1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Herbert

Walter Scott, Review of Herbert, Miscellanies; Edinburgh Review 9 (October 1806) 211-23.



Miscellaneous Poetry. By the Honourable W. Herbert. 2 vols. 8vo. Longman & Co. 1804.

These little volumes contain a variety of translations from the Norse, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, &c. with a few original pieces. Those by which we have been most interested, are contained under the title of "Select Icelandic Poetry," being versions of celebrated passages in the Edda of Saemundar, and other specimens of Scaldic poetry. These translations form the first part of the first volume, and the second part of the second; a confused and capricious arrangement, which we wish had been avoided. They are, to a certain degree, a novelty in our literature; for although translations of many of these very pieces have been made by poets of different degrees of merit, from Gray to Amos Cottle, yet it has happened rather perversely, that not one of these translators understood the original Icelandic, but contented themselves with executing their imitations from the Latin version, and thus presenting their readers with the shadow of a shade. We can only estimate the injustice which the old Scalds sustained in this operation, by considering what sort of translation could be made of any Greek poet from the Latin version. Mr. Herbert has stepped forward to rescue these ancient poets from this ignominious treatment; and his intimate acquaintance with the languages of the North is satisfactorily displayed in an introductory address to the Hon. C. Anker, Director of the Danish East Indian Company, executed in Danish poetry, as well as by many learned criticisms scattered through the work. We do not pretend any great knowledge of the Norse; but we have so far "traced the Runic rhyme," as to be sensible how much more easy it is to give a just translation of that poetry into English than into Latin; and, consequently, how much is lost by the unnecessary intermediate transfusion. Indeed, the double difficulty of first rendering the Norse into the Latin, and then the Latin into the English, and thus interposing a version in a foreign and uncongenial tongue, between the original and the English, although this last is a kindred language, very similar, in its more ancient idiom to the Icelandic, has led to many, and some very absurd errors, in what has hitherto been given as Scaldic poetry. For example, in the famous death-song of Regnar Lodbrog, that renowned warrior has been made to assert, that the joy of a bloody battle, which he had just described, was superior to that of sleeping with a young virgin; and, in another passage, he is made to aver yet more specifically, that the pleasure of battering the helmet with the keen falchion, was like that of kissing a young widow reclining upon a high seat. Now, whatever partiality Regnar might entertain for the sport of swords, the dance of Hilda, and for his favourite amusement of hacking with helmets, he had too much taste to give the preference imputed in these passages, which are thus justly rendered by Mr. Herbert.

Bucklers brast, and men were slain;
Stoutest skulls were cleft in twain.
'Twas not, I trow, like wooing rest
On gentle maiden's snowy breast.

Again—

—where falchions keen
Bit the helmet's polish'd sheen.
'Twas not like kissing widow sweet
Reclining in the highest seat.

Such was the real and unbiassed opinion of Regnar with the Hairy Breeches; and truly we heartily join in it. The elegant Mason, as well as Bishop Percy, fell into a similar blunder in translating the Love-song of Harold the valiant, which they understood to be a complaint, that, notwithstanding all the great deeds which he had performed, "a Russian maiden scorned his love." Now, this burden,

Tho laetr gerdr i Gordum
Gullhrings vid mer skolla,

is accurately rendered by Mr. Herbert, after Perinskiold,

With golden ring in Russian land,
To me the virgin plights her hand.

Having noticed these gross errors, it is unnecessary to say how much of the spirit of the poetry, which is so much more volatile, must necessarily have escaped in versions, where even plain sense and meaning is so sadly corrupted. We therefore hail with pleasure, an attempt to draw information from the fountain-head, especially where it is interesting both n point of intrinsic poetic merit, and as a curious source of historic investigation.

The character of the ancient Scaldic poetry is various. It is often, especially when mythological, so extremely obscure, that it defies interpretation. This seems to proceed chiefly from the metaphorical and paraphrastic style, which was considered as an high ornament in such compositions. Instead of giving the name of a person mentioned, it is the fashion to call him the son of such a one, or the brother or the spouse of such another; and as the said father, brother, or wife, had probably fifty names, it becomes extremely difficult, in many cases, to hit upon the individual who is intended. In like manner, a ship is the sea serpent, or the rider of the wave, or the "ask" or water-newt, or something else which still less readily conveys the meaning. In poems composed in this style, it seems to have been the object of the poet to convert every line into a sort of riddle, for the exercise of the ingenuity of the hearer, who was thus obliged to fight his way from one verse to another, having, for his sole reward, the pleasure of penetrating mystery, and conquering studied obscurity. Great part of the Edda of Saemund is involved in this artificial darkness, and is therefore positively untranslateable. But in the more popular poetry, the romances, war-odes, and songs sung to the great in their festivals, when their Honours, like Mungo in the farce, probably wished to hear something which they could understand, another and more simple kind of poetry was adopted. The following very singular poem affords a curious specimen of this latter kind of composition; for though the personages are mythological, yet the tale is romantic, and the style of a simple kind, adapted to general comprehension. It is called the Song of Thrym, or the Recovery of the Hammer, from the principal personage and incident. This hammer was a sort of sceptre or mace, used by Thor, the Mars of the Scandinavians, and on which much of his power depended. It was probably like those maces of arms which were used in war as low as the middle of the seventeenth century. The translation is so admirably executed, that it might be mistaken for an original.

Wrath waxed Thor, when his sleep was flown
And he found his trusty hammer gone;
He smote his brow, his beard he shook,
The son of earth 'gan round him look;
And this the first word, that he spoke;
"Now listen what I tell thee, Loke;
Which neither on earth below is known,
Nor in Heaven above; my hammer's gone."
Their way to Freyia's tower they took,
And this the first word, that he spoke;
"Thou, Freyia, must lend a winged robe,
To seek my hammer round the globe."
FREYIA sung.
"That shouldst thou have, though 'twere of gold
And that, though 'twere of silver, hold."
Away flew Loke; the wing'd robe sounds,
Ere he has left the Asgard grounds,
And ere he has reached the Jotunheim bounds.
High on a mound in haughty state
Thrym the king of the Thursi sate;
For his dogs he was twisting collars of gold,
And trimming the manes of his coursers bold.
THRYM sung.
"How fare the Asi? the Alfi how?
Why com'st then alone to Jotunheim now?"
LOKE Sung.
"Ill fare the Asi; the Alfi mourn
Thor's hammer from him thou had torn."
THRYM sung.
"I have the Thunderer's hammer bound,
Fathoms eight beneath the ground;
With it shall no one homeward tread,
Till he bring me Freyia to share my bed."
Away flew Loke; the wing'd robe sounds,
Ere he has left the Jotunheim bounds,
And ere he has reach'd the Asgard grounds.
At Midgard Thor met crafty Loke,
And this the first word, that he spoke;
"Have you your errand and labor done?
Tell from aloft the course, you run.
For setting oft the story fails,
And lying oft the lie prevails."
LOKE sung.
"My labor is past, mine errand I bring
Thrym has thine hammer, the giant king:
With it shall no one homeward tread,
Till he bear him Freyia to share his bed."
Their way to lovely Freyia they took,
And this the first word that he spoke;
"Now, Freyia, busk, as a blooming bride;
Together, we must, to Jotunheim ride."
Wrath waxed Freyia with ireful look;
All Asgard's hall with wonder shook;
Her great bright necklace started wide.
"Well may ye call me a wanton bride,
If I with ye to Jotunheim ride."
The Asi did all to council crowd,
The Afiniae all talk'd fast and loud;
This they debated, and this they fought,
How the hammer of Thor should home be brought;
Up then and spoke Heimdallar free,
Like the Vani, wise was he;
"Now busk we Thor, as a bride so fair;
Let him that great bright necklace wear;
Round him let ring the spousal keys,
And a maiden kirtle hang to his knees,
And on his bosom jewels rare;
And high and quaintly braid his hair."
Wrath waxed Thor with godlike pride;
"Well may the Asi me deride,
If I let me be dight, as a blooming bride."
Then up spoke Loke, Laufeyia's son;
"Now hush thee, Thor; this must be done:
The giants will strait in Asgard reign,
If thou thine hammer dost not regain."
Then busk'd they Thor, as a bride so fair,
And the great bright necklace gave him to wear;
Round him let ring the spousal keys,
And a maiden kirtle hang to his knees,
And on his bosom jewels rare;
And high and quaintly braided his hair.
Up then arose the crafty Loke,
Laufeyia's son, and thus he spoke;
"A servant I thy steps will tend,
We must to Jotonheim wend."
Now home the goats together hie;
Yoked to the axle they swiftly fly.
The mountains shook, the earth burn'd red,
As Odin's son to Jotunheim sped.
Then Thrym the king of the Thursi said;
"Giants, stand up; let the seats be spread:
Bring Freyia Niorder's daughter down
To share my bed from Noatun.
With horns all gilt each coal-black beast
Is led to deck the giant's feast;
Large wealth and jewels have I stored;
I lack but Freyia to grace my board."
Betimes at evening they approach'd,
And the mantling ale the giants broach'd.
The spouse of Sifia are alone
Eight salmons, and an ox full-grown,
And all the cates, on which women feed
And drank three firkins of sparkling mead.
Then Thrym the king of the Thursi said;
"Where have ye beheld such a hungry maid?
Ne'er saw I bride so keenly feed,
Nor drink so deep of the sparkling mead."
Then forward lent the crafty Loke,
And thus the giant he bespoke;
"Nought has she eat for eight long nights,
So did the long for the nuptial rites."
He stoop'd beneath her veil to kiss,
But he started the length of the hall, I wiss.
"Why are the looks of Freyia so dire
It seems, as her eyeballs glisten'd with fire."
Then forward lent the crafty Loke,
And thus the giant he bespoke;
"Nought has the slept for eight long nights,
So did she long for the nuptial rites."
Then in the giant's sister came,
Who dared a bridal gift to claim;
"Those rings of gold from thee I crave,
If thou wilt all my fondness have,
All my love and fondness have."
Then Thrym the king of the Thursi said,
"Bear in the hammer to plight the maid
Upon her lap the bruizer lay,
And firmly plight our hands and fay."
The Thunderer's soul smiled in his breast,
When the hammer hard on his lap was placed;
Thrym first the king of the Thursi he flew,
And slaughter'd all the giant crew.
He slew that giant's sister old,
Who pray'd for bridal gifts so bold.
Instead of money and rings, I wot,
The hammer's bruises were her lot.
Thus Odin's son his hammer got. Vol. I. p. 1-8.

In this little tale, the genius of the rude people, for whom it was composed, may easily be recognized. We were very much amused with the brutal stupidity of the giant, a quality which seems always to have been an attribute of the sons of Anak, with the rival obtuseness of intellect displayed by the godlike Thor, who, like Ajax, seems to have "worn his brains in his belly, and his guts in his head;" and above all, with the insinuating address of the crafty Loke, who devised such marvellous good apologies for the circumstances in the bride's conduct, which excited poor Thrym's astonishment. The whole is a very curious specimen of the Northern romance. The notes upon it, and indeed throughout, display an intimate acquaintance with Scandinavian lore, and lead its to expect with anxiety a promised dissertation upon the ancient history and literature of Iceland.

Although we have selected this comic tale as one of the most entertaining, these volumes contain many strains of higher mood; many of those wild and wondrous stories of knight-errantry and witchcraft, which are the natural subjects of poetry in a rude and credulous age; and many of the songs of war and battle which stimulated the frantic valour of the Scandinavians. The following commencement of a war ode is very spirited: it is supposed to be sung by Biarko, the famous champion of Hrolfe Kraka, on the night when that monarch and all hi chivalry were surprised and assassinated. It is imperfect; but Saxo-Grammaticus has favoured the world with a Latin imitation; and we think, though we are by no means certain, that something of the same kind may be found in the small volume containing the history of Hrolf Kraka, drawn up by Torfaeus, and published at Copenhagen in 1715.

The day has dawn'd; the plumed helms found;
'Tis time to tread the battle's ground.
Wake and ay wake each friendly head,
The latest prop of Adils dead!
Strong Har, and Hrolf, whose darts ne'er fail,
Men nobly born, who never quail.
For wine, or women, wake ye not!
Wake for the battle's hardy lot! Vol. I. p. 125.

The other translations are less generally interesting than those from the Icelandic. There is, however, one poem from the Danish, which we transcribe as an instance how very closely the ancient popular ballad of that country corresponds with our own. It is said to have been taken down in the 17th century, from oral recitation, and that the old people at Hoybye then pointed out the scene of the disastrous event, and the hill upon which divine service was performed, till the Pope recalled the interdiction.

Sir Ebba let bigg a bower so tall,
As still each native knows,
There sing the small thrush and the nightingale,
Two damsels within it repose.

Sir Ebba he must to Iceland go
To bear his lord's behest;
That bower, I ween, his daughters two
Will find no place of rest.

Sir Bonda and Sir Schinnild there
Leagued with their mother came,
To harm Sir Ebba's daughters fair,
And work them scath and shame.

The younger brother trembled sore
To work the damsels' shame.
"Come Sir Ebba in peace to his native shore,
He venges his daughters' fame."

Then pale and wan grew his mother's face,
And savage wax'd her heart.
"Thou bear'st not the soul of thy father's race,
But play'st a coward's part.

"There's none within to check your might
Beside two varlets small;
And, were they both in iron dight,
They must before ye fall."

Early in the morning
They whet the shining spear;
At the close of evening
Before the bower appear.

Under the lofty chamber's tier
In rush'd the knights amain;
They ask no leave, they know no fear,
But fast the chamber gain.

Up then awoke those ladies fair
To guard their maiden pride;
Sir Bonda and Sir Schinnild there
Lay by their snowy side.

The damsels wept full bitterly
With many a maiden tear;
And pray'd them for their modesty
To dread their father dear.

Up rose the knights, and went forth, ere
Day lit the mountain's side
They thank'd for what they gain'd by fear,
But dared not longer bide.

The younger sister wailed soon,
For she fell first to shame;
"Let us sink with a stone in the billows down,
And bury our blighted fame."

The eldest sister answer'd strait;
"Nay, gentle sister, nay,
Our sire from Iceland we'll await
He'll venge us, if he may."

It was the good Sir Ebba there,
From Iceland home he came;
To meet him both his daughters fair
All weeping went with shame.

"Now welcome, welcome, father dear;
So sore for you we cried;
Sir Bonda and Sir Schinnild here
Have stain'd our maiden pride.

Sir Ebba's heart wax'd fore with woe,
To bear their mournful plight
And, "Ill to Iceland did I go;
Now come the deadly fight!"

"You must not for our ravish'd fame
Bear helm and weapons keen;
We will, by craft avenge our shame,
Though reft of honor sheen.

It falls upon a Christmas night,
To mass the people hies;
Betimes to whet their daggers bright
Sir Ebba's daughters rise.

Now shall Sir Ebba's daughters do
A deed of scath, I ween;
But they must not to the altar go
Without their weapons keen.

Lady Metelill smiled, and a glowing hue
Gleam'd under her rosy skin;
And, "Stand ye up, like ladies true!
Let the brides of my children in!"

Sir Bonda and Sir Schinnild there
To join the mass had sped;
And Trunda young, and Zenild fair,
Did fast behind them tread.

North within the armory bright
Young Trunda drew her blade;
South before the altar's light
Sir Bonda's fallen dead.

South beside the altar's ledge
Fair Zenild drew her knife;
North upon the grunsel edge
Sir Schinnild lost his life.

"Here stand we now as widows two
For neither is now a maid
And, lady, take your children two
To eat with salt and bread!"

Seven winters o'er that mournful place
Sad interdiction hung;
Nor rite was done, nor holy mass,
Nor funeral anthem sung.

On Helen's hill was a chapel built,
And there went woman and man;
Till the Pope absolved the church from guilt,
And loosed the fatal ban. Vol. I. p. 22-28.

In this curious specimen of the Northern ballad, the traces of very rude age may be discovered. The nature of the vengeance which Lady Metelill stimulates her sons to take upon the defenceless daughters of Sir Ebba, and the exulting insults with which she receives them at the church, are circumstances to be referred to a remote period of antiquity, and almost a savage state of manners. But we were most struck with its extreme resemblance, in style and structure, to the old ballads of our own country, which has been very dexterously preserved by the translator. We hope Mr. Herbert will not confine his future researches to the Icelandic poetry, but will extend them to the popular poetry of Scandinavia, which we cannot help thinking is the real source of many of the tales of our minstrels. That there was a ready intercourse between the Northern romancers, and their brethren of the South, is evident from the titles of many of the MSS. which Wanley enumerates in his catalogue, as, for example, "Sagun af Kerla Magnuse og Koppum Hans," i.e. the History of Charlemagne and his Paladins; Sagan af Ivant Englands Kappe, that is, the Adventures of Sir Ywain, a champion of the Round Table, and others, whose titles obviously denote an English or French original. But, on the other hand, we suspect that our stock of popular poetry, and even that of the Anglo-Normans, was much enriched by the Northern traditions. Ugger, or Ogier the Dane, as he is called by the French romancers, however he came to be accounted one of Charlemagne's Paladins, has evidently derived his original renown from some Northern saga. In King Lear, among other scraps of old songs quoted by Edgar, in his assumed madness, we have this fragment:

Child Rowland to the dark tower came,
———*———*———*———
The word was still fee faw fum,
I smell the blood of a Christian man.

The ballad or romance to which this quotation belongs, is to be found in the Kaempe Visier, a Danish collection of ancient popular poetry, which we would beg leave to recommend, particularly, to the learned translator of Sir Ebba. Proud Ellen Lyle, had been carried off by a sort of sea-monster or daemon, called Rosmer; and, like Chrystalline la Curieuse, in Count Hamilton's tales, was immured by him in an enchanted dwelling. Her brother Rowland, having traversed the seas in quest of her, at length arrives at the place of her confinement, and she conceals him to prevent his being put to death by Rosmer. When that daemon arrives, he greets his affrighted spouse with the two last lines of gigantic ejaculation—

Fee faw fum!
I smell the blood of a Christian man.

This curious old ballad has been lately translated by Mr. Robert Jamieson of Riga, and published in a collection of Scotish ballads, with one or two others, which tend strongly to prove, that much of our popular minstrelsy was of Danish, at least of Scandinavian origin.

We have been so copious in our extracts from the Northern Poems, that we have little time to notice the others. Mr. Herbert from the formation of his style, seems to succeed best in those which he takes from the German. There is a very good translation of the Blandine and Lenardo of Burger, which is impressive, although strongly marked with the taste for outrageous sensibility, which disgraces most German poetry. The story is that of Tancred and Sigismunda; but Burger, though he borrowed liberally, and without acknowledgment, from the English authors, was unable to reach the manly vigour of Dryden, and therefore balladized the old tale as he found it in Boccacio. We are surprised to find, that some of our brother reviewers, upon the slight foundation of a verse or two in this translation, have taxed Mr. Herbert with favouring revolutionary and levelling opinions. We should think it difficult to read far in his book, without seeing traces of very opposite politics, and would be more apt to number this ingenious poet with a party who must be allowed to possess a large share of literary merit, and of whom a professed dislike to innovation has been the leading and distinguishing principle.

In the translations from the Spanish and Italian, we are chiefly displeased with a want of pliability, as it were, in Mr. Herbert's language. It seems as if he had laboured among the rugged rhimes of the Scalds, until his style had become too rigid for transfusing the elegance and melody of the Southern poetry. There is, for instance, something embarrassed and cumbrous in the following expostulation of a lover to his mistress; and it would probably require more than one reading, ere the lady could comprehend the full force of the reproof.

Charms, which are thine, not to bestow,
Lady, was just, I freely own.
Law to the taste was never known;
The will must teach the heart to glow.
But, while the breast is cold as snow,
Thus to pretend a mutual fire;
That, as delusive hopes expire,
Keen anguish may the bosom rend
Such wrongs e'en pride to cowards lend,
And vengeful thoughts inspire! II. p. 21.

The original poetry with which these translations are interspersed, displays no peculiar vigour of imagination. Indeed, the author has in general chosen subjects which have been too frequently the theme of the Muses to admit of any great novelty in the mode of treating them. Thus, we have an Ode to Despair, in the first volume, very well executed for that kind of composition; but we have now seen so many of these addresses to personified passions, and are so much accustomed to the routine of their being supplied with appropriate amusements, and a suitable pedigree, that a disagreeable and unimpressive similarity is their principal characteristic. By the way, we meet one expression in this Ode, which we cannot approve of: we hear of a mother

—round whose side with slow consuming pang
The "barking dogs" of famine hang.

Yet there are several instances of great felicity of expression in these original pieces; and we think the author excels in that very difficult class of which love is the subject. There is an elegance in some of these little pieces, which deserts him in his more sublime efforts; and, very contrary to the meritricious effusions of contemporary bards, we remark, with pleasure, that the passion which his verses express, is that pure and virtuous affection which sublimes and refines all that is connected with it. The piece, upon the whole, which we are inclined to consider as decidedly unworthy of the others, is a ballad called William Lambert — a Tale, which the author seems to have suspected was too simple for publication. But, however true and pleasing the incident which it contains, the account of a boy relieved from beggary by the liberality of the Lady Margaret, and who prefers being a gardener to going to sea, cannot be considered as generally interesting. In some of the verses, the author has in fact slid into that style of tawdry and affected simplicity, which we should have thought that he who has studied popular poetry upon the manliest models, would, of all persons, have been least likely to imitate. The choice of the orphan to stay with Lady Margaret, is, for example, thus expressed.

The little boy he hied him in,
And busk'd him in the hall;
And soon he was all trimly dight,
And waxed stout withal.

"A boon, (he cried) fair Lady mine!
O send me not to sea!
For thou must be mine only friend,
And I must bide with thee.

"O let me here thy garden tend,
Hard by this pleasant bow'r;
Here deck the lawn with careful hand,
And rear each scented flow'r;

"The soft primrose, the violet blue,
The glowing celandine;
And cuckoo-buds, and sorrel pale,
And luscious sweet woodbine." II. p. 85, 86.

This is not genuine ballad poetry, which Mr. Herbert can write when he pleases; but that spurious kind, which trickles through Sir Eldreds of the Bower, and other legendary ditties of the 18th century. It is the very last refuge of those who, can do nothing better in the shape of verse; and a man of genius should disdain to invade the province of these dawdling rhymers.

Having discharged this unpleasing part of our task, we only add, that we wait with impatience for new information front Asgard, Midgard, and Jotunheim.

To the first volume there is added a Greek translation of Berrathon from Ossian, and a translation from Gesner into the same language, the last by William Frere.