The Passing of Balder

 

(inspired by Matthew Arnold)

That night was felt a sense of tragedy,
A feeling that the Gods could not reject,
Nor yet the Heroes, though they shook it off
And told themselves that it was fear born
Of superstition; still, it tightly held
The Heroes’ tongues in check, the Gods inquiet,
As from the gold-rimmed skulls they drank the wine
In the Hall of Asgard, Valhalla by name,
Where tables were for God and Heroes set,
And where they breakfasted and dined and supped
In threefold merriment as the boar’s flesh
Was passed around. The boar Serimner was
A beast once killed in battle, hard and dire
That fight th’Immortals waged, and ever since
Of its fine flesh the Gods and Heroes ate
In keen enjoyment, but no lesser grew
The carcase but remained entire and whole
As if it had been never touched, appeared
Quite fresh each night they ate of it. But now
Instead of high-pitched laughter, jokes and songs,
All tongues were tied and each in silence ate,
E’en unto mighty Odin’s self, whose brow
Contracted was in deep and silent thought;
So sat they mute, a silent throng.
And when the time for rising from their seats
Approached, relief was felt on either hand,
And every God and Hero rose to shake
From off himself the dull oppressive fear
Of something terrible to come, some thing
They could not well define and each one took
His stand in rank, while Balder climbed the pile
Where he would lend his body to be pierced!
Balder, bright Balder, the most handsome God!
But whatso’er they threw at him, their swords,
Axes, spears, not one there who could hurt
Or wound the bright Balder, whose life seemed to be
Protected ‘gainst all things: and so tonight
He’d withstand the missiles thrown, as was
His customary practice, wont, and joy,
With all his calm unflinching attitude,
And ne’er a sword nor axe could break his skin
Then when the pastime near approached its end,
Lok, the accusing God, and Hela’s friend,
Did give to Hoder the blind God a twig
Of harmless mistletoe and bade him hurl
The twig at Balder where he radiant stood,
For Lok was not of Balder’s chosen friends;
So Hoder threw the twig, which pierced his flesh
Through and through unto his heart. Down he fell,
Lifefless and stiff upon the floor, and breathed
His last farewell to all the stricken Gods!
Now knew the Heroes all too well the sense
Of that impending doom was no mere fancy but
A warning and a foreword. So they stood
In silence round his body, not unlike a
A curious crowd that gathers quick around
Some street mishap, with awestruck mouths agape,
Man o’er the shoulder of his fellow strains
To see what lies upon the ground; so there
The Gods and Heroes stood struck mute, until
Their tongues were loosed and wailing rose on high,
And sobs and groans echoed throughout the hall;
Up to Valhalla’s golden roof they rang.
Then in the midst of all this wailing noise
Odin, the Father of the Gods, stood up
And with a clear but subdued voice rebuked
The Gods and chided gently the Heroes;
He spake, ‘Pray, cease this wailing, all unfit
To be giv’n vent to in the Hall of Heav’n;
Know ye that wailing will not quicken him,
Nor lamentations his fled soul recall:
And so, away with tears, ye Gods and Men,
And let not wailing occupy your time!
But rather let us now to sleep and when
The morning, the sad morning when our play
And sport will be in want of what which he
Did give us of his spirit and his frame,
Wanly appears, up on the forests you
Will bend your steps up to the mighty woods,
And there will hew great trees and bring them down
Crashing to the ground, and lop the branches off
To place upon the deck of Balder’s ship
To fire; this our last tribute to the dead;
With Nanna by his side to burn with flame
All he possessed in Heav’n among the Gods:
For by the ancient rites and customs he
Must have the satisfaction and content
Of knowing that his Heav’nly body was,
With Nanna his espoused at his side,
Burned to cold ashes with ceremony!
The last sad tribute to our mourned dead!
So then tomorrow that your work must be,
And for that tedious labour yet must sleep
The full round of the sun, the full half-day,
Ere ye can such a task engage.’ So spake
Odin the Father of the Gods, and passes
Out of Valhalla; as some lonely man
Walks heavily and slowly back from where
His only son is newly laid beneath
The green green grass, and feels it hard to go
And leave his son alone in the churchyard,
Alone at nights where bats will wing their way,
Alone when night winds sigh through the dark yews,
Alone and cold, whilst he at home, the sire,
Sits pensive and in thought before the coals,
Sending a warmth and light into the room,
And thinking, thinking, thinking of his son,
So lately laid to rest, so lately young
And beautiful in the first flush of man,
And now alone, alone beneath the ground;
Daisies above him growing, and the rain
The rain, the cold rain splashing where he lies:
And the old man sits home after his loss,
Heeding the faces not, nor yet the sighs,
Oblivious to all except his son
Is not now with him. So then Odin passed
Out of the God-hall and betook himself
To his assigned dwelling through the streets
Fast darkening into shades of Heaven’s night.

1924