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

The Skeleton in Armor

L ONGFELLOW was always greatly interested in the legends and poetry of Northern Europe, and in this poem he tells the story of such a Viking as might well have crossed the sea with Leif, son of Eric. According to history Bjarni, the son of Herjulf, sailing west from Iceland in 986, bound for Greenland, met with dense fogs and had to steer by guesswork. After many days he came to land, but realizing it was not Greenland, he turned north and finally reached his goal. The tale of his voyage came in time to Leif, son of red Eric, and he set out in the year 1000, with thirty-five men, to find the strange land to the south. He reached the coast of Labrador, and named it "Helluland," or "slate-land." Farther south he came to densely wooded shores that he called "Markland," or "woodland," and afterwards to a country full of grapes which he christened "Vinland."

Leif and his men spent the winter in Vinland, and in the spring carried news of their discovery back to their home. But later parties of Norsemen were attacked by the native Indians when they tried to explore the new country, and in 1012 the Vikings gave up their voyages thither.

A skeleton clad in armor was discovered near Fall River, Massachusetts, in 1835, and doubtless furnished the idea for this poem, although it was later declared to be the skeleton of an Indian, and not of a Norseman.

The lofty tower built by the Viking in the poem might have been the old stone tower which still stands at Newport, Rhode Island, and which was for a long time believed to have been built by Norsemen. Historians now claim that it was erected by Benedict Arnold, governor of Newport about 1676, who used it for a windmill. This Benedict Arnold was, of course, not the man of the same name who figured in the American Revolution.

The rhythm and flow of the poem are splendid, and the story of the young Viking who loved the blue-eyed daughter of the old Prince Hildebrand, and carried her across seas to the new Western land is as stirring as any of the hero-tales of the Scandinavian sagas.

The Skeleton in Armor

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

"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 arméd 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!'

Midships 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 a 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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