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Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807–1882). Complete Poetical Works. 1893.

Ballads and Other Poems

The Skeleton in Armor

  • The volume of Ballads and other Poems was published December 19, 1841, and contained all the verse which Mr. Longfellow had written since the publication of Voices of the Night, with the important exception of The Spanish Student. Besides the pieces here included under this division, the original volume contained two ballads translated from the German, and also The Children of the Lord’s Supper, which will be found under the general division Translations near the close of this volume. The historical basis of The Skeleton in Armor is discussed in the Notes. This ballad, when first published in the Knickerbocker for January, 1841, was furnished with marginal notes after the manner of Coleridge’s The Ancient Mariner, but in reprinting it in his volume the poet wisely discarded an apparatus, which, unlike Coleridge’s, was merely a running index to the poem.

  • “SPEAK! speak! thou fearful guest!

    Who, with thy hollow breast

    Still in rude armor drest,

    Comest to daunt me!

    Wrapt not in Eastern balms,

    But with thy fleshless palms

    Stretched, as if asking alms,

    Why dost thou haunt me?”

    Then, from those cavernous eyes

    Pale flashes seemed to rise,

    As when the Northern skies

    Gleam in December;

    And, like the water’s flow

    Under December’s snow,

    Came a dull voice of woe

    From the heart’s chamber.

    “I was a Viking old!

    My deeds, though manifold,

    No Skald in song has told,

    No Saga taught thee!

    Take heed, that in thy verse

    Thou dost the tale rehearse,

    Else dread a dead man’s curse;

    For this I sought thee.

    “Far in the Northern Land,

    By the wild Baltic’s strand,

    I, with my childish hand,

    Tamed the gerfalcon;

    And, with my skates fast-bound,

    Skimmed the half-frozen Sound,

    That the poor whimpering hound

    Trembled to walk on.

    “Oft to his frozen lair

    Tracked I the grisly bear,

    While from my path the hare

    Fled like a shadow;

    Oft through the forest dark

    Followed the were-wolf’s bark,

    Until the soaring lark

    Sang from the meadow.

    “But when I older grew,

    Joining a corsair’s crew,

    O’er the dark sea I flew

    With the marauders.

    Wild was the life we led;

    Many the souls that sped,

    Many the hearts that bled,

    By our stern orders.

    “Many a wassail-bout

    Wore the long Winter out;

    Often our midnight shout

    Set the cocks crowing,

    As we the Berserk’s tale

    Measured in cups of ale,

    Draining the oaken pail,

    Filled to o’erflowing.

    “Once as I told in glee

    Tales of the stormy sea,

    Soft eyes did gaze on me,

    Burning yet tender;

    And as the white stars shine

    On the dark Norway pine,

    On that dark heart of mine

    Fell their soft splendor.

    “I wooed the blue-eyed maid,

    Yielding, yet half afraid,

    And in the forest’s shade

    Our vows were plighted.

    Under its loosened vest

    Fluttered her little breast,

    Like birds within their nest

    By the hawk frighted.

    “Bright in her father’s hall

    Shields gleamed upon the wall,

    Loud sang the minstrels all,

    Chanting his glory;

    When of old Hildebrand

    I asked his daughter’s hand,

    Mute did the minstrels stand

    To hear my story.

    “While the brown ale he quaffed,

    Loud then the champion laughed,

    And as the wind-gusts waft

    The sea-foam brightly,

    So the loud laugh of scorn,

    Out of those lips unshorn,

    From the deep drinking-horn

    Blew the foam lightly.

    “She was a Prince’s child,

    I but a Viking wild,

    And though she blushed and smiled,

    I was discarded!

    Should not the dove so white

    Follow the sea-mew’s flight,

    Why did they leave that night

    Her nest unguarded?

    “Scarce had I put to sea,

    Bearing the maid with me,

    Fairest of all was she

    Among the Norsemen!

    When on the white sea-strand,

    Waving his armèd hand,

    Saw we old Hildebrand,

    With twenty horsemen.

    “Then launched they to the blast,

    Bent like a reed each mast,

    Yet we were gaining fast,

    When the wind failed us;

    And with a sudden flaw

    Came round the gusty Skaw,

    So that our foe we saw

    Laugh as he hailed us.

    “And as to catch the gale

    Round veered the flapping sail,

    ‘Death!’ was the helmsman’s hail,

    ‘Death without quarter!’

    Mid-ships with iron keel

    Struck we her ribs of steel;

    Down her black hulk did reel

    Through the black water!

    “As with his wings aslant,

    Sails the fierce cormorant,

    Seeking some rocky haunt,

    With his prey laden,—

    So toward the open main,

    Beating to sea again,

    Through the wild hurricane,

    Bore I the maiden.

    “Three weeks we westward bore,

    And when the storm was o’er,

    Cloud-like we saw the shore

    Stretching to leeward;

    There for my lady’s bower

    Built I the lofty tower,

    Which, to this very hour,

    Stands looking seaward.

    “There lived we many years;

    Time dried the maiden’s tears;

    She had forgot her fears,

    She was a mother;

    Death closed her mild blue eyes,

    Under that tower she lies;

    Ne’er shall the sun arise

    On such another!

    “Still grew my bosom then,

    Still as a stagnant fen!

    Hateful to me were men,

    The sunlight hateful!

    In the vast forest here,

    Clad in my warlike gear,

    Fell I upon my spear,

    Oh, death was grateful!

    “Thus, seamed with many scars,

    Bursting these prison bars,

    Up to its native stars

    My soul ascended!

    There from the flowing bowl

    Deep drinks the warrior’s soul,

    Skoal! to the Northland! skoal!”

    Thus the tale ended.