Sticking with shorter posts for now, but a couple of quick notes about author and poem:
James Russell Lowell (1819-1891) was a contemporary of Longfellow’s, whose work I’ve featured previously, and like him, a member of a group called the “fireside poets” who were the first Americans to establish the United States as a home for original poetry with style and subject matter of its own. That said, it’s no accident that these two fireside poets wrote of Norse myth and history, as both studied in Europe and were well informed on the renewed interest in Germanic roots on the continent and on theories of Viking colonization of North America.
Thorstein mentioned in the first line is the youngest son of Erik the Red and youngest brother of Leif Eriksson, who makes an appearance in the final stanza. Indeed, you might interpret the poem to be about Leif entirely. A skald is a poet/singer of the ancient Scandinavian cultures, and skaldic verse is a particular form of poetry. Neither “Hakon’s Lay”, nor the piece the Skald Hakon performs, are strictly skaldic poetry.
The name “Hakon” is also significant: Haakon the Good was a Norwegian king, a few generations prior to Leif’s mission to Vinland, known for his failed attempts to introduce Christianity. An entire saga was written dedicated to his life and deeds.
As always, poetry can have many interpretations, and works best if you think about it a bit. There may be more going on here than a fictional poet singing during a fictional feast to inspire a very real historical figure. What that “more” is I leave to the reader.
Then Thorstein looked at Hakon, where he sate,
Mute as a cloud amid the stormy hall,
And said: ‘O Skald, sing now an olden song,
Such as our fathers heard who led great lives;
And, as the bravest on a shield is borne
Along the waving host that shouts him king,
So rode their thrones upon the thronging seas!’
Then the old man arose; white-haired he stood,
White-bearded with eyes that looked afar
From their still region of perpetual snow,
Over the little smokes and stirs of men:
His head was bowed with gathered flakes of years,
As winter bends the sea-foreboding pine,
But something triumphed in his brow and eye,
Which whoso saw it, could not see and crouch:
Loud rang the emptied beakers as he mused,
Brooding his eyried thoughts; then, as an eagle
Circles smooth-winged above the wind-vexed woods,
So wheeled his soul into the air of song
High o’er the stormy hall; and thus he sang:
‘The fletcher for his arrow-shaft picks out
Wood closest-grained, long-seasoned, straight as light;
And, from a quiver full of such as these,
The wary bow-man, matched against his peers,
Long doubting, singles yet once more the best.
Who is it that can make such shafts as Fate?
What archer of his arrows is so choice,
Or hits the white so surely? They are men,
The chosen of her quiver; nor for her
Will every reed suffice, or cross-grained stick
At random from life’s vulgar fagot plucked:
Such answer household ends; but she will have
Souls straight and clear, of toughest fibre, sound
Down to the heart of heart; from these she strips
All needless stuff, all sapwood; hardens them;
From circumstance untoward feathers plucks
Crumpled and cheap; and barbs with iron will:
The hour that passes is her quiver-boy;
When she draws bow, ’tis not across the wind,
Nor ‘gainst the sun, her haste-snatched arrow sings,
For sun and wind have plighted faith to her
Ere men have heard the sinew twang, behold,
In the butt’s heart her trembling messenger!
‘The song is old and simple that I sing;
Good were the days of yore, when men were tried
By ring of shields, as now by ring of gold;
But, while the gods are left, and hearts of men,
And the free ocean, still the days are good;
Through the broad Earth roams Opportunity
And knocks at every door of but or hall,
Until she finds the brave soul that she wants.’
He ceased, and instantly the frothy tide
Of interrupted wassail roared along;
But Leif, the son of Eric, sat apart
Musing, and, with his eyes upon the fire,
Saw shapes of arrows, lost as soon as seen;
lint then with that resolve his heart was bent,
Which, like a humming shaft, through many a stripe
Of day and night across the unventured seas,
Shot the brave prow to cut on Vinland sands
The first rune in the Saga of the West.