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Criticism - THE POETRY OF THE NORTH Post by :jewelzca Category :Essays Author :John Greenleaf Whittier Date :April 2012 Read :2266

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Criticism - THE POETRY OF THE NORTH

THE Democratic Review not long since contained a singularly wild and spirited poem, entitled the Norseman's Ride, in which the writer appears to have very happily blended the boldness and sublimity of the heathen saga with the grace and artistic skill of the literature of civilization. The poetry of the Northmen, like their lives, was bold, defiant, and full of a rude, untamed energy. It was inspired by exhibitions of power rather than of beauty. Its heroes were beastly revellers or cruel and ferocious plunderers; its heroines unsexed hoidens, playing the ugliest tricks with their lovers, and repaying slights with bloody revenge,--very dangerous and unsatisfactory companions for any other than the fire- eating Vikings and redhanded, unwashed Berserkers. Significant of a religion which reverenced the strong rather than the good, and which regarded as meritorious the unrestrained indulgence of the passions, it delighted to sing the praises of some coarse debauch or pitiless slaughter. The voice of its scalds was often but the scream of the carrion-bird, or the howl of the wolf, scenting human blood:--

"Unlike to human sounds it came;
Unmixed, unmelodized with breath;
But grinding through some scrannel frame,
Creaked from the bony lungs of Death."

Its gods were brutal giant forces, patrons of war, robbery, and drunken revelry; its heaven a vast cloud-built ale-house, where ghostly warriors drank from the skulls of their victims; its hell a frozen horror of desolation and darkness,--all that the gloomy Northern imagination could superadd to the repulsive and frightful features of arctic scenery: volcanoes spouting fire through craters rimmed with perpetual frost, boiling caldrons flinging their fierce jets high into the air, and huge jokuls, or ice-mountains, loosened and upheaved by volcanic agencies, crawling slowly seaward, like misshapen monsters endowed with life,--a region of misery unutterable, to be avoided only by diligence in robbery and courage in murder.

What a work had Christianity to perform upon such a people as the Icelanders, for instance, of the tenth century!--to substitute in rude, savage minds the idea of its benign and gentle Founder for that of the Thor and Woden of Norse mythology; the forgiveness, charity, and humility of the Gospel for the revenge, hatred, and pride inculcated by the Eddas. And is it not one of the strongest proofs of the divine life and power of that Gospel, that, under its influence, the hard and cruel Norse heart has been so softened and humanized that at this moment one of the best illustrations of the peaceful and gentle virtues which it inculcates is afforded by the descendants of the sea-kings and robbers of the middle centuries? No one can read the accounts which such travellers as Sir George Mackenzie and Dr. Henderson have given us of the peaceful disposition, social equality, hospitality, industry, intellectual cultivation, morality, and habitual piety of the Icelanders, without a grateful sense of the adaptation of Christianity to the wants of our race, and of its ability to purify, elevate, and transform the worst elements of human character. In Iceland Christianity has performed its work of civilization, unobstructed by that commercial cupidity which has caused nations more favored in respect to soil and climate to lapse into an idolatry scarcely less debasing and cruel than that which preceded the introduction of the Gospel. Trial by combat was abolished in 1001, and the penalty of the imaginary crime of witchcraft was blotted from the statutes of the island nearly half a century before it ceased to disgrace those of Great Britain. So entire has been the change wrought in the sanguinary and cruel Norse character that at the present day no Icelander can be found who, for any reward, will undertake the office of executioner. The scalds, who went forth to battle, cleaving the skulls of their enemies with the same skilful hands which struck the harp at the feast, have given place to Christian bards and teachers, who, like Thorlakson, whom Dr. Henderson found toiling cheerfully with his beloved parishioners in the hay-harvest of the brief arctic summer, combine with the vigorous diction and robust thought of their predecessors the warm and genial humanity of a religion of love and the graces and amenities of a high civilization.

But we have wandered somewhat aside from our purpose, which was simply to introduce the following poem, which, in the boldness of its tone and vigor of language, reminds us of the Sword Chant, the Wooing Song, and other rhymed sagas of Motherwell.

THE NORSEMAN'S RIDE.

BY BAYARD TAYLOR.

The frosty fires of northern starlight
Gleamed on the glittering snow,
And through the forest's frozen branches
The shrieking winds did blow;
A floor of blue and icy marble
Kept Ocean's pulses still,
When, in the depths of dreary midnight,
Opened the burial hill.

Then, while the low and creeping shudder

Thrilled upward through the ground,
The Norseman came, as armed for battle,
In silence from his mound,--
He who was mourned in solemn sorrow
By many a swordsman bold,
And harps that wailed along the ocean,
Struck by the scalds of old.

Sudden a swift and silver shadow
Came up from out the gloom,--
A charger that, with hoof impatient,
Stamped noiseless by the tomb.
"Ha! Surtur,!* let me hear thy tramping,
My fiery Northern steed,
That, sounding through the stormy forest,
Bade the bold Viking heed!"

He mounted; like a northlight streaking
The sky with flaming bars,
They, on the winds so wildly shrieking,
Shot up before the stars.
"Is this thy mane, my fearless Surtur,
That streams against my breast?

(*The name of the Scandinavian god of fire.)

Is this thy neck, that curve of moonlight
Which Helva's hand caressed?
"No misty breathing strains thy nostril;
Thine eye shines blue and cold;
Yet mounting up our airy pathway
I see thy hoofs of gold.
Not lighter o'er the springing rainbow
Walhalla's gods repair
Than we in sweeping journey over
The bending bridge of air.

"Far, far around star-gleams are sparkling
Amid the twilight space;
And Earth, that lay so cold and darkling,
Has veiled her dusky face.
Are those the Normes that beckon onward
As if to Odin's board,
Where by the hands of warriors nightly
The sparkling mead is poured?

"'T is Skuld:* I her star-eye speaks the glory
That wraps the mighty soul,
When on its hinge of music opens
The gateway of the pole;
When Odin's warder leads the hero
To banquets never o'er,
And Freya's** glances fill the bosom
With sweetness evermore.

"On! on! the northern lights are streaming
In brightness like the morn,
And pealing far amid the vastness
I hear the gyallarhorn ***
The heart of starry space is throbbing
With songs of minstrels old;
And now on high Walhalla's portal
Gleam Surtur's hoofs of gold."

* The Norne of the future.

** Freya, the Northern goddess of love.

*** The horn blown by the watchers on the rainbow, the bridge over which the gods pass in Northern mythology.


(THE END)
John Greenleaf Whittier's essays: Criticism

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