poem, my personal favourite would be the one by Edgar Bowring, mostly because the archaic language maintains the quaintness of the ballad.

rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasped in his arm,
He holdeth him safely, he keepeth him warm.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.”

love thee, I’m charmed by they 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.”

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.

I love the poem, it is dark and dreary, just the way I like. I realized there were many interpretations of this poem, after reading some myself, like the Erl-King being seduction or all things forbidden. I like it more when the supernatural is actually there, even if as a horrific figment of our imagination, rather than a symbol. The most literal meaning is that there actually is an Erl-King, who after failing to take the child with him, kills him in anger.
To me, though, they don’t seem like just another father and child. It’s late and it’s a dark and dreary night; to me it seems like there is a reason that they are travelling in right then; a reason that the father is holding his child so close and tight. The child is already sick and hallucinating. What I thought is that the Erl-King is something that the child believes has come to take him, when he is on the verge of dying, a Grim Reaper, if you may. As the child loses his touch with reality, he feels that something is beckoning him to join it and after the child protests, forcing him. The child doesn’t want to go, as he is scared, but death or the Erl-King takes him away, anyway.

I doubt that the father ever believes in the Erl-King, even as he runs away. It is just the most obvious thing to do: he is on his horse, it is dark and no one is around and as the child’s desperation increases, the father knows something is wrong and gallops off, terrified, to where he was originally headed: to get help. It could also be said that the father prefers to believe in the fantastic tale of an Erl-King taking his child away, so as to put the blame for the child’s death on something other than the fact that the father himself was late in getting help. 

I love the setting: the wisps of cloud in the sky, the sound of wind rustling through the leaves, the shadows of huge, still trees; they all do seem like evil spirits. Creating a fear of the unknown or unseen may be the most used technique in horror, gothic fiction, but it works for me every time. I really liked this ballad.
Would your interpretation of the text be as literal as mine?


The second poem is Die Lore-ley or The Lorelei by Heinrich Heine. You can read the original poem here.
I first read it in English, a few years ago, in Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. When I read the original poem in Gedichte, a book of poems by Heinrich Heine, I remembered why I was so fascinated by the story and the legend back then. Also, the imagery in the original poem is masterful and I could imagine every single detail of the scene from the way it is written. 
Here’s the version Mark Twain mentioned in the book. He had probably translated it himself, but I’m not entirely sure about that:

I cannot divine what it meaneth,
This haunting nameless pain: 
A tale of the bygone ages 
Keeps brooding through my brain:

The faint air cools in the glooming,
And peaceful flows the Rhine, 
The thirsty summits are drinking 
The sunset’s flooding wine;

The loveliest maiden is sitting 
High-throned in yon blue

Her golden jewels are shining, 
She combs her golden hair;

She combs with a comb that is golden, 
And sings a weird refrain 
That steeps in a deadly enchantment 
The list’ner’s ravished brain:

The doomed in his drifting shallop, 
Is tranced with the sad sweet tone, 
He sees not the yawning breakers,
He sees but the maid alone:

The pitiless billows engulf him!–
So perish sailor and bark;
And this, with her baleful singing, 
Is the Lorelei’s gruesome work.

The Loreley is a rock on the coast of the river Rhein, which forms a blind turn on the narrowest part of the river. Many sailors have crashed onto the rock and died. The heavy currents near the rock create a murmuring sound, which has inspired many legends and folklore. The mythical tale of the musical nymph Echo inspired a ballad, where a beautiful girl named Loreley, who has been betrayed by her lover, jumps down to her death, from the rock on the Rhein. The echo of her name haunts the rock and kills any man who approaches it.

Heinrich Heine’s poem on the other hand, looks at Loreley as a siren instead of a nymph. Sirens are devious, seemingly beautiful creatures who lure sailors to their doom with their charming voices. The poem could be interpreted thus as a tale of a frightening monster that wants to kill the sailors. It can also be seen as  a tragic romantic story, which is how I first interpreted it. The singer, Loreley, might as well be blissfully oblivious to the gruesome ending, which her music has brought the men to. 

I like the use of sounds in the poem and the small word-plays, which I couldn’t really describe because the poem I’ve given here isn’t the original. That makes me wonder if it is worth reading translated poems, with everything that may have been lost in the process. A single changed syllable changes the sound, and hence the rhythm, and it could change the meaning of the poem or affect the way a poem is interpreted. Not to mention there are word plays, allusions and puns that can’t quite be translated word for word. What do you think?
Another poem by Goethe that I read and loved was Heidenroeslein. The book of Heinrich Heine’s poems was a precious little collection and I enjoyed all the poems I read. Which are your favourite German poems?

5 thoughts on “Two Poems based in Folklore – German Literature Month 2012”

  1. Wonderful post Priya :

    I read 'Der Erlkönig' last year as I was reading a French book of the same name (in the German translation!) which plays on the Alder king myth. It's a great poem, well worth reading.

    I haven't read 'Loreley' before, but I'm keen to read some of the Rhine myths. It's interesting that Heine changed her into a siren… I have a collection of old tales on my shelves, so I'll try to get to that soon.

    I'll be posting my poetry post in a couple of days, coincidentally with some Goethe and Heine too 🙂


  2. These are two of my very favourite poems and I know them both by heart.
    The Erl King is so haunting. I always interpreted him as Death himself but there is more as well.
    Have you ever read the book by Tournier? A WWII novel which references this poem and other elements of German mythology. The English title is The Ogre (there is a movie based on it too)but the French original is "The Erl King".


  3. What a lovely post. I know neither of these poems, but my parents used to live in a town on the Rhine just north of where the Loreley looms above the river. It is a lovely part of the world with castles, forts and canyons all around that area – easy to imagine fairies, nymphs and other mythical creatures in landscape like that!


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