The original version of the poem is by Bürger, of course; it became a Romantic classic. The most famous English rewriting ('translation' is not a vigorous enough word for what it sparked, since they are typically adaptations, restylings, and reimaginings) is that by Dante Gabriel Rossetti; Sir Walter Scott tried his hand at a version, which had some influence as well. I also like Julia Goddard's version; it's much less literary and more folksy, so it's easily overlooked. If you just read it off the page you probably won't appreciate it, but it would easily be the most effective version for ghost stories around the campfire. Mine's still in draft, as usual, but it seemed fitting for Halloween.
The ghosts of the dead across land and sea
wildly dash as they seek to be free.
Lenore in her bed is deeply disturbed
by nightmare-madness that shakes and unnerves,
by the terror of dream that ennervates souls,
the last horror, wanhope, that Pandora stole.
"Ah, Wilhelm," she says, in a sigh like a moan,
"have you no faith, or no strength, to come home?
Have you no means, or no will, to return,
when Ilium falls and Jerusalem burns?"
And the armies come home, the men and the boys;
the throngs of the soldiers return to their joys.
But never is Wilhelm found laughing with bliss,
arriving at home to catch Lenore's kiss.
Swiftly and often the maiden's bright eye
searches among the men who go by,
gladsome and glorious, uncaring at all
for Lenore's worried search or the name that she calls.
Her mother would ease her, as mothers will do:
"God is in heaven, His grace ever new;
seek mercy from him, and comfort you'll see."
"Mother, this God has no mercy for me."
"Her words are the words of a child distraught;
she knows not the sense of this wickedest thought!
Heaven, forgive her, and daughter, know this:
God's wisdom is endless, and mercy is his."
"Mother, my mother, your God does not care.
He who has mercy relieves all despair;
but pitiless God, he brings only night,
takes away Wilhelm, and shuts away light!"
"Heaven forgive you! The wine and the bread
show us a God who saves us from death.
The cup and the paten are mercy indeed:
reflect on their power; my daughter, take heed!"
"Mother, the lies of the wine and the bread
have no power to save or to raise from the dead;
no pity I find there, only the loss
of a man all forsaken and dead on the cross."
"And what if it's Wilhelm, not God, who's untrue?
What if your man another pursues
on some rugged mountain, on some distant plain?
Watch who you blame in your anguish and pain!"
"Mother, my mother, it all matters not
if his heart be made still or by someone else caught:
nothing at all can raise this sad head,
my life is for nothing, my place with the dead."
"Cease, my dear girl, all this moan and complaint!
Set your sweet heart on the goal of the saint:
seek you the vision of He who makes whole,
He who alone is fit groom to the soul."
"What is bliss, my sweet mother? Indeed, what is hell?
With Wilhelm is bliss, and without him I fell
down into darkness, down to the tomb.
He is my light, all else is but gloom.
Everything else God may coldly remove;
neither heaven nor hell should such providence prove.
But Wilhelm alone is my heaven and light:
she requires no other who is by his side."
The clack and the clatter of the hoof of the steed,
the clank of the steel and the voice Lenore needs,
waft through the door to meet Lenore's ear,
to bring her rejoicing and turn her to cheer.
"Are you waking or sleeping, Lenore, O my bride?
Come with me, come with me, off let us ride!
Off must we go, ere the dawn slays the night,
fast journey and far, to our wedded delights!"
"Wilhelm, my Wilhelm, eleven's the bell
that tolls in the churchyard and says all is well;
rest you within till night turns retreat;
come inside, dearest, and whisper me sweet."
"No, my Lenore, before break of day
I have many a mile to mark on my way.
Swift, at dead gallop, through storm and through night,
through rain and through gusting, before morning's light."
Without pause and unwary she raced through the door
with kiss and caress no man could ignore;
but Wilhelm straightway did lift her beside,
and settled her down, and away they did ride.
The world like poured water in rush flurried by
as bridge blurred to bridge for the slow human eye
and trees of the forest became like a wall
that flickered and rose and behind them did fall.
And shimmers and shadows alone in the dark
rose to the eye like the fire and spark,
the shapes of grim warriors who died far away;
they rush to find solace before break of day.
"What ails you, my darling, my dearest, my bride?
Why do you shudder, your head turn aside?
Are they not lovely, the shades of the dead?"
Lenore answered not as she covered her head.
Soon to a gate born of iron and fire
they came; there Wilhelm, as if in ire
threw back his hand, and the iron bolts bent,
and gently inside the two lovers went.
But see how the moonlight plays tricks on the eye!
See Wilhelm, how thin, like bones long laid by!
See now his head, like a skull reft of skin,
and how like he looks to the bones of dead men!
Now lie before them the tombs of the dead,
but Wilhelm still sings of the sweet nuptial bed,
and Lenore, who now struggles, is drawn ere she wist
into a dark grave, cold hand on her wrist.