A poem by Matthew Arnold

The gods held talk together, group’d in knots,
Round Balder’s corpse, which they had thither borne;
And Hermod came down towards them from the gate.
And Lok, the Father of the Serpent, first
Beheld him come, and to his neighbour spake:

‘See, here is Hermod, who comes single back
From Hell; and shall I tell thee how he seems
Like as a farmer, who hath lost his dog,
Some morn, at market, in a crowded town
Through many streets the poor beast runs in vain,
And follows this man after that, for hours;
And, late at evening, spent and panting, falls
Before a stranger’s threshold, not his home,
With flanks a-tremble, and his slender tongue
Hangs quivering out between his dust-smear’d jaws,
And piteously he eyes the passers by:
But home his master comes to his own farm,
Far in the country, wondering where he is
So Hermod comes to-day unfollow’d home.’

And straight his neighbour, mov’d with wrath, replied:
‘Deceiver, fair in form, but false in heart,
Enemy, Mocker, whom, though Gods, we hate
Peace, lest our Father Odin hear thee gibe.
Would I might see him snatch thee in his hand,
And bind thy carcase, like a bale, with cords,
And hurl thee in a lake, to sink or swim.
If clear from plotting Balder’s death, to swim;
But deep, if thou devisedst it, to drown,
And perish, against fate, before thy day!’

So they two soft to one another spake.
But Odin look’d toward the land, and saw
His messenger; and he stood forth, and cried:
And Hermod came, and leapt from Sleipner down,
And in his Father’s hand put Sleipner’s rein,
And greeted Odin and the Gods, and said:

‘Odin, my Father, and ye, Gods of Heaven!
Lo, home, having perform’d your will, I come.
Into the joyless kingdom have I been,
Below, and look’d upon the shadowy tribes
Of ghosts, and commun’d with their solemn Queen;
And to your prayer she sends you this reply:
Show her through all the world the signs of grief:
Fails but one thing to grieve, there Balder stops.
Let Gods, men, brutes, beweep hint, plants and stones.
So shall she know your loss was dear indeed,
And bend her heart, and give you Balder back.’

He spoke; and all the Gods to Odin look’d:
And straight the Father of the Ages said:

‘Ye Gods, these terms may keep another day.
But now, put on your arms, and mount your steeds,
And in procession all come near, and weep
Balder; for that is what the dead desire.
When ye enough have wept, then build a pile
Of the heap’d wood, and burn his corpse with fire
Out of our sight; that we may turn from grief,
And lead, as erst, our daily life in Heaven.’

He spoke; and the Gods arm’d: and Odin donn’d
His dazzling corslet and his helm of gold,
And led the way on Sleipner: and the rest
Follow’d, in tears, their Father and their King.
And thrice in arms around the dead they rode,
Weeping; the sands were wetted, and their arms,
With their thick-falling tears: so good a friend
They mourn’d that day, so bright, so lov’d a God.
And Odin came, and laid his kingly hands
On Balder’s breast, and thus began the wail:

‘Farewell, O Balder, bright and lov’d, my Son!
In that great day, the Twilight of the Gods.
When Muspel’s children shall beleaguer Heaven,
Then we shall miss thy counsel and thy arm.’

Thou camest near the next, O Warrior Thor!
Shouldering thy Hammer, in thy chariot drawn,
Swaying the long-hair’d Goats with silver’d rein;
And over Balder’s corpse these words didst say:

‘Brother, thou dwellest in the darksome land,
And talkest with the feeble tribes of ghosts,
Now, and I know not how they prize thee there,
But here, I know, thou wilt be miss’d and mourn’d.
For haughty spirits and high wraths are rife
Among the Gods and Heroes here in Heaven,
As among those, whose joy and work is war:
And daily strifes arise, and angry words:
But from thy lips, O Balder, night or day,
Heard no one ever an injurious word
To God or Hero, but thou keptest back
The others, labouring to compose their brawls.
Be ye then kind, as Balder too was kind:
For we lose him, who smooth’d all strife in Heaven.’

He spake: and all the Gods assenting wail’d.
And Freya next came nigh, with golden tears:
The loveliest Goddess she in Heaven, by all
Most honour’d after Frea, Odin’s wife:
Her long ago the wandering Oder took
To mate, but left her to roam distant lands;
Since then she seeks him, and weeps tears of gold:
Names hath she many; Vanadis on earth
They call her; Freya is her name in Heaven:
She in her hands took Balder’s head, and spake:

‘Balder, my brother, thou art gone a road
Unknown and long, and haply on that way
My long-lost wandering Oder thou hast met,
For in the paths of Heaven he is not found.
Oh, if it be so, tell him what thou wert
To his neglected wife, and what he is,
And wring his heart with shame, to hear thy word.
For he, my husband, left me here to pine,
Not long a wife, when his unquiet heart
First drove him from me into distant lands.
Since then I vainly seek him through the world,
And weep from shore to shore my golden tears,
But neither god nor mortal heeds my pain.
Thou only, Balder, wert for ever kind,
To take my hand, and wipe my tears, and say:
Weep not, O Freya, weep no golden tears!
One day the wandering Oder will return,
Or thou wilt find him in thy faithful search
On some great road, or resting in an inn,
Or at a ford, or sleeping by a tree.
So Balder said; but Oder, well I know,
My truant Oder I shall see no more
To the world’s end; and Balder now is gone;
And I am left uncomforted in Heaven.’

She spake; and all the Goddesses bewail’d.
Last, from among the Heroes one came near,
No God, but of the Hero-troop the chief
Regner, who swept the northern sea with fleets,
And rul’d o’er Denmark and the heathy isles,
Living; but Ella captur’d him and slew:
A king, whose fame then fill’d the vast of Heaven,
Now time obscures it, and men’s later deeds:
He last approach’d the corpse, and spake, and said:

‘Balder, there yet are many Scalds in Heaven
Still left, and that chief Scald, thy brother Brage,
Whom we may bid to sing, though thou art gone:
And all these gladly, while we drink, we hear,
After the feast is done, in Odin’s hall:
But they harp ever on one string, and wake
Remembrance in our soul of wars alone,
Such as on earth we valiantly have wag’d,
And blood, and ringing blows, and violent death:
But when thou sangest, Balder, thou didst strike
Another note, and, like a bird in spring,
Thy voice of joyance minded us, and youth,
And wife, and children, and our ancient home.
Yes, and I too remember’d then no more
My dungeon, where the serpents stung me dead,
Nor Ella’s victory on the English coast;
But I heard Thora laugh in Gothland Isle;
And saw my shepherdess, Aslauga, tend
Her flock along the white Norwegian beach:
Tears started to mine eyes with yearning joy
Therefore with grateful heart I mourn thee dead.’

So Regner spake, and all the Heroes groan’d.
But now the sun had pass’d the height of Heaven,
And soon had all that day been spent in wail;
But then the Father of the Ages said:

‘Ye Gods, there well may be too much of wail.
Bring now the gather’d wood to Balder’s ship;
Heap on the deck the logs, and build the pyre.’

But when the Gods and Heroes heard, they brought
The wood to Balder’s ship, and built a pile,
Full the deck’s breadth, and lofty; then the corpse
Of Balder on the highest top they laid,
With Nanna on his right, and on his left
Hoder, his brother, whom his own hand slew.
And they set jars of wine and oil to lean
Against the bodies, and stuck torches near,
Splinters of pine-wood, soak’d with turpentine;
And brought his arms and gold, and all his stuff,
And slew the dogs which at his table fed,
And his horse, Balder’s horse, whom most he lov’d,
And threw them on the pyre, and Odin threw
A last choice gift thereon, his golden ring.
They fixt the mast, and hoisted up the sails,
Then they put fire to the wood; and Thor
Set his stout shoulder hard against the stern
To push the ship through the thick sand: sparks flew
From the deep trench she plough’d so strong a God
Furrow’d it and the water gurgled in.
And the Ship floated on the waves, and rock’d:
But in the hills a strong East-Wind arose,
And came down moaning to the sea; first squalls
Ran black o’er the sea’s face, then steady rush’d
The breeze, and fill’d the sails, and blew the fire.
And, wreath’d in smoke, the Ship stood out to sea.
Soon with a roaring rose the mighty fire,
And the pile crackled; and between the logs
Sharp quivering tongues of flame shot out, and leapt,
Curling and darting, higher, until they lick’d
The summit of the pile, the dead, the mast,
And ate the shrivelling sails; but still the Ship
Drove on, ablaze, above her hull, with fire.
And the Gods stood upon the beach, and gaz’d:
And, while they gaz’d, the Sun went lurid down
Into the smoke-wrapt sea, and Night came on.
Then the wind fell, with night, and there was calm.
But through the dark they watch’d the burning Ship
Still carried o’er the distant waters on
Farther and farther, like an Eye of Fire.
And as in the dark night a travelling man
Who bivouacs in a forest ’mid the hills,
Sees suddenly a spire of flame shoot up
Out of the black waste forest, far below,
Which woodcutters have lighted near their lodge
Against the wolves; and all night long it flares:
So flar’d, in the far darkness, Balder’s pyre.
But fainter, as the stars rose high, it burn’d;
The bodies were consum’d, ash chok’d the pile
And as in a decaying winter fire
A charr’d log, falling, makes a shower of sparks
So, with a shower of sparks, the pile fell in,
Reddening the sea around; and all was dark.

But the Gods went by starlight up the shore
To Asgard, and sate down in Odin’s hall
At table, and the funeral-feast began.
All night they ate the boar Serimner’s flesh,
And from their horns, with silver rimm’d, drank mead,
Silent, and waited for the sacred Morn.

And Morning over all the world was spread.
Then from their loathèd feast the Gods arose,
And took their horses, and set forth to ride
O’er the bridge Bifrost, where is Heimdall’s watch,
To the ash Igdrasil, and Ida’s plain:
Thor came on foot; the rest on horseback rode.
And they found Mimir sitting by his Fount
Of Wisdom, which beneath the ashtree springs;
And saw the Nornies watering the roots
Of that world-shadowing tree with Honey-dew:
There came the Gods, and sate them down on stones:
And thus the Father of the Ages said:

‘Ye Gods, the terms ye know, which Hermod brought.
Accept them or reject them; both have grounds.
Accept them, and they bind us, unfulfill’d,
To leave for ever Balder in the grave,
An unrecover’d prisoner, shade with shades.
But how, ye say, should the fulfilment fail?
Smooth sound the terms, and light to be fulfill’d;
For dear-belov’d was Balder while he liv’d
In Heaven and Earth, and who would grudge him tears?
But from the traitorous seed of Lok they come,
These terms, and I suspect some hidden fraud.
Bethink ye, Gods, is there no other way?
Speak, were not this a way, the way for Gods?
If I, if Odin, clad in radiant arms,
Mounted on Sleipner, with the Warrior Thor
Drawn in his car beside me, and my sons,
All the strong brood of Heaven, to swell my train,
Should make irruption into Hela’s realm,
And set the fields of gloom ablaze with light,
And bring in triumph Balder back to Heaven?’

He spake; and his fierce sons applauded loud.
But Frea, Mother of the Gods, arose,
Daughter and wife of Odin; thus she said:

‘Odin, thou Whirlwind, what a threat is this!
Thou threatenest what transcends thy might, even thine.
For of all powers the mightiest far art thou,
Lord over men on Earth, and Gods in Heaven;
Yet even from thee thyself hath been withheld
One thing; to undo what thou thyself hast rul’d.
For all which hath been fixt, was fixt by thee:
In the beginning, ere the Gods were born,
Before the Heavens were builded, thou didst slay
The Giant Ymir, whom the Abyss brought forth,
Thou and thy brethren fierce, the Sons of Bor,
And threw his trunk to choke the abysmal void:
But of his flesh and members thou didst build
The Earth and Ocean, and above them Heaven:
And from the flaming world, where Muspel reigns,
Thou sent’st and fetched’st fire, and madest lights,
Sun Moon and Stars, which thou hast hung in Heaven,
Dividing clear the paths of night and day:
And Asgard thou didst build, and Midgard Fort:
Then me thou mad’st; of us the Gods were born:
Then, walking by the sea, thou foundest spars
Of wood, and framed’st men, who till the earth,
Or on the sea, the field of pirates, sail:
And all the race of Ymir thou didst drown,
Save one, Bergelmer; he on shipboard fled
Thy deluge, and from him the Giants sprang;
But all that brood thou hast remov’d far off,
And set by Ocean’s utmost marge to dwell:
But Hela into Niflheim thou threw’st,
And gav’st her nine unlighted worlds to rule,
A Queen, and empire over all the dead.
That empire wilt thou now invade, light up
Her darkness, from her grasp a subject tear?
Try it; but I, for one, will not applaud.
Nor do I merit, Odin, thou should’st slight
Me and my words, though thou be first in Heaven
For I too am a Goddess, born of thee,
Thine eldest, and of me the Gods are sprung;
And all that is to come I know, but lock
In my own breast, and have to none reveal’d.
Come then; since Hela holds by right her prey,
But offers terms for his release to heaven,
Accept the chance; thou canst no more obtain.
Send through the world thy messengers: entreat
All living and unliving things to weep
For Balder; if thou haply thus may’st melt
Hela, and win the lov’d one back to Heaven.’

She spake, and on her face let fall her veil,
And bow’d her head, and sate with folded hands.
Nor did the all-ruling Odin slight her word;
Straightway he spake, and thus address’d the Gods:

‘Go quickly forth through all the world, and pray
All living and unliving things to weep
Balder, if haply he may thus be won.’

When the Gods heard, they straight arose, and took
Their horses, and rode forth through all the world.
North south east west they struck, and roam’d the world,
Entreating all things to weep Balder’s death:
And all that liv’d, and all without life, wept.
And as in winter, when the frost breaks up,
At winter’s end, before the spring begins,
And a warm west wind blows, and thaw sets in
After an hour a dripping sound is heard
In all the forests, and the soft-strewn snow
Under the trees is dibbled thick with holes.
And from the boughs the snowloads shuffle down;
And in fields sloping to the south dark plots
Of grass peep out amid surrounding snow,
And widen, and the peasant’s heart is glad
So through the world was heard a dripping noise
Of all things weeping to bring Balder back:
And there fell joy upon the Gods to hear.

But Hermod rode with Niord, whom he took
To show him spits and beaches of the sea
Far off, where some unwarn’d might fail to weep
Niord, the God of storms, whom fishers know
Not born in Heaven; he was in Vanheim rear’d,
With men, but lives a hostage with the Gods:
He knows each frith, and every rocky creek
Fring’d with dark pines, and sands where seafowl scream:
They two scour’d every coast, and all things wept.
And they rode home together, through the wood
Of Jarnvid, which to east of Midgard lies
Bordering the Giants, where the trees are iron;
There in the wood before a cave they came
Where sate, in the cave’s mouth, a skinny Hag,
Toothless and old; she gibes the passers by:
Thok is she call’d; but now Lok wore her shape:
She greeted them the first, and laugh’d, and said:

‘Ye Gods, good lack, is it so dull in Heaven.
That ye come pleasuring to Thok’s Iron Wood?
Lovers of change ye are, fastidious sprites.
Look, as in some boor’s yard a sweet-breath’d cow
Whose manger is stuff’d full of good fresh hay
Snuffs at it daintily, and stoops her head
To chew the straw, her litter, at her feet
So ye grow squeamish, Gods, and sniff at Heaven.’

She spake; but Hermod answer’d her and said:
‘Thok, not for gibes we come, we come for tears.
Balder is dead, and Hela holds her prey,
But will restore, if all things give him tears.
Begrudge not thine; to all was Balder dear.’

But, with a louder laugh, the Hag replied:
‘Is Balder dead? and do ye come for tears?
Thok with dry eyes will weep o’er Balder’s pyre.
Weep him all other things, if weep they will
I weep him not: let Hela keep her prey!’

She spake; and to the cavern’s depth she fled,
Mocking: and Hermod knew their toil was vain.
And as seafaring men, who long have wrought
In the great deep for gain, at last come home,
And towards evening see the headlands rise
Of their own country, and can clear descry
A fire of wither’d furze which boys have lit
Upon the cliffs, or smoke of burning weeds
Out of a till’d field inland; then the wind
Catches them, and drives out again to sea:
And they go long days tossing up and down
Over the grey sea ridges; and the glimpse
Of port they had makes bitterer far their toil
So the Gods’ cross was bitterer for their joy.

Then, sad at heart, to Niord Hermod spake:
‘It is the Accuser Lok, who flouts us all.
Ride back, and tell in Heaven this heavy news.
I must again below, to Hela’s realm.’

He spoke; and Niord set forth back to Heaven.
But northward Hermod rode, the way below;
Tho way he knew: and travers’d Giall’s stream,
And down to Ocean grop’d, and cross’d the ice,
And came beneath the wall, and found the grate
Still lifted; well was his return foreknown.
And once more Hermod saw around him spread
The joyless plains, and heard the streams of Hell.
But as he enter’d, on the extremest hound
Of Niflheim, he saw one Ghost come near,
Hovering, and stopping oft, as if afraid;
Hoder, the unhappy, whom his own hand slew:
And Hermod look’d, and knew his brother’s ghost,
And call’d him by his name, and sternly said:

‘Hoder, ill-fated, blind in heart and eyes!
Why tarriest thou to plunge thee in the gulph
Of the deep inner gloom, but flittest here,
In twilight, on the lonely verge of Hell,
Far from the other ghosts, and Hela’s throne?
Doubtless thou fearest to meet Balder’s voice,
Thy brother, whom through folly thou didst slay.’

He spoke; but Hoder answer’d him, and said:
‘Hermod the nimble, dost thou still pursue
The unhappy with reproach, even in the grave?
For this I died, and fled beneath the gloom,
Not daily to endure abhorring Gods,
Nor with a hateful presence cumber Heaven
And canst thou not, even here, pass pitying by?
No less than Balder have I lost the light
Of Heaven, and communion with my kin:
I too had once a wife, and once a child,
And substance, and a golden house in Heaven:
But all I left of my own act, and fled
Below, and dost thou hate me even here?
Balder upbraids me not, nor hates at all,
Though he has cause, have any cause; but he,
When that with downcast looks I hither came,
Stretch’d forth his hand, and, with benignant voice,
Welcome, he said, if there be welcome here,
Brother and fellow-sport of Lok with me.
And not to offend thee, Hermod, nor to force
My hated converse on thee, came I up
From the deep gloom, where I will now return;
But earnestly I long’d to hover near,
Not too far off, when that thou camest by,
To feel the presence of a brother God,
And hear the passage of a horse of Heaven,
For the last time: for here thou com’st no more.’

He spake, and turn’d to go to the inner gloom.
But Hermod stay’d him with mild words, and said:

‘Thou doest well to chide me, Hoder blind.
Truly thou say’st, the planning guilty mind
Was Lok’s; the unwitting hand alone was thine.
But Gods are like the sons of men in this
When they have woe, they blame the nearest cause.
Howbeit stay, and be appeas’d; and tell
Sits Balder still in pomp by Hela’s side,
Or is he mingled with the unnumber’d dead?’

And the blind Hoder answer’d him and spake:
‘His place of state remains by Hela’s side,
But empty: for his wife, for Nanna came
Lately below, and join’d him; and the Pair
Frequent the still recesses of the realm
Of Hela, and hold converse undisturb’d.
But they too doubtless, will have breath’d the balm
Which floats before a visitant from Heaven,
And have drawn upwards to this verge of Hell.’

He spake; and, as he ceas’d, a puff of wind
Roll’d heavily the leaden mist aside
Round where they stood, and they beheld Two Forms
Make towards them o’er the stretching cloudy plain.
And Hermod straight perceiv’d them, who they were,
Balder and Nanna; and to Balder said:

‘Balder, too truly thou foresaw’st a snare.
Lok triumphs still, and Hela keeps her prey.
No more to Asgard shalt thou come, nor lodge
In thy own house, Breidablik, nor enjoy
The love all bear towards thee, nor train up
Forset, thy son, to be belov’d like thee.
Here must thou lie, and wait an endless age.
Therefore for the last time, O Balder, hail!’

He spake; and Balder answer’d him and said:
‘Hail and farewell, for here thou com’st no more.
Yet mourn not for me, Hermod, when thou sitt’st
In Heaven, nor let the other Gods lament,
As wholly to be pitied, quite forlorn:
For Nanna hath rejoin’d me, who, of old,
In Heaven, was seldom parted from my side;
And still the acceptance follows me, which crowned
My former life, and cheers me even here.
The iron frown of Hela is relax’d
When I draw nigh, and the wan tribes of dead
Trust me, and gladly bring for my award
Their ineffectual feuds and feeble hates,
Shadows of hates, but they distress them still.’

And the fleet-footed Hermod made reply:
‘Thou hast then all the solace death allows,
Esteem and function: and so far is well.
Yet here thou liest, Balder, underground,
Rusting for ever: and the years roll on,
The generations pass, the ages grow,
And bring us nearer to the final day
When from the south shall march the Fiery Band
And cross the Bridge of Heaven, with Lok for guide,
And Fenris at his heel with broken chain:
While from the east the Giant Rymer steers
His ship, and the great Serpent makes to land;
And all are marshall’d in one flaming square
Against the Gods, upon the plains of Heaven.
I mourn thee, that thou canst not help us then.’

He spake; but Balder answer’d him and said:
‘Mourn not for me: Mourn, Hermod, for the Gods:
Mourn for the men on Earth, the Gods in Heaven,
Who live, and with their eyes shall see that day.
The day will come, when Asgard’s towers shall fall,
And Odin, and his Sons, the seed of Heaven:
But what were I, to save them in that hour?
If strength could save them, could not Odin save,
My Father, and his pride, the Warrior Thor,
Vidar the Silent, the Impetuous Tyr?
I, what were I, when these can naught avail?
Yet, doubtless. when the day of battle comes,
And the two Hosts are marshall’d, and in Heaven
The golden-crested Cock shall sound alarm,
And his black Brother-Bird from hence reply,
And bucklers clash, and spears begin to pour
Longing will stir within my breast, though vain.
But not to me so grievous, as, I know,
To other Gods it were, is my enforc’d
Absence from fields where I could nothing aid:
For I am long since weary of your storm
Of carnage, and find, Hermod, in your life
Something too much of war and broils, which make
Life one perpetual fight, a bath of blood.
Mine eyes are dizzy with the arrowy hail;
Mine ears are stunn’d with blows, and sick for calm.
Inactive therefore let me lie, in gloom,
Unarm’d, inglorious: I attend the course
Of ages, and my late return to light,
In times less alien to a spirit mild,
In new-recover’d seats, the happier day.’

He spake; and the fleet Hermod thus replied:
‘Brother, what seats are these, what happier day?
Tell me, that I may ponder it when gone.’

And the ray-crowned Balder answer’d him:
‘Far to the south, beyond The Blue, there spreads
Another Heaven, The Boundless: no one yet

Hath reach’d it: there hereafter shall arise
The second Asgard, with another name.
Thither, when o’er this present Earth and Heavens
The tempest of the latter days hath swept,
And they from sight have disappear’d, and sunk,
Shall a small remnant of the Gods repair:
Hoder and I shall join them from the grave.
There re-assembling we shall see emerge
From the bright Ocean at our feet an Earth
More fresh, more verdant than the last, with fruits
Self-springing, and a seed of man preserv’d,
Who then shall live in peace, as now in war.
But we in Heaven shall find again with joy
The ruin’d palaces of Odin, seats
Familiar, halls where we have supp’d of old;
Re-enter them with wonder, never fill
Our eyes with gazing, and rebuild with tears.
And we shall tread once more the well-known plain
Of Ida, and among the grass shall find
The golden dice with which we play’d of yore;
And that will bring to mind the former life
And pastime of the Gods, the wise discourse
Of Odin, the delights of other days.
O Hermod, pray that thou mayst join us then!
Such for the future is my hope: meanwhile,
I rest the thrall of Hela, and endure
Death, and the gloom which round me even now
Thickens, and to its inner gulph recalls.
Farewell, for longer speech is not allow’d.’

He spoke, and wav’d farewell, and gave his hand
To Nanna; and she gave their brother blind
Her hand, in turn, for guidance; and The Three
Departed o’er the cloudy plain, and soon
Faded from sight into the interior gloom.
But Hermod stood beside his drooping horse,
Mute, gazing after them in tears: and fain,
Fain had he follow’d their receding steps,
Though they to Death were bound, and he to Heaven,
Then; but a Power he could not break withheld.
And as a stork which idle boys have trapp’d,
And tied him in a yard, at autumn sees
Flocks of his kind pass flying o’er his head
To warmer lands, and coasts that keep the sun;
He strains to join their flight, and, from his shed,
Follows them with a long complaining cry
So Hermod gaz’d, and yearn’d to join his kin.

At last he sigh’d, and set forth back to Heaven.

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