A father is riding home. In his arms he holds a child. The child complains about strange beings trying to get him. The father is frightened and rides faster, but when he gets home, the child in his arms is dead.
It is oppressive as a poem. The strange figures in the dark try to seduce the child. It is not typical of Goethe’s work, though he did bow to nature and believed in extrasensory perception. And all his life he collected stories and theories from occult sciences. For instance, he seriously thought that Napoleon’s greatness was of deamonic origin.
Even so, this poem sounds like Goethe only in its language. It is too spooky in other regards, and there is no humour. Critics have always hesitated to acknowledge that in the child’s hallucinations there is an allusion to rape. The poem can be remembered quite clearly and even analyzed without that allusion.
Faust I features short moments of similar cruelty, and these aren’t readily remembered or recalled either.
Below is the original text in German and my prose translation -- where, too late, I saw the accidental rhymes in the first lines.
I believe that versed translations do more harm than good. They certainly give the wrong idea of Shakespeare and Heine, just like the attempted translations of a writing style that distort or masque Cervantes, Huckleberry Finn, Marcel Proust.
There is great poetry without rhymes, and if there are rhymes, they are not elements of decoration, but functional and necessary like the waves of the sea. In translation they become mere imitation showing the translator's skill or his tolerance.
Versed translation 1 http://www.recmusic.org/lieder/get_text.html?TextId=6382
Who's riding so late through night, so wild?
It is the father who's holding his child;
Versed translation 2 http://ingeb.org/Lieder/werreite.html
Why is your face so frightened my son?
The King of elves, father, see him yon? o o o p s!
Versed translation 3 http://dererlkonig.wordpress.com/translations/
Who rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
Some poet, for instance Bob Dylan or Heinrich Heine, would not want the rhymes = waves of his verse to be so soft and smooth, and he goes and disturbs them :) -- But that's another story.
Bob Dylan quoted from http://www.bobdylan.com/us/songs/i-shall-be-free-no-10:
I am a poet.
And I know it.