Journey To The Dead

A poem by Matthew Arnold

Forth from the East, up the ascent of Heaven,
Day drove his courser with the Shining Mane;
And in Valhalla, from his gable perch,
The golden-crested Cock began to crow:
Hereafter, in the blackest dead of night,
With shrill and dismal cries that Bird shall crow,
Warning the Gods that foes draw nigh to Heaven;
But now he crew at dawn, a cheerful note,
To wake the Gods and Heroes to their tasks.
And all the Gods, and all the Heroes, woke.
And from their beds the Heroes rose, and donn’d
Their arms, and led their horses from the stall,
And mounted them, and in Valhalla’s court
Were rang’d; and then the daily fray began.
And all day long they there are hack’d and hewn
’Mid dust, and groans, and limbs lopp’d off, and blood;
But all at night return to Odin’s hall
Woundless and fresh: such lot is theirs in Heaven.
And the Valkyries on their steeds went forth
Toward Earth and fights of men; and at their side
Skulda, the youngest of the Nornies, rode:
And over Bifrost, where is Heimdall’s watch,
Past Midgard Fortress, down to Earth they came:
There through some battle-field, where men fall fast,
Their horses fetlock-deep in blood, they ride,
And pick the bravest warriors out for death,
Whom they bring back with them at night to Heaven,
To glad the Gods, and feast in Odin’s hall.

But the Gods went not now, as otherwhile,
Into the Tilt-Yard, where the Heroes fought,
To feast their eyes with looking on the fray:
Nor did they to their Judgement-Place repair
By the ash Igdrasil, in Ida’s plain,
Where they hold council, and give laws for men:
But they went, Odin first, the rest behind,
To the hall Gladheim, which is built of gold;
Where are in circle rang’d twelve golden chairs,
And in the midst one higher, Odin’s throne:
There all the Gods in silence sate them down;
And thus the Father of the Ages spake:

Go quickly, Gods, bring wood to the seashore,
With all, which it beseems the dead to have
And make a funeral pile on Balder’s ship.
On the twelfth day the Gods shall burn his corpse.
But Hermod, thou, take Sleipner, and ride down
To Hela’s kingdom, to ask Balder back.’

So said he; and the Gods arose, and took
Axes and ropes, and at their head came Thor,
Shouldering his Hammer, which the Giants know:
Forth wended they, and drove their steeds before:
And up the dewy mountain tracks they far’d
To the dark forests, in the early dawn;
And up and down and side and slant they roam’d:
And from the glens all day an echo came
Of crashing falls; for with his hammer Thor
Smote ’mid the rocks the lichen-bearded pines
And burst their roots; while to their tops the Gods
Made fast the woven ropes, and hal’d them down,
And lopp’d their boughs, and clove them on the sward,
And bound the logs behind their steeds to draw,
And drove them homeward; and the snorting steeds
Went straining through the crackling brushwood down,
And by the darkling forest paths the Gods
Follow’d, and on their shoulders carried boughs.
And they came out upon the plain, and pass’d
Asgard, and led their horses to the beach,
And loos’d them of their loads on the seashore,
And rang’d the wood in stacks by Balder’s ship;
And every God went home to his own house.

But when the Gods were to the forest gone
Hermod led Sleipner from Valhalla forth
And saddled him; before that, Sleipner brook’d
No meaner hand than Odin’s on his mane,
On his broad back no lesser rider bore:
Yet docile now he stood at Hermod’s side,
Arching his neck, and glad to be bestrode,
Knowing the God they went to seek, how dear.
But Hermod mounted him, and sadly far’d,
In silence, up the dark untravell’d road
Which branches from the north of Heaven, and went
All day; and Daylight wan’d, and Night came on.
And all that night he rode, and journey’d so,
Nine days, nine nights, towards the northern ice,
Through valleys deep-engulph’d, by roaring streams:
And on the tenth morn ho beheld the bridge
Which spans with golden arches Giall’s stream,
And on the bridge a Damsel watching arm’d,
In the strait passage, at the further end,
Where the road issues between walling rocks.
Scant space that Warder left for passers by;
But, as when cowherds in October drive
Their kine across a snowy mountain pass
To winter pasture on the southern side,
And on the ridge a wagon chokes the way,
Wedg’d in the snow; then painfully the hinds
With goad and shouting urge their cattle past,
Plunging through deep untrodden banks of snow
To right and left, and warm steam fills the air
So on the bridge that Damsel block’d the way,
And question’d Hermod as he came, and said:

‘Who art thou on thy black and fiery horse
Under whose hoofs the bridge o’er Giall’s stream
Rumbles and shakes? Tell me thy race and home.
But yestermorn five troops of dead pass’d by
Bound on their way below to Hela’s realm,
Nor shook the bridge so much as thou alone.
And thou hast flesh and colour on thy cheeks
Like men who live and draw the vital air;
Nor look’st thou pale and wan, like men deceas’d,
Souls bound below, my daily passers here.’

And the fleet-footed Hermod answer’d her:
‘O Damsel, Hermod am I call’d, the son
Of Odin; and my high-roof’d house is built
Far hence, in Asgard, in the City of Gods:
And Sleipner, Odin’s horse, is this I ride.
And I come, sent this road on Balder’s track:
Say then, if he hath cross’d thy bridge or no?’

He spake; the Warder of the bridge replied:
‘O Hermod, rarely do the feet of Gods
Or of the horses of the Gods resound
Upon my bridge; and, when they cross, I know.
Balder hath gone this way, and ta’en the road
Below there, to the north, toward Hela’s realm.
From here the cold white mist can be discern’d,
Not lit with sun, but through the darksome air
By the dim vapour-blotted light of stars,
Which hangs over the ice where lies the road.
For in that ice are lost those northern streams
Freezing and ridging in their onward flow,
Which from the fountain of Vergelmer run,
The spring that bubbles up by Hela’s throne.
There are the joyless seats, the haunt of ghosts,
Hela’s pale swarms; and there was Balder bound.
Ride on; pass free: but he by this is there.’

She spake, and stepp’d aside, and left him room.
And Hermod greeted her, and gallop’d by
Across the bridge; then she took post again.
But northward Hermod rode, the way below:
And o’er a darksome tract, which knows no sun,
But by the blotted light of stars, he far’d;
And he came down to Ocean’s northern strand
At the drear ice, beyond the Giants’ home:
Thence on he journey’d o’er the fields of ice
Still north, until he met a stretching wall
Barring his way, and in the wall a grate.
Then he dismounted, and drew tight the girths,
On the smooth ice, of Sleipner, Odin’s horse,
And made him leap the grate, and came within.
And he beheld spread round him Hela’s realm,
The plains of Niflheim, where dwell the dead,
And heard the thunder of the streams of Hell.
For near the wall the river of Roaring flows,
Outmost: the others near the centre run
The Storm, the Abyss, the Howling, and the Pain:
Those flow by Hela’s throne, and near their spring.
And from the dark flock’d up the shadowy tribes:
And as the swallows crowd the bulrush-beds
Of some clear river, issuing from a lake,
On autumn days, before they cross the sea;
And to each bulrush-crest a swallow hangs
Swinging, and others skim the river streams,
And their quick twittering fills the banks and shores
So around Hermod swarm’d the twittering ghosts.
Women, and infants, and young men who died
Too soon for fame, with white ungraven shields;
And old men, known to Glory, but their star
Betray’d them, and of wasting age they died,
Not wounds: yet, dying, they their armour wore,
And now have chief regard in Hela’s realm.
Behind flock’d wrangling up a piteous crew,
Greeted of none, disfeatur’d and forlorn
Cowards, who were in sloughs interr’d alive:
And round them still the wattled hurdles hung

Wherewith they stamp’d them down, and trod them deep,
To hide their shameful memory from men.
But all he pass’d unhail’d, and reach’d the throne
Of Hela, and saw, near it, Balder crown’d,
And Hela sat thereon, with countenance stern;
And thus bespake him first the solemn Queen:

‘Unhappy, how hast thou endur’d to leave
The light, and journey to the cheerless land
Where idly flit about the feeble shades
How didst thou cross the bridge o’er Giall’s stream,
Being alive, and come to Ocean’s shore?
Or how o’erleap the grate that bars the wall?’

She spake: but down off Sleipner Hermod sprang,
And fell before her feet, and clasp’d her knees;
And spake, and mild entreated her, and said:

‘O Hela, wherefore should the Gods declare
Their errands to each other, or the ways
They go? the errand and the way is known.
Thou know’st, thou know’st, what grief we have in Heaven
For Balder, whom thou hold’st by right below:
Restore him, for what part fulfils he here?
Shall he shed cheer over the cheerless seats,
And touch the apathetic ghosts with joy?
Not for such end, O Queen, thou hold’st thy realm.
For Heaven was Balder born, the City of Gods
And Heroes, where they live in light and joy:
Thither restore him, for his place is there.’

He spoke; and grave replied the solemn Queen:
‘Hermod, for he thou art, thou Son of Heaven!
A strange unlikely errand, sure, is thine.
Do the Gods send to me to make them blest?
Small bliss my race hath of the Gods obtain’d.
Three mighty children to my Father Lok
Did Angerbode, the Giantess, bring forth
Fenris the Wolf, the Serpent huge, and Me:
Of these the Serpent in the sea ye cast,
Who since in your despite hath wax’d amain,
And now with gleaming ring enfolds the world:
Me on this cheerless nether world ye threw
And gave me nine unlighted realms to rule:
While on his island in the lake, afar,
Made fast to the bor’d crag, by wile not strength
Subdu’d, with limber chains lives Fenris bound.
Lok still subsists in Heaven, our Father wise,
Your mate, though loath’d, and feasts in Odin’s hall;
But him too foes await, and netted snares,
And in a cave a bed of needle rocks,
And o’er his visage serpents dropping gall.
Yet he shall one day rise, and burst his bonds,
And with himself set us his offspring free,
When he guides Muspel’s children to their bourne.
Till then in peril or in pain we live,
Wrought by the Gods: and ask the Gods our aid?
Howbeit we abide our day: till then,
We do not as some feebler haters do,
Seek to afflict our foes with petty pangs,
Helpless to better us, or ruin them.
Come then; if Balder was so dear belov’d,
And this is true, and such a loss is Heaven’s
Hear, how to Heaven may Balder be restor’d.
Show me through all the world the signs of grief:
Fails but one thing to grieve, here Balder stops:
Let all that lives and moves upon the earth
Weep him, and all that is without life weep:
Let Gods, men, brutes, beweep him; plants and stones.
So shall I know the lost was dear indeed,
And bend my heart, and give him back to Heaven.’

She spake; and Hermod answer’d her, and said:
‘Hela, such as thou say’st, the terms shall be.
But come, declare me this, and truly tell:
May I, ere I depart, bid Balder hail
Or is it here withheld to greet the dead?’

He spake; and straightway Hela answer’d him:
‘Hermod, greet Balder if thou wilt, and hold
Converse: his speech remains, though he he dead.’

And straight to Balder Hermod turn’d, and spake:
‘Even in the abode of Death, O Balder, hail!
Thou hear’st, if hearing, like as speech, is thine,
The terms of thy releasement hence to Heaven:
Fear nothing but that all shall be fulfill’d.
For not unmindful of thee are the Gods
Who see the light, and blest in Asgard dwell;
Even here they seek thee out, in Hela’s realm.
And sure of all the happiest far art thou
Who ever have been known in Earth or Heaven:
Alive, thou wert of Gods the most belov’d:
And now thou sittest crown’d by Hela’s side,
Here, and hast honour among all the dead.’

He spake; and Balder utter’d him reply,
But feebly, as a voice far off; he said:

‘Hermod the nimble, gild me not my death.
Better to live a slave, a captur’d man,
Who scatters rushes in a master’s ball,
Than be a crown’d king here, and rule the dead.
And now I count not of these terms as safe
To be fulfill’d, nor my return as sure,
Though I be lov’d, and many mourn my death:
For double-minded ever was the seed
Of Lok, and double are the gifts they give.
Howbeit, report thy message; and therewith,
To Odin, to my Father, take this ring,
Memorial of me, whether sav’d or no:
And tell the Heaven-born Gods how thou hast seen
Me sitting here below by Hela s side,
Crown’d, having honour among all the dead.’

He spake, and rais’d his hand, and gave the ring.
And with inscrutable regard the Queen
Of Hell beheld them, and the ghosts stood dumb.
But Hermod took the ring, and yet once more
Kneel’d and did homage to the solemn Queen;
Then mounted Sleipner, and set forth to ride
Back, through the astonish’d tribes of dead, to Heaven.
And to the wall he came, and found the grate
Lifted, and issued on the fields of ice;
And o’er the ice he far’d to Ocean’s strand,
And up from thence, a wet and misty road,
To the arm’d Damsel’s bridge, and Giall’s stream.
Worse was that way to go than to return,
For him: for others all return is barr’d.
Nine days he took to go, two to return;
And on the twelfth morn saw the light of Heaven.
And as a traveller in the early dawn
To the steep edge of some great valley comes
Through which a river flows, and sees beneath
Clouds of white rolling vapours fill the vale,
But o’er them, on the farther slope, descries
Vineyards, and crofts, and pastures, bright with sun
So Hermod, o’er the fog between, saw Heaven.
And Sleipner snorted, for he smelt the air
Of Heaven: and mightily, as wing’d, he flew.
And Hermod saw the towers of Asgard rise:
And he drew near, and heard no living voice
In Asgard; and the golden halls were dumb.
Then Hermod knew what labour held the Gods:
And through the empty streets he rode, and pass’d
Under the gate-house to the sands, and found
The Gods on the seashore by Balder’s ship.

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