A modern reproduction of a Viking ship as seen on the BBC Two documentary series Vikings

The Voyage To Vinland

(If you’re in a hurry, skip to Part III, that’s the prophecy about the United States)

James Russell Lowell, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right / engraved by J.A.J. Wilcox, from the original crayon in the possession of Charles Eliot Norton, drawn by S.W. Rowse in 1855
James Russell Lowell, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing right / engraved by J.A.J. Wilcox, from the original crayon in the possession of Charles Eliot Norton, drawn by S.W. Rowse in 1855

I’ve shared a poem of James Russell Lowell’s with you before, and the brief bit I shared about him there mostly suffices here: he was one of several poets in the mid-to-late 19th century who became the first truly popular American poets, a group with similar interests who reached a fairly wide audience. Not all of them are still celebrated, but they’re still notable as a group. And of interest to us, while they were an important part of establishing a distinctly American cultural output… they spent a lot of time in Europe, and occasionally dwelled on European subject matter.

This subject, though, is both European and American: the Viking voyage to Vinland, what eventually became Canada specifically, and North America generally. It wasn’t clear in Lowell’s time where exactly Vinland was, and many thought it was somewhere in New England, somewhere in the area of Massachusetts and Maine.

That “many” was mostly comprised of New Englanders, of course. But at the time, all the evidence available was from the Icelandic sagas, and the “Voyage of Leif Erikson” more specifically (“The Saga of Erik the Red,” Leif’s father, is also instructive; both these links are taken from a 1906 text that used them to build an argument in favor of Viking settlement in North America). If you want to read up on the Vikings’ brief settlement of North America, I’ve got a decent post about that for you.

This poem, though, is about Bjarne, or Bjorn, or Biörn, who is reported in the “Voyage of Leif Erikson” to be the first to see North America but who never actually made landfall here. Such is the fate woven by the Norns. Lowell takes us through some of the events of that saga, and uses that as a backdrop to go over what North America was to that man, in that time, and what it would eventually become, a land of freedom, hard work, and opportunity, “Peace-walled, the homestead/Waits open-doored.”

The best I can determine is that this was first published in 1869 in Under the Willows, and Other Poems, a collection of Lowell’s works from around that time.

The Voyage to Vinland

I

BIÖRN’S BECKONERS

Now Biörn, the son of Heriulf, had ill days
Because the heart within him seethed with blood
That would not be allayed with any toil,
Whether of war or hunting or the oar,
But was anhungered for some joy untried:
For the brain grew not weary with the limbs,
But, while they slept, still hammered like a Troll,
Building all night a bridge of solid dream
Between him and some purpose of his soul,
Or will to find a purpose. With the dawn
The sleep-laid timbers, crumbled to soft mist,
Denied all foothold. But the dream remained,
And every night with yellow-bearded kings
His sleep was haunted,–mighty men of old,
Once young as he, now ancient like the gods,
And safe as stars in all men’s memories.
Strange sagas read he in their sea-blue eyes
Cold as the sea, grandly compassionless;
Like life, they made him eager and then mocked.
Nay, broad awake, they would not let him be;
They shaped themselves gigantic in the mist,
They rose far-beckoning in the lamps of heaven,
They whispered invitation in the winds,
And breath came from them, mightier than the wind,
To strain the lagging sails of his resolve,
Till that grew passion which before was wish,
And youth seemed all too costly to be staked
On the soiled cards wherewith men played their game,
Letting Time pocket up the larger life,
Lost with base gain of raiment, food, and roof.
‘What helpeth lightness of the feet?’ they said,
‘Oblivion runs with swifter foot than they;
Or strength of sinew? New men come as strong,
And those sleep nameless; or renown in war?
Swords grave no name on the long-memoried rock
But moss shall hide it; they alone who wring
Some secret purpose from the unwilling gods
Survive in song for yet a little while
To vex, like us, the dreams of later men,
Ourselves a dream, and dreamlike all we did.’

II

THORWALD’S LAY

So Biörn went comfortless but for his thought,
And by his thought the more discomforted,
Till Erle Thurlson kept his Yule-tide feast:
And thither came he, called among the rest,
Silent, lone-minded, a church-door to mirth;
But, ere deep draughts forbade such serious song
As the grave Skald might chant nor after blush,
Then Eric looked at Thorwald where he sat
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, and with eyes that looked afar
From their still region of perpetual snow,
Beyond 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 bowman, matched against his peers,
Long doubting, singles yet once more the best.
Who is it needs such flawless 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; seasons 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;
But old and simple are despised as cheap,
Though hardest to achieve of human things:
Good were the days of yore, when men were tried
By ring of shields, as now by ring of words;
But while the gods are left, and hearts of men,
And wide-doored ocean, still the days are good.
Still o’er the earth hastes Opportunity,
Seeking the hardy soul that seeks for her.
Be not abroad, nor deaf with household cares
That chatter loudest as they mean the least;
Swift-willed is thrice-willed; late means nevermore;
Impatient is her foot, nor turns again.’
He ceased; upon his bosom sank his beard
Sadly, as one who oft had seen her pass
Nor stayed her: and forthwith the frothy tide
Of interrupted wassail roared along.
But Biörn, the son of Heriulf, sat apart
Musing, and, with his eyes upon the fire,
Saw shapes of arrows, lost as soon as seen.
‘A ship,’ he muttered,’is a wingèd bridge
That leadeth every way to man’s desire,
And ocean the wide gate to manful luck.’
And then with that resolve his heart was bent,
Which, like a humming shaft, through many a stripe
Of day and night, across the unpathwayed seas
Shot the brave prow that cut on Vinland sands
The first rune in the Saga of the West.

III

A humpback whale near Manitsoq, Greenland. Photo from Greenland Travel Guide
A humpback whale near Manitsoq, Greenland. Photo from Greenland Travel Guide

GUDRIDA’S PROPHECY

Four weeks they sailed, a speck in sky-shut seas,
Life, where was never life that knew itself,
But tumbled lubber-like in blowing whales;
Thought, where the like had never been before
Since Thought primeval brooded the abyss;
Alone as men were never in the world.
They saw the icy foundlings of the sea,
White cliffs of silence, beautiful by day,
Or looming, sudden-perilous, at night
In monstrous hush; or sometimes in the dark
The waves broke ominous with paly gleams
Crushed by the prow in sparkles of cold fire.
Then came green stripes of sea that promised land
But brought it not, and on the thirtieth day
Low in the west were wooded shores like cloud.
They shouted as men shout with sudden hope;
But Biörn was silent, such strange loss there is
Between the dream’s fulfilment and the dream,
Such sad abatement in the goal attained.
Then Gudrida, that was a prophetess,
Rapt with strange influence from Atlantis, sang:
Her words: the vision was the dreaming shore’s.

Looms there the New Land;
Locked in the shadow
Long the gods shut it,
Niggards of newness
They, the o’er-old.

Little it looks there,
Slim as a cloud-streak;
It shall fold peoples
Even as a shepherd
Foldeth his flock.

Silent it sleeps now;
Great ships shall seek it,
Swarming as salmon;
Noise of its numbers
Two seas shall hear.

Men from the Northland,
Men from the Southland,
Haste empty-handed;
No more than manhood
Bring they, and hands.

Dark hair and fair hair,
Red blood and blue blood,
There shall be mingled;
Force of the ferment
Makes the New Man.

Pick of all kindreds,
Kings’ blood shall theirs be,
Shoots of the eldest
Stock upon Midgard,
Sons of the poor.

Them waits the New Land;
They shall subdue it,
Leaving their sons’ sons
Space for the body,
Space for the soul.

Leaving their sons’ sons
All things save song-craft,
Plant long in growing,
Thrusting its tap-root
Deep in the Gone.

Here men shall grow up
Strong from self-helping;
Eyes for the present
Bring they as eagles’,
Blind to the Past.

They shall make over
Creed, law, and custom:
Driving-men, doughty
Builders of empire,
Builders of men.

Here is no singer;
What should they sing of?
They, the unresting?
Labor is ugly,
Loathsome is change.

These the old gods hate,
Dwellers in dream-land,
Drinking delusion
Out of the empty
Skull of the Past.

These hate the old gods,
Warring against them;
Fatal to Odin,
Here the wolf Fenrir
Lieth in wait.

Here the gods’ Twilight
Gathers, earth-gulfing;
Blackness of battle,
Fierce till the Old World
Flare up in fire.

Doubt not, my Northmen;
Fate loves the fearless;
Fools, when their roof-tree
Falls, think it doomsday;
Firm stands the sky.

Over the ruin
See I the promise;
Crisp waves the cornfield,
Peace-walled, the homestead
Waits open-doored.

There lies the New Land;
Yours to behold it,
Not to possess it;
Slowly Fate’s perfect
Fulness shall come.

Then from your strong loins
Seed shall be scattered,
Men to the marrow,
Wilderness tamers,
Walkers of waves.

Jealous, the old gods
Shut it in shadow,
Wisely they ward it,
Egg of the serpent,
Bane to them all.

Stronger and sweeter
New gods shall seek it.
Fill it with man-folk
Wise for the future,
Wise from the past.

Here all is all men’s,
Save only Wisdom;
King he that wins her;
Him hail they helmsman,
Highest of heart.

Might makes no master
Here any longer;
Sword is not swayer;
Here e’en the gods are
Selfish no more.

Walking the New Earth,
Lo, a divine One
Greets all men godlike,
Calls them his kindred,
He, the Divine.

Is it Thor’s hammer
Rays in his right hand?
Weaponless walks he;
It is the White Christ,
Stronger than Thor.

Here shall a realm rise
Mighty in manhood;
Justice and Mercy
Here set a stronghold
Safe without spear.

Weak was the Old World,
Wearily war-fenced;
Out of its ashes,
Strong as the morning,
Springeth the New.

Beauty of promise,
Promise of beauty,
Safe in the silence
Sleep thou, till cometh
Light to thy lids!

Thee shall awaken
Flame from the furnace,
Bath of all brave ones,
Cleanser of conscience,
Welder of will.

Lowly shall love thee,
Thee, open-handed!
Stalwart shall shield thee,
Thee, worth their best blood,
Waif of the West!

Then shall come singers,
Singing no swan-song,
Birth-carols, rather,
Meet for the mail child
Mighty of bone.

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