Verse > Anthologies > The World’s Best Poetry > Vol. VIII. National Spirit
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Bliss Carman, et al., eds.  The World’s Best Poetry.
Volume VIII. National Spirit.  1904.
 
III. War
Alfred the Harper
John Sterling (1806–1844)
 
DARK fell the night, the watch was set,
The host was idly spread,
The Danes around their watchfires met,
Caroused, and fiercely fed.
 
The chiefs beneath a tent of leaves        5
And Guthrum, king of all,
Devoured the flesh of England’s beeves,
And laughed at England’s fall.
Each warrior proud, each Danish earl,
In mail of wolf-skin clad,        10
Their bracelets white with plundered pearl,
Their eyes with triumph mad.
 
From Humber-land to Severn-land,
And on to Tamar stream,
Where Thames makes green the towery strand,        15
Where Medway’s waters gleam,—
With hands of steel and mouths of flame
They raged the kingdom through;
And where the Norseman sickle came,
No crop but hunger grew.        20
 
They loaded many an English horse
With wealth of cities fair;
They dragged from many a father’s corse
The daughter by her hair.
And English slaves, and gems and gold,        25
Were gathered round the feast;
Till midnight in their woodland hold,
O, never that riot ceased.
 
In stalked a warrior tall and rude
Before the strong sea-kings;        30
“Ye Lords and Earls of Odin’s brood,
Without a harper sings.
He seems a simple man and poor,
But well he sounds the lay;
And well, ye Norseman chiefs, be sure,        35
Will ye the song repay.”
 
In trod the bard with keen cold look,
And glanced along the board,
That with the shout and war-cry shook
Of many a Danish lord.        40
But thirty brows, inflamed and stern,
Soon bent on him their gaze,
While calm he gazed, as if to learn
Who chief deserved his praise.
 
Loud Guthrum spake,—“Nay, gaze not thus,        45
Thou Harper weak and poor!
By Thor! who bandy looks with us
Must worse than looks endure.
Sing high the praise of Denmark’s host,
High praise each dauntless Earl;        50
The brave who stun this English coast
With war’s unceasing whirl.”
 
The Harper slowly bent his head,
And touched aloud the string;
Then raised his face, and boldly said,        55
“Hear thou my lay, O King!
High praise from every mouth of man
To all who boldly strive,
Who fall where first the fight began,
And ne’er go back alive.        60
 
“Fill high your cups, and swell the shout,
At famous Regnar’s name!
Who sank his host in bloody rout,
When he to Humber came.
His men were chased, his sons were slain,        65
And he was left alone.
They bound him in an iron chain
Upon a dungeon stone.
 
“With iron links they bound him fast;
With snakes they filled the hole,        70
That made his flesh their long repast,
And bit into his soul.
 
“Great chiefs, why sink in gloom your eyes?
Why champ your teeth in pain?
Still lives the song though Regnar dies!        75
Fill high your cups again!
Ye too, perchance, O Norseman lords!
Who fought and swayed so long,
Shall soon but live in minstrel words,
And owe your names to song.        80
 
“This land has graves by thousands more
Than that where Regnar lies.
When conquests fade, and rule is o’er,
The sod must close your eyes.
How soon, who knows? Not chief, nor bard;        85
And yet to me ’t is given,
To see your foreheads deeply scarred,
And guess the doom of Heaven.
 
“I may not read or when or how,
But, Earls and Kings, be sure        90
I see a blade o’er every brow,
Where pride now sits secure.
Fill high the cups, raise loud the strain!
When chief and monarch fall,
Their names in song shall breathe again,        95
And thrill the feastful hall.”
 
Grim sat the chiefs; one heaved a groan,
And one grew pale with dread,
His iron mace was grasped by one,
By one his wine was shed.        100
And Guthrum cried, “Nay, bard, no more
We hear thy boding lay;
Make drunk the song with spoil and gore!
Light up the joyous fray!”
“Quick throbs my brain,”—so burst the song,—        105
To hear the strife once more.
The mace, the axe, they rest too long;
Earth cries, My thirst is sore.
More blithely twang the strings of bows
Than strings of harps in glee;        110
Red wounds are lovelier than the rose
Or rosy lips to me.
 
“O, fairer than a field of flowers,
When flowers in England grew,
Would be the battle’s marshalled powers,        115
The plain of carnage new.
With all its death before my soul
The vision rises fair;
Raise loud the song, and drain the bowl!
I would that I were there!”        120
 
Loud rang the harp, the minstrel’s eye
Rolled fiercely round the throng;
It seemed two crashing hosts were nigh,
Whose shock aroused the song.
A golden cup King Guthrum gave        125
To him who strongly played;
And said, “I won it from the slave
Who once o’er England swayed.”
 
King Guthrum cried, “’T was Alfred’s own;
Thy song befits the brave:        130
The King who cannot guard his throne
Nor wine nor song shall have.”
The minstrel took the goblet bright,
And said, “I drink the wine
To him who owns by justest right        135
The cup thou bid’st be mine.
To him, your Lord, O shout ye all!
His meed be deathless praise!
The King who dares not nobly fall,
Dies basely all his days.”        140
 
“The praise thou speakest,” Guthrum said,
“With sweetness fills mine ear;
For Alfred swift before me fled,
And left me monarch here.
The royal coward never dared        145
Beneath mine eye to stand.
O, would that now this feast he shared,
And saw me rule his land!”
 
Then stern the minstrel rose, and spake,
And gazed upon the King,—        150
“Not now the golden cup I take,
Nor more to thee I sing.
Another day, a happier hour,
Shall bring me here again:
The cup shall stay in Guthrum’s power,        155
Till I demand it then.”
 
The Harper turned and left the shed,
Nor bent to Guthrum’s crown;
And one who marked his visage said
It wore a ghastly frown.        160
The Danes ne’er saw that Harper more,
For soon as morning rose,
Upon their camp King Alfred bore,
And slew ten thousand foes.
 
 
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