Discovering Poetry through TV: The Erl-King by Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

I guess I shouldn't be embarrassed that an increasing number of my cultural references are coming from television these days, like the following poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe that I picked up from Boardwalk Empire, because the writers behind these shows are so knowledgeable and talented that I'd be honored to pick any one of their brains for books, playlists, etc. In fact, I will admit that I've been adding a lot of songs to my iPod from Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, True Blood, etc. And these are not just lowly pop songs - I discovered 19th century cellist Pablo Casals from Boardwalk the other day and downloaded his Bach Cello Suites which are beautifully haunting in their sparsity and sound really good turned way up.

I will also say that having been a literature major, I actually did read Goethe in college and remember this poem, The Erl-King, because it has the same romantic, otherworldliness of, say, Goblin Market, and being an unabashed fantasy geek, I've always loved poems about that half-light between worlds when the veil is temporarily lifted and some poor soul is inevitably kidnapped by goblins or faeries. But in the context of Boardwalk Empire this poem struck me in a profound new way… as a modern parable about the relationship between fathers and sons. How the father dismisses the son's vision of the Erl-King as fancy… as "mist rising over the plain." And in the end, of course, the son's vision, his fears, prove to be very real and the fact that his dad was unable or refused to see them results in tragedy.

How many fathers from my dad's generation acted this very same way? Dismissed the less rigid, less pragmatic views of their sons as self-indulgence and "fancy" and lost them because of it? Having just written a memoir that includes my own struggles with my father I've heard back from reader after reader relating to this part of my story. Maybe this is a problem of a past generation, maybe the "touchy feely" dads of today are suffering the opposite fate - seeing too many "mists" themselves and their kids are the ones rebelling back the other way - foreswearing the Erl-King for a new realism. But even so the warning remains the same - dismiss the way a son from the next generation sees the world and risk losing him to some other King - mortal or faerie.

The Erl-King

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

"My 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."

"Oh, 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."

"My 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."

"Wilt 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."

"My 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 grey willows deceiving thy sight."

"I love thee, I'm charm'd by thy 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."

The 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.

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