On the Grotesque Humor of Goethe's "Der Totentanz"

Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1787) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein.
[This paper was written for the seminar on Goethe that I'm taking this semester.]

Introduction and Summary

Few of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's poems have received such sparse and often perfunctory commentary as his 1813 ballad "Der Totentanz." Most scholars offering critical notations in collections of Goethe's works frequently pass over this work with but a few hurried comments that offer little substance.[1] This is unfortunate, as the ballad itself is rich and vivid in its depiction of the midnight revelries of the undead who have come up from the grave to enjoy a quick jig. What's more, besides merely offering a fantastical retreat into the macabre world of the undead, Goethe's ballad prominently features a highly idiosyncratic sense of humor that, above all else, can be classified as grotesque. That is to say, Goethe's ballad plays off the traditional Totentanz legend found in European folklore in a humorous and wonderfully ironic way. But, given that one of the major themes of the ballad is death, this humor can therefore be qualified as grotesque. In this paper I will define this grotesque humor and argue for its presence Goethe's poem.

Before I undertake such a task, it seems only appropriate to quickly summarize the content of the poem. The ballad begins in the witching hour (what critic Detlef Kremer appropriately calls the "Geisterstunde"[2]) with an unnamed "Türmer," who stands watching over a "Kirchhof" lightened "wie am Tage" (line 4) by the midnight moon.[3] Then, out of nowhere, the undead rise up from out of their graves. "Da regt sich ein Grab und ein anderes dann: / Sie kommen hervor, ein Weib da, ein Mann, / in weißen und schleppenden Hemden" (lines 5–7). The undead, having left behind their cloaks "über den Hügeln" (line 14), then proceed to dance in the eponymous dance of death. "Nun hebt sich der Schenkel, nun wackelt das Bein, / Gebärden da gibt es, vertrackte; / Dann klippert's und klappert's mitunter hinein, / Als schlüg' man die Hölzlein zum Takte" (lines 15–18).
As the Türmer watches on with amusement, he's suddenly compelled by some unseen phantom ("der Versucher" [line 20] no less) to purloin one of the discarded shrouds as the undead continue their dance. The Türmer obliges, and steals one of the cloaks as the dance continues. Then, just shy of one hour having passed, the undead return to their graves. That is, all but one, who "trippelt und stolpert zuletzt" (line 29) as he searches for his missing cloak. Sensing his pilfered shroud in the air, the ghoul commences to chase the Türmer up into the bell tower of the church. "Das Hemd muß er haben, da rastet er nicht, / Da gilt auch kein langes Besinnen, / Den gotischen Zierat ergreift nun der Wicht / Und klettert von Zinnen zu Zinnen. / Nun ist's um den armen, den Türmer getan! / Es ruckt sich von Schnörkel zu Schnörkel hinan, / Langbeinigen Spinnen vergleichbar" (lines 36–42).
The skeleton corners the unfortunate Türmer, who quivers in cowardice, and is about to deliver a deathly blow when providence saves the Türmer just in time. "Schon trübet der Mond sich verschwindenden Scheins, / Die Glocke, sie donnert ein mächtiges Eins, / Und unten zerschellt das Gerippe" (lines 48–50) The Türmer is thus saved right at the end of tale as the skeleton crashes down in a million pieces.

Historical Background

As a 64-year-old Goethe rode to the German–Czech city of Teplitz in 1813 to escape the chaos of Napoleon's invasion of central Germany, he wrote a letter to his wife Christiane that contained his composition of "Der Totentanz."[4] The poem, which Goethe himself described as a "Totentanzlegende in paßlichen Reimen,"[5] likely drew its inspiration from Goethe's evident fascination with the "dance of death" legends common in the folk tales of Germany and eastern Europe where Goethe was traveling.[6] In these old legends, some unfortunate person is drawn into an inescapable and eternal "dance" with the personification of death. The simple message behind this legend (which was especially popular during the Middle Ages) is the inevitability of death. Given it's popularity, there's little wonder that Goethe would incorporate a folk tradition such as the dance of death into his oeuvre next to other folk-inspired poems such as "Heidenröslein" and "Das Veilchen."
Goethe would not publish the poem until 1815, some two years after his trip to Teplitz.[7] The publication of the poem was topical, as the Napoleonic Wars were just winding down and the terrible cost of France's bloody offensive were being realized. As Inge Wild explains, the timing of the publication of the poem was pertinent to Goethe's public, as "die Erfahrung des Todes, die hier in alten Bildern gestalt wird, für die Generation der napoleonischen Kriege von schmerzlichen Aktualität und griff auch in [Goethes] Leben tief ein."[8] Perhaps it is for this reason that Wild has seen Goethe’s ballade as having a "Ton ironischer Distanz."[9] Given the pain and suffering just endured under Napoleon's wars, perhaps this was Goethe's attempt to revitalize the spirits of his countrymen with some black humor.

Survey of Sources

As mentioned before, most scholars who comment on "Der Totentanz" typically restrict their observations to describing the basic history of the poem and giving its contents a brief summary (see note 1 above). Those scholars who have paid more than mere superficial attention to the poem, however, have articulated some very helpful commentary. Two critics in particular, Detlef Kremer and Henri Stegemeier, have afforded us useful notes on not just the history of the poem, but also the content and meaning of the work.[10] Kremer, for example, has highlighted the "staccato-Rythmus" of the poem that gives it is ironically festive tone,[11] while Stegemeir has called our attention to the poem's "masterful use of onomatopoeia and of rhythm to portray the action" of the ballade.[12]
Likewise, Janet Hildebrand has compared and contrasted Goethe's "Totentanz" with similar ballades and legends concerning the "dance of death." She has concluded that Goethe's rendition, while retaining some familiar motifs, nevertheless represents a departure from the standard legend.[13] For example, the Türmer is saved from death at the end of Goethe's ballad, whereas those unlucky enough to be caught in death's snare in earlier versions of the legend are taken to their doom. With these critics, then, we have some solid analysis that helps make sense and generate thoughtful questions about this piece.

Structure, Language, and Speaker of the Poem

As noted before, the poem, according to Goethe himself, is a "Totentanzlegende in paßlichen Reimen."[14] It is also a ballade that "may be compared with Goethe’s Der Erlkönig and Der Fischer” in its telling of a semi-fantastical story through the use of short stanzas and a simple rhyme scheme.[15] The rhyme scheme of "Totentanz" is almost Ottava rima, the medieval Italian rhyme scheme made popular during the Renaissance, but not quite. While the Ottava rima rhyme scheme follows a three-fold and then double rhyme repetition of ABABABCC, Goethe's Totentanz instead features instead a close ABABCCD rhyme pattern. The poem also conspicuously lacks iambic pentameter, something Goethe employed to good use in other works such as Iphigenie auf Tauris and many of his Gedichte. Why did Goethe prefer this rhyme scheme? It's difficult to tell, but perhaps it was done to keep the poem's rhyme simple and accessible for a general audience.

With folksy vocabulary and an imaginative depiction of the Totentanz, Goethe's ballad is refreshingly straightforward and easy for the reader to follow. Its language is musical and melodic, and enwraps the reader into the story and draws him or her along with the dance. With such cadenced words as “reckt” (line 8), “husch” (line 28), “wackelt” (line 15), “vertrackte” (line 16), “klippert’s und klappert’s” (line 17), “Takte” (line 18), “häkelt” (line 45), “Zacken” (line 46), “Laken” (line 21), “Zinne zu Zinnen” (line 39), “trippelt und stolpert” (line 29), one can almost hear the pitter-patter of the dancing ghouls in the poem. Critics, of course, have not missed this. “The 'music' of the poem is unmistakable,” remarks an attentive Stegemeier.[16] Kremer too has noted this creative aspect of the poem, having drawn the reader's attention to "der tänzerische Rythmus der gesamten Ballade.”[17] The dance-like language of the poem seems to reinforce its grim humor, as it draws the reader into an unexpected sense of frivolity that is quickly reined in with other competing macabre elements.
But besides its euphonious musical language, the poem also features highly macabre language that provides the account with an immediate setting and unmistakable pathos. The macabre language of the poem includes the imagery of "Mitten der Nacht" (line 1), "Gräber in Lage" (line 2), "der Mond" (line 3), and of the rotting "Schenkel" and "Bein" (line 15) of the dancing corpses. At a crucial point in the story "der Schalk, der Versucher" comes to tempt the Türmer and "raunt ihm . . .  ins Ohr" (line 20) By contrast, the macabre imagery is somewhat offset with the religious imagery of "geheiligte Türen" (line 23) and "metallenen Kreuzen" (line 35), as well as "geziert und gesegnet" (line 34) church doors and "gotischen Zierat" (line 38). The imagery of the poem is thus full of contradiction and opposites, contrasting “lights and darks, humor and tragedy, reality and superstition and imagination, horror and drollery.”[18] This use of opposites leaves the reader feeling uneasy and ambivalent, as one cannot exactly pin down a tone for the piece.
As for the speaker of the poem (the so-called "Lyrical I"), we are left with something of a quandary. The narrator of the poem is never identified in the entire story. As if he or she is floating above the churchyard and watching events unfold in real time, the narrator describes the events of the ballad without betraying at all who he or she is. One could plausibly simply identify the narrator as Goethe himself, as no other clues from the text lend themselves to any other interpretation. But this suggestion, simple and attractive as it may be, has problems itself, as the narrator never addresses him or herself in the first person (unlike some of Goethe's other poetry where he clearly is the speaker).[19] Similarly, the reader of the poem is likewise never identified. Unlike the numerous poems written to the various love interests of his life, Goethe never identifies an audience. As such, the audience of the poem is conceivably anyone who picks up the text and starts reading. That being said, given Goethe's play on the traditional Germanic Totentanz legend, one can safely assume that Goethe expected his audience to have some familiarity with this folklore. Certainly there are no elements in the poem that would require the reader to be sensitive to high culture or art (for instance, there is an absence of classical Greek mythical or artistic elements common in some of Goethe's other work), but it seems likely that Goethe at least expected his readers to be able to play along with him as he gave new expression to this folklore.

The Grotesque Humor of the Poem

We will now turn our attention to the question of the grotesque humor of the poem. Before anything else, I will define, for the purposes of this paper, "grotesque humor" as a type of sardonic humor akin to the black humor one usually sees in other satirical works, such as Jonathan Swift's 1729 grotesquely sarcastic essay A Modest Proposal. In this instance, the grotesque humor of Goethe's "Totentanz" can be easily discerned in the humorous portrayal of death, near-death, and un-death. As mention before (see pp. 3–4 above), the poem has a highly ironic tone in its lighthearted imagery and language in describing the actual Totentanz. The reader is never really seized by fear at the spectacle of the dancing ghouls, but instead, like the Türmer himself, can only laugh at the spectacle ("das kommt nun dem Türmer so lächerlich vor" [line 19]). Only after the Türmer unwisely accepts the dare of the Versucher and is caught red-handed by the miffed skeleton does a sense of danger ever articulate. At that point, as the skeleton corners the Türmer and edges closer and closer to his would-be victim, does any feeling of dread ever arise ("[d]er Türmer erbleichet, der Türmer erbebt" [line 43]). But even then, this dread is quickly dissipated by the comical depiction of the skeleton being dashed to pieces at the strike of the clock.
Nevertheless, as already discussed (p. 6) the poem does contain unmistakable grotesque or macabre language. Why, then, would Goethe use such humorously grotesque language? We can only speculate. Putting aside for a moment the potential dangers of the so-called intentional fallacy,[20] we cannot definitively say much behind Goethe's motivation or intention with the poem other than it seems to have been something he worked on to the pass time while traveling. The poem was written during Napoleon's bloody campaigns in Europe (including Germany), and the poem could therefore potentially be Goethe's sardonic commentary on Germany's state of affairs at the time, but without anything from Goethe himself affirming such, this proposition must remain speculative. If "Totentanz" was meant to be in any sense a commentary on the events unfolding in Europe in 1813, then the most likely possible commentary in the poem would have to be Goethe's lampooning the senselessness of the war he was trying to escape. But this must remain a tentative proposition.

Personal Analysis

There are other aspects of this poem that I shall now analyze from something of a personal perspective. While these aspects of my analysis are secondary to my thesis, I feel they are nevertheless important enough to consider, as they contribute meaningfully to understanding the poem. The first aspect of this poem that I additionally wish to draw attention to is the fact that the Türmer, in a highly ironic twist for a Totentanz story, is saved from his ruination by the strike of the clock. So what, then, does this sudden rescue represent, if anything? Clearly it is the strike of the clock, and no other humanly intervention, that saves the otherwise doomed Türmer. Given such, does this sudden rescue perhaps represent divine intervention? Was it God that saved the poor Türmer, or merely blind luck? The fact that the setting of the poem takes place in a church yard, and the fact that the Türmer had already been protected from the skeleton by the crosses on the sanctified doors of the church, I cannot but help feel like the salvation of the Türmer came from a higher power; a power that defied the deathly intentions of the hellish ghoul.
Along similar lines, we might ask who or what the Versucher is that propels the Türmer into his antics. The conventional understanding of "Versucher" in German is "tempter," as in the satanic tempter of Christian theology that draws one away from God. Is this the nature of the Versucher in the poem? Is it the devil, in other words? Again, a close reading of the poem would suggest this. Perhaps the strongest hint that the Versucher is more than merely the Türmer's morbid imagination is the fact that the Türmer is draw out of the safety of the church and into the midst of the ghouls. Sensing the terror of leaving the church, the Türmer quickly retreats back behind the "geheiligte Türen" (line 23) as soon as the daring deed is accomplished, and we never hear from the Versucher again after that point.
All of this culminates to the question of what this poem possibly says about Goethe's sense of religiosity. As has been noted by many, including recently Hans–Wilhelm Kelling, Goethe certainly was a believer, even if a highly unorthodox and frequently doubtful one.[21] His works, most noticeably Faust but also some of his lesser-known works like Iphigenie auf Tauris (to say nothing of his many Gedichte saturated with religious language and imagery), betray at least a deep appreciation for spirituality and religion as aesthetic objects. Does "Totentanz" say anything about Goethe's faith? Is there significance in the fact that, unlike in the pessimistic and gloomy Totentanz literature of generations previous to him, Goethe had seemingly divine providence rescue the Türmer? Again, any answers to these questions must remain tentative, as the clues from the text are sparse, and Goethe vouchsafed next to nothing about the intention or purpose of this poem. Nevertheless, it is something interesting to think about. Besides being (grotesquely) humorous, the poem also has faint traces of hopefulness for a good outcome in the end that will involve divine, or seemingly divine, help.

Finally, on a personal level I believe the poem does end on a hopeful note. Unlike the unlucky victim of past Totentanz legends, the Türmer in Goethe's rendition is saved from what would've been his doom. There also does seem to be a sense of the efficacy of sacred objects, as the Türmer is protected in the church by the consecrated doors and the seemingly providential strike of the clock. That being said, given the humorous (almost slapstick) nature of this poem, I am not one to draw too much deep meaning out of this work.


Goethe's ballad "Der Totentanz" is remarkable in a number of ways. Besides raising questions of Goethe's religiosity, the poem also exhibits a delightfully witty grotesque sense of humor that suspends the poem between the realms of comedy and horror. The perceptible contrasts and contradictions in the poem (light vs. dark, holy vs. unholy, humor vs. horror, etc.) make it rather elusive in meaning and somewhat inscrutable. Notwithstanding this ambiguity, for those who want a peek into Goethe's sometimes highly devilish sense of humor, "Der Totentanz" is an invaluable window into such.


Goethe Poetische Werke: Gedichte und Singspiele I: Gedichte. Leipzig: Aufbau–Verlag, 1965.

Goethes Werke. München: C. H. Beck Verlag, 1978.

Eibl, Karl. Johann Wolfgang Goethe Gedichte 1800–1832. Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1988.

Hildebrand, Janet. "An Ecology of Elemental Spirits and Mortals in Goethe's Ballads." History of European Ideas 12, no. 4 (1990): 502–521.

Kelling, Hans–Wilhelm. "Thoughts About Goethe's Religious Convictions." Literature and Belief  20, no. 2 (2000): 99–122.

Kremer, Detlef. "Der Totentanz." Pages 342–346 in Goethe Handbuch. Ed. Regine Otto and Bernd Witte. Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler Verlag, 1996.

Siegrist, Christoph et al. Johann Wolgang Goethe Epoche der Wahlwandtschaften 1807–1814. München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1987.

Stegemeier, Henri. "Goethe and the 'Totentanz'." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 48, no. 4 (October 1949): 582–587.

Wild, Inge. "Totentanz, Der." Page 494 in Metzler Goethe Lexikon. Ed. Benedikt Jeßing, Bernd Lutz, and Inge Wild Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler Verlag, 1999.

Wilpert, Gero von. "Der Totentanz." Page 1081 in Goethe-Lexikon. Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1998.

[1] See for example Goethe Poetische Werke: Gedichte und Singspiele I: Gedichte (Leipzig: Aufbau–Verlag, 1965), 811; Goethes Werke (München: C. H. Beck Verlag, 1978), 631; Johann Wolgang Goethe Epoche der Wahlwandtschaften 1807–1814, ed. Christoph Siegrist et al. (München: Carl Hanser Verlag, 1987), 1103; Johann Wolfgang Goethe Gedichte 1800–1832, ed. Karl Eibl (Frankfurt: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1988), 958–59; Gero von Wilpert, "Der Totentanz," in Goethe-Lexikon (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner Verlag, 1998), 1081; Inge Wild, "Totentanz, Der," in Metzler Goethe Lexikon, ed. Benedikt Jeßing, Bernd Lutz, and Inge Wild (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler Verlag, 1999), 494.

[2] Detlef Kremer, "Der Totentanz," in Goethe Handbuch, ed. Regine Otto and Bernd Witte (Stuttgart: J. B. Metzler Verlag, 1996), 344. See also Wilpert, "Der Totentanz," 1081.

[3] Multiple editions of Goethe's collected work contain this poem, to say nothing of the results that a simple Internet search will yield. For this paper my citations come from Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Gedichte, ed. Stefan Zweig (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1998), 164–165.

[4] Wild, "Totentanz," 494.

[5] Wilpert, "Der Totentanz," 1081.

[6] Johann Wolfgang Goethe Gedichte, 958; Johann Wolgang Goethe Epoche, 1102.

[7] Goethes Werke, 631.

[8] Wild, "Totentanz," 494.

[9] Wild, "Totentanz," 494.

[10] See Kremer, "Der Totentanz," 342–346; Henri Stegemeier, "Goethe and the 'Totentanz'," The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 48, no. 4 (October 1949): 582–587.

[11] Kremer, "Der Totentanz," 344.

[12] Stegemeier, "Goethe and the 'Totentanz'," 583.

[13] Janet Hildebrand, "An Ecology of Elemental Spirits and Mortals in Goethe's Ballads," 514–15.

[14] See note 5 above.

[15] Stegemeier, "Goethe and the 'Totentanz'," 583.

[16] Stegemeier, "Goethe and the 'Totentanz'," 583.

[17] Kremer, "Der Totentanz," 344.

[18] Stegemeier, "Goethe and the 'Totentanz'," 584.

[19] And even then, it must be remembered that there is often a difference between a first person narrator and the author.

[20] From a formalist perspective, the intentional fallacy, as David L. Cowles explains, "occurs when we try to interpreter a text by appealing to its author's intent." This is a fallacy because "we can never know what the author's intent really was" and "authors may not know exactly what they intend." See David L. Cowles, "Formalism," in The Critical Experience: Literary Reading, Writing, and Criticism, ed. David L. Cowles (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2009), 11–12.

[21] Hans–Wilhelm Kelling, "Thoughts About Goethe's Religious Convictions," Literature and Belief 20, no. 2 (2000): 99–122.