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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Odin Dethroned

By William Leighton (1833–1911)

[Born in Cambridge, Mass., 1833. Died in Wiesbaden, Germany, 1911. At the Court of King Edwin. A Drama. 1878.]

SCENE: The Great Hall of the Palace. The KING and QUEEN in chairs of state; beside the King, EARL BLECCA, COIFI, lords, and GOLDDIN; beside the Queen, the Princess ENID, ladies, PAULINUS, and priests. In front, KING PENDA, BRIAN disguised as a Mercian noble, Mercian lords, priests of Odin, etc. At sides and back, guards and attendants. On one side, an armed figure representing Odin; on the other, a great crucifix held by a priest.

PAULINUS.[pointing to the crucifix.]Here is a refuge in the heart of Love

From storm, and night, and death.
KING.Wise Lord of Lincoln,

Beneath thy painted mask of poetry

And skilful picturing of words appears

Question too great for our philosophy:

The ceaseless wash of nature’s waves, the years,

Laves with uprising crests our solvent lives,

With sinking ebb bears off a part of us

Into the sea of time. Afar that sea

Looks smooth as summer lake, more near in storm

It breaks on man, a billowy dash of spray

And so wild tumult of mad agonies,

That death is rest and haven from its rage;

But storm or rest, a constant menstruum

Of human life—that life, for briefness, like

The fleeting moments a spent swimmer keeps

His head above the vast and pitiless flood:

Then shall we see, in death, a hand of Love

Stretched upward mid the boiling waves to save?

Or some huge kraken that all-hungrily

Bucks us adown to its insatiate maw?

PENDA.A nobler picture, if so brief be life,

A javelin’s flight: it sings along the air

From Odin’s hand, and, crashing through shield-rim,

Dies there, blood-drunken; to be caught anon

Out of pierced shield, and wing again its flight.

But, to my mind, this life hath space enough

For largest honors: if my hap to fill it

With glory such as Crida greatly won

Then glory shall assume enduring shape

Like lordly palace builded to the skies,

Speaking from lips of sculptured blazonings

Valor’s great acts; its shining pinnacles

Neighboring the stars; its fame enduring ever

While love of glory stirs in hearts of men.

Nay, it is idle prattle of life’s shortness;

Life is too long if filled with idleness;

Quite long enough for Valor’s high renown

And thoughts and acts that live renewed in breath

Of minstrelsy, immortal in a song.

Lo! in the hall, the hungry feast is over,

And kitchen-knaves bear off the empty platters,

While warriors loosen belts, and cry aloud,

To fill the horn, and send it gaily round.

Then while bright drops are sparkling in each beard

The king calls up his minstrel, bidding him

Pour forth the soul of glory on the flood of song.

Now while he sweeps his harp, all bend intent

To catch sweet notes; but when in swelling tones

He sings of glory, lo! the warriors rise,

Push back huge benches; from bright baldrics pull

Their great swords out, and while the torchlight flickers

On flashing blades, shout till the oaken roof

Sends back, each rib reverberate with din,

A great response to glory. Life is short?

Nay, it is great and deathless when it lives

On minstrel lips, thus summoned back again

From hollow vase, sea-cave, rich, marble tomb,

Or the rough cairn that marks a hero’s grave—

Ay, deathless through all fortunes save the chance

Of glory’s death in man’s degenerate heart.

What is the tame existence of dull years,

Though stretched by magic through unending time,

Crawling from bed to food, from food to bed,

Compared to life eternal in the breath

Of song?
QUEEN.So would you drown each gentler note,

That Peace may sing of sweet affection’s joys,

In drums of battle. Pray, most warlike king,

Why do you seek a queen? a carven thing

Cut of white ivory, and crowned with gold,

Would fill your chair of state. O, set not there

A woman of warm heart, to feel that heart

Crushed in such iron keeping, if you know

No dearer yearning than a victor’s hope,

No fonder thrill than comes of glory’s song!

PENDA.My picture hangs with others on the wall;

What time hath frightened bird, or a spent swimmer,

To dream of love? Turn your reproachful eyes,

Fair queen, on him of Lincoln and the king;

Perhaps my heart hath pulse of love as great

As either. These are only pictures, lady,

And mine no more reality than theirs.

COIFI.I see not why we trifle thus with pictures

When great realities come face to face

With idle fancies, pushing these shadows forth

Out of our hearts. Too long have worshipped pictures

Held our obedience. Look, how Odin stands,

Picture of might! If he were might indeed,—

Not hollow seeming, empty, shining armor

Set up in fashion of an armored man,—

Would he not leap from marble pedestal

To smite our sacrilege? I long have served

This idle god; have set before his face

The fairest things; upon his altars burned

Gifts of great price; the blood of slaughtered captives

Poured at his feet; but yet he stood as now,

Only a picture; and the power, I dreamed

Shut up in his mailed bosom, never once

Gave me a sign; yet still I served, and worshipped,

Until the light of this new faith shone down,

And day dawned in my soul. Then I beheld,

In place of deity, an empty figure,

A shell of form and nothingness within,—

Nor like a shrivelled acorn with a germ

Of future life,—while prayerful at its feet

Knelt many nations offering sacrifice,

Burning rich gifts, and shedding human blood.

This sight, so strange, awakened my contempt;

I laughed at it, and, filled with scornful ire,

Snatched the great lance-shaft from his nerveless hand,

And beat his helmet till the roof-tree rung

With noisy clatter, and the dinted brass

Bent with my blows. O lords, is this a thing

To worship, this dull god that may be beaten

Like any drunken slave?
PENDA.Blaspheming dog!

Doth the round moon heed every snarling cur

That yelps at his great disk?
A PRIEST OF ODIN.Hear me, O king!

Nor deem great Odin’s sleep, the sleep of death:

Worn with long vigils, at his mighty foot

I slumbered; waked to hear an awful voice,

Deep as the thunder,—while blue lightning played

About his helmet,—bid me bring his shield,

The sculptured stone a hundred men in vain

Might strive to move; I marvelled, but obeyed;

And when I touched the ponderous block, it stirred

As light as gossamer, that there I hung it

On the left arm of Odin; then he cried,

“Sleep on,” and at his word I fell asleep;

But when I waked, looked upward tremblingly

Where on the arm of Odin still there hung

The carven stone—Then I cried out; at which

It fell with frightful sound as if the wind

Split into tatters an enormous sail;

And I beheld the marvellous shield roll back

To where I took it up; and many heard

The great stone fall, came hastily, and saw

The form of Odin shake, blue tongues of fire

Still flaming round his helmet, while I lay

In terror at his feet.
COIFI.A stupid dream!—

This god is moveless, voiceless, powerless.

Behold, I wage my arm against his might!

Give me an axe, and I will smite this image;

If it be not the senseless thing I say,

Let it smite back; but if I cast it down,

And stand unharmed, I have dethroned the god.

KING.Give him an axe.

[One of the soldiers of the King’s guard gives an axe to COIFI, who advances to the statue of Odin.]
COIFI.So fall the Æsir gods!

[COIFI raises the axe to strike.]
PENDA.So Odin strikes!

[PENDA, with a sword-thrust, kills COIFI, who falls at the feet of the statue of Odin.]
KING.O traitor!—Ho! my guard!

[The lords of Deira draw their swords, and, with the King’s guard, press forward; the Mercian lords close about their King with drawn swords; while KING EDWIN advances in front of PENDA BRIAN leads ENID among the Mercians.]
PENDA.Here at your feet, O Christian king, I cast

My vassalage. Set up your cross of Peace

In Deira; Mercia knows no gods save those

Our fathers worshipped—“Traitor,” do you say?

Nay, I am true unto my ancient faith,

And will not serve a traitor. There lies one

[Pointing to the body of COIFI.]
Whose purchased hand presumed to soil his god

With its vile touch—one, you would make a king

For treachery; he was unkingly ever,

And past your kingly power to crown him now.

KING.Thy head shall lie as low!
PENDA.Then shall these halls

Be red with slaughter. I have filled your court

With Mercians, and will cut a bloody track

Back to my land. I ask nor peace, nor war;

But stand prepared alike for either chance.

KING.A monstrous rebel!
QUEEN.Dear my lord, I pray thee,

Turn not thy court to a wild battle-field;

Because I am no warrior, swords affright me;

Let the fierce Penda and his Mercians go.

KING.Let it be so.
To KING PENDA.We give thee safely forth

To Mercia; there full well defend thyself;

For, by yon crucifix, we swear to plant

The cross in every village of thy land!

PENDA.Red will the soil of Mercia grow, O king,

About your plants. I take this offered truce;

And for the Princess Enid, who will go

With me to Mercia, will return the price

Of a king’s ransom.
KING.Nay, we give her thee,

All ransomless, in payment of past service;

We would not owe an enemy so much

As is thy due; and thus we cancel it.

So, having paid old scores, we now may feel

The only debt we owe is present due

Of bold rebellion. Go; the path is clear

That leads to Mercia.
PENDA.Mercia, by my hand,

Now breaks her chains; no recreant to the gods

Shall claim her service. For this courtesy,

Your gift of Gwynedd’s princess, ’tis set down

As a new debt to courtesy; all debts else

Cancelled, my country oweth naught but this.

Now, King of Deira, Penda, King of Mercia,

No more a vassal, giveth his farewells.

He gaily bids you to his wedding feast,

You and your court—a welcome unto all;

Or choosing rather war, come with your hosts,

And still he promises a kingly welcome.[Exeunt.]