It seems unlikely that Howard Phillips Lovecraft needs an introduction… but I’ll go through the paces anyway.
H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was not a celebrated horror author during his life. He got some stories published in pulp magazines, but was mostly impoverished and appreciated mostly by other writers, like Robert Howard, whose work I’ve featured here before. But his work came to be appreciated after his death, and many of his works are considered crowning achievements of the horror genre. Even people who haven’t read “The Call of Cthulhu” or “Shadow Over Innsmouth” are undoubtedly familiar with some of the imagery – Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean was a humanoid Cthulu, Metallica and other music acts have drawn on Lovecraft for lyrical and thematic content, there’s even a Cthulu Funko Pop! figure. Seriously.
Lovecraft obviously wasn’t known for his poetry in his lifetime, either, and it’s not become a big deal since his death, either. But winter’s kicking in and it’s a good time for horror stories, and reminiscing about a famous horror author.
As you read “The Teuton’s Battle Song,” there’s one more thing to keep in mind about Lovecraft, and that’s the controversy in recent years over his views on race. It’s pretty straightforward that Lovecraft was racist: another poem is titled “On the Creation of Niggers” and goes about the way you’d expect a poem written by a white guy in the United States in 1912 to go. Really, you probably don’t want to read it.
But give this one a shot. I’m not saying it’s good, but it’s worth discussing. More below the poem.
The Teuton’s Battle-Song* (1916)
“Omnis erat vulnus unda
Terra rubefacta calido
Frendebat gladius in loricas
Gladius fludebat clypeos–
Non retrocedat vir a viro
Hoc fuit viri fortis nobilitas diu–
Laetus cerevisiam cum Asis
In summa sede bibam
Vitae clapsae sung horae
–Regner Lodbrog** (i.e., Ragnar Lothbrok, that guy from Vikings)
The mighty Woden laughs upon his throne,
And once more claims his children for his own.
The voice of Thor resounds again on high,
While arm’d Valkyries ride from out the sky:
The Gods of Asgard all their pow’rs release
To rouse the dullard from his dream of peace.
Awake! ye hypocrites, and deign to scan
The actions of your “brotherhood of Man”.
Could your shrill pipings in the race impair
The warlike impulse put by Nature there?
Where now the gentle maxims of the school,
The cant of preachers, and the Golden Rule?
What feeble word or doctrine now can stay?
Too long restrain’d, the bloody tempest breaks,
And Midgard ‘neath the tread of warriors shakes.
On to thy death, Berserker bold! and try
In acts of Godlike bravery to die!
Who cares to find the heaven of the priest,
When only warriors can with Woden feast?
The flesh of Schrimnir, and the cup of mead,
Are but for him who falls in martial deed:
You luckless boor, that passive meets his end,
May never in Valhalla’s court contend.
Slay, brothers, slay! and bathe in crimson gore;
Let Thor, triumphant, view the sport once more!
All other thoughts are fading in the mist,
But to attack, or if attack’d, resist.
List, great Alfadur, to the clash of steel;
How like a man does each brave swordsman feel!
The cries of pain, the roars of rampant rage,
In one vast symphony our ears engage.
Strike! Strike him down! whoever bars the way;
Let each kill many ere he die today!
Ride o’er the weak; accomplish what ye can;
The Gods are kindest to the strongest man!
Why should we fear? What greater joy than this?
Asgard alone could give us sweeter bliss!
My strength is waning; dimly can I see
The helmeted Valkyries close to me.
Ten more I slay! How strange the thought of fear,
With Woden’s mounted messengers so near!
The darkness comes; I feel my spirit rise;
A kind Valkyrie bears me to the skies.
With conscience clear, I quit the earth below,
The boundless joys of Woden’s halls to know.
The grove of Glasir soon shall I behold,
And on Valhalla’s tablets be enroll’d:
There to remain, till Heindall’s horn shall sound,
And Ragnarok enclose creation round;
And Bifrost break beneath bold Surtur’s horde,
And Gods and men fall dead beneath the sword;
When sun shall die, and sea devour the land,
And stars descend, and naught but Chaos stand.
Then shall Alfadur make his realm anew,
And Gods and men with purer life indue.
In that blest country shall Abundance reign,
Nor shall one vice or woe of earth remain.
Then, not before, shall men their battles cease,
And live at last in universal peace.
Thro’ cloudless heavens shall the eagle soar,
And happiness prevail for evermore.
I could talk about this for days. I’d rather get some sleep tonight, so here’s the quick and dirty version.
First of all, Lovecraft gets the mythology wrong. “Alfadur” (an idiosyncratic construction of “Allfather”) doesn’t survive Ragnarok. He is very obviously eaten by a giant wolf. Odin/Woden thus isn’t in charge of the resurrection of Midgard after the flames and floods die down. In fact, as further comments Lovecraft made on the poem upon its publication in 1916 made clear, he doesn’t really understand Woden’s role as an Asa-god: he is not all-powerful, and isn’t in charge of Nature. Even in the mythology. Odin is definitely in charge of death and the dead, and is clearly the god of war and the elite class. But he’s neither omnipotent nor omniscient. He’s a force of nature, and subordinate to Nature.
Of course, one might more charitably say that Lovecraft is trying to say something about the United States as the new land that emerges after Ragnarok, and that Europe destroying itself in the Great War is that earth-shaking battle itself. Woden is really just a stand-in for the Christian god, and that’s not really so far from many interpretations of the final stanza of Voluspa anyway.
Lovecraft’s disdainful remarks about the “brotherhood of Man” are most likely directed at German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace and the growing international peace movement that gained traction as World War I quickly became the horror that it was. The intellectual ideals became the real-life League of Nations. Luckily, its successor organization, the United Nations, lives on today.
There is clearly a kind of “social Darwinism” central to the poem, an idea that the strong will be rewarded for being strong, and will dominate the weak. Comments on the text upon its original publication elaborate, “[d]espite the cant of the peace-advocate, we must realise that our present Christian civilisation, the product of an alien people, rests but lightly upon the Teuton [Germanic race] when he is deeply aroused, and that in the heat of combat he is quite prone to revert to the mental type of his own Woden-worshipping progenitors, losing himself in that superb fighting zeal which baffled the conquering cohorts of a Caesar, and humbled the proud aspirations of a Varus.” So, in case the poem wasn’t clear enough for you, Lovecraft wanted the reader to know that white dudes from northern Europe were going to kill all the bad people and rule the world.
I’m not going to tell you that you have to hate Lovecraft. When the biggest controversy erupted around Lovecraft in 2014, surrounding a literary award that bore his likeness, responses were complex, and reasonable people disagreed (also, some unreasonable and/or overtly racist people). Art cannot be wholly separated from its author, perhaps, but it may have merit even if its author was tainted. Again, you get to decide, and it’s cool if you want to excise the racism from your life, too. The world kind of sucks right now.
But Lovecraft is a keen reminder: not only are people happy to use their northern European ancestry to justify violence and bigotry, but the pre-Christian Germanic society itself included slavery, violence, and inequality that deserve our criticism. We can’t just sweep all this under the rug and pretend it’s not part of Western culture. Right?
* Published in 1916, but Joshi says it was likely composed in 1914. I have carefully double-checked the text presented here against the text presented in Joshi’s The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H.P. Lovecraft. To the best of my knowledge, the text presented on this page is the accurate representation of the text as it was originally published, or at least, as it was re-published in 2001. I can’t currently find another good copy of this poem online.
** This is from “Regner Lodbrog’s Epicedium”, er, “The Death Song of Ragnar Lothbrok,” which Lovecraft translated to English from Latin, which had been translated to Latin from Old Norse by Olaus Wormius in the 17th century. This corresponds to the final two stanzas of the English translation I shared a few weeks ago:
We hewed with the brand!
My life is well-nigh o’er; sharp is the pang that the serpent gives.
Goinn the Snake, nests deep in my heart. No more will my children rest;
Great wrath will be theirs at the undoing of their sire.
We hewed with the brand!
Full gladly do I go! See the Valkyrjar fresh from Odin’s halls!
High-seated among heroes shall I quaff the yellow-mead.
The Aesir welcome me. Laughing gladly do I die!