28 January 2013

Poem of the Week 2013/5

The Erl-King

O who rides by night thro' the woodland so wild?
It is the fond father embracing his child;
And close the boy nestles within his loved arm,
To hold himself fast, and to keep himself warm.

"O father, see yonder! see yonder!" he says;
"My boy, upon what dost thou fearfully gaze?"
"O, 'tis the Erl-King with his crown and his shroud."
"No, my son, it is but a dark wreath of the cloud."

{The Erl-King Speaks}
"O come and go with me, thou loveliest child;
By many a gay sport shall thy time be beguiled;
My mother keeps for thee many a fair toy,
And many a fine flower shall she pluck for my boy."

"O father, my father, and did you not hear
The Erl-King whisper so low in my ear?"
"Be still, my heart's darling - my child, be at ease;
It was but the wild blast as it sung thro' the trees."

{Erl-King}
"O wilt thou go with me, thou loveliest boy?
My daughter shall tend thee with care and with joy;
She shall bear thee so lightly thro' wet and thro' wild,
And press thee, and kiss thee, and sing to my child."

"O father, my father, and saw you not plain
The Erl-King's pale daughter glide past thro' the rain?"
"Oh yes, my loved treasure, I knew it full soon;
It was the grey willow that danced to the moon."

{Erl-King}
"O come and go with me, no longer delay,
Or else, silly child, I will drag thee away."
"O father! O father! now, now, keep your hold,
The Erl-King has seized me - his grasp is so cold!"

Sore trembled the father; he spurr'd thro' the wild,
Clasping close to his bosom his shuddering child;
He reaches his dwelling in doubt and in dread,
But, clasp'd to his bosom, the infant was dead.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, translated by Sir Walter Scott

This famous ballad is given here in a contemporary translation (Goethe was older than Scott, having been born in 1749 as against Scott's 1771, but he was also longer-lived, since both died in 1832). It's not surprising that this atmospheric German tale of the uncanny should appeal to the man who made the wild moors and men of Scotland a staple of Romanticism. Every time I'm at a bookstore or supermarket and I pass the romance novels and I see covers featuring a brawny tartaned outlaw clasping a fearless lass, I'm impressed once again by the enduring influence of Scott. His English version maintains the original's steady on-driving force (reminiscent of the father's galloping horse) and the sudden stop short at the final word: dead. In the eerie storm-filled night it's unclear whether the sick child is hallucinating the spectral Erl-King and his misty daughter or whether the menacing spirits are real. In either case the father's love and fear are definitely real.

For me the most haunting line in the poem is ". . . and saw you not plain / The Erl-King's pale daughter glide past thro' the rain?" Given the multiplicity of characters (father, son, Erl-King, Erl-King's daughter, galloping horse), the evocative atmosphere, and the primal fear at the poem's heart (death is stealing my loved child), it's not surprising that this poem has appealed to so many composers (Schubert's setting is the most famous).

Everyman's Library has an excellent series of books called Pocket Poetry, some of which are selections of individual poets and some of which are anthologies. I found this version in one of the latter, Poems Bewitched and Haunted, selected and edited by the poet John Hollander.

UPDATE: Let me draw your attention to the comments, where Lisa has posted a link to her blog entry in which she has collected several videos of different musical performances as well as the original German text.

6 comments:

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm going to post the German and some performances. In a word: Kipnis.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Here we go.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

very cool, thank you!

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm pointing some friends to both our blogs, too.

Michael Strickland said...

"In the eerie storm-filled night it's unclear whether the sick child is hallucinating the spectral Erl-King and his misty daughter or whether the menacing spirits are real." I notice no such ambiguity, the menacing spirits are definitely real from the get-go.

And yes, Scott and the Romantic Scots. For the homo version, there's no better book than "Kidnapped" by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

The child is sick and feverish. Each time he mentions what he sees, his father points out a natural cause for the phenomenon. Is the child hallucinating, or is he seeing something that's there -- perhaps something only he can see, since he's on the verge of death? If the Father can see the Erl-King and his daughter, is he lying to reassure his son? That seems unlikely; he makes no attempt to ward off or bargain with the Erl-King, and there's never any indication that he feels he's lost the child to the Erl-King rather than to death. As with The Turn of the Screw, I think it's open whether the ghosts are real or whether they are one character's hallucination.