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Septentrionalism and  Romanticism in Grey's and Blake's Norse Odes

Page history last edited by Nicholas Klassen 14 years, 6 months ago

Norse Influence on English Literature and Culture


     Pre Modern Influence

     The influence of Scandinavian culture on English art and literature stems from a time nearly as old as Britannia herself, when first by raiding and eventually by settlement of the northern part of England, Scandinavians came to mingle and eventually even marry into Anglo-Saxon society.  Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians already shared a close heritage and even similar language in their origins as Germanic tribes.  Although their initial reception into the British Isles was not favored for obvious reasons, since the sacking of monasteries, which during the Middle Ages were so integral to the very structure of society, caused terror on an unprecedented level, their influence spread quickly, as can be seen as early as 793 A.D., when Alcuin wrote in sympathy to the king of North Umbria regarding the Viking raids there, "Consider the dress the way of wearing the hair, the luxurious habits of the princes and people.  Look at your trimming of beard and hair, in which you have wished to resemble the pagans.  Are you not menaced by terror of them whose fashion you wished to follow?"  The fact that Scandinavian styles of dress and grooming could be absorbed by Anglo-Saxons even in the midst of their terror spread by these raids hint strongly at a worldview or mentality that was, at its root, similar.  This already similar mindset would only be perpetuated in the years to come as Vikings began to settle the northern regions of the British Isles, founding such cities as York, Dublin, Cambridge, London, and Cork.  A prime example of the intermingling of Scandinavian and Viking culture is the epic poem Beowulf, which, though it was an Anglo-Saxon poem, takes place in and deals exclusively with Scandinavian locations and society.  Like many of the details surrounding the early intermingling of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian culture, Beowulf's origins are clouded in mystery.  


     Revival (Septentrionalism)

    Septentrionalism might properly be said to begin in the year 1270, when Snorri Sturluson composed the Poetic Edda, which began a figurative landslide of Norse literature, which had hitherto not existed, and which, though it began in Iceland, spread throughout Scandinavia.  Although the Poetic Edda and later the Prose Edda, along with the many Icelandic sagas, were composed some two hundred years after the battle of Stamford Bridge and the end of the Viking Age, they remain the only written account of Norse myth which had up until that point been passed on only orally and in a smattering of Runic inscriptions (Runes: The Alphabet of Odin).  The variability of an orally perpetuated mythos is a staple of Norse mythology which can be traced even into present day Odinism (Odinism: Ideology, Customs, and Practices) .  

     The rise in national identity in Scandinavian countries and Iceland seen in the 16th century and the simultaneous rise of the same in England led to a reconnection between these cultures which had dissapated since the Norman invasion of England.  Such works as Icelander Arngrimur Jonsson's Crymogaea, 1593, Swede Johannes Magnus's 'A History of All the Kings of the Goths and the Swedes, 1554, and William Camden's study of the British Isles Britannia, 1586, are foremost among these writings of national identity, and since they were written in Latin, could be circulated throughout Scandinavia, Iceland, and the British Isles.  For the next 200 years, this cultural exchange continued slowly but steadily into the 18th century, where England found itself foremostly in the grip of its classical movement, with its contempt for anything wild or barbaric and emphasis on mythology.  It can be seen then why Scandinavia was largely viewed as a cultural backwater during this time and its writings as the fodder for eccentric readers.  A mild contempt pervaded English ideas about Norse learning and culture.  Because of this classical taste for refinement, this mild contempt might have continued since it was indeed the eccentric and perhaps less well-respected members of English society who found the "Barbarism of the North" interesting, had it not been for a growing feeling among English writers and artists who felt that Classicism had reached its limit and were in search of a new mentality which manifested itself at last in Romanticism. 


Thomas Gray


Thomas Gray, like many of his contemporaries, was interested in composing a definitive work of national identity.  It was this which led him to first translate his Norse Odes the Fatal Sisters and The Descent of Odin from Latin.  Although he never finished his anthology, it would also have included poetry of Welsh and Gaelic origin, which gives dimension to the scope of his idea of English heritage.  While Gray cannot be said to have been a Romantic poet, the very use of the word "ode" in his poetry is a testament to his classical indoctrination.  The fluidity with which he was able to match the tone of his poems with that of actual Norse poetry (especially considering that he did not know Old Norse) is a testament to a wilder and more romantic spirit than that of most scholars of his day. Thomas Gray's Norse Odes are largely responsible for a change in feeling about Norse mythology even to the point of it becoming fashionable to read. Though relatively short lived, Norse poetry and mythology's  time of popularity lifted it forever from the eccentric corners of Western culture and into a an active integrated role that can still be seen today.





 William Blake         

William Blake was certainly acquainted with Scandinavian writings and even defensive of them as can be seen in his outraged annotation of a contemporary theologian's claim that before Christianity, ancient peoples had no moral or ethical sense, in which he wrote: "Read the Edda of Iceland!" In his own poetry, particularly Vala which was later renamed The Four Zoas, Norse influence can be detected both in its form, which resembles the Poetic Edda in it's length and the general tone which explores themes of apocalypse, death, conflict, and contains a wide range of strange dieties. Blake, being the ideological and mythical butterfly that he was, certainly pulled from his readings of Norse texts, though it is often difficult to pinpoint exactly which of his themes and visions were inspired by which culture or myth. In any case, his spirit was in keeping with those eccentrics who were ready to embrace Scandinavian myth and culture as both having merit in and of itself, and as a part of English heritage and culture. 






Blake & Gray's Norse Odes

The Fatal Sisters can be traced originally to Njals Saga, which is a family saga set in southern Iceland and frames the island's conversion to Christianity. It deals with the people of Iceland's struggle to replace their vengeful warrior culture with a new order that uses law and reason to settle disputes. In typical Norse fashion, the saga is overlaid with a hopelessness about the futility of man's efforts to overcome the power of darkness. Its climax is the murder of Njal, a peaceful lawyer, who functions as the symbol of the new reason oriented society Iceland is trying to form. Njal is burned alive in his house along with his family. Upon his death, the society of southern Iceland breaks down and many people flee to Ireland where their Saga concludes at the Battle of Clontarf, which has long figured in Irish history as their final vanquishment of the Scandinavian invaders. It is at Clontarf that the Irish king, Brian Boru, is killed and his son-in-law Sictryg along with his Norse allies, contrary to popular Irish tradition, are victorious. It is the Battle of Clontarf that The Fatal Sisters deals with and Gray dramatically precedes the ode with the following preface:


                         In the eleventh century Sigurd, Earl of the Orkney-Islands, went with a fleet of ships and considerable body of troops

                         into Ireland to the assistance of Sictryg with the silken beard, who was then making war on his Father-in-Law Brian,

                         King of Dublin: The Earl & all his forces were cut to pieces, & Sictryg was in danger of total defeat, but the enemy had

                         the greater loss by the death of Brian, their King, who fell in the action. On Christmas day (the day of the battle) a

                         Native of Caithness in Scotland saw at a distance a number of Persons on horseback riding at full speed towards a

                         hill, & seeming to enter into it. Curiosity led him to follow them, till looking thro' and opening in the rocks he saw 

                         twelve gigantic figures resembling Women: they were all employ'd about a loom ; & as they wove they sung the

                         following dreadful song, wch when they had finish'd, they tore the web into twelve pieces, & (each taking her portion

                         gallop'd six to the north & as many to the south.


Gray translated The Fatal Sisters from a Latin version composed by Torfaeus that was included in his collection of Norse material dealing with the Isles of Orkney: Orcades.

The Descent of Odin was originally a Norse poem called Baldrs draumar ('The Dreams of Baldr') which Bartholin translated into Latin and renamed 'The Poem of the Way-Tamed.' The poem deals with the events preceding the death of Balder as Odin descends into the underworld to enquire of a dead prophetess about the nightmares his beloved son has been having. The interaction between Odin and the Prophetess is a relatively hostil one since she only desires to return to her slumber in Hell, concluding each of her speaking strophies with the phrase "Leave me, Leave me to repose."



Blake was commissioned to do water colour paintings for Gray's poetry in 1797 at the behest of his friend and fellow artist John Flaxmen, who gave the paintings to his wife as a birthday gift to hang in her library. Little else is known as to the extent of Blake and Gray's interaction during the time they were working on this project.


The Fatal Sisters

 (Ode proper begins at Figure 5)





































































Now the storm begins to lower,
(Haste, the loom of Hell prepare.)
Iron-sleet of arrowy shower
Hurtles in the darken'd air.

Glitt'ring lances are the loom,
Where the dusky warp we strain,
Weaving many a soldier's doom,
Orkney's woe, and Randver's bane.

See the grisly texture grow,
('Tis of human entrails made,)
And the weights, that play below,
Each a gasping warrior's head.

Shafts for shuttles, dipt in gore,
Shoot the trembling cords along.
Sword, that once a monarch bore,
Keep the tissue close and strong.

Mista black, terrific maid,
Sangrida, and Hilda see,
Join the wayward work to aid:
Tis the woof of victory.

Ere the ruddy sun be set,
Pikes must shiver, javelins sing,
Blade with clatt'ring buckler meet,
Hauberk crash, and helmet ring.

(Weave the crimson web of war)
Let us go, and let us fly,
Where our friends the conflict share,
Where they triumph, where they die.

As the paths of fate we tread,
Wading thro' th' ensanguin'd field:
Gondula, and Geira, spread
O'er the youthful king your shield.

We the reins to slaughter give,
Ours to kill, and ours to spare:
Spite of danger he shall live.
(Weave the crimson web of war.)

They, whom once the desert-beach
Pent within its bleak domain,
Soon their ample sway shall stretch
O'er the plenty of the plain.

Low the dauntless earl is laid
Gor'd with many a gaping wound:
Fate demands a nobler head;
Soon a king shall bite the ground.

Long his loss shall Erin weep,
Ne'er again his likeness see;
Long her strains in sorrow steep,
Strains of immortality.

Horror covers all the heath,
Clouds of carnage blot the sun.
Sisters, weave the web of death;
Sisters, cease, the work is done.

Hail the task, and hail the hands!
Songs of joy and triumph sing!
Joy to the victorious bands;
Triumph to the younger king.

Mortal, thou that hear'st the tale,
Learn the tenor of our song.
Scotland thro' each winding vale
Far and wide the notes prolong.

Sisters, hence with spurs of speed:
Each her thund'ring falchion wield;
Each bestride her sable steed.
Hurry, hurry to the field.















The Descent of Odin                         

(Pr: refers to Prophetess speaking.

O: refers to Odin. Ode proper begins

at Figure 3)





























Up rose the King of Men with speed,
And saddled strait his coal-black steed;
Down the yawning steep he rode,
That leads to Hela┬┤s drear abode.


Him the Dog of Darkness spied,
His shaggy throat he open'd wide,
While from his jaws, with carnage fill'd,
Foam and human gore distill'd:


Hoarse he bays with hideous din,
Eyes that glow, and fangs, that grin;
And long pursues, with fruitless yell,
The Father of the powerful spell.


Onward still his way he takes
(The groaning earth beneath him shakes,)
Till full before his fearless eyes
The portals nine of hell arise.


Right against the eastern gate,
By the moss-grown pile he sate;
Where long of yore to sleep was laid
The dust of the prophetic Maid.


Facing to the northern clime,
Thrice he traced the runic rhyme;
Thrice pronounc'd, in accents dread,
The thrilling verse that wakes the Dead:


Till from out the hollow ground
Slowly breath'd a sullen sound.
Pr: What call unknown, what charms

To break the quit of the tomb?


Who thus afflicts my troubled sprite,
And drags me from the realms of night?
Long on these mould'ring bones have beat
The winter's snow, the summer's heat,


The drenching dews, and driving rain!
Let me, let me sleep again.
Who is he, with vice unblest,
That calls me from the bed of rest?


Odin: A Traveller, to thee unknown,
Is he that calls, a warriour's Son.
Thou the deeds of light shalt know;
Tell me what is done below,


For whom yon glitt'ring board is spread,
Drest for whom yon golden bed.
Pr. Mantling in the goblet see
The pure bev'rage of the bee,


O'er it hangs the shield of gold;
'Tis the drink of Balder bold:
Balder's head to death is giv'n.
Pain can reach the Sons of Heav'n!


Unwilling I my lips unclose:
Leave me, leave me to repose.


O. Once again my call obey,
Prophetess, arise, and say,


What dangers Odin's Child await,
Who the Author of his fate.


Pr. In Hoder's hand the Heroe's doom:
His Brother sends him to the tomb.


Now my weary lips I close;
Leave me, leave me to repose.


O. Prophetess, my spell obey,
Once again arise, and say,
Who th' Avenger of his guilt,
By whom shall Hoder's blood be spilt?


Pr. In the caverns of the west,
By Odin's fierce embrace comprest,
A wond'rous Boy shall Rinda bear,
Who ne'er shall comb his raven-hair,


Nor wash his visage in the stream,
Nor see the sun's departing beam,
Till he on Hoder's corse shall smile
Flaming on the fun'ral pile.


Now my weary lips I close:
Leave me, leave me to repose.


O. Ye awhile my call obey;
Prophetess, awake, and say,
What Virgins these, in speechless woe,
That bend to earth their solemn brow,


That their flaxen tresses tear,
And snowy veils, that float in air.
Tell me, whence their sorrows rose:
Then I leave thee to repose.


Pr. Ha! no Traveller art thou,
King of Men, I know thee know;
Mightiest of a mighty line--


O. No boding Maid of skill divine
Art thou, nor Prophetess of good;
But Mother of the giant-brood!


Pr. Hie thee hence, and boast at home;
That never shall Enquirer come
To break my iron-sleep again;
Till Lok has burst his tenfold chain;


Never, till substantial Night
Has reassum'd her ancient right;
Till wrapt in flames, in ruin hurl'd;
Sinks the fabric of the world.

 Figure 1: >

This image depicts three of the Fatal Sisters. Blake renders them dramatically, with unflinching stares. The framing spears held by the right and left most sisters suggest a guardian role. In the context of the poem they would be guarding/controlling the fates of men. By depicting only three, regardless of Gray's intent that there be twelve, Blake demonstrates his interpretation of The Fatal Sisters as being closely aligned with the Fates of Greek mythology.


Figure 2: >

Figure 2 is the advertisement page, which would have been hung in locations around London where copies of Gray's new work were available. The angelic figure is a recurring theme in Blake's poetry and paintings and represents the creative muse.








Figure 3: >

This image is included with the preface Gray wrote for The Fatal Sisters. It is Blake's depiction of Sictryg with his silken beard. The Arthurian quality of the Earl of Orkney belies Blake's desire to incorporate the older Gaelic and Norse traditions into those of England.







Figure 4: >

The second page of the preface depicts two, presumably female, riders disappearing into a rockface while a startled man looks on. The image most directly corresponds to these lines from the preface: "a Native of Caithness in Scotland saw at a distance a number of Persons on horseback riding at full speed towards a hill, & seeming to enter into it."





Image: Figure 5:>

The Sisters dramatically call down arrows from a darkened sky. The opening lines of the poem convey an impending doom as the armies gather for battle. Blake quite deftly depicts rain in the form of arrows, 

 (<Lines: Figure 5) while the posture of the Sisters calls to mind the 'loom of Hell' mentioned in the previous line. This is the only one of Blake's paintings for The Fatal Sisters wherein there are perhaps more than three women, as can be seen in the dwindling shadowy figures on the far right.

(<Lines: Figure 6: Image Figure 6:>)

Gray hightens the gore, casting the Sisters in a more horrific light. Blake is careful in his imagery to include the major objects from the poetry: human entrails, gaping warriors' heads, sword once belonging to a monarch etc.  






 Image: Figure 7: > 

Blake depicts three riders gallping over the field, treading on the fallen warriors, "Where they triumph, where they die."

 < Line: Figure 7







< Lines: Figure 7

The mounted riders, presumably the Sisters, actively engage in the battle to decide the fates of the warriors.


Image: Figure 8:>

It is in these mounted images of the Sisters that they most resemble the Valkyriur on which they were based. They point with outstretched hands at the warriors they have chosen to die. At the bottom, a man wearing the tatters

(<Lines: Figure 8) of a crown bites the earth in agony. Neither the high nor low can escape fate.


  Image: Figure 9>

Having finished their grisly work, the sisters mount their steeds in unison. The emphasis Blake places

on their up liftedhands shows which

<Lines: Figure 9) lines he found

most prominent in the section

<Lines: Figure 9) illustrated.









 Image: Figure 10>

Surrounding a blank space, Blake composes a motion filled image of extraordinary violence. Rather than correspond to any lines in the poem, this image seems to be an independent statement directed towards the reader/viewer depicting Blake's personal hatred of violence and war.








 Image: Figure 1: > 

The title-page for the Decent of Odin depicts a great serpent. Considering the context of the poem it is probably meant to be the Asgard Serpent. The serpent was, for Blake, a powerful symbol of evil in many shapes. This probably stemmes from Eve in the garden of Eden, though the serpent in Blake's poetry figures in diverse ways including: Priesthood (Blake disliked organized religion), war, nature, and eternity. Here, it most likely is meant to embody War and Nature according to Blake's understanding of Norse culture.


Image: Figure 2: >

A list of titles is included in The Decent of Odin. The list is headed with the chosen title, while beneath are rejected titles. Little is known about this particular print, or the reasons for its inclusion in the work. Blake has decorated the page with deformed creatures representing the darkness and divinity of Nature.


 Image: Figure 3:>

<Line: Figure 3)The poem begins en medias res with Odin setting out on a black steed -rather than Grani, Odin's grey, eight legged <Line: Figure 3) horse from  Norse myth- to solve the mystery of his son Balder's nightmares. Odin is depicted riding towards the gates of Hell with a horrific wolf-like beast in persuit. The wolf most likely corresponds to Cerberus from Greek Mythology, though Garmr from the Poetic Edda, the great wolf who will bring about the disctruction of the world in Norse mythology might also be implied. 


Image: Figure 4>

Having reached the gates of Hell, Odin is depicted with mouth open, speaking the spell that will wake the Prophetess. Blake has shown him as tracing "the runic rhyme" with his sword.


<Lines: Figure 4

The inclusion of runes in this line gives an example, when compared to the inaccuracies concerning Grani and Garmr, of the extent of the knowledge English society was privy to with regard to Norse Myth in Blake and Gray's time.

Image: Figure 5: >

<Lines: Figure 5) Odin is successful in summoning the "Troubled Sprite". The aged and haggard depiction of the Prophetess stands in stark contrast to the serene faces of the Fatal Sisters. 




 Image: Figure 6: >

The Prophetess is depicted holding a cup of presumably full of "The drink of Balder bold" as she answers Odin's question, saying that Balder will die.

 <Lines: Figure 6






 <Lines: Figure 6




Image: Figure 7: >

In this image Bake depicts the "Wondrous Boy" who Rinda- a femail character in Norse mythology who appears alternately as a giantess or goddess and who is impregnated by Odin- shall bare. He is shown here after his task of killing Hoder and avenging the death of Balder is done and is combing his hair and washing in a stream.





 Image: Figure 8:> 

Figure eight corresponds to any number of lines in the poem wherein Odin calls back the Prophetess saying "Prophetess, my spell obey" in answer to her request "Leave me, leave me to repose."









Image: Figure 9: >

Having received all of his answers, Odin dismisses the Prophetess who sinks into the ground amidst rising flames. Note the benevolent smile on Odin's face, his clean cut appearance and prim armor. Undoubtedly, Blake had only a <Lines: Figure 9) vague idea of how actual Scandinavian peoples dressed. This is understandable considering that he never in his life left England, and only on a few occasions did he ever venture outside of London. It is understandable then that he should look to Arthurian Legend for the inspiration of his images.

Image: Figure 10:>

This image of a serpent and wolf-like beast depict what Blake held to be the two chief terrors of Norse mythology. It is a fitting end to the Norse Odes in its suggestion of destruction, fire <Lines: Figure 10) and terrifying beasts, since at the end of Norse myth, there is only Ragnarok and the destruction of the world.

































































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Curran & Wittreich. (1973). Blake's Sublime Allegory. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.


Huber, Alexander. (2009, December 02). The Thomas Gray Archive. Retrieved from http://www.thomasgray.org/materials/bio.shtml


Keynes, Sir Geoffrey. (Ed.). (1972). William blakes water-colours illustrating the poems of thomas gray. Chicago : J. Philip O'Hara .


Norby, C.H. (1922). The Influence of old norse literature upon english literature. Ithica, NY: Cornell University Library.


O'Donoghue, H. . (2008). From Asgard to valhalla. New York, NY: I. B. Tauris.


Ross, David. (n.d.). William blake a biography of the romantic poet and mythic artist. Retrieved from http://www.britainexpress.com/History/bio/blake.ht


















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