Leif the Discoverer by Anne Whitney, 1887, in Boston, MA

John Greenleaf Whittier’s Vision of Vikings in America

As with a previously shared poem by Longfellow, Whittier is here taking a bit of poetic license with something we’re pretty sure isn’t actually a Viking artifact.

*

The Norsemen

In the early part of the present [nineteenth] century, a fragment of a statue, redely chiselled from dark gray stone, was found in the town of Bradford, on the Merrimac. Its origin must be left entirely to conjecture. The fact that the ancient Northmen visited the northeast coast of North America and probably New England, some centuries before the discovery of the western world by Columbus, is now very generally admitted.

GIFT from the cold and silent Past!
A relic to the present cast,
Left on the ever-changing strand
Of shifting and unstable sand,
Which wastes beneath the steady chime
And beating of the waves of Time!
Who from its bed of primal rock
First wrenched thy dark, unshapely block?
Whose hand, of curious skill untaught,
Thy rude and savage outline wrought?The waters of my native stream
Are glancing in the sun’s warm beam;
From sail-urged keel and flashing oar
The circles widen to its shore;
And cultured field and peopled town
Slope to its willowed margin down.
Yet, while this morning breeze is bringing
The home-life sound of school-bells ringing,
And rolling wheel, and rapid jar
Of the fire-winged and steedless car,
And voices from the wayside near
Come quick and blended on my ear,–
A spell is in this old gray stone,
My thoughts are with the Past alone!

A change! — The steepled town no more
Stretches along the sail-thronged shore;
Like palace-domes in sunset’s cloud,
Fade sun-gilt spire and mansion proud:
Spectrally rising where they stood,
I see the old, primeval wood;
Dark, shadow-like, on either hand
I see its solemn waste expand;
It climbs the green and cultured hill,
It arches o’er the valley’s rill,
And leans from cliff and crag to throw
Its wild arms o’er the stream below.
Unchanged, alone, the same bright river
Flows on, as it will flow forever!
I listen, and I hear the low
Soft ripple where its water go;
I hear behind the panther’s cry,
The wild-bird’s scream goes thrilling by,
And shyly on the river’s brink
The deer is stooping down to drink.

But hard! — from wood and rock flung back,
What sound come up the Merrimac?
What sea-worn barks are those which throw
The light spray from each rushing prow?
Have they not in the North Sea’s blast
Bowed to the waves the straining mast?
Their frozen sails the low, pale sun
Of Thulë’s night has shone upon;
Flapped by the sea-wind’s gusty sweep
Round icy drift, and headland steep.
Wild Jutland’s wives and Lochlin’s daughters
Have watched them fading o’er the waters,
Lessening through driving mist and spray,
Like white-winged sea-birds on their way!

Onward they glide, — and now I view
Their iron-armed and stalwart crew;
Joy glistens in each wild blue eye,
Turned to green earth and summer sky.
Each broad, seamed breast has cast aside
Its cumbering vest of shaggy hide;
Bared to the sun and soft warm air,
Streams back the Northmen’s yellow hair.
I see the gleam of axe and spear,
A sound of smitten shields I hear,
Keeping a harsh and fitting time
To Saga’s chant, and Runic rhyme;
Such lays as Zetland’s Scald has sung,
His gray and naked isles among;
Or mutter low at midnight hour
Round Odin’s mossy stone of power.
The wolf beneath the Arctic moon
Has answered to that startling rune;
The Gael has heard its stormy swell,
The light Frank knows its summons well;
Iona’s sable-stoled Culdee
Has heard it sounding o’er the sea,
And swept, with hoary beard and hair,
His altar’s foot in trembling prayer!

‘T is past, — the ‘wildering vision dies
In darkness on my dreaming eyes!
The forest vanishes in air,
Hill-slope and vale lie starkly bare;
I hear the common tread of men,
And hum of work-day life again;
The mystic relic seems alone
A broken mass of common stone;
And if it be the chiselled limb
Of Berserker or idol grim,
A fragment of Valhalla’s Thor,
The stormy Viking’s god of War,
Or Praga of the Runic lay,
Or love-awakening Siona,
I know not, — for no graven line,
Nor Druid mark, nor Runic sign,
Is left me here, by which to trace
Its name, or origin, or place.
Yet, for this vision of the Past,
This glance upon its darkness cast,
My spirit bows in gratitude
Before the Giver of all good,
Who fashioned so the human mind,
That, from the waste of Time behind,
A simple stone, or mound of earth,
Can summon the departed forth;
Quicken the Past to life again,
The Present lose in what hath been,
And in their primal freshness show
The buried forms of long ago.
As if a portion of that Thought
By which the Eternal will is wrought,
Whose impulse fills anew with breath
The frozen solitude of Death,
To mortal mind were sometimes lent,
To mortal musing sometimes sent,
To whisper — even when it seems
But Memory’s fantasy of dreams —
Through the mind’s waste of woe and sin,
Of an immortal origin!

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