"Odin's last words to Baldr" (1908) by W. G. Collingwood.

Longfellow Sings Praise to Sweden’s Tegner

Before the poem, some background.

I’ve already shared a bit about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the most popular American poets of the 19th century. He was particularly fascinated with Germanic and Scandinavian mythology and history, and spent quite a bit of time in northern Europe pursuing those interests.

Esaias Tegner portrait by Johan Gustaf Sandberg, around 1826.
Esaias Tegner portrait by Johan Gustaf Sandberg, around 1826.

The poem is named for Esaias Tegner, who was perhaps the most important Swedish poet in modern times, or at least the first major modern poet in Sweden. His opus Friðþjófs saga took one of the classic 13th Century Old Norse poems and translated it to modern Swedish, but went beyond a mere translation, working the poem into new meters in each canto and breathing new life into the tale that captivated not only Sweden, but all of Europe and much of the world, as publishers everywhere attempted to make translations of Tegner’s version that were similarly vivid and accessible. Tegner wrote other well-received and popular poems, but his retelling of the saga of Frithjof the Bold made him well-known among the literate elite in many nations.

Wordsworth was a longtime admirer of Tegner’s and had published a translation of Tegner’s Nattvardsbarnen (the English title was “The Children of the Lord’s Supper”) in 1842, several years prior to Tegner’s drapa, while Tegner himself still lived; the latter poem was published in 1849, three years after the Swedish poet’s death. 

Here’s the poem. A few more comments afterward.

Tegner’s Drapa

I HEARD a voice, that cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And through the misty air
Passed like the mournful cry
Of sunward sailing cranes.
I saw the pallid corpse
Of the dead sun
Borne through the Northern sky.
Blasts from Niffelheim
Lifted the sheeted mists
Around him as he passed.

And the voice forever cried,
“Balder the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!”
And died away
Through the dreary night,
In accents of despair.

Balder the Beautiful,
God of the summer sun,
Fairest of all the Gods!
Light from his forehead beamed,
Runes were upon his tongue,
As on the warrior’s sword.

All things in earth and air
Bound were by magic spell
Never to do him harm;
Even the plants and stones;
All save the mistletoe,
The sacred mistletoe!

Hoeder, the blind old God,
Whose feet are shod with silence,
Pierced through that gentle breast
With his sharp spear, by fraud,
Made of the mistletoe!
The accursed mistletoe!

They laid him in his ship,
With horse and harness,
As on a funeral pyre.
Odin placed
A ring upon his finger,
And whispered in his ear.

They launched the burning ship!
It floated far away
Over the misty sea,
Till like the sun it seemed,
Sinking beneath the waves.
Balder returned no more!

So perish the old Gods!
But out of the sea of Time
Rises a new land of song,
Fairer than the old.
Over its meadows green
Walk the young bards and sing.

Build it again,
O ye bards,
Fairer than before;
Ye fathers of the new race,
Feed upon morning dew,
Sing the new Song of Love!

The law of force is dead!
The law of love prevails!
Thor, the thunderer,
Shall rule the earth no more,
No more, with threats,
Challenge the meek Christ.

Sing no more,
O ye bards of the North,
Of Vikings and of Jarls!
Of the days of Eld
Preserve the freedom only,
Not the deeds of blood!

* * *

The poem starts off retelling the death of Balder, which I’ve shared here in detail, along with an alternative version. It’s not just a good story; it’s significant because Balder’s death is the first event in the chain that leads to Ragnarok, the doom of the gods (and almost everything else).

But it’s pretty clear the poem’s not just an English revision of the death of Balder. In the eighth stanza, after Longfellow has declared that “Balder returned no more!” in the seventh, he starts building up a new mythology, “a new land of song/Fairer than the old.” The song is of love, and the beloved god is no longer red Thor, but white Christ. The death of the Norse gods at Ragnarok leads to the age of Christianity.

Ignoring the fact that Balder is explicitly raised from the dead in Voluspa 62 (possibly a model for later resurrection myths), therefore making the “no more!” line a, er, creative re-imagining, Longfellow is referring in the latter half of the poem to one interpretation of the end of Ragnarok described in Voluspa 65, which says as part of the rebirth of the world after Surtur’s cleansing flame, “There comes on high, | all power to hold, / A mighty lord, | all lands he rules.” Some scholars interpret this as a reference to Christ, others as an apocryphal addition to the text, since it doesn’t appear in all surviving manuscripts, still others leave the option that this is just a part of the rebirth of the world. Longfellow clearly chooses Christ.

And of course there’s another layer here – this isn’t Christ’s drapa (song of praise). It’s Tegner’s, even though he isn’t named in the poem itself. We might read this as merely Longfellow writing of the Scandinavian mythology as tribute to a man he knew and mourned. But it might also be an attempt of Longfellow at showing a historical parallel between the Christianization of Scandinavia at the end of the Viking age to the modernization of Scandinavian poetry at the hands of Tegner and other poets like him. Perhaps setting Tegner in the place of Christ in this formulation is taking the metaphor a bit far, but as with Longfellow and his colleagues in the United States known as the “fireside poets“, Tegner was the beginning of a similar movement, and even belonged to a similar society, called the Gothic League (or Geatish Society).

Certainly the poem is a tribute to a great poet, and illustrates Longfellow’s recognition that Tegner’s work was that of a man with roots in an ancient storytelling tradition who lived and died in a Christian society. There are many ways to read this poem, including as merely a retelling of a part of Voluspa in English, with emphasis in different places than the original. In the end, it’s your interpretation that matters.

One comment on “Longfellow Sings Praise to Sweden’s Tegner

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