In this short poem preceding the main action of the tragedy, Goethe describes the thoughts that run through his mind as he sits in his study, preparing to work on the manuscript of Faust after a lapse of many years. He seems to see vague forms and shadows floating in the air before his eyes, ghosts that have haunted him all his life, but now they press upon his consciousness with more intensity than ever before. As these forms become charged with greater emotional significance for him, the world of reality in which Goethe lives seems to fall back into distant recesses of his mind.
These forms represent the long gone friends and loved ones of Goethe's youth, as well as the ideas he hopes to voice in Faust.
A mood of sad but firm resolution comes over him as he determines to give new life to these shadows — ideas he cannot escape, which have a sort of independent existence. Despite the melancholy tone of his words, Goethe communicates a feeling of firmness and strength that will be maintained throughout the poem.