Verse > Matthew Arnold > Poems
Matthew Arnold (1822–88).  The Poems of Matthew Arnold, 1840–1867.  1909.
Poems, Second Series, 1855
Balder Dead. An Episode.
I. Sending

[First published 1855.]

  SO 1 on the floor lay Balder dead; and round
Lay thickly strewn swords axes darts and spears
Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown
At Balder, whom no weapon pierc’d or clove:
But in his breast stood fixt the fatal bough        5
Of mistletoe, which Lok the Accuser gave
To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw:
’Gainst that alone had Balder’s life no charm.
And all the Gods and all the Heroes came
And stood round Balder on the bloody floor        10
Weeping and wailing; and Valhalla rang
Up to its golden roof with sobs and cries:
And on the tables stood the untasted meats,
And in the horns and gold-rimm’d skulls the wine:
And now would Night have fall’n, and found them yet        15
Wailing; but otherwise was Odin’s will:
And thus the Father of the Ages spake:—
  ‘Enough of tears, ye Gods, enough of wail!
Not to lament in was Valhalla made.
If any here might weep for Balder’s death        20
I most might weep, his Father; such a son
I lose to-day, so bright, so lov’d a God.
But he has met that doom which long ago
The Nornies, when his mother bare him, spun,
And Fate set seal, that so his end must be.        25
Balder has met his death, and ye survive:
Weep him an hour; but what can grief avail?
For you yourselves, ye Gods, shall meet your doom,
All ye who hear me, and inhabit Heaven,
And I too, Odin too, the Lord of all;        30
But ours we shall not meet, when that day comes,
With woman’s tears and weak complaining cries—
Why should we meet another’s portion so?
Rather it fits you, having wept your hour,
With cold dry eyes, and hearts compos’d and stern,        35
To live, as erst, your daily life in Heaven:
By me shall vengeance on the murderer Lok,
The Foe, the Accuser, whom, though Gods, we hate,
Be strictly car’d for, in the appointed day.
Meanwhile, to-morrow, when the morning dawns,        40
Bring wood to the seashore to Balder’s ship,
And on the deck build high a funeral pile,
And on the top lay Balder’s corpse, and put
Fire to the wood, and send him out to sea
To burn; for that is what the dead desire.’        45
  So having spoke, the King of Gods arose
And mounted his horse Sleipner, whom he rode,
And from the hall of Heaven he rode away
To Lidskialf, and sate upon his throne,
The Mount, from whence his eye surveys the world.        50
And far from Heaven he turn’d his shining orbs
To look on Midgard, and the earth, and men:
And on the conjuring Lapps he bent his gaze
Whom antler’d reindeer pull over the snow;
And on the Finns, the gentlest of mankind,        55
Fair men, who live in holes under the ground:
Nor did he look once more to Ida’s plain,
Nor towards Valhalla, and the sorrowing Gods;
For well he knew the Gods would heed his word,
And cease to mourn, and think of Balder’s pyre.        60
  But in Valhalla all the Gods went back
From around Balder, all the Heroes went;
And left his body stretch’d upon the floor.
And on their golden chairs they sate again,
Beside the tables, in the hall of Heaven;        65
And before each the cooks who serv’d them plac’d
New messes of the boar Serimner’s flesh,
And the Valkyries crown’d their horns with mead.
So they, with pent-up hearts and tearless eyes,
Wailing no more, in silence ate and drank,        70
While Twilight fell, and sacred Night came on.
  But the blind Hoder left the feasting Gods
In Odin’s hall, and went through Asgard streets,
And past the haven where the Gods have moor’d
Their ships, and through the gate, beyond the wall.        75
Though sightless, yet his own mind led the God.
Down to the margin of the roaring sea
He came, and sadly went along the sand
Between the waves and black o’erhanging cliffs
Where in and out the screaming seafowl fly;        80
Until he came to where a gully breaks
Through the cliff wall, and a fresh stream runs down
From the high moors behind, and meets the sea.
There in the glen Fensaler stands, the house
Of Frea, honour’d Mother of the Gods,        85
And shows its lighted windows to the main.
There he went up, and pass’d the open doors:
And in the hall he found those women old,
The Prophetesses, who by rite eterne
On Frea’s hearth feed high the sacred fire        90
Both night and day; and by the inner wall
Upon her golden chair the Mother sate,
With folded hands, revolving things to come:
To her drew Hoder near, and spake, and said:—
  ‘Mother, a child of bale thou bar’st in me.        95
For, first, thou barest me with blinded eyes,
Sightless and helpless, wandering weak in Heaven;
And, after that, of ignorant witless mind
Thou barest me, and unforeseeing soul:
That I alone must take the branch from Lok,        100
The Foe, the Accuser, whom, though Gods, we hate,
And cast it at the dear-lov’d Balder’s breast
At whom the Gods in sport their weapons threw—
’Gainst that alone had Balder’s life no charm.
Now therefore what to attempt, or whither fly?        105
For who will bear my hateful sight in Heaven?—
Can I, O Mother, bring them Balder back?
Or—for thou know’st the Fates, and things allow’d—
Can I with Hela’s power a compact strike,
And make exchange, and give my life for his?’        110
  He spoke: the Mother of the Gods replied:—
‘Holder, ill-fated, child of bale, my son,
Sightless in soul and eye, what words are these?
That one, long portion’d with his doom of death,
Should change his lot, and fill another’s life,        115
And Hela yield to this, and let him go!
On Balder Death hath laid her hand, not thee;
Nor doth she count this life a price for that.
For many Gods in Heaven, not thou alone,
Would freely die to purchase Balder back,        120
And wend themselves to Hela’s gloomy realm.
For not so gladsome is that life in Heaven
Which Gods and Heroes lead, in feast and fray,
Waiting the darkness of the final times,
That one should grudge its loss for Balder’s sake,        125
Balder their joy, so bright, so lov’d a God.
But Fate withstands, and laws forbid this way.
Yet in my secret mind one way I know,
Nor do I judge if it shall win or fail:
But much must still be tried, which shall but fail.’        130
  And the blind Hoder answer’d her, and said:—
‘What way is this, O Mother, that thou show’st?
Is it a matter which a God might try?’
  And straight the Mother of the Gods replied:—
‘There is a way which leads to Hela’s realm,        135
Untrodden, lonely, far from light and Heaven.
Who goes that way must take no other horse
To ride, but Sleipner, Odin’s horse, alone.
Nor must he choose that common path of Gods
Which every day they come and go in Heaven,        140
O’er the bridge Bifrost, where is Heimdall’s watch,
Past Midgard Fortress, down to Earth and men;
But he must tread a dark untravell’d road
Which branches from the north of Heaven, and ride
Nine days, nine nights, towards the northern ice,        145
Through valleys deep-engulph’d, with roaring streams.
And he will reach on the tenth morn a bridge
Which spans with golden arches Giall’s stream,
Not Bifrost, but that bridge a Damsel keeps,
Who tells the passing troops of dead their way        150
To the low shore of ghosts, and Hela’s realm.
And she will bid him northward steer his course:
Then he will journey through no lighted land,
Nor see the sun arise, nor see it set;
But he must ever watch the northern Bear        155
Who from her frozen height with jealous eye
Confronts the Dog and Hunter in the south,
And is alone not dipt in Ocean’s stream.
And straight he will come down to Ocean’s strand;
Ocean, whose watery ring enfolds the world,        160
And on whose marge the ancient Giants dwell.
But he will reach its unknown northern shore,
Far, far beyond the outmost Giant’s home,
At the chink’d fields of ice, the waste of snow:
And he will fare across the dismal ice        165
Northward, until he meets a stretching wall
Barring his way, and in the wall a grate.
But then he must dismount, and on the ice
Tighten the girths of Sleipner, Odin’s horse,
And make him leap the grate, and come within.        170
And he will see stretch round him Hela’s realm,
The plains of Niflheim, where dwell the dead,
And hear the roaring of the streams of Hell.
And he will see the feeble shadowy tribes,
And Balder sitting crown’d, and Hela’s throne.        175
Then he must not regard the wailful ghosts
Who all will flit, like eddying leaves, around;
But he must straight accost their solemn Queen,
And pay her homage, and entreat with prayers,
Telling her all that grief they have in Heaven        180
For Balder, whom she holds by right below:
If haply he may melt her heart with words,
And make her yield, and give him Balder back.’
  She spoke: but Hoder answer’d her and said:—
‘Mother, a dreadful way is this thou show’st.        185
No journey for a sightless God to go.’
  And straight the Mother of the Gods replied:—
‘Therefore thyself thou shalt not go, my son.
But he whom first thou meetest when thou com’st
To Asgard, and declar’st this hidden way,        190
Shall go, and I will be his guide unseen.’
  She spoke, and on her face let fall her veil,
And bow’d her head, and sate with folded hands.
But at the central hearth those Women old,
Who while the Mother spake had ceased their toil,        195
Began again to heap the sacred fire:
And Hoder turn’d, and left his mother’s house,
Fensaler, whose lit windows look to sea;
And came again down to the roaring waves,
And back along the beach to Asgard went,        200
Pondering on that which Frea said should be.
  But Night came down, and darken’d Asgard streets.
Then from their loathed feast the Gods arose,
And lighted torches, and took up the corpse
Of Balder from the floor of Odin’s hall        205
And laid it on a bier, and bare him home
Through the fast-darkening streets to his own house
Breidablik, on whose columns Balder grav’d
The enchantments, that recall the dead to life:
For wise he was, and many curious arts,        210
Postures of runes, and healing herbs he knew;
Unhappy: but that art he did not know
To keep his own life safe, and see the sun:—
There to his hall the Gods brought Balder home,
And each bespake him as he laid him down:—        215
  ‘Would that ourselves, O Balder, we were borne
Home to our halls, with torchlight, by our kin,
So thou might’st live, and still delight the Gods.’
  They spake: and each went home to his own house.
But there was one, the first of all the Gods        220
For speed, and Hermod was his name in Heaven;
Most fleet he was, but now he went the last,
Heavy in heart for Balder, to his house
Which he in Asgard built him, there to dwell,
Against the harbour, by the city wall:        225
Him the blind Hoder met, as he came up
From the sea cityward, and knew his step;
Nor yet could Hermod see his brother’s face,
For it grew dark; but Hoder touch’d his arm:
And as a spray of honeysuckle flowers        230
Brushes across a tired traveller’s face
Who shuffles through the deep dew-moisten’d dust,
On a May evening, in the darken’d lanes,
And starts him, that he thinks a ghost went by—
So Hoder brush’d by Hermod’s side, and said:—        235
  ‘Take Sleipner, Hermod, and set forth with dawn
To Hela’s kingdom, to ask Balder back;
And they shall be thy guides, who have the power.’
  He spake, and brush’d soft by, and disappear’d.
And Hermod gaz’d into the night, and said:—        240
  ‘Who is it utters through the dark his hest
So quickly, and will wait for no reply?
The voice was like the unhappy Hoder’s voice.
Howbeit I will see, and do his hest;
For there rang note divine in that command.’        245
  So speaking, the fleet-footed Hermod came
Home, and lay down to sleep in his own house,
And all the Gods lay down in their own homes.
And Hoder too came home, distraught with grief,
Loathing to meet, at dawn, the other Gods:        250
And he went in, and shut the door, and fixt
His sword upright, and fell on it, and died.
  But from the hill of Lidskialf Odin rose,
The throne, from which his eye surveys the world;
And mounted Sleipner, and in darkness rode        255
To Asgard. And the stars came out in Heaven,
High over Asgard, to light home the King.
But fiercely Odin gallop’d, mov’d in heart;
And swift to Asgard, to the gate, he came;
And terribly the hoofs of Sleipner rang        260
Along the flinty floor of Asgard streets;
And the Gods trembled on their golden beds
Hearing the wrathful Father coming home;
For dread, for like a whirlwind, Odin came:
And to Valhalla’s gate he rode, and left        265
Sleipner; and Sleipner went to his own stall:
And in Valhalla Odin laid him down.
  But in Breidablik Nanna, Balder’s wife,
Came with the Goddesses who wrought her will,
And stood round Balder lying on his bier:        270
And at his head and feet she station’d Scalds
Who in their lives were famous for their song;
These o’er the corpse inton’d a plaintive strain,
A dirge; and Nanna and her train replied.
And far into the night they wail’d their dirge:        275
But when their souls were satisfied with wail,
They went, and laid them down, and Nanna went
Into an upper chamber, and lay down;
And Frea seal’d her tired lids with sleep.
  And ’twas when Night is bordering hard on Dawn,        280
When air is chilliest, and the stars sunk low,
Then Balder’s spirit through the gloom drew near,
In garb, in form, in feature as he was
Alive, and still the rays were round his head
Which were his glorious mark in Heaven; he stood        285
Over against the curtain of the bed,
And gaz’d on Nanna as she slept, and spake:—
  ‘Poor lamb, thou sleepest, and forgett’st thy woe.
Tears stand upon the lashes of thine eyes,
Tears wet the pillow by thy cheek; but thou,        290
Like a young child, hast cried thyself to sleep.
Sleep on: I watch thee, and am here to aid.
Alive I kept not far from thee, dear soul,
Neither do I neglect thee now, though dead.
For with to-morrow’s dawn the Gods prepare        295
To gather wood, and build a funeral pile
Upon my ship, and burn my corpse with fire,
That sad, sole honour of the dead; and thee
They think to burn, and all my choicest wealth,
With me, for thus ordains the common rite:        300
But it shall not be so: but mild, but swift,
But painless shall a stroke from Frea come,
To cut thy thread of life, and free thy soul,
And they shall burn thy corpse with mine, not thee.
And well I know that by no stroke of death,        305
Tardy or swift, wouldst thou be loath to die,
So it restor’d thee, Nanna, to my side,
Whom thou so well hast lov’d; but I can smooth
Thy way, and this at least my prayers avail.
Yes, and I fain would altogether ward        310
Death from thy head, and with the Gods in Heaven
Prolong thy life, though not by thee desir’d:
But Right bars this, not only thy desire.
Yet dreary, Nanna, is the life they lead
In that dim world, in Hela’s mouldering realm;        315
And doleful are the ghosts, the troops of dead,
Whom Hela with austere control presides;
For of the race of Gods is no one there
Save me alone, and Hela, solemn Queen:
And all the nobler souls of mortal men        320
On battle-field have met their death, and now
Feast in Valhalla, in my Father’s hall;
Only the inglorious sort are there below,
The old, the cowards, and the weak are there,
Men spent by sickness, or obscure decay.        325
But even there, O Nanna, we might find
Some solace in each other’s look and speech,
Wandering together through that gloomy world.
And talking of the life we led in Heaven,
While we yet liv’d, among the other Gods.’        330
  He spake, and straight his lineaments began
To fade: and Nanna in her sleep stretch’d out
Her arms towards him with a cry; but he
Mournfully shook his head, and disappear’d.
And as the woodman sees a little smoke        335
Hang in the air, afield, and disappear—
So Balder faded in the night away.
And Nanna on her bed sunk back: but then
Frea, the Mother of the Gods, with stroke
Painless and swift, set free her airy soul,        340
Which took, on Balder’s track, the way below:
And instantly the sacred Morn appear’d.
  ‘Baldur the Good having been tormented with terrible dreams, indicating that his life was in great peril, communicated them to the assembled Aesir, who resolved to conjure all things to avert from him the threatened danger. Then Frigga exacted an oath from fire and water, from iron and all other metals, as well as from stones, earths, diseases, beasts, birds, poisons, and creeping things, that none of them would do any harm to Baldur. When this was done, it became a favourite pastime of the Aesir, at their meetings, to get Baldur to stand up and serve them as a mark, some hurling darts at him, some stones, while others hewed at him with their swords and battle-axes, for do what they would, none of them could harm him, and this was regarded by all as a great honour shown to Baldur. But when Loki, the son of Laufey, beheld the scene, he was sorely vexed that Baldur was not hurt. Assuming, therefore, the shape of a woman, he went to Fensalir, the mansion of Frigga. That goddess, when she saw the pretended woman, inquired of her if she knew what the Aesir were doing at their meetings. She replied, that they were throwing darts and stones at Baldur without being able to hurt him.
  ‘“Ay,” said Frigga, “neither metal nor wood can hurt Baldur, for I have exacted an oath from all of them.”
  ‘“What!” exclaimed the woman, “have all things sworn to spare Baldur?”
  ‘“All things,” replied Frigga, “except one little shrub that grows on the eastern side of Valhalla, and is called Mistletoe, and which I thought too young and feeble to crave an oath from.”
  ‘As soon as Loki heard this he went away, and, resuming his natural shape, cut off the Mistletoe, and repaired to the place where the gods were assembled. There he found Hödur standing apart, without partaking of the sports, on account of his blindness, and, going up to him, said, “Why dost thou not also throw something at Baldur?”
  ‘“Because I am blind,” answered Hödur, “and see not where Baldur is, and have, moreover, nothing to throw with.”
  ‘“Come then,” said Loki, “do like the rest, and show honour to Baldur by throwing this twig at him, and I will direct thy arm toward the place where he stands.”
  “Hödur then took the mistletoe, and, under the guidance of Loki, darted it at Baldur, who, pierced through and through, fell down lifeless … When Baldur fell the Aesir were struck speechless with horror, and then they looked at each other, and all were of one mind to lay hands on him who had done the deed, but they were obliged to delay their vengeance out of respect for the sacred place (Peace-stead) where they were assembled. They at length gave vent to their grief by loud lamentations, though not one of them could find words to express the poignancy of his feelings. Odin, especially, was more sensible than the others of the loss they had suffered, for he foresaw what a detriment Baldur’s death would be to the Aesir. When the gods came to themselves, Frigga asked who among them wished to gain all her love and good will; “For this,” said she, “shall he have who will ride to Hel and try to find Baldur, and offer Hela a ransom if she will let him return to Asgard”; whereupon Hermod, surnamed the Nimble, the son of Odin, offered to undertake the journey. Odin’s horse Sleipner was then led forth, on which Hermod mounted, and galloped away on his mission.
  ‘The Aesir then took the dead body and bore it to the seashore, where stood Baldur’s ship Hringhorn, which passed for the largest in the world. But when they wanted to launch it in order to make Baldur’s funeral pile on it, they were unable to make it stir. In this conjuncture they sent to Jötunheim for a certain giantess named Hyrrokin, who came mounted on a wolf, having twisted serpents for a bridle … Hyrrokin then went to the ship, and with a single push set it afloat, but the motion was so violent that fire sparkled from the rollers, and the earth shook all round. Thor, enraged at the sight, grasped his mallet, and but for the interference of the Aesir would have broken the woman’s skull. Baldur’s body was then borne to the funeral pile on board the ship, and this ceremony had such an effect on Nanna, the daughter of Nep, that her heart broke with grief, and her body was burnt on the same pile with her husband’s … There was a vast concourse of various kinds of people at Baldur’s obsequies. First came Odin, accompanied by Frigga, the Valkyrjor and his ravens; then Frey in his ear drawn by the boar named Gullinbursti or Slidrugtanni; Heimdall rode by his horse called Gulltop, and Freyja drove in her chariot drawn by cats. There were also a great many Frost-giants and giants of the mountains present. Odin laid on the pile the gold ring called Draupnir, which afterwards acquired the property of producing every ninth night eight rings of equal weight. Baldur’s horse was led to the pile fully caparisoned, and consumed in the same flames on the body of his master.
  ‘Meanwhile, Hermod was proceeding on his mission. For the space of nine days, and as many nights, he rode through deep glens so dark that he could not discern anything until he arrived at the river Gjöll, which he passed over on a bridge covered with glittering gold. Modgudur, the maiden who kept the bridge, asked him his name and lineage, telling him that the day before five bands of dead persons had ridden over the bridge, and did not shake it so much as he alone. “But,” she added, “thou hast not death’s hue on thee, why then ridest thou here on the way to Hel?”
  ‘“I ride to Hel,” answered Hermod, “to seek Baldur. Hast thou perchance seen him pass this way?”
  ‘“Baldur,” she replied, “hath ridden over Gjöll’s bridge, but there below, towards the north, lies the way to the abodes of death.”
  ‘Hermod then pursued his journey until he came to the barred gates of Hel. Here he alighted, girthed his saddle tighter, and remounting, clapped both spurs to his horse, who cleared’ the gate by a tremendous leap without touching it. Hermod then rode on to the palace, where he found his brother Baldur occupying the most distinguished seat in the hall, and passed the night in his company. The next morning he besought Hela (Death) to let Baldur ride home with him, assuring her that nothing but lamentations were to be heard among the gods. Hela answered that it should now be tried whether Baldur was so beloved as he was said to be.
  ‘“If therefore,” she added, “all things in the world, both living and lifeless, weep for him, then shall he return to the Aesir, but if any one thing speak against him or refuse to weep, he shall be kept in Hel.”
  ‘Hermod then rose, and Baldur led him out of the hall and gave him the ring Draupnir, to present as a keepsake to Odin. Nanna also sent Frigga a linen cassock and other gifts, and to Fulla a gold finger-ring. Hermod then rode back to Asgard, and gave an account of all he had heard and witnessed.
  ‘The gods upon this dispatched messengers throughout the world, to beg everything to weep, in order that Baldur might be delivered from Hel. All things very willingly complied with this request, both men and every other living being, as well as earths and stones, and trees and metals, just as thou must have seen these things weep when they are brought from a cold place into a hot one. As the messengers were returning with the conviction that their mission had been quite successful, they found an old hag named Thaukt sitting in a carvern, and begged her to weep Baldur out of Hel. But she answered,
‘“Thaukt will wail
With arid tears
Baldur’s bale fire.
Naught, quick or dead,
By man’s son gain I,
Let Hela hold what’s hers.”
It was strongly suspected that this hag was no other than Loki himself, who never ceased to work evil among the Aesir.’—The Prose or Younger Edda, commonly ascribed to Snorri Sturleson, translated by J. A. Blackwell. Contained in P. H. Mallet’s Northern Antiquities. Bohn’s edition, 1847. [back]

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