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“Denn die Todten reiten schnell” – Its Meaning and Origin
“Sieh hin, sieh her! der Mond-scheint hell.
Wir und die Todten reiten schnell.”
- Bürger’s Lenore
“Look forth! look forth! the moon shines bright:
We and the dead gallop fast thro’ the night.”
- Translation by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Have you ever heard of Gottfried August Bürger? Probably not, even if you are familiar with Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Bürger (1747 – 1794) was one of the most important and influential German poets. However, unlike Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Heinrich Heine, his fame has not lasted. Bürger is remembered now only because an eerie line from one of his poems was included in Dracula.
Denn die Todten reiten schnell – translated by Stoker as “For the Dead travel fast” was whispered by one of Jonathan Harker’s traveling companions in Chapter I of the novel, just after the Count’s carriage arrives. This situation was also portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film, when the gypsy woman gives Jonathan Harker the crucifix. This, I might also add, is one of the only elements from the novel Coppola actually used (even though she says it in what sounds like Romanian, rather than in German). Stoker appropriately gives credit to Bürger as well as to the line’s origin: the poem Lenore.
Lenore is a romantic ballad about a heroine (sometimes called Elenora or even Helen) whose lover, William, is killed during the Seven Years’ War. Lenore in effect renounces God because He is unfair and unwittingly puts a curse on herself. That night, William enters her room and invites her to ride with him. They cover a great distance for die Todten reiten schnell and arrive before dawn at a graveyard. Lenore realizes William wants her to lie in his coffin as if it were their marriage bed and that she is caught in a continual Danse Macabre until she somehow manages to find redemption.
Because of its creepy atmosphere with the dead essentially coming back to life, Lenore is often classified as a vampire poem. However, if it were not for its connection with Dracula, this would not exactly fit.
Stoker, unfortunately, did not translate the quotation very well. The German word reiten in fact means “ride”. So, it should be “For the Dead ride fast”. Although die Todten reiten schnell is repeated four times within the poem, it is never preceded by the word denn, meaning for or because. This may have been a slight error; or Stoker may have done this intentionally, as the passenger was taking the quotation out of context.
Gottfried August Bürger was a hopeless romantic who married three times and never truly found happiness. He abhorred his first wife, Dorette Leonhart, and could hardly wait after her death to marry her sister, Auguste. Auguste died after just seven months of marriage. Four years later, Bürger married the star struck Elise Hann. They ended up absolutely hating each other and divorce followed in very short order.
Although Lenore made Bürger an international celebrity, he was never truly lauded (partly because his output was far from prolific). His career was essentially ended after Friedrich Schiller – who had a monopoly on the German literary world – refused to offer any support. Bürger died alone and ignored on June 8, 1797, and would probably now be completely forgotten if it were not for Bram Stoker.
© 2013 LastRoseofSummer2