Gateway to the Classics: Historic Poems and Ballads by Rupert S. Holland
Historic Poems and Ballads by  Rupert S. Holland

The Sea-King's Burial

T HIS poem, written by a Scotchman, describes a strange custom of the old Norse Vikings. The kings of that northern country, when they felt that they were soon to die, had their servants lift them from bed and place them on their battle-ship. They clad the king in his armor, set his crown upon his head, and his sword in his hand. A fire was lighted in the hold of the ship. The sails were set, and the vessel headed out to sea. When the ship was far from land the flames would reach the deck, and the king would die, sword unsheathed, the winds of the ocean about him. His spirit would then go straight to the halls of Valhalla, where dwelt all the former heroes and warriors of Scandinavia.

So King Balder went out to sea in his battle-ship, and called aloud to the great All-Father, to the Norse gods Odin and Thor, and to the Vikings waiting for him.

The metre fits the story perfectly. It has the swing of the ocean waves, and the long and short lines at the end of each stanza give a strong dramatic effect. It is interesting to compare it with that other Viking poem by Longfellow, "The Skeleton in Armor."

The Sea-King's Burial

by Charles Mackay

"My strength is failing fast,"

Said the sea-king to his men;—

"I shall never sail the seas

Like a conqueror again.

But while yet a drop remains

Of the life-blood in my veins,

Raise, oh, raise me from the bed;

Put the crown upon my head;

Put my good sword in my hand;

And so lead me to the strand,

Where my ship at anchor rides


If I cannot end my life

In the bloody battle-strife,

Let me die as I have lived,

On the sea."

They have raised King Balder up,

Put his crown upon his head;

They have sheathed his limbs in mail,

And the purple o'er him spread;

And amid the greeting rude

Of a gathering multitude,

Borne him slowly to the shore—

All the energy of yore

From his dim eyes flashing forth—

Old sea-lion of the north—

As he looked upon his ship

Riding free,

And on his forehead pale

Felt the cold refreshing gale,

And heard the welcome sound

Of the sea.

They have borne him to the ship

With a slow and solemn tread;

They have placed him on the deck

With his crown upon his head,

Where he sat as on a throne;

And have left him there alone,

With his anchor ready weighed,

And the snowy sails displayed

To the favoring wind, once more

Blowing freshly from the shore;

And have bidden him farewell


Saying,"King of mighty men,

We shall meet thee yet again,

In Valhalla, with the monarchs

Of the sea."

Underneath him in the hold

They have placed the lighted brand;

And the fire was burning slow

As the vessel from the land,

Like a stag-hound from the slips,

Darted forth from out the ships.

There was music in her sail

As it swelled before the gale,

And a dashing at her prow

As it cleft the waves below,

And the good ship sped along,

Scudding free;

As on many a battle morn

In her time she had been borne,

To struggle, and to conquer

On the sea.

And the king with sudden strength

Started up, and paced the deck,

With his good sword for his staff,

And his robe around his neck:

Once alone, he raised his hand

To the people on the land;

And with shout and joyous cry

Once again they made reply,

Till the loud exulting cheer

Sounded faintly on his ear;

For the gale was o'er him blowing

Fresh and free;

And ere yet an hour had passed,

He was driven before the blast,

And a storm was on his path,

On the sea.

And still upon the deck,

While the storm about him rent,

King Balder paced about

Till his failing strength was spent.

Then he stopped awhile to rest—

Crossed his hands upon his breast,

And looked upward to the sky

With a dim but dauntless eye;

And heard the tall mast creak,

And the fitful tempest speak

Shrill and fierce, to the billows

Rushing free;

And within himself he said:

"I am coming, O ye dead!

To join you in Valhalla,

O'er the sea.

" So blow, ye tempests, blow,

And my spirit shall not quail;

I have fought with many a foe;

I have weathered many a gale;

And in this hour of death,

Ere I yield my fleeting breath—

Ere the fire now burning slow

Shall come rushing from below,

And this worn and wasted frame

Be devoted to the flame—

I will raise my voice in triumph,

Singing free;—

To the great All-Father's home

I am driving through the foam,

I am sailing to Valhalla,

O'er the sea.

"So blow, ye stormy winds—

And ye flames ascend on high;—

In the easy, idle bed

Let the slave and coward die!

But give me the driving keel,

Clang of shields and flashing steel;—

Or my foot on foreign ground,

With my enemies around!

Happy, happy, thus I'd yield,

On the deck, or in the field,

My last breath, shouting 'On

To victory.'

But since this has been denied,

They shall say that I have died

Without flinching, like a monarch

Of the sea."

And Balder spoke no more,

And no sound escaped his lip;—

And he looked, yet scarcely saw

The destruction of his ship,

Nor the fleet sparks mounting high,

Nor the glare upon the sky;—

Scarcely heard the billows dash,

Nor the burning timber crash;—

Scarcely felt the scorching heat

That was gathering at his feet,

Nor the fierce flames mounting o'er him


But the life was in him yet,

And the courage to forget

All his pain, in his triumph

On the sea.

Once alone a cry arose,

Half of anguish, half of pride,

As he sprang upon his feet,

With the flames on every side.

"I am coming!" said the king,

" Where the swords and bucklers ring—

Where the warrior lives again

With the souls of mighty men—

Where the weary find repose,

And the red wine ever flows;—

I am coming, great All-Father,

Unto thee!

Unto Odin, unto Thor,

And the strong, true hearts of yore—

I am coming to Valhalla,

O'er the sea."

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