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Matthew Arnold (1822–88). The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867. 1909.

Poems, Second Series, 1855

Balder Dead. An Episode. I. Sending


[First published 1855.]

SO on the floor lay Balder dead; and round

Lay thickly strewn swords axes darts and spears

Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown

At Balder, whom no weapon pierc’d or clove:

But in his breast stood fixt the fatal bough

Of mistletoe, which Lok the Accuser gave

To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw:

’Gainst that alone had Balder’s life no charm.

And all the Gods and all the Heroes came

And stood round Balder on the bloody floor

Weeping and wailing; and Valhalla rang

Up to its golden roof with sobs and cries:

And on the tables stood the untasted meats,

And in the horns and gold-rimm’d skulls the wine:

And now would Night have fall’n, and found them yet

Wailing; but otherwise was Odin’s will:

And thus the Father of the Ages spake:—

‘Enough of tears, ye Gods, enough of wail!

Not to lament in was Valhalla made.

If any here might weep for Balder’s death

I most might weep, his Father; such a son

I lose to-day, so bright, so lov’d a God.

But he has met that doom which long ago

The Nornies, when his mother bare him, spun,

And Fate set seal, that so his end must be.

Balder has met his death, and ye survive:

Weep him an hour; but what can grief avail?

For you yourselves, ye Gods, shall meet your doom,

All ye who hear me, and inhabit Heaven,

And I too, Odin too, the Lord of all;

But ours we shall not meet, when that day comes,

With woman’s tears and weak complaining cries—

Why should we meet another’s portion so?

Rather it fits you, having wept your hour,

With cold dry eyes, and hearts compos’d and stern,

To live, as erst, your daily life in Heaven:

By me shall vengeance on the murderer Lok,

The Foe, the Accuser, whom, though Gods, we hate,

Be strictly car’d for, in the appointed day.

Meanwhile, to-morrow, when the morning dawns,

Bring wood to the seashore to Balder’s ship,

And on the deck build high a funeral pile,

And on the top lay Balder’s corpse, and put

Fire to the wood, and send him out to sea

To burn; for that is what the dead desire.’

So having spoke, the King of Gods arose

And mounted his horse Sleipner, whom he rode,

And from the hall of Heaven he rode away

To Lidskialf, and sate upon his throne,

The Mount, from whence his eye surveys the world.

And far from Heaven he turn’d his shining orbs

To look on Midgard, and the earth, and men:

And on the conjuring Lapps he bent his gaze

Whom antler’d reindeer pull over the snow;

And on the Finns, the gentlest of mankind,

Fair men, who live in holes under the ground:

Nor did he look once more to Ida’s plain,

Nor towards Valhalla, and the sorrowing Gods;

For well he knew the Gods would heed his word,

And cease to mourn, and think of Balder’s pyre.

But in Valhalla all the Gods went back

From around Balder, all the Heroes went;

And left his body stretch’d upon the floor.

And on their golden chairs they sate again,

Beside the tables, in the hall of Heaven;

And before each the cooks who serv’d them plac’d

New messes of the boar Serimner’s flesh,

And the Valkyries crown’d their horns with mead.

So they, with pent-up hearts and tearless eyes,

Wailing no more, in silence ate and drank,

While Twilight fell, and sacred Night came on.

But the blind Hoder left the feasting Gods

In Odin’s hall, and went through Asgard streets,

And past the haven where the Gods have moor’d

Their ships, and through the gate, beyond the wall.

Though sightless, yet his own mind led the God.

Down to the margin of the roaring sea

He came, and sadly went along the sand

Between the waves and black o’erhanging cliffs

Where in and out the screaming seafowl fly;

Until he came to where a gully breaks

Through the cliff wall, and a fresh stream runs down

From the high moors behind, and meets the sea.

There in the glen Fensaler stands, the house

Of Frea, honour’d Mother of the Gods,

And shows its lighted windows to the main.

There he went up, and pass’d the open doors:

And in the hall he found those women old,

The Prophetesses, who by rite eterne

On Frea’s hearth feed high the sacred fire

Both night and day; and by the inner wall

Upon her golden chair the Mother sate,

With folded hands, revolving things to come:

To her drew Hoder near, and spake, and said:—

‘Mother, a child of bale thou bar’st in me.

For, first, thou barest me with blinded eyes,

Sightless and helpless, wandering weak in Heaven;

And, after that, of ignorant witless mind

Thou barest me, and unforeseeing soul:

That I alone must take the branch from Lok,

The Foe, the Accuser, whom, though Gods, we hate,

And cast it at the dear-lov’d Balder’s breast

At whom the Gods in sport their weapons threw—

’Gainst that alone had Balder’s life no charm.

Now therefore what to attempt, or whither fly?

For who will bear my hateful sight in Heaven?—

Can I, O Mother, bring them Balder back?

Or—for thou know’st the Fates, and things allow’d—

Can I with Hela’s power a compact strike,

And make exchange, and give my life for his?’

He spoke: the Mother of the Gods replied:—

‘Holder, ill-fated, child of bale, my son,

Sightless in soul and eye, what words are these?

That one, long portion’d with his doom of death,

Should change his lot, and fill another’s life,

And Hela yield to this, and let him go!

On Balder Death hath laid her hand, not thee;

Nor doth she count this life a price for that.

For many Gods in Heaven, not thou alone,

Would freely die to purchase Balder back,

And wend themselves to Hela’s gloomy realm.

For not so gladsome is that life in Heaven

Which Gods and Heroes lead, in feast and fray,

Waiting the darkness of the final times,

That one should grudge its loss for Balder’s sake,

Balder their joy, so bright, so lov’d a God.

But Fate withstands, and laws forbid this way.

Yet in my secret mind one way I know,

Nor do I judge if it shall win or fail:

But much must still be tried, which shall but fail.’

And the blind Hoder answer’d her, and said:—

‘What way is this, O Mother, that thou show’st?

Is it a matter which a God might try?’

And straight the Mother of the Gods replied:—

‘There is a way which leads to Hela’s realm,

Untrodden, lonely, far from light and Heaven.

Who goes that way must take no other horse

To ride, but Sleipner, Odin’s horse, alone.

Nor must he choose that common path of Gods

Which every day they come and go in Heaven,

O’er the bridge Bifrost, where is Heimdall’s watch,

Past Midgard Fortress, down to Earth and men;

But he must tread a dark untravell’d road

Which branches from the north of Heaven, and ride

Nine days, nine nights, towards the northern ice,

Through valleys deep-engulph’d, with roaring streams.

And he will reach on the tenth morn a bridge

Which spans with golden arches Giall’s stream,

Not Bifrost, but that bridge a Damsel keeps,

Who tells the passing troops of dead their way

To the low shore of ghosts, and Hela’s realm.

And she will bid him northward steer his course:

Then he will journey through no lighted land,

Nor see the sun arise, nor see it set;

But he must ever watch the northern Bear

Who from her frozen height with jealous eye

Confronts the Dog and Hunter in the south,

And is alone not dipt in Ocean’s stream.

And straight he will come down to Ocean’s strand;

Ocean, whose watery ring enfolds the world,

And on whose marge the ancient Giants dwell.

But he will reach its unknown northern shore,

Far, far beyond the outmost Giant’s home,

At the chink’d fields of ice, the waste of snow:

And he will fare across the dismal ice

Northward, until he meets a stretching wall

Barring his way, and in the wall a grate.

But then he must dismount, and on the ice

Tighten the girths of Sleipner, Odin’s horse,

And make him leap the grate, and come within.

And he will see stretch round him Hela’s realm,

The plains of Niflheim, where dwell the dead,

And hear the roaring of the streams of Hell.

And he will see the feeble shadowy tribes,

And Balder sitting crown’d, and Hela’s throne.

Then he must not regard the wailful ghosts

Who all will flit, like eddying leaves, around;

But he must straight accost their solemn Queen,

And pay her homage, and entreat with prayers,

Telling her all that grief they have in Heaven

For Balder, whom she holds by right below:

If haply he may melt her heart with words,

And make her yield, and give him Balder back.’

She spoke: but Hoder answer’d her and said:—

‘Mother, a dreadful way is this thou show’st.

No journey for a sightless God to go.’

And straight the Mother of the Gods replied:—

‘Therefore thyself thou shalt not go, my son.

But he whom first thou meetest when thou com’st

To Asgard, and declar’st this hidden way,

Shall go, and I will be his guide unseen.’

She spoke, and on her face let fall her veil,

And bow’d her head, and sate with folded hands.

But at the central hearth those Women old,

Who while the Mother spake had ceased their toil,

Began again to heap the sacred fire:

And Hoder turn’d, and left his mother’s house,

Fensaler, whose lit windows look to sea;

And came again down to the roaring waves,

And back along the beach to Asgard went,

Pondering on that which Frea said should be.

But Night came down, and darken’d Asgard streets.

Then from their loathed feast the Gods arose,

And lighted torches, and took up the corpse

Of Balder from the floor of Odin’s hall

And laid it on a bier, and bare him home

Through the fast-darkening streets to his own house

Breidablik, on whose columns Balder grav’d

The enchantments, that recall the dead to life:

For wise he was, and many curious arts,

Postures of runes, and healing herbs he knew;

Unhappy: but that art he did not know

To keep his own life safe, and see the sun:—

There to his hall the Gods brought Balder home,

And each bespake him as he laid him down:—

‘Would that ourselves, O Balder, we were borne

Home to our halls, with torchlight, by our kin,

So thou might’st live, and still delight the Gods.’

They spake: and each went home to his own house.

But there was one, the first of all the Gods

For speed, and Hermod was his name in Heaven;

Most fleet he was, but now he went the last,

Heavy in heart for Balder, to his house

Which he in Asgard built him, there to dwell,

Against the harbour, by the city wall:

Him the blind Hoder met, as he came up

From the sea cityward, and knew his step;

Nor yet could Hermod see his brother’s face,

For it grew dark; but Hoder touch’d his arm:

And as a spray of honeysuckle flowers

Brushes across a tired traveller’s face

Who shuffles through the deep dew-moisten’d dust,

On a May evening, in the darken’d lanes,

And starts him, that he thinks a ghost went by—

So Hoder brush’d by Hermod’s side, and said:—

‘Take Sleipner, Hermod, and set forth with dawn

To Hela’s kingdom, to ask Balder back;

And they shall be thy guides, who have the power.’

He spake, and brush’d soft by, and disappear’d.

And Hermod gaz’d into the night, and said:—

‘Who is it utters through the dark his hest

So quickly, and will wait for no reply?

The voice was like the unhappy Hoder’s voice.

Howbeit I will see, and do his hest;

For there rang note divine in that command.’

So speaking, the fleet-footed Hermod came

Home, and lay down to sleep in his own house,

And all the Gods lay down in their own homes.

And Hoder too came home, distraught with grief,

Loathing to meet, at dawn, the other Gods:

And he went in, and shut the door, and fixt

His sword upright, and fell on it, and died.

But from the hill of Lidskialf Odin rose,

The throne, from which his eye surveys the world;

And mounted Sleipner, and in darkness rode

To Asgard. And the stars came out in Heaven,

High over Asgard, to light home the King.

But fiercely Odin gallop’d, mov’d in heart;

And swift to Asgard, to the gate, he came;

And terribly the hoofs of Sleipner rang

Along the flinty floor of Asgard streets;

And the Gods trembled on their golden beds

Hearing the wrathful Father coming home;

For dread, for like a whirlwind, Odin came:

And to Valhalla’s gate he rode, and left

Sleipner; and Sleipner went to his own stall:

And in Valhalla Odin laid him down.

But in Breidablik Nanna, Balder’s wife,

Came with the Goddesses who wrought her will,

And stood round Balder lying on his bier:

And at his head and feet she station’d Scalds

Who in their lives were famous for their song;

These o’er the corpse inton’d a plaintive strain,

A dirge; and Nanna and her train replied.

And far into the night they wail’d their dirge:

But when their souls were satisfied with wail,

They went, and laid them down, and Nanna went

Into an upper chamber, and lay down;

And Frea seal’d her tired lids with sleep.

And ’twas when Night is bordering hard on Dawn,

When air is chilliest, and the stars sunk low,

Then Balder’s spirit through the gloom drew near,

In garb, in form, in feature as he was

Alive, and still the rays were round his head

Which were his glorious mark in Heaven; he stood

Over against the curtain of the bed,

And gaz’d on Nanna as she slept, and spake:—

‘Poor lamb, thou sleepest, and forgett’st thy woe.

Tears stand upon the lashes of thine eyes,

Tears wet the pillow by thy cheek; but thou,

Like a young child, hast cried thyself to sleep.

Sleep on: I watch thee, and am here to aid.

Alive I kept not far from thee, dear soul,

Neither do I neglect thee now, though dead.

For with to-morrow’s dawn the Gods prepare

To gather wood, and build a funeral pile

Upon my ship, and burn my corpse with fire,

That sad, sole honour of the dead; and thee

They think to burn, and all my choicest wealth,

With me, for thus ordains the common rite:

But it shall not be so: but mild, but swift,

But painless shall a stroke from Frea come,

To cut thy thread of life, and free thy soul,

And they shall burn thy corpse with mine, not thee.

And well I know that by no stroke of death,

Tardy or swift, wouldst thou be loath to die,

So it restor’d thee, Nanna, to my side,

Whom thou so well hast lov’d; but I can smooth

Thy way, and this at least my prayers avail.

Yes, and I fain would altogether ward

Death from thy head, and with the Gods in Heaven

Prolong thy life, though not by thee desir’d:

But Right bars this, not only thy desire.

Yet dreary, Nanna, is the life they lead

In that dim world, in Hela’s mouldering realm;

And doleful are the ghosts, the troops of dead,

Whom Hela with austere control presides;

For of the race of Gods is no one there

Save me alone, and Hela, solemn Queen:

And all the nobler souls of mortal men

On battle-field have met their death, and now

Feast in Valhalla, in my Father’s hall;

Only the inglorious sort are there below,

The old, the cowards, and the weak are there,

Men spent by sickness, or obscure decay.

But even there, O Nanna, we might find

Some solace in each other’s look and speech,

Wandering together through that gloomy world.

And talking of the life we led in Heaven,

While we yet liv’d, among the other Gods.’

He spake, and straight his lineaments began

To fade: and Nanna in her sleep stretch’d out

Her arms towards him with a cry; but he

Mournfully shook his head, and disappear’d.

And as the woodman sees a little smoke

Hang in the air, afield, and disappear—

So Balder faded in the night away.

And Nanna on her bed sunk back: but then

Frea, the Mother of the Gods, with stroke

Painless and swift, set free her airy soul,

Which took, on Balder’s track, the way below:

And instantly the sacred Morn appear’d.