English Poetry and Old Norse Myth: A History
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English Poetry and Old Norse Myth: A History traces the influence of Old Norse myth -- stories and poems about the familiar gods and goddesses of the pagan North, such as Odin, Thor, Baldr and Freyja -- on poetry in English from Anglo-Saxon times to the present day. Especial care is taken to determine the precise form in which these poets encountered the mythic material, so that the book traces a parallel history of the gradual dissemination of Old Norse mythic texts.
Very many major poets were inspired by Old Norse myth. Some, for instance the Anglo-Saxon poet of Beowulf, or much later, Sir Walter Scott, used Old Norse mythic references to lend dramatic colour and apparent authenticity to their presentation of a distant Northern past. Others, like Thomas Gray, or Matthew Arnold, adapted Old Norse mythological poems and stories in ways which both responded to and helped to form the literary tastes of their own times. Still others, such as William Blake, or David Jones, reworked and incorporated celebrated elements of Norse myth - valkyries weaving the fates of men, or the great World Tree Yggdrasill on which Odin sacrificed himself - as personal symbols in their own poetry. This book also considers less familiar literary figures, showing how a surprisingly large number of poets in English engaged in individual ways with Old Norse myth. English Poetry and Old Norse Myth: A History demonstrates how attitudes towards the pagan mythology of the north change over time, but reveals that poets have always recognized Old Norse myth as a vital part of the literary, political and historical legacy of the English-speaking world.
serpent is prominent in many mythologies, and MacDiarmid himself linked his various serpent forms with the biblical Leviathan, Melville’s great white whale, and Indian world serpents. But there are many indications that the Norse World Serpent was at the forefront of MacDiarmid’s mind. The challenging title of To Circumjack Cencrastus is significant here. The verb “to circumjack” is ultimately based on the Latin circum jacere, to lie around, and the Miðgarðsormr is precisely the ultimate
him and this wallopin’ troot and the need to land it”. The scale has suddenly turned cosmic. Andy “rung in till his rod was like a hauf-hoop and his line as ticht as the gut o’ a fiddle—and there was its heid! It was a whopper and nae mistak’! . . . snap! the line broke . . . Andy dived into the pool heid first.”153 W. N. Herbert describes this anecdote as being “linked to personal experience”;154 but all it lacks to match the myth is a reference to the soles of Andrew Grieve’s feet. The other
typographical error (going back to the poem’s first publication in ‘The Criterion’ in 1939) for Odhraerir (MacDiarmid always used “dh” for the Old Norse letter “ð”). Only in the eddic poem Hávamál is the mead of poetry itself called Óðrærir; the name may be derived from the noun óðr (poetry, or soul) and the verb hræra (to stir up).169 It is clear that MacDiarmid appreciated the deepest and darkest corner of Old Norse myth: that Yggdrasill was the tree on which Odin hanged himself, a god
Responses: Gray, Blake, and the Northern Sublime The poet Thomas Gray—the most learned man in Europe, according to an obituary written by a friend shortly after Gray’s death in 17711— combined antiquarian and poetic talents; with his celebrated versions of two Old Norse poems, the ‘Norse Odes’, he was the first major poet in English to engage with Old Norse myth, and heralded the great surge in the popularity of Old Norse poetry, and the consequent flood of poetic imitations of Old Norse verse in
furious swell. The plumed Monarch whets his beak, Seeking where his wrath to wreak; Till on the plain, with corses strew’d, He sates his maw with bleeding food.71 The final line of the original stanza alludes to the great boat Naglfar, captained by the advancing frost giant Hrymr, and according to Snorri, constructed from the parings of the nails of corpses who have failed in their duty to trim them whilst alive. Snorri notes tersely that everyone should take care to keep their nails short,