cover photo via Deutsche Lieder Online


by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

German: Literal English translation:

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 den Armen das ächzende Kind,
Erreicht den Hof mit Mühe und Not;
In seinen Armen, das Kind war tot.
Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
It is the father with his child.
He has the boy well in his arm,
He holds him safely, he keeps him warm.

My son, why do you hide your face in fear? –
Father, do you not see the Erl-King?
The Erl-King with crown and cape? –
My son, it is a streak of fog. –

“You dear child, come, go with me!
(Very) beautiful games, I play with you;
Many colourful flowers are on the beach,
My mother has many a golden robe.” –

My father, my father, and do you not hear
What the Erl-King quietly promises me? –
Be calm, stay calm, my child;
Through dry leaves, the wind is sighing. –

“Do you, fine boy, want to go with me?
My daughters shall wait on you finely;
My daughters lead the nightly dance,
And rock and dance and sing to bring you in.” –

My father, my father, and don’t you see there
The Erl-King’s daughters in the gloomy place? –
My son, my son, I see it clearly:
There shimmer the old willows so grey. –

“I love you, your beautiful form excites me;
And if you’re not willing, then I will use force.” –
My father, my father, he’s touching me now!
The Erl-King has done me harm! –

It horrifies the father; he swiftly rides on,
He holds the moaning child in his arms,
Reaches the farm with great difficulty;
In his arms, the child was dead.


A father, riding with his son, hears his son warn him of a danger that arrives in the form of the spiritual being, Erlkoenig. The father rejects the spiritual worries and attributes what the boy sees to a harmless natural explanation. However, when the father arrives with the boy at their destination, the boy has died.

Was the boy seeing something real? Is the poem a warning against allowing science and naturalism to blind us to non-natural spiritual realities? Was the father correct about what the boy saw – and was his death caused by something natural (the cold, an unnamed illness, etc.)? This is open to interpretation.

Erlkönig is among the most famous poems in the German language, written by one of the most revered German thinkers of all time. What does this work mean? From wiki:

The story of the Erlkönig derives from the traditional Danish ballad Elveskud: Goethe’s poem was inspired by Johann Gottfried Herder‘s translation of a variant of the ballad (Danmarks gamle Folkeviser 47B, from Peter Syv’s 1695 edition) into German as Erlkönigs Tochter (“The Erl-King’s Daughter”) in his collection of folk songs, Stimmen der Völker in Liedern (published 1778). Goethe’s poem then took on a life of its own, inspiring the Romantic concept of the ErlkingNiels Gade‘s cantata Elverskud, Op. 30 (1854, text by Chr. K. F. Molbech [da]) was published in translation as Erlkönigs Tochter.

The Erlkönig’s nature has been the subject of some debate. The name translates literally from the German as “Alder King” rather than its common English translation, “Elf King” (which would be rendered as Elfenkönig in German). It has often been suggested that Erlkönig is a mistranslation from the original Danish elverkonge, which does mean “king of the elves”.[citation needed] In the original Scandinavian version of the tale, the antagonist was the Erlkönig’s daughter rather than the Erlkönig himself.

At least some of the appeal of this work is tied into the appeal of its author a Germany polymath who wrote novels, poetry, and plays, as well as working in science and politics. Much of what became of the Western world, in the two centuries after after his life, can find an origin in Goethe.

Who is Johann Wolfgang von Goethe?

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe[a] (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832) was a German poet, playwright, novelist, scientist, statesman, theatre director, and critic.[3] His works include plays, poetry, literature, and aesthetic criticism as well as treatises on botany, anatomy, and colour. He is widely regarded as the greatest and most influential writer in the German language, his work having a profound and wide-ranging influence on Western literary, political and philosophical thought from the late 18th century to the present day.

Goethe took up residence in Weimar in November 1775 following the success of his first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). He was ennobled by the Duke of Saxe-WeimarKarl August, in 1782. Goethe was an early participant in the Sturm und Drang literary movement. During his first ten years in Weimar, Goethe became a member of the Duke’s privy council, sat on the war and highway commissions, oversaw the reopening of silver mines in nearby Ilmenau, and implemented a series of administrative reforms at the University of Jena. He also contributed to the planning of Weimar’s botanical park and the rebuilding of its Ducal Palace.[5][b]

Goethe’s first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants, was published after he returned from a 1788 tour of Italy. In 1791 he was made managing director of the theatre at Weimar, and in 1794 he began a friendship with the dramatist, historian, and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, whose plays he premiered until Schiller’s death in 1805. During this period Goethe published his second novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship; the verse epic Hermann and Dorothea, and, in 1808, the first part of his most celebrated drama, Faust. His conversations and various shared undertakings throughout the 1790s with Schiller, Johann Gottlieb FichteJohann Gottfried HerderAlexander von Humboldt,[6] Wilhelm von Humboldt, and August and Friedrich Schlegel have come to be collectively termed Weimar Classicism.

The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer named Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship one of the four greatest novels ever written,[7][c] while the American philosopher and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson selected Goethe as one of six “representative men” in his work of the same name (along with PlatoEmanuel SwedenborgMontaigneNapoleon, and Shakespeare). Goethe’s comments and observations form the basis of several biographical works, notably Johann Peter Eckermann‘s Conversations with Goethe (1836). His poems were set to music by many composers including MozartBeethovenSchubertBerliozLisztWagner, and Mahler.


Goethe had a great effect on the nineteenth century. In many respects, he was the originator of many ideas which later became widespread. He produced volumes of poetry, essays, criticism, a theory of colours and early work on evolution and linguistics. He was fascinated by mineralogy, and the mineral goethite (iron oxide) is named after him.[93] His non-fiction writings, most of which are philosophic and aphoristic in nature, spurred the development of many thinkers, including Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel,[94] Arthur Schopenhauer,[95] Søren Kierkegaard,[96] Friedrich Nietzsche,[97] Ernst Cassirer,[98] and Carl Jung.[99] Along with Schiller, he was one of the leading figures of Weimar Classicism. Schopenhauer cited Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship as one of the four greatest novels ever written, along with Tristram ShandyLa Nouvelle Héloïse and Don Quixote.[7] Nietzsche wrote, “Four pairs it was that did not deny themselves to my sacrifice: Epicurus and Montaigne, Goethe and Spinoza, Plato and RousseauPascal and Schopenhauer. With these I must come to terms when I have long wandered alone; they may call me right and wrong; to them will I listen when in the process they call each other right and wrong.”[100]

Goethe embodied many of the contending strands in art over the next century: his work could be lushly emotional, and rigorously formal, brief and epigrammatic, and epic. He would argue that Classicism was the means of controlling art, and that Romanticism was a sickness, even as he penned poetry rich in memorable images, and rewrote the formal rules of German poetry. His poetry was set to music by almost every major Austrian and German composer from Mozart to Mahler, and his influence would spread to French drama and opera as well. Beethoven declared that a “Faust” Symphony would be the greatest thing for art. Liszt and Mahler both created symphonies in whole or in large part inspired by this seminal work, which would give the 19th century one of its most paradigmatic figures: Doctor Faustus.

The Faust tragedy/drama, often called Das Drama der Deutschen (the drama of the Germans), written in two parts published decades apart, would stand as his most characteristic and famous artistic creation. Followers of the twentieth-century esotericist Rudolf Steiner built a theatre named the Goetheanum after him—where festival performances of Faust are still performed.

Goethe was also a cultural force. During his first meeting with Napoleon in 1808, the latter famously remarked: “Vous êtes un homme (You are a man)!”[101] The two discussed politics, the writings of Voltaire, and Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, which Napoleon had read seven times and ranked among his favorites.[102][103] Goethe came away from the meeting deeply impressed with Napoleon’s enlightened intellect and his efforts to build an alternative to the corrupt old regime.[102][104] Goethe always spoke of Napoleon with the greatest respect, confessing that “nothing higher and more pleasing could have happened to me in all my life” than to have met Napoleon in person.

Today, the poem is best remembered due to its musical renditions. I have embedded Schubert’s famous take on the poem below: