Dance of the Dead

by JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE (1749-1832)

The warder he gazes at dead o’ the night
On the graveyards under him lying,
The moon into clearness throws all by her light,
The night with the daylight is vying.
There’s a stir in the graves, and forth from their tombs
The form of a man, then a woman next looms
In garments long trailing and snowy.

They stretch themselves out, and with eager delight
Join the bones for the revel and dancing,—
Young and old, rich and poor, the lady and knight,
Their trains are a hinderance to dancing.
And since here by shame they no longer are bound,
They shuffle them off, and lo, strewn lie around
Their garments on each little hillock.

Here rises a shank, and a leg wobbles there
With lewd diabolical gesture;
And clatter and rattle of bones you might hear,
As of one beating sticks to a measure.
This seems to the warder a laughable game:
Then the tempter, low whispering, up to him came:
“In one of their shrouds go and wrap thee.”

‘Twas done soon as said; then he gained in wild flight
Concealment behind the church portal,
The moon all the while throws her bright beams of light
On the dance where they revel and sport all.
First one, then another, dispersed all are they,
And donning their shrouds steal the spectres away,
And under the graves all is quiet.

But one of them stumbles and fumbles along,
‘Midst the tombstones groping intently;
But none of his comrades have done him this wrong,
His shroud in the breeze ‘gins to scent he.
He rattles the door of the tower, but can find
No entrance,— good luck to the warder behind!—
‘Tis barred with blest crosses of metal.

His shroud he must have, or rest can he ne’er;
And so, without further preambles,
The old Gothic carving he grips then and there,
From turret to pinnacle scrambles.
Alas for the warder! all’s over, I fear;
From buttress to buttress in dev’lish career
He climbs like a long-legged spider.

The warder he trembles, and pale doth he look,
That shroud he would gladly be giving,
When piercing transfixed it a sharp-pointed hook!
He thought his last hour he was living.
Clouds cover already the vanishing moon,
With thunderous clang beats the clock a loud One,—
Below lies the skeleton, shattered.

translated by Edward Chawners
Works
of Goethe,
Pub. Lovell Coryell & Co., 1882

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was recognized as a leading figure in the Sturm und Drang movement, which celebrated the energetic Promethean restlessness of spirit as opposed to the ideal of calm rationalism of the Enlightenment. Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main, first child of a lawyer, Johann Caspar Goethe, and Katherine Elisabeth Textor, daughter of the mayor of Frankfurt. Goethe’s mother greatly influenced his literary aspirations, yet he experienced bouts of emotional turmoil in his youth that caused him much anxiety.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Contemporaries
William Blake
Friedrich Von Schiller
Thomas Gray

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