The Influence of Old Norse Literature on English Literature
by Conrad Hjalmar Nordby
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Deyr fe deyja fraendr, deyr sialfr it sama; en orethstirr deyr aldrigi hveim er ser goethan getr. Havamal, 75.

Cattle die, kindred die, we ourselves also die; but the fair fame never dies of him who has earned it. Thorpe's Edda.


The present publication is the only literary work left by its author. Unfortunately it lacks a few pages which, as his manuscript shows, he intended to add, and it also failed to receive his final revision. His friends have nevertheless deemed it expedient to publish the result of his studies conducted with so much ardor, in order that some memorial of his life and work should remain for the wider public. To those acquainted with him, no written words can represent the charm of his personality or give anything approaching an adequate impression of his ability and strength of character.

Conrad Hjalmar Nordby was born September 20, 1867, at Christiania, Norway. At the age of four he was brought to New York, where he was educated in the public schools. He was graduated from the College of the City of New York in 1886. From December of that year to June, 1893, he taught in Grammar School No. 55, and in September, 1893, he was called to his Alma Mater as Tutor in English. He was promoted to the rank of Instructor in 1897, a position which he held at the time of his death. He died in St. Luke's Hospital, October 28, 1900. In October, 1894, he began his studies in the School of Philosophy of Columbia University, taking courses in Philosophy and Education under Professor Nicholas Murray Butler, and in Germanic Literatures and Germanic Philology under Professors Boyesen, William H. Carpenter and Calvin Thomas. It was under the guidance of Professor Carpenter that the present work was conceived and executed.

Such a brief outline of Mr. Nordby's career can, however, give but an imperfect view of his activities, while it gives none at all of his influence. He was a teacher who impressed his personality, not only upon his students, but upon all who knew him. In his character were united force and refinement, firmness and geniality. In his earnest work with his pupils, in his lectures to the teachers of the New York Public Schools and to other audiences, in his personal influence upon all with whom he came in contact, he spread the taste for beauty, both of poetry and of life. When his body was carried to the grave, the grief was not confined to a few intimate friends; all who had known him felt that something noble and beautiful had vanished from their lives.

In this regard his career was, indeed, rich in achievement, but when we consider what, with his large equipment, he might have done in the world of scholarship, the promise, so untimely blighted, seems even richer. From early youth he had been a true lover of books. To him they were not dead things; they palpitated with the life blood of master spirits. The enthusiasm for William Morris displayed in the present essay is typical of his feeling for all that he considered best in literature. Such an enthusiasm, communicated to those about him, rendered him a vital force in every company where works of creative genius could be a theme of conversation.

A love of nature and of art accompanied and reinforced this love of literature; and all combined to produce the effect of wholesome purity and elevation which continually emanated from him. His influence, in fact, was largely of that pervasive sort which depends, not on any special word uttered, and above all, not on any preachment, but upon the entire character and life of the man. It was for this reason that his modesty never concealed his strength. He shrunk above all things from pushing himself forward and demanding public notice, and yet few ever met him without feeling the force of character that lay behind his gentle and almost retiring demeanor. It was easy to recognize that here was a man, self-centered and whole.

In a discourse pronounced at a memorial meeting, the Rev. John Coleman Adams justly said: "If I wished to set before my boy a type of what is best and most lovable in the American youth, I think I could find no more admirable character than that of Conrad Hjalmar Nordby. A young man of the people, with all their unexhausted force, vitality and enthusiasm; a man of simple aims and honest ways; as chivalrous and high-minded as any knight of old; as pure in life as a woman; at once gentle and brave, strong and sweet, just and loving; upright, but no Pharisee; earnest, but never sanctimonious; who took his work as a pleasure, and his pleasure as an innocent joy; a friend to be coveted; a disciple such as the Saviour must have loved; a true son of God, who dwelt in the Father's house. Of such youth our land may well be proud; and no man need speak despairingly of a nation whose life and institutions can ripen such a fruit."



It should not be hard for the general reader to understand that the influence which is the theme of this dissertation is real and explicable. If he will but call the roll of his favorite heroes, he will find Sigurd there. In his gallery of wondrous women, he certainly cherishes Brynhild. These poetic creations belong to the English-speaking race, because they belong to the world. And if one will but recall the close kinship of the Icelandic and the Anglo-Saxon languages, he will not find it strange that the spirit of the old Norse sagas lives again in our English song and story.

The survey that this essay takes begins with Thomas Gray (1716-1771), and comes down to the present day. It finds the fullest measure of the old Norse poetic spirit in William Morris (1834-1896), and an increasing interest and delight in it as we come toward our own time. The enterprise of learned societies and enlightened book publishers has spread a knowledge of Icelandic literature among the reading classes of the present day; but the taste for it is not to be accounted for in the same way. That is of nobler birth than of erudition or commercial pride. Is it not another expression of that changed feeling for the things that pertain to the common people, which distinguishes our century from the last? The historian no longer limits his study to camp and court; the poet deigns to leave the drawing-room and library for humbler scenes. Folk-lore is now dignified into a science. The touch of nature has made the whole world kin, and our highly civilized century is moved by the records of the passions of the earlier society.

This change in taste was long in coming, and the emotional phase of it has preceded the intellectual. It is interesting to note that Gray and Morris both failed to carry their public with them all the way. Gray, the most cultured man of his time, produced art forms totally different from those in vogue, and Walpole[1] said of these forms: "Gray has added to his poems three ancient odes from Norway and Wales ... they are not interesting, and do not, like his other poems, touch any passion.... Who can care through what horrors a Runic savage arrived at all the joys and glories they could conceive—the supreme felicity of boozing ale out of the skull of an enemy in Odin's Hall?"

Morris, the most versatile man of his time, found plenty of praise for his art work, until he preached social reform to Englishmen. Thereafter the art of William Morris was not so highly esteemed, and the best poet in England failed to attain the laurel on the death of Tennyson.

Of this change of taste more will be said as this essay is developed. These introductory words must not be left, however, without an explanation of the word "Influence," as it is used in the subject-title. This paper will not undertake to prove that the course of English literature was diverted into new channels by the introduction of Old Norse elements, or that its nature was materially changed thereby. We find an expression and a justification of our present purpose in Richard Price's Preface to the 1824 edition of Warton's "History of English Poetry" (p. 15): "It was of importance to notice the successive acquisitions, in the shape of translation or imitation, from the more polished productions of Greece and Rome; and to mark the dawn of that aera, which, by directing the human mind to the study of classical antiquity, was to give a new impetus to science and literature, and by the changes it introduced to effect a total revolution in the laws which had previously governed them." Were Warton writing his history to-day, he would have to account for later eras as well as for the Elizabethan, and the method would be the same. How far the Old Norse literature has helped to form these later eras it is not easy to say, but the contributions may be counted up, and their literary value noted. These are the commission of the present essay. When the record is finished, we shall be in possession of information that may account for certain considerable writers of our day, and certain tendencies of thought.


Prefatory Note


I. The Body of Old Norse Literature

II. Through the Medium of Latin Thomas Gray The Sources of Gray's Knowledge Sir William Temple George Hickes Thomas Percy Thomas Warton Drake and Mathias Cottle and Herbert Walter Scott

III. From the Sources Themselves Richard Cleasby Thomas Carlyle Samuel Laing Longfellow and Lowell Matthew Arnold George Webbe Dasent Charles Kingsley Edmund Gosse

IV. By the Hand of the Master William Morris' works " " " 1 " " " 2 " " " 3 " " " 4 " " " 5 " " " 6 " " " 7 " " " 8

V. In the Latter Days Echoes of Iceland in Later Poets Recent Translations



First, let us understand what the Old Norse literature was that has been sending out this constantly increasing influence into the world of poetry.

It was in the last four decades of the ninth century of our era that Norsemen began to leave their own country and set up new homes in Iceland. The sixty years ending with 930 A.D. were devoted to taking up the land, and the hundred years that ensued after that date were devoted to quarreling about that land. These quarrels were the origin of the Icelandic family sagas. The year 1000 brought Christianity to the island, and the period from 1030 to 1120 were years of peace in which stories of the former time passed from mouth to mouth. The next century saw these stories take written form, and the period from 1220 to 1260 was the golden age of this literature. In 1264, Iceland passed under the rule of Norway, and a decline of literature began, extending until 1400, the end of literary production in Iceland. In the main, the authors of Iceland are unknown[2].

There are several well-marked periods, therefore, in Icelandic literary production. The earliest was devoted to poetry, Icelandic being no different from most other languages in the precedence of that form. Before the settlement of Iceland, the Norse lands were acquainted with songs about gods and champions, written in a simple verse form. The first settlers wrote down some of these, and forgot others. In the Codex Regius, preserved in the Royal Library in Copenhagen, we have a collection of these songs. This material was published in the seventeenth century as the Saemundar Edda, and came to be known as the Elder or Poetic Edda. Both titles are misnomers, for Saemund had nothing to do with the making of the book, and Edda is a name belonging to a book of later date and different purpose.

This work—not a product of the soil as folk-songs are—is the fountain head of Old Norse mythology, and of Old Norse heroic legends. Voeluspa and Havamal are in this collection, and other songs that tell of Odin and Baldur and Loki. The Helgi poems and the Voelsung poems in their earliest forms are also here.

A second class of poetry in this ancient literature is that called "Skaldic." Some of this deals with mythical material, and some with historical material. A few of the skalds are known to us by name, because their lives were written down in later sagas. Egill Skallagrimsson, known to all readers of English and Scotch antiquities, Eyvind Skaldaspillir and Sigvat are of this group.

Poetic material that is very rich is found in Snorri Sturluson's work on Old Norse poetics, entitled The Edda, and often referred to as the Younger or Prose Edda.

More valuable than the poetry is the prose of this literature, especially the Sagas. The saga is a prose epic, characteristic of the Norse countries. It records the life of a hero, told according to fixed rules. As we have said, the sagas were based upon careers run in Iceland's stormy time. They are both mythical and historical. In the mythical group are, among others, the Voelsunga Saga, the Hervarar Saga, Frieththjofs Saga and Ragnar Loethbroks Saga. In the historical group, the flowering time of which was 1200-1270, we find, for example, Egils Saga, Eyrbyggja Saga, Laxdaela Saga, Grettis Saga, Njals Saga. A branch of the historic sagas is the Kings' Sagas, in which we find Heimskringla, the Saga of Olaf Tryggvason, the Flatey Book, and others.

This sketch does not pretend to indicate the quantity of Old Norse literature. An idea of that is obtained by considering the fact that eleven columns of the ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica are devoted to recording the works of that body of writings.



THOMAS GRAY (1716-1771).

In the eighteenth century, Old Norse literature was the lore of antiquarians. That it is not so to-day among English readers is due to a line of writers, first of whom was Thomas Gray. In the thin volume of his poetry, two pieces bear the sub-title: "An Ode. From the Norse Tongue." These are "The Fatal Sisters," and "The Descent of Odin," both written in 1761, though not published until 1768. These poems are among the latest that Gray gave to the world, and are interesting aside from our present purpose because they mark the limit of Gray's progress toward Romanticism.

We are not accustomed to think of Gray as a Romantic poet, although we know well that the movement away from the so-called Classicism was begun long before he died. The Romantic element in his poetry is not obvious; only the close observer detects it, and then only in a few of the poems. The Pindaric odes exhibit a treatment that is Romantic, and the Norse and Welsh adaptations are on subjects that are Romantic. But we must go to his letters to find proof positive of his sympathy with the breaking away from Classicism. Here are records of a love of outdoors that reveled in mountain-climbing and the buffeting of storms. Here are appreciations of Shakespeare and of Milton, the like of which were not often proclaimed in his generation. Here is ecstatic admiration of ballads and of the Ossian imitations, all so unfashionable in the literary culture of the day. While dates disprove Lowell's statement in his essay on Gray that "those anti-classical yearnings of Gray began after he had ceased producing," it is certain that very little of his poetic work expressed these yearnings. "Elegance, sweetness, pathos, or even majesty he could achieve, but never that force which vibrates in every verse of larger moulded men." Change Lowell's word "could" to "did," and this sentence will serve our purpose here.

Our interest in Gray's Romanticism must confine itself to the two odes from the Old Norse. It is to be noted that the first transplanting to English poetry of Old Norse song came about through the scholar's agency, not the poet's. It was Gray, the scholar, that made "The Descent of Odin" and "The Fatal Sisters." They were intended to serve as specimens of a forgotten literature in a history of English poetry. In the "Advertisement" to "The Fatal Sisters" he tells how he came to give up the plan: "The Author has long since drop'd his design, especially after he heard, that it was already in the hands of a Person well qualified to do it justice, both by his taste, and his researches into antiquity." Thomas Warton's History of English Poetry was the execution of this design, but in that book no place was found for these poems.

In his absurd Life of Gray, Dr. Johnson said: "His translations of Northern and Welsh Poetry deserve praise: the imagery is preserved, perhaps often improved, but the language is unlike the language of other poets." There are more correct statements in this sentence, perhaps, than in any other in the essay, but this is because ignorance sometimes hits the truth. It is not likely that the poems would have been understood without the preface and the explanatory notes, and these, in a measure, made the reader interested in the literature from which they were drawn. Gray called the pieces "dreadful songs," and so in very truth they are. Strength is the dominant note, rude, barbaric strength, and only the art of Gray saved it from condemnation. To-day, with so many imitations from Old Norse to draw upon, we cannot point to a single poem which preserves spirit and form as well as those of Gray. Take the stanza:

Horror covers all the heath, Clouds of carnage blot the sun, Sisters, weave the web of death; Sisters, cease, the work is done.

The strophe is perfect in every detail. Short lines, each ending a sentence; alliteration; words that echo the sense, and just four strokes to paint a picture which has an atmosphere that whisks you into its own world incontinently. It is no wonder that writers of later days who have tried similar imitations ascribe to Thomas Gray the mastership.

That this poet of the eighteenth century, who "equally despised what was Greek and what was Gothic," should have entered so fully into the spirit and letter of Old Norse poetry is little short of marvelous. If Professor G.L. Kittredge had not gone so minutely into the question of Gray's knowledge of Old Norse,[3] we might be pardoned for still believing with Gosse[4] that the poet learned Icelandic in his later life. Even after reading Professor Kittredge's essay, we cannot understand how Gray could catch the metrical lilt of the Old Norse with only a Latin version to transliterate the parallel Icelandic. We suspect that Gray's knowledge was fuller than Professor Kittredge will allow, although we must admit that superficial knowledge may coexist with a fine interpretative spirit. Matthew Arnold's knowledge of Celtic literature was meagre, yet he wrote memorably and beautifully on that subject, as Celts themselves will acknowledge.[5]


It has already been said that only antiquarians had knowledge of things Icelandic in Gray's time. Most of this knowledge was in Latin, of course, in ponderous tomes with wonderful, long titles; and the list of them is awe-inspiring. In all likelihood Gray did not use them all, but he met references to them in the books he did consult. Professor Kittredge mentions them in the paper already quoted, but they are here arranged in the order of publication, and the list is lengthened to include some books that were inspired by the interest in Gray's experiments.

1636 and 1651. Wormius. Seu Danica literatura antiquissima, vulgo Gothica dicta, luci reddita opera Olai Wormii. Cui accessit de prisca Danorum Poesi Dissertatio. Hafniae. 1636. Edit. II. 1651.

The essay on poetry contains interlinear Latin translations of the Epicedium of Ragnar Loethbrok, and of the Drapa of Egill Skallagrimsson. Bound with the second edition of 1651, and bearing the date 1650, is: Specimen Lexici runici, obscuriorum quarundam vocum, quae in priscis occurrunt historiis et poetis Danicis enodationem exhibens. Collectum a Magno Olavio pastore Laufasiensi, ... nunc in ordinem redactum, auctum et locupletatum ab Olao Wormio. Hafniae.

This glossary adduces illustrations from the great poems of Icelandic literature. Thus early the names and forms of the ancient literature were known.

1665. Resenius. Edda Islandorum an. Chr. MCCXV islandice conscripta per Snorronem Sturlae Islandiae. Nomophylacem nunc primum islandice, danice et latine ... Petri Johannis Resenii ... Havniae. 1665.

A second part contains a disquisition on the philosophy of the Voeluspa and the Havamal.

1670. Sheringham. De Anglorum Gentis Origine Disceptatio. Qua eorum migrationes, variae sedes, et ex parte res gestae, a confusione Linguarum, et dispersione Gentium, usque ad adventum eorum in Britanniam investigantur; quaedam de veterum Anglorum religione, Deorum cultu, eorumque opinionibus de statu animae post hanc vitam, explicantur. Authore Roberto Sheringhamo. Cantabrigiae. 1670.

Chapter XII contains an account of Odin extracted from the Edda, Snorri Sturluson and others.

1679-92. Temple. Two essays: "Of Heroic Virtue," "Of Poetry," contained in The Works of Sir William Temple. London. 1757. Vol. 3, pp. 304-429.

1689. Bartholinus. Thomae Bartholini Antiquitatum Danicarum de causis contemptae a Danis adhuc gentilibus mortis libri III ex vetustis codicibus et monumentis hactenus ineditis congestae. Hafniae. 1689.

The pages of this book are filled, with extracts from Old Norse sagas and poetry which are translated into Latin. No student of the book could fail to get a considerable knowledge of the spirit and the form of the ancient literature.

1691. Verelius. Index linguae veteris Scytho-Scandicae sive Gothicae ex vetusti aevi monumentis ... ed Rudbeck. Upsalae. 1691.

1697. Torfaeus. Orcades, seu rerum Orcadensium historiae. Havniae. 1697.

1697. Perinskjoeld. Heimskringla, eller Snorre Sturlusons Nordlaendske Konunga Sagor. Stockholmiae. 1697.

Contains Latin and Swedish translation.

1705. Hickes. Linguarum Vett. Septentrionalium thesaurus grammatico criticus et archaeologicus. Oxoniae. 1703-5.

This work is discussed later.

1716. Dryden. Miscellany Poems. Containing Variety of New Translations of the Ancient Poets.... Published by Mr. Dryden. London. 1716.

1720. Keysler. Antiquitates selectae septentrionales et Celticae quibus plurima loca conciliorum et capitularium explanantur, dogmata theologiae ethnicae Celtarum gentiumque septentrionalium cum moribus et institutis maiorum nostrorum circa idola, aras, oracula, templa, lucos, sacerdotes, regum electiones, comitia et monumenta sepulchralia una cum reliquiis gentilismi in coetibus christianorum ex monumentis potissimum hactenus ineditis fuse perquiruntur. Autore Joh. Georgio Keysler. Hannoverae. 1720.

1755. Mallet. Introduction a l'Histoire de Dannemarc ou l'on traite de la Religion, des Lois, des Moeurs, et des Usages des Anciens Danois. Par M. Mallet. Copenhague. 1755.

Discussed later.

1756. Mallet. Monumens de la Mythologie et la Poesie des Celtes et particulierement des anciens Scandinaves ... Par M. Mallet. Copenhague. 1756.

1763. Percy. Five Pieces of Runic Poetry translated from the Islandic Language. London. 1763.

This book is described on a later page.

1763. Blair. A Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian, the Son of Fingal. [By Hugh Blair.] London. 1763.

1770. Percy. Northern Antiquities: or a description of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the ancient Danes, and other Northern Nations; including these of our own Saxon Ancestors. With a translation of the Edda or System of Runic Mythology, and other Pieces from the Ancient Icelandic Tongue. Translated from M. Mallet's Introduction a l'Histoire de Dannemarc. London. 1770.

1774. Warton. The History of English Poetry. By Thomas Warton. London. 1774-81.

In this book the prefatory essay entitled "On the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe" is significant. It is treated at length later on.


From the above list it appears that the earliest mention in the English language of Icelandic literature was Sir William Temple's. The two essays noted above have many references to Northern customs and songs. Macaulay's praise of Temple's style is well deserved, and the slighting remarks about the matter do not apply to the passages in evidence here. Temple's acknowledgments to Wormius indicate the source of his information, and it is a commentary upon the exactness of the antiquarian's knowledge that so many of the statements in Temple's essays are perfectly good to-day. Of course the terms "Runic" and "Gothic" were misused, but so were they a century later. Odin is "the first and great hero of the western Scythians; he led a mighty swarm of the Getes, under the name of Goths, from the Asiatic Scythia into the farthest northwest parts of Europe; he seated and spread his kingdom round the whole Baltic sea, and over all the islands in it, and extended it westward to the ocean and southward to the Elve."[6] Temple places Odin's expedition at two thousand years before his own time, but he gets many other facts right. Take this summing up of the old Norse belief as an example:

"An opinion was fixed and general among them, that death was but the entrance into another life; that all men who lived lazy and inactive lives, and died natural deaths, by sickness, or by age, went into vast caves under ground, all dark and miry, full of noisom creatures, usual in such places, and there forever grovelled in endless stench and misery. On the contrary, all who gave themselves to warlike actions and enterprises, to the conquests of their neighbors, and slaughters of enemies, and died in battle, or of violent deaths upon bold adventures or resolutions, they went immediately to the vast hall or palace of Odin, their god of war, who eternally kept open house for all such guests, where they were entertained at infinite tables, in perpetual feasts and mirth, carousing every man in bowls made of the skulls of their enemies they had slain, according to which numbers, every one in these mansions of pleasure was the most honoured and the best entertained."[7]

Thus before Gray was born, Temple had written intelligently in English of the salient features of the Old Norse mythology. Later in the same essay, he recognized that some of the civil and political procedures of his country were traceable to the Northmen, and, what is more to our immediate purpose, he recognized the poetic value of Old Norse song. On p. 358 occurs this paragraph:

"I am deceived, if in this sonnet (two stanzas of 'Regner Lodbrog'), and a following ode of Scallogrim there be not a vein truly poetical, and in its kind Pindaric, taking it with the allowance of the different climates, fashions, opinions, and languages of such distant countries."

Temple certainly had no knowledge of Old Norse, and yet, in 1679, he could write so of a poem which he had to read through the Latin. Sir William had a wide knowledge and a fine appreciation of literature, and an enthusiasm for its dissemination. He takes evident delight in telling the fact that princes and kings of the olden time did high honor to bards. He regrets that classic culture was snuffed out by a barbarous people, but he rejoices that a new kind came to take its place. "Some of it wanted not the true spirit of poetry in some degree, or that natural inspiration which has been said to arise from some spark of poetical fire wherewith particular men are born; and such as it was, it served the turn, not only to please, but even to charm, the ignorant and barbarous vulgar, where it was in use."[8]

It is proverbial that music hath charms to soothe the savage breast. That savage music charms cultivated minds is not proverbial, but it is nevertheless true. Here is Sir William Temple, scion of a cultured race, bearing witness to the fact, and here is Gray, a life-long dweller in a staid English university, endorsing it a half century later. As has been intimated, this was unusual in the time in which they lived, when, in Lowell's phrase, the "blight of propriety" was on all poetry. But it was only the rude and savage in an unfamiliar literature that could give pause in the age of Pope. The milder aspects of Old Norse song and saga must await the stronger century to give them favor. "Behold, there was a swarm of bees and honey in the carcass of the lion."

GEORGE HICKES (1642-1715).

The next book in the list that contains an English contribution to the knowledge of our subject is the Thesaurus of George Hickes. On p. 193 of Part I, there is a prose translation of "The Awakening of Angantyr," from the Harvarar Saga. Acknowledgment is given to Verelius for the text of the poem, but Hickes seems to have chosen this poem as the gem of the Saga. The translation is another proof of an antiquarian's taste and judgment, and the reader does not wonder that it soon found a wider audience through another publication. It was reprinted in the books of 1716 and 1770 in the above list. An extract or two will show that the vigor of the old poem has not been altogether lost in the translation:

Hervor.—Awake Angantyr, Hervor the only daughter of thee and Suafu doth awaken thee. Give me out of the tombe, the hardned[9] sword, which the dwarfs made for Suafurlama. Hervardur, Hiorvardur, Hrani, and Angantyr, with helmet, and coat of mail, and a sharp sword, with sheild and accoutrements, and bloody spear, I wake you all, under the roots of trees. Are the sons of Andgrym, who delighted in mischief, now become dust and ashes, can none of Eyvors sons now speak with me out of the habitations of the dead! Harvardur, Hiorvardur! so may you all be within your ribs, as a thing that is hanged up to putrifie among insects, unlesse you deliver me the sword which the dwarfs made ... and the glorious belt.

Angantyr.—Daughter Hervor, full of spells to raise the dead, why dost thou call so? wilt thou run on to thy own mischief? thou art mad, and out of thy senses, who art desperatly resolved to waken dead men. I was not buried either by father or other freinds. Two which lived after me got Tirfing, one of whome is now possessor thereof.

Hervor.—Thou dost not tell the truth: so let Odin hide thee in the tombe, as thou hast Tirfing by thee. Art thou unwilling, Angantyr, to give an inheritance to thy only child?...

Angantyr.—Fals woman, thou dost not understand, that thou speakest foolishly of that, in which thou dost rejoice, for Tirfing shall, if thou wilt beleive me, maid, destroy all thy offspring.

Hervor.—I must go to my seamen, here I have no mind to stay longer. Little do I care, O Royall friend, what my sons hereafter quarrell about.

Angantyr.—Take and keep Hialmars bane, which thou shalt long have and enjoy, touch but the edges of it, there is poyson in both of them, it is a most cruell devourer of men.

Hervor.—I shall keep, and take in hand, the sharp sword which thou hast let me have: I do not fear, O slain father! what my sons hereafter may quarrell about.... Dwell all of you safe in the tombe, I must be gon, and hasten hence, for I seem to be, in the midst of a place where fire burns round about me.

One can well understand, who handles the ponderous Thesaurus, why the first English lovers of Old Norse were antiquarians. "The Awakening of Angantyr" is literally buried in this work, and only the student of Anglo-Saxon prosody would come upon it unassisted, since it is an illustration in a chapter of the Grammaticae Anglo-Saxonicae et Moeso-Gothicae. Students will remember in this connection that it was a work on poetics that saved for us the original Icelandic Edda. The Icelandic skald had to know his nation's mythology.

THOMAS PERCY (1729-1811).

The title of Chapter XXIII in Hickes' work indicates that even among learned doctors mistaken notions existed as to the relationship of the Teutonic languages. It took more than a hundred years to set the error right, but in the meanwhile the literature of Iceland was becoming better known to English readers. To the French scholar, Paul Henri Mallet (1730-1807), Europe owes the first popular presentation of Northern antiquities and literature. Appointed professor of belles-lettres in the Copenhagen academy he found himself with more time than students on his hands, because not many Danes at that time understood French. His leisure time was applied to the study of the antiquities of his adopted country, the King's commission for a history of Denmark making that necessary. As a preface to this work he published, in 1755, an Introduction a l'Histoire de Dannemarc ou l'on traite de la Religion, des Lois, des Moeurs et des Usages des Anciens Danois, and, in 1756, the work in the list on a previous page. In this second book was the first translation into a modern tongue of the Edda, and this volume, in consequence, attracted much attention. The great English antiquarian, Thomas Percy, afterward Bishop of Dromore, was early drawn to this work, and with the aid of friends he accomplished a translation of it, which was published in 1770.

Mallet's work was very bad in its account of the racial affinities of the nations commonly referred to as the barbarians that overturned the Roman empire and culture. Percy, who had failed to edit the ballad MSS. so as to please Ritson, was wise enough to see Mallet's error, and to insist that Celtic and Gothic antiquities must not be confounded. Mallet's translation of the Edda was imperfect, too, because he had followed the Latin version of Resenius, which was notoriously poor. Percy's Edda was no better, because it was only an English version of Mallet. But we are not concerned with these critical considerations here; and so it will be enough to record the fact that with the publication of Percy's Northern Antiquities—the English name of Mallet's work—in 1770, knowledge of Icelandic literature passed from the exclusive control of learned antiquarians. More and more, as time went on, men went to the Icelandic originals, and translations of poems and sagas came from the press in increasing numbers. In the course of time came original works that were inspired by Old Norse stories and Old Norse conceptions.

We have already noted that Gray's poems on Icelandic themes, though written in 1761, were not published until 1768. Another delayed work on similar themes was Percy's Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, which, the author tells us, was prepared for the press in 1761, but, through an accident, was not published until 1763. The preface has this interesting sentence: "It would be as vain to deny, as it is perhaps impolitic to mention, that this attempt is owing to the success of the Erse fragments." The book has an appendix containing the Icelandic originals of the poems translated, and that portion of the book shows that a scholar's hand and interest made the volume. So, too, does the close of the preface: "That the study of ancient northern literature hath its important uses has been often evinced by able writers: and that it is not dry or unamusive this little work it is hoped will demonstrate. Its aim at least is to shew, that if those kind of studies are not always employed on works of taste or classic elegance, they serve at least to unlock the treasures of native genius; they present us with frequent sallies of bold imagination, and constantly afford matter for philosophical reflection by showing the workings of the human mind in its almost original state of nature."

That original state was certainly one of original sin, if these poems are to be believed. Every page in this volume is drenched with blood, and from this book, as from Gray's poems and the other Old Norse imitations of the time, a picture of fierceness and fearfulness was the only one possible. Percy intimates in his preface that Icelandic poetry has other tales to tell besides the "Incantation of Hervor," the "Dying Ode of Regner Lodbrog," the "Ransome of Egill the Scald," and the "Funeral Song of Hacon," which are here set down; he offers the "Complaint of Harold" as a slight indication that the old poets left "behind them many pieces on the gentler subjects of love or friendship." But the time had not come for the presentation of those pieces.

All of these translations were from the Latin versions extant in Percy's time. This volume copied Hickes's translation of "Hervor's Incantation" modified in a few particulars, and like that one, the other translations in this volume were in prose. The work is done as well as possible, and it remained for later scholars to point out errors in translation. The negative contractions in Icelandic were as yet unfamiliar, and so, as Walter Scott pointed out (in Edin. Rev., Oct., 1806), Percy made Regner Lodbrog say, "The pleasure of that day (of battle, p. 34 in this Five Pieces) was like having a fair virgin placed beside one in the bed," and "The pleasure of that day was like kissing a young widow at the highest seat of the table," when the poet really made the contrary statement.

Of course, the value of this book depends upon the view that is taken of it. Intrinsically, as literature, it is well-nigh valueless. It indicates to us, however, a constantly growing interest in the literature it reveals, and it undoubtedly directed the attention of the poets of the succeeding generation to a field rich in romantic possibilities. That no great work was then created out of this material was not due to neglect. As we shall see, many puny poets strove to breathe life into these bones, but the divine power was not in the poets. Some who were not poets had yet the insight to feel the value of this ancient literature, and they made known the facts concerning it. It seems a mechanical and unpromising way to have great poetry written, this calling out, "New Lamps for Old." Yet it is on record that great poems have been written at just such instigation.

THOMAS WARTON (1728-1790).

Historians[10] of Romanticism have marked Warton's History of English Poetry as one of the forces that made for the new idea in literature. This record of a past which, though out of favor, was immeasurably superior to the time of its historian, spread new views concerning the poetic art among the rising generation, and suggested new subjects as well as new treatments of old subjects. We have mentioned the fact that Gray handed over to Warton his notes for a contemplated history of poetry, and that Warton found no place in his work for Gray's adaptations from the Old Norse. Warton was not blind to the beauties of Gray's poems, nor did he fail to appreciate the merits of the literature which they illustrated. His scheme relegated his remarks concerning that poetry to the introductory dissertation, "Of the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe." What he had to say was in support of a theory which is not accepted to-day, and of course his statements concerning the origin of the Scandinavian people were as wrong as those that we found in Mallet and Temple. But with all his misinformation, Warton managed to get at many truths about Icelandic poetry, and his presentation of them was fresh and stimulating. Already the Old Norse mythology was well known, even down to Valhalla and the mistletoe. Old Norse poetry was well enough known to call forth this remark:

"They (the 'Runic' odes) have a certain sublime and figurative cast of diction, which is indeed one of their predominant characteristics.... When obvious terms and phrases evidently occurred, the Runic poets are fond of departing from the common and established diction. They appear to use circumlocution and comparisons not as a matter of necessity, but of choice and skill: nor are these metaphorical colourings so much the result of want of words, as of warmth of fancy." The note gives these examples: "Thus, a rainbow is called, the bridge of the gods. Poetry, the mead of Odin. The earth, the vessel that floats on ages. A ship, the horse of the waves. A tongue, the sword of words. Night, the veil of cares."

A study of the notes to Warton's dissertation reveals the fact that he had made use of the books already mentioned in the list on a previous page, and of no others that are significant. But such excellent use was made of them, that it would seem as if nothing was left in them that could be made valuable for spreading a knowledge of and an enthusiasm for Icelandic literature. When it is remembered that Warton's purpose was to prove the Saracenic origin of romantic fiction in Europe, through the Moors in Spain, and that Icelandic literature was mentioned only to account for a certain un-Arabian tinge in that romantic fiction, the wonder grows that so full and fresh a presentation of Old Norse poetry should have been made. He puts such passages as these into his illustrative notes: "Tell my mother Suanhita in Denmark, that she will not this summer comb the hair of her son. I had promised her to return, but now my side shall feel the edge of the sword." There is an appreciation of the poetic here, that makes us feel that Warton was not an unworthy wearer of the laurel. He insists that the Saxon poetry was powerfully affected by "the old scaldic fables and heroes," and gives in the text a translation of the "Battle of Brunenburgh" to prove his case. He admires "the scaldic dialogue at the tomb of Angantyr," but wrongly attributes a beautiful translation of it to Gray. He quotes at length from "a noble ode, called in the northern chronicles the Elogium of Hacon, by the scald Eyvynd; who, for his superior skill in poetry was called the Cross of Poets (Eyvindr Skalldaspillir), and fought in the battle which he celebrated."

He knows how Iceland touched England, as this passage will show: "That the Icelandic bards were common in England during the Danish invasions, there are numerous proofs. Egill, a celebrated Icelandic poet, having murthered the son and many of the friends of Eric Blodaxe, king of Denmark or Norway, then residing in Northumberland, and which he had just conquered, procured a pardon by singing before the king, at the command of his queen Gunhilde, an extemporaneous ode. Egill compliments the king, who probably was his patron, with the appellation of the English chief. 'I offer my freight to the king. I owe a poem for my ransom. I present to the ENGLISH CHIEF the mead of Odin.' Afterwards he calls this Danish conqueror the commander of the Scottish fleet. 'The commander of the Scottish fleet fattened the ravenous birds. The sister of Nera (Death) trampled on the foe: she trampled on the evening food of the eagle.'"

So wide a knowledge and so keen an appreciation of Old Norse in a Warton, whose interest was chiefly elsewhere, argues for a spreading popularity of the ancient literature. Thus far, only Gray has made living English literature out of these old stories, and he only two short poems. There were other attempts to achieve poetic success with this foreign material, but a hundred exacting years have covered them with oblivion.

DRAKE (1766-1836). MATHIAS (1754-1835).

In the second decade of the nineteenth century, Nathan Drake, M.D., made a strong effort to popularize Norse mythology and literature. The fourth edition of his work entitled Literary Hours (London, 1820) contains[11] an appreciative article on the subject, the fullness of which is indicated in these words from p. 309:

"The most striking and characteristic parts of the Scandinavian mythology, together with no inconsiderable portion of the manners and customs of our northern ancestors, have now passed before the reader; their theology, warfare, and poetry, their gallantry, religious rites, and superstitions, have been separately, and, I trust, distinctly reviewed."

The essay is written in an easy style that doubtless gained for it many readers. All the available knowledge of the subject was used, and a clearer view of it was presented than had been obtainable in Percy's "Mallet." The author was a thoughtful man, able to detect errors in Warton and Percy, but his zeal in his enterprise led him to praise versifiers inordinately that had used the "Gothic fables." He quotes liberally from writers whose books are not to be had in this country, and certainly the uninspired verses merit the neglect that this fact indicates. He calls Sayers' pen "masterly" that wrote these lines:

Coucher of the ponderous spear, Thou shout'st amid the battle's stound— The armed Sisters hear, Viewless hurrying o'er the ground They strike the destin'd chiefs and call them to the skies.

(P. 168.)

From Penrose he quotes such lines as these:

The feast begins, the skull goes round, Laughter shouts—the shouts resound. The gust of war subsides—E'en now The grim chief curls his cheek, and smooths his rugged brow.

(P. 171.)

From Sterling comes this imitation of Gray:

Now the rage of combat burns, Haughty chiefs on chiefs lie slain; The battle glows and sinks by turns, Death and carnage load the plain.

(P 172.)

From these extracts, it appears that the poets who imitated Gray considered that only "dreadful songs," like his, were to be found in Scandinavian poetry.

Downman, Herbert and Mathias are also adduced by Dr. Drake as examples of poets who have gained much by Old Norse borrowings, but these borrowings are invariably scenes from a chamber of horrors. It occurs to me that perhaps Dr. Drake had begun to tire of the spiritless echoes of the classical schools, and that he fondly hoped that such shrieks and groans as those he admired in this essay would satisfy his cravings for better things in poetry. But the critic had no adequate knowledge of the way in which genius works. His one desire in these studies of Scandinavian mythology was "to recommend it to the votaries of the Muse, as a machinery admirably constructed for their purpose" (p. 158). He hopes for "a more extensive adoption of the Scandinavian mythology, especially in our epic and lyric compositions" (p. 311). We smile at the notion, to-day, but that very conception of poetry as "machinery" is characteristic of a whole century of our English literature.

The Mathias mentioned by Drake is Thomas James Mathias, whose book, Odes Chiefly from the Norse Tongue (London, 1781), received the distinction of an American reprint (New York, 1806). Bartholinus furnishes the material and Gray the spirit for these pieces.

AMOS S. COTTLE(1768-1800). WILLIAM HERBERT (1778-1847).

In this period belong two works of translation that mark the approach of the time when Old Norse prose and poetry were to be read in the original. As literature they are of little value, and they had but slight influence on succeeding writers.

At Bristol, in 1797, was published Icelandic Poetry, or, The Edda of Saemund translated into English Verse, by A.S. Cottle of Magdalen College, Cambridge. This work has an Introduction containing nothing worth discussing here, and an "Epistle" to A.S. Cottle from Robert Southey. The laureate, in good blank verse, discourses on the Old Norse heroes whom he happens to know about. They are the old favorites, Regner Lodbrog and his sons; in Southey's poem the foeman's skull is, as usual, the drinking cup. It was certainly time for new actors and new properties to appear in English versions of Scandinavian stories.

The translations are twelve in number, and evince an intelligent and facile versifier. When all is said, these old songs could contribute to the pleasure of very few. Only a student of history, or a poet, or an antiquarian, would dwell with loving interest on the lays of Vafthrudnis, Grimner, Skirner and Hymer (as Cottle spells them). Besides, they are difficult to read, and must be abundantly annotated to make them comprehensible. In such works as this of Cottle, a Scott might find wherewith to lend color to a story or a poem, but the common man would borrow Walpole's words, used in characterizing Gray's "Odes": "They are not interesting, and do not ... touch any passion; our human feelings ... are not here affected. Who can care through what horrors a Runic savage arrived at all the joys and glories they could conceive—the supreme felicity of boozing ale out of the skull of an enemy in Odin's hall?"[12]

In 1804 a book was published bearing this title-page: Select Icelandic Poetry, translated from the originals: with notes. The preface was signed by the author, William Herbert. The pieces are from Saemund, Bartholinus, Verelius, and Perinskjoeld's edition of Heimskringla, and were all translated with the assistance of the Latin versions. The notes are explanatory of the allusions and the hiatuses in the poems. Reference is made to MSS. of the Norse pieces existing in museums and libraries, which the author had consulted. Thus we see scholarship beginning to extend investigations. As for the verses themselves not much need be said. They are not so good as Cottle's, although they received a notice from Scott in the Edinburgh Review. The thing to notice about the work is that it pretends to come direct from Old Norse, not, as most of the work dealt with so far, via Latin.

Icelandic poetry is more difficult to read than Icelandic prose, and so it seems strange that the former should have been attacked first by English scholars. Yet so it was, and until 1844 our English literature had no other inspiration in old Norse writings than the rude and rugged songs that first lent their lilt to Gray. The human North is in the sagas, and when they were revealed to our people, Icelandic literature began to mean something more than Valhalla and the mead-bouts there. The scene was changed to earth, and the gods gave place to nobler actors, men and women. The action was lifted to the eminence of a world-drama. But before the change came Sir Walter Scott, and it is fitting that the first period of Norse influence in English literature should close, as it began, with a great master.

SIR WALTER SCOTT (1771-1832).

In 1792, Walter Scott was twenty-one years old, and one of his note-books of that year contains this entry: "Vegtam's Kvitha or The Descent of Odin, with the Latin of Thomas Bartholine, and the English poetical version of Mr. Gray; with some account of the Death of Balder, both as related in the Edda, and as handed down to us by the Northern historians—Auctore Gualtero Scott." According to Lockhart,[13] the Icelandic, Latin and English versions were here transcribed, and the historical account that followed—seven closely written quarto pages—was read before a debating society.

It was to be expected that one so enthusiastic about antiquities as Scott would early discover the treasury of Norse history and song. At twenty-one, as we see, he is transcribing a song in a language he knew nothing about, as well as in translations. Fourteen years later, he has learned enough about the subject to write a review of Herbert's Poems and Translations.[14]

In 1813, he writes an account of the Eyrbyggja Saga for Illustrations of Northern Antiquities (edited by Robert Jameson, Edinburgh, 1814).

There are two of Scott's contributions to literature that possess more than a mere tinge of Old Norse knowledge, namely, the long poem "Harold, the Dauntless" (published in 1817), and the long story "The Pirate" (published in 1821). The poem is weak, but it illustrates Scott's theory of the usefulness of poetical antiquities to the modern poet. In another connection Scott said: "In the rude song of the Scald, we regard less the strained imagery and extravagance of epithet, than the wild impressions which it conveys of the dauntless resolution, savage superstition, rude festivity and ceaseless depredations of the ancient Scandinavians."[15] The poet did his work in accordance with this theory, and so in "Harold, the Dauntless," we note no flavor of the older poetry in phrase or in method. Harold is fierce enough and grim enough to measure up to the old ideal of a Norse hero.

"I was rocked in a buckler and fed from a blade," is his boast before his newly christened father, and in his apostrophe to his grandsire Eric, the popular notion of early Norse antiquarianism is again exhibited:

In wild Valhalla hast thou quaffed From foeman's skull metheglin draught?

Scott's scholarship in Old Norse was largely derived from the Latin tomes, and such conceptions as those quoted are therefore common in his poem. That the poet realized the inadequacy of such knowledge, the review of Herbert's poetry, published in the Edinburgh Review for October, 1806, shows. In this article he has a vision of what shall be when men shall be able "to trace the Runic rhyme" itself.

"The Pirate," exhibited the Wizard's skill in weaving the old and the new together, the old being the traditions of the Shetlands, full of the ancestral beliefs in Old Norse things, the new being the life in those islands in a recent century. This is a stirring story, that comes into our consideration because of its Scandinavian antiquities. Again we find the Latin treasuries of Bartholinus, Torfaeus, Perinskjoeld and Olaus Magnus in evidence, though here, too, mention is made of "Haco," and Tryggvason and "Harfager." With a background of island scenery, with which Scott became familiar during a light-house inspector's voyage made in 1814, this story is a picture full of vivid colors and characters. In Norna of the Fitful Head, he has created a mysterious personage in whose mouth "Runic rhymes" are the only proper speech. She stills the tempest with them, and "The Song of the Tempest" is a strong apostrophe, though it is neither Runic nor rhymed. She preludes her life-story with verses that are rhymed but not Runic, and she sings incantations in the same wise. This Reimkennar is an echo of the Voeluspa, and is the only kind of Norse woman that the time of Scott could imagine. Claud Halcro, the poet, is fond of rhyming the only kind of Norseman known to his time, and in his "Song of Harold Harfager" we hear the echoes of Gray's odes. Scott's reading was wide in all ancient lore, and he never missed a chance to introduce an odd custom if it would make an interesting scene in his story. So here we have the "Sword Dance" (celebrated by Olaus Magnus, though I have never read of it in Old Norse), the "Questioning of the Sibyl" (like that in Gray's "Descent of Odin"), the "Capture and Sharing of the Whale," and the "Promise of Odin." In most of the natives there are turns of speech that recall the Norse ancestry of the Shetlanders.

In Scott, then, we see the lengthening out of the influence of the antiquarians who wrote of a dead past in a dead language. The time was at hand when that past was to live again, painted in the living words of living men.



In the preceding section we noted the achievements of English scholarship and genius working under great disadvantages. Gray and Scott may have had a smattering of Icelandic, but Latin translations were necessary to reveal the meaning of what few Old Norse texts were available to them. This paucity of material, more than the ignorance of the language, was responsible for the slow progress in popularizing the remarkable literature of the North. Scaldic and Eddie poems comprised all that was known to English readers of that literature, and in them the superhuman rather than the human elements were predominant.

We have come now to a time when the field of our view broadens to include not only more and different material, but more and different men. The sagas were annexed to the old songs, and the body of literature to attract attention was thus increased a thousand fold. The antiquarians were supplanted by scholars who, although passionately devoted to the study of the past, were still vitally interested in the affairs of the time in which they lived. The second and greatest stage of the development of Old Norse influence in England has a mark of distinction that belongs to few literary epochs. The men who made it lived lives that were as heroic in devotion to duty and principle as many of those written down in the sagas themselves. I have sometimes wondered whether it is merely accidental that English saga scholars were so often men of high soul and strong action. Certain it is that Richard Cleasby, and Samuel Laing, and George Webbe Dasent, and Robert Lowe are types of men that the Icelanders would have celebrated, as having "left a tale to tell" in their full and active lives. And no less certain is it that Thomas Carlyle, and Matthew Arnold, and William Morris, and Charles Kingsley, and Gerald Massey labored for a better manhood that should rise to the stature and reflect the virtues of the heroes of the Northland.

RICHARD CLEASBY (1797-1847).

In the forties of the nineteenth century several minds began to work, independently of one another, in this wider field of Icelandic literature. Richard Cleasby (1797-1847), an English merchant's son with scholarly instincts, began the study of the sagas, but made slight progress because of what he called an "unaccountable and most scandalous blank," the want of a dictionary. This was in 1840, and for the next seven years he labored to fill up that blank. The record[16] of those years is a wonderful witness to the heroism and spirit of the scholar, and justifies Sir George Dasent's characterization of Cleasby as "one of the most indefatigable students that ever lived." The work thus begun was not completed until many years afterward (it is dated 1874), and, by untoward circumstances, very little of it is Richard Cleasby's. But generous scholarship acknowledged its debt to the man who gave his strength and his wealth to the work, by placing his name on the title-page. No less shall we fail to honor his memory by mentioning his labors here. Although the dictionary was not completed in the decade of its inception, the study that it was designed to promote took hold on a number of men and the results were remarkable for both literature and scholarship.

THOMAS CARLYLE (1795-1881).

First in order of time was the work of Thomas Carlyle. It will not seem strange to the student of English literature to find that this writer came under the influence of the old skalds and sagaman and spoke appreciative words concerning them. His German studies had to take cognizance of the Old Norse treasuries of poetry, and he became a diligent reader of Icelandic literature in what translations he could get at, German and English. The strongest utterance on the subject that he left behind him is in "Lecture I" of the series "On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History," dated May, 1840. This is a treatment of Scandinavian mythology, rugged and thorough, like all of this man's work. Carlyle evinces a scholar's instinct in more than one place, as, for instance, when he doubts the grandmother etymology of Edda, an etymology repeated until a much later day by scholars of a less sure sense.[17] But this lecture "On Heroes" is also a glorification of the literature with which we are dealing, and in this regard it is worthy of special note here.

In the first place, Carlyle with true critical instinct caught the essence of it; to him it seemed to have "a rude childlike way of recognizing the divineness of Nature, the divineness of Man." For him Scandinavian mythology was superior in sincerity to the Grecian, though it lacked the grace of the latter. "Sincerity, I think, is better than grace. I feel that these old Northmen were looking into Nature with open eye and soul: most earnest, honest; childlike, and yet manlike; with a great-hearted simplicity and depth and freshness, in a true, loving, admiring, unfearing way. A right valiant, true old race of men." This is a truer appreciation than Gray and Walpole had, eighty years before. In the second place, Carlyle was not misled into thinking that valor in war was the only characteristic of the rude Norseman, and skill in drinking his only household virtue. "Beautiful traits of pity, too, and honest pity." Then he tells of Baldur and Nanna, in his rugged prose account anticipating Matthew Arnold. Other qualities of the literature appeal to him. "I like much their robust simplicity; their veracity, directness of conception. Thor 'draws down his brows' in a veritable Norse rage; 'grasps his hammer till the knuckles grow white." Again; "A great broad Brobdignag grin of true humor is this Skrymir; mirth resting on earnestness and sadness, as the rainbow on the black tempest: only a right valiant heart is capable of that." Still again: "This law of mutation, which also is a law written in man's inmost thought, has been deciphered by these old earnest Thinkers in their rude style."

Thomas Carlyle, seeking to explain the worship of a pagan divinity, chose Odin as the noblest example of such a hero. The picture of Odin he drew from the prose Edda, mainly, and his purpose required that he paint the picture in the most attractive colors. So it happened that our English literature got its first complete view of Old Norse ethics and art. The memory of Gray's "dreadful songs" had ruled for almost a century, and ordinary readers might be pardoned for thinking that Old Norse literature, like Old Norse history, was written in blood. We have seen that Gray's imitators perpetuated the old idea, and that even Scott sanctioned it, and now we see England's emancipation from it. The grouty old Scotchman of Craigenputtoch knew no more Icelandic than most of his fellow countrymen (be it noted that he said: "From the Humber upwards, all over Scotland, the speech of the common people is still in a singular degree Icelandic, its Germanism has still a peculiar Norse tinge"); but he saw far more deeply into the heart of Icelandic literature than anybody before him. His emphasis of its many sidedness, of its sincerity, its humanity, its simplicity, its directness, its humor and its wisdom, was the signal for a change in the popular estimation of its worth to our modern art. Since his day we have had Morris and Arnold and a host of minor singers, and the nineteenth century revival of interest in Old Norse literature.

The other work by Carlyle dealing directly with Old Norse material is The Early Kings of Norway. Here he digests Heimskringla, which was obtainable through Laing's translation, in a way to stir the blood. The story, as he tells it, is breathlessly interesting, and it is a pity that readers of Carlyle so often stop short of this work. As in the Hero-Worship, he shows this Teutonic bias, and the religious training that minified Greek literature.

Snorri's work elicits from him repeated applause. Here, for instance, in Chap. X: "It has, all of it, the description (and we see clearly the fact itself had), a kind of pathetic grandeur, simplicity, and rude nobleness; something Epic or Homeric, without the metre or the singing of Homer, but with all the sincerity, rugged truth to nature, and much more of piety, devoutness, reverence for what is ever high in this universe, than meets us in those old Greek Ballad-mongers."

SAMUEL LAING (1780-1868).

It was the work of Samuel Laing that gave Carlyle the material for this last-mentioned book.[18] Laing's translation of Heimskringla bears the date 1844, and although Mr. Dasent's quaint version of the Prose Edda preceded it by two years, The Sagas of the Norse Kings was the "epoch-making" book. It is true that a later version has superseded it in literary and scholarly finish, but Laing's work was a pioneer of sterling intrinsic value, and many there be that do it homage still. Laing had the laudable ambition—so seldom found in these days—"to give a plain, faithful translation into English of the Heimskringla, unencumbered with antiquarian research, and suited to the plain English reader."[19] With this work, then, Icelandic lore passes out of the hands of the antiquarian into the hands of common readers. It matters little that the audience is even still fit and few; from this time on he that runs may read.

For our purpose it will not be necessary to characterize the translation. Laing commanded an excellent style, and he was enthusiastic over his work. Indeed, the commonest criticism passed on the "Preliminary Dissertation" was that the author's zeal had run away with his good sense. Be that as it may, Laing called the attention of his readers to the neglect of a literature and a history which should be England's pride, as Anglo-Saxon literature and history even then were. The reviews of the time made it appear as if another Battle of the Books were impending—Anglo-Saxon versus Icelandic; a writer in the English Review (Vol. 82, p. 316), pro-Saxon in his zeal, admitting at last that "of none of the children of the Norse, whether Goth or Frank, Saxon or Scandinavian, have the others any reason to be ashamed. All have earned the gratitude and admiration of the world, and their combined or successive efforts have made England and Europe what they are."

It is refreshing to come upon new views of Old Norse character, that recognize "amidst anarchy and bloodshed, redeeming features of kindliness and better feeling which tell of the mingled principles that war within our nature for the mastery." Laing's translation accomplished this for English readers, and with the years came a deeper knowledge that showed those touches of tenderness and traits of beauty which, even in 1844, were not perceptible to those readers.



The Story of the Norse Kings, thus translated by an Englishman, suggested to our American poet, Longfellow, a series of lyrics on King Olaf. The young college professor that wrote about Frithjof's Saga in the North American Review for 1837, was bound, sooner or later, to come back to the field when he found that the American reading public would listen to whatever songs he sang to them. Before 1850, Longfellow had written "The Challenge of Thor," a poem which imitated the form of Icelandic verse and catches much of its spirit. In 1859, the thought came to him "that a very good poem might be written on the Saga of King Olaf, who converted the North to Christianity." Two years later he completed the lyrics that compose "The Musician's Tale" in The Tales of a Wayside Inn, published in 1863, and in this work "The Challenge of Thor" serves as a prelude. The pieces after this prelude are not imitations of the Icelandic verse, but are like Tegner's Frithjof's Saga, in that each new portion has a meter of its own. There is not, either, a consistent effort to put the flavor of the North into the poetry, so that, properly speaking, we have here only the retelling of an old tale. The ballad fervor and movement are often perceptible, though nowhere does the poet strike the ringing note of "The Skeleton in Armor," published in the volume of 1841.

Truth to tell, Longfellow's "Saga of King Olaf" is not a remarkable work. One who reads the few chapters in Carlyle's Early Kings of Norway that deal with Olaf Tryggvason gets more of the fire and spirit of the old saga at every turning. The poet chooses scenes and incidents very skilfully, but for their proper presentation a terseness is necessary that is not reconcilable with frequent rhymes. Compare the saga account with the poem's: "What is this that has broken?" asked King Olaf. "Norway from thy hand, King," answered Tamberskelver.

"What was that?" said Olaf, standing On the quarter deck. "Something heard I like the stranding Of a shattered wreck." Einar then, the arrow taking From the loosened string, Answered, "That was Norway breaking From thy hand, O King!"

Nevertheless, Longfellow is to be thanked for acquainting a wide circle of readers with the sterling saga literature.

One other American poet was busy with the ancient Northern literature at this time. James Russell Lowell wrote one notable poem that is Old Norse in subject and spirit, "The Voyage to Vinland." The third part of the poem, "Gudrida's Prophecy," hints at Icelandic versification, and the short lines are hammer-strokes that warm the reader to enthusiasm. Far more of the spirit of the old literature is in this short poem than is to be found in the whole of Longfellow's "Saga of King Olaf." The character of Bioern is well drawn, recalling Bodli, of Morris' poem, in its principal features. Certainly there is a reflection here of that Old Norse conception of life which gave to men's deeds their due reward, and which exalted the power of will. This poem was begun in 1850, but was not published till 1868.

In Lowell's poems are to be found many figures and allusions pointing to his familiarity with Icelandic song and story. At the end of the third strophe of the "Commemoration Ode," for instance, Truth is pictured as Brynhild,

plumed and mailed, With sweet, stern face unveiled.

In these borrowings of themes and allusions, Lowell is at one with most of the poets of the present day. It used to be the fashion, and is still, for tables of contents in volumes of verse to show titles like these: "Prometheus"; "Iliad VIII, 542-561"; "Alectryon." Present-day volumes are becoming more and more besprinkled with titles like these: "Balder the Beautiful"; "The Death of Arnkel," etc. In this fact alone is seen the turn of the tide. Heroes and heroines in dramas and novels are beginning to bear Old Norse names, even where the setting is not northern; witness Sidney Dobell's Balder, where not even a single allusion is made to Icelandic matters.

MATTHEW ARNOLD (1822-1888).

Matthew Arnold's strong sympathy with noble and virile literature of whatever age or nation led him in time to Old Norse, and his poem "Balder Dead" is of distinct importance among the works of the nineteenth century in English literature. It is an addition of permanent value to our poetry, because of its marked originality and its high ethical tone. "Mallet, and his version of the Edda, is all the poem is based upon," says Arnold.[20] It is the poet's divinely implanted instinct that gathers from the few chapters of an old book a knowledge wonderfully full and deep of the cosmogony and eschatology of the northern nations of Europe. "Balder Dead" tells the familiar story of the whitest of the gods, but it also contains the essence of Old Icelandic religion; indeed there is no single short work in our language which gives a tithe of the information about the North, its spirit, and its philosophy, which this poem of Matthew Arnold's sets forth. In future days a text-book of original English poems will be in the hands of our boys and girls which will enable them to get, through the medium of their own language, the message and the spirit of foreign literature. Old Norse song will need no other representative than Matthew Arnold's "Balder Dead."

This is an original poem. It does not imitate the verse nor the word of the older song, but the flavor of it is here. Gray and his imitators drew from the Icelandic fountain "dreadful songs" and many poets since have heard no milder note. Matthew Arnold's instincts were for peace and the arts of peace, and he found in Balder a type for the ennobling of our own century. Balder says to his brother who has come to lament that Lok's machinations will keep the best beloved of the gods in Niflheim:

For I am long since weary of your storm Of carnage, and find, Hermod, in your life Something too much of war and broils, which make Life one perpetual fight, a bath of blood. Mine eyes are dizzy with the arrowy hail; Mine ears are stunn'd with blows, and sick for calm.

Arnold has exalted the Revelator of the Northern mythology, and in magnificent poetry sets forth his apocalyptic vision:

Unarm'd, inglorious; I attend the course Of ages, and my late return to light, In times less alien to a spirit mild, In new-recover'd seats, the happier day.

. . . . . . . . .

Far to the south, beyond the blue, there spreads Another Heaven, the boundless—no one yet Hath reach'd it; there hereafter shall arise The second Asgard, with another name.

. . . . . . . . .

There re-assembling we shall see emerge From the bright Ocean at our feet an earth More fresh, more verdant than the last, with fruits Self-springing, and a seed of man preserved, Who then shall live in peace, as now in war.

Here is the grandest message that the Old Norse religion had to give, and Matthew Arnold concerned himself with that alone. It is a far cry from Regner Lodbrog to this. There is a fine touch in the introduction of Regner into the lamentation of Balder. Arnold makes the old warrior say of the ruder skalds:

But they harp ever on one string, and wake Remembrance in our souls of war alone, Such as on earth we valiantly have waged, And blood, and ringing blows, and violent death. But when thou sangest, Balder, thou didst strike Another note, and, like a bird in spring, Thy voice of joyance minded us, and youth, And wife, and children, and our ancient home.

Here is a human Norseman, a figure not often presented in the versions of the old stories that English poets and romancers have given us. Arnold did a good service to Icelandic literature when he put into Regner's mouth mild sentiments and a love for home and family. The note is not lacking in the ancient literature, but it took Englishmen three centuries to find it. It was the scholar, Matthew Arnold, who first repeated the gentler strain in the rude music of the North, as it was the scholar, Thomas Gray, who first echoed the "dreadful songs" of that old psalmody. Gray has all the culture of his age, when it was still possible to compass all knowledge in one lifetime; Arnold had all the literary culture of his fuller century when multiplied sciences force a scholar to be content with one segment of human knowledge. The former had music and architecture and other sciences among his accomplishments; the latter spread out in literature, as "Sohrab and Rustum," "Empedocles on Etna," "Tristram and Iseult," as well as "Balder Dead" attest. The quatrain prefixed to the volume containing the narrative and elegiac poems be-tokens what joy Arnold had in his literary work, and indicates why these poems cannot fail to live:

What poets feel not, when they make, A pleasure in creating, The world in its turn will not take Pleasure in contemplating.

Balder is the creation of Old Norse poetry that is most popular with contemporary English writers, and Matthew Arnold first made him so. As Bugge points out, no deed of his is "celebrated in song or story. His personality only is described; of his activity in life almost no external trait is recorded. All the stress is laid upon his death; and, like Christ, Baldr dies in his youth."[21]


Among the scholars who have labored to give England the benefit of a fuller and truer knowledge of Norse matters, none will be remembered more gratefully than Sir George Webbe Dasent. Known to the reading public most widely by his translations of the folk-tales of Asbjoernsen and Moe, he has still a claim upon the attention of the students of Icelandic. As we have seen, he gave out a translation of the Younger Edda in 1842, and during the half century and more that followed he wrote other works of history and literature connected with our subject. Two saga translations were published in 1861 and 1866, The Story of Burnt Njal, and The Story of Gisli the Outlaw, which will always rank high in this class of literature. Njala especially is an excellent piece of work, a classic among translations. The "Prolegomena" is rich in information, and very little of it has been superseded by later scholarship. In 1887 and 1894 he translated for the Master of the Rolls, The Orkney Saga and The Saga of Hakon, the texts of which Vigfusson had printed in the same series some years before. The interest of the government in Icelandic annals connected with English history is indicated in these last publications, and England is fortunate to have had such enthusiastic scholars as Vigfusson and Dasent to do the work. These men had been collaborators on the Cleasby Dictionary, and in this work as in all others Dasent displayed an eagerness to have his countrymen know how significant England's relationship to Iceland was. He was as certain as Laing had been before him of the preeminence of this literature among the mediaeval writings. Like Laing, too, he would have the general reader turn to this body of work "which for its beauty and richness is worthy of being known to the greatest possible number of readers."[22]

To mark the progress away from the old conception of unmitigated brutality these words of Dasent stand here:[23] "The faults of these Norsemen were the faults of their time; their virtues they possessed in larger measure than the rest of their age, and thus when Christianity had tamed their fury, they became the torch-bearers of civilization; and though the plowshare of Destiny, when it planted them in Europe, uprooted along its furrow many a pretty flower of feeling in the lands which felt the fury of these Northern conquerers, their energy and endurance gave a lasting temper to the West, and more especially to England, which will wear so long as the world wears, and at the same time implanted principles of freedom which shall never be rooted out. Such results are a compensation for many bygone sorrows."


In 1874, Charles Kingsley visited America and delivered some lectures. Among these was one entitled "The First Discovery of America." This interests us here because it displays an appreciation, if not a deep knowledge, of Icelandic literature. In it the lecturer commended to Longfellow's attention a ballad sung in the Faroes, begging him to translate it some day, "as none but he can translate it." "It is so sad, that no tenderness less exquisite than his can prevent its being painful; and at least in its denouement, so naive, that no purity less exquisite than his can prevent its being dreadful."[24] Later in the lecture he commends to his hearers the Heimskringla of Snorri Sturluson, the "Homer of the North."[25]

Speaking of the elements that mingled to produce the British character, Kingsley says: "In manners as well as in religion, the Norse were humanized and civilized by their contact with the Celts, both in Scotland and in Ireland. Both peoples had valor, intellect, imagination: but the Celt had that which the burly, angular Norse character, however deep and stately, and however humorous, wanted; namely, music of nature, tenderness, grace, rapidity, playfulness; just the qualities, combining with the Scandinavian (and in Scotland with the Angle) elements of character which have produced, in Ireland and in Scotland, two schools of lyric poetry second to none in the world."[26] Over the page, Kingsley has this to say: "For they were a sad people, those old Norse forefathers of ours."[27] Humorous and sad are not inconsistent words in these sentences; the Norseman had a sense of the ludicrous, and could jest grimly in the face of death. Of the sadness of his life, no one needs to be told who has read a saga or two. Kingsley says: "There is, in the old sagas, none of that enjoyment of life which shines out everywhere in Greek poetry, even through its deepest tragedies. Not in complacency with Nature's beauty, but in the fierce struggle with her wrath, does the Norseman feel pleasure."[28]

This lecture shows a deeper acquaintance with Old Norse literature than Kingsley was willing to acknowledge. Not only are the stories well chosen which he uses throughout, but the intuitions are sound, and the inferences based upon them. He anticipated the work of this investigation in the last words of the address. He has been telling the fine story of Thormod at Sticklestead:

"I shall not insult your intelligence by any comment or even epithet of my own. I shall but ask you, Was not this man your kinsman? Does not the story sound, allowing for all change of manners as well as of time and place, like a scene out of your own Bret Harte or Colonel John Hay's writings; a scene of the dry humor, the rough heroism of your own far West? Yes, as long as you have your Jem Bludsos and Tom Flynns of Virginia City, the old Norse blood is surely not extinct, the old Norse spirit is not dead."[29]


Among contemporary English poets who have taught the world of readers that things Norse are worthy of attention, is Edmund Gosse. He has been more intimately connected with the popularization of modern Norwegian literature, notably of Ibsen, but he has also found in Old Norse story themes for poetic treatment. We mention "The Death of Arnkel," found in the volume Firdausi in Exile, more because it shows that our poets are turning to the gesta islandicorum for themes, than because it is a remarkable poem. More pretentious is King Erik, a Tragedy, London, 1876. Here is a noble drama which displays an intimate acquaintance with the literature that gave it its themes and inspiration. The author dedicates it to Robert Browning, calling it:

... this lyric symbol of my labour, This antique light that led my dreams so long, This battered hull of a barbaric tabor, Beaten to runic song.

I have often thought that fate was very unkind to keep Browning so persistently in the south of Europe, when, in Iceland and Norway, were mines that he could have worked in to such supreme advantage. To be sure his method clashes with the simplicity of the Old Norse manner, but from him we should have had men and women superb in stature and virility, and perhaps the Arctic influence would have killed the troublesome tropicality of his language.

This drama by Gosse is not strictly Icelandic in motive. Jealousy was not the passion to loosen the tongue of the sagaman, and in so far as that is the theme of "King Erik," the play is not Old Norse in origin. Christian material, too, has been introduced that gives a modern tinge to the drama, but there is enough of the genuine saga spirit to warrant attention to it here. Something more than the names is Icelandic. Here is a woman, Botilda, with strength of character enough to recall a Brynhild or a Bergthora. Gisli is the foster-brother that takes up the blood-feud for Grimur. Adalbjoerg and Svanhilda are the whisperers of slander and the workers of ill. Marcus is the skald who is making a poem about the king. Here are customs and beliefs distinctly Norse:

I loved him from the first, And so the second midnight to the cliff We went. I mind me how the round moon rose, And how a great whale in the offing plunged, Dark on the golden circle. There we cut A space of turf, and lifted it, and ran Our knife-points sharp into our arms, and drew Blood that dripped into the warm mould and mixed. So there under the turf our plighted faith Starts in the dew of grasses.

(Act. IV, Sc. II.)

But all day long I hear amid the crowds,

. . . . . . . . .

A voice that murmurs in a monotone, Strange, warning words that scarcely miss the ear, Yet miss it altogether.


Oh! God grant, You be not fey, nor truly near your end!

(Act. IV, Sc. III.)

Although this work is dramatic in form, it is not so in spirit. The true dramatist would have put such an incident as the swearing of brotherhood into a scene, instead of into a speech. This effort is, however, the nearest approach to a drama in English founded on saga material. It is curious that our poets have inclined to every form but the drama in reproducing Old Norse literature. It is not that saga-stuff is not dramatic in possibilities. Ewald and Oehlenschlaeger have used this material to excellent effect in Danish dramas. Had the sagas been accessible to Englishmen in Shakespeare's time, we should certainly have had dramas of Icelandic life.



Time has brought us to the man whose work in this field needs no apology. The writer whom we consider next contributed almost as much material to the English treasury of Northern gold as did all the writers we have so far considered. Were it not for William Morris, the examination that we are making would not not be worth while. The name literature, in its narrow sense, belongs to only a few of the writings that we have examined up to this point, but what we are now to inspect deserves that title without the shadow of a doubt. For that reason we set in a separate chapter the examination of Morris' Old Norse adaptations and creations.

WILLIAM MORRIS (1834-1896).

The biographer of William Morris fixes 1868 as the beginning of the poet's Icelandic stories.[30] Eirikr Magnusson, an Icelander, was his guide, and the pupil made rapid progress. Dasent's work had drawn Morris' attention to the sagas, and within a few months most of the sagas had been read in the original. Although The Saga of Gunnlang Worm-tongue was published in the Fortnightly Review, for January, 1869, the Grettis Saga, of April, was the first published book on an Old Norse subject. The next year gave the Voelsunga Saga. In 1871, Morris made a journey through Iceland, the fruits of which were afterwards seen in many a noble work. In 1875, Three Northern Love Stories was published, and, in 1877, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs. More than ten years passed before he turned again to Icelandic work, the Romances of the years of 1889 to 1896 showing signs of it, and the translations in the Saga Library, "Howard the Halt," "The Banded Men," Eyrbyggja and Heimskringla of 1891-95. These contributions to the subject of our examination are no less valuable than voluminous, and we make no excuses for an extended consideration of them. They deserve a wider public than they have yet attained.


The Story of Grettir the Strong is the title of Morris and Magnusson's version of the Grettis Saga. The version impresses the reader as one made with loving care by artistic hands. Certainly English readers will read no other translation of this work, for this one is satisfactory as a version and as an art-work. English readers will here get all the flavor of the original that it is possible to get in a translation, and those who can read Icelandic if put to it, will prefer to get Grettla through Morris and Magnusson. All the essentials are here, if not all the nuances.

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