Poem of the Week: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a beloved American poet whose style of poetry captured the musicality of words and form. One of his most famous poems, “Paul Revere’s Ride” captures the night that Revere told the Americans the British were coming. Longfellow was also the first American to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy. Today marks Longfellow’s 210th birthday! To celebrate, here is “The Skeleton in Armor,” which was one of the many poems by Longfellow that was inspired by Norse mythology.

“The Skeleton in Armor” 

“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 armed 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.




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