Page images



much that is around it. In this opinion we are not singular. It is that of multitudes of thinking men: but men who reflect thus, reflect also that it is from a parliament fully representing public opinion only, that an equitable revision of a system so complex, and involving so many interests, can be reasonably expected.

We now take our leave of Mr. Roebuck. As the annalist of a critical period his pages may be profitably consulted; though, when a prejudice comes athwart his cooler and better judgment, he is by no means always to be trusted. As a writer he is generally spirited, though seldom profound, and always well-intentioned, though too often imbued with the crotchets, whimsies, and prejudiced conceits of a small but clever party. He will beread as an annalist-he will never rank as a philosophical historian. With Sallust he may perhaps bear some comparison, but he is not of the school of Tacitus.

ART. VI.-The Literature and Romance of Northern Europe, constituting a complete History of the Literature of Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland, with copious Specimens from the most celebrated Histories, Romances, Popular Legends and Tales, &c., &c. By WILLIAM and MARY HOWITT. 2 vols. Colburn. 1852.

IT is but little to the credit of our national tastes and feelings, that while for the last two centuries a complete acquaintance with French literature has been considered indispensable to a finished education, and while a knowledge of that of Italy has, from even an earlier period, been deemed important, Scandinavian literature should, until but as yesterday, have been almost wholly ignored by our men of letters. And yet, very strange is this, for little enough is there in common in the literature of France and England, and as little in that of Italy; but the literature of that haughty, freedom-loving race, from whom we probably derive the finer portion of our national characteristics

that race whose splendid war-ships swept the coasts of Europe from the farthest northern seas, even to Sicily; and who impressed their own free spirit, their own love of daring enterprise, their own irrepressible energy and indomitable will on the communities they formed; surely the literature of such a race, whatever its intrinsic worth, must have been deserving at least of some notice. But so thought not the literary men of the two last centuries; and but for Gray's spirited translation, in his works, of the two well-known Icelandic poems, the English reader

might have doubted whether the north of Europe had really a literature at all.

All this time, however, though unknown alike in college halls and fashionable coteries, the literature of Scandinavia-its earliest myths, and most bewitching legends, but slightly altered from their original form-had maintained its unsuspected place beside our hearths for more than a thousand years, aiding to rock the cradles of thirty generations, to awaken young wonder in the dawning mind, and to stimulate the energies of the boyhood of old England, by those many tales of wild adventure and daring enterprise, of supernatural aid and triumphant success,-tales which, although the literature of the nursery, and the fireside lore of the peasant, have not been scorned by our noblest poets. The solemn myths, the wild tales, of that elder day, might, likely enough, seem strange to the scholar brought up according to the very straitest sect' of 'the classical school;' and the legend sung to simple, unsophisticated men in the green depths of the forest, or beside the wild sea, might seem uncouth to cultivators of drawingroom poetry; but the heart of the multitude, the great heart of human nature, was stirred from its depths, and the imagination of an energetic race was awakened by these wild wonders; and thus, age after age, have tales of the mighty giants, of the merry tripping elves, of the spiteful, yet tricksy Loke; even Thor, with his hammer, and the sky-supporting ash, Yggdrasil, been the cherished folk-lore' of England.

[ocr errors]

It is scarcely a hundred years since Scandinavian literature first received even a passing notice from our writers, and then but incidentally, from Gray. His two specimens seem to have awakened no attention; and when, about twenty years later, Mallet and Pinkerton advanced the claim of northern Europe in the controversy on the origin of romance, but a reluctant attention was yielded to its literature. Perhaps the publication of Bishop Percy's Relics of Ancient Poetry did more than aught else to direct popular attention to the subject; for, from the time that the ancient ballad attracted public attention, our popular literature also came into notice, and then the large admixture of Scandinavian legend and tradition became apparent. Ere long, specimens from the two Eddas, and spirited versions of some of the Sagas, especially those by the Rev. William Herbert, aided in familiarizing the public still more with these (to the English reader) long unknown works; while of late years a more general interest has been aroused among our literary men, especially our historical students, as to all that relates to the Scandinavian and Teutonic tribes; and feeling, as Mr. Kemble, in his late excellent work, The Saxons in England, so truly remarks, that



'we have a share in the past, and the past yet works in us.' They have sought in the history of these nations for the history of the childhood of our own, and for the explanation of its manhood.'

Meanwhile the admirable specimens in Blackwood, of the Danish poets, especially Oehlenschlager and Ingemann, and the publication some five or six years since of the spirit-stirring Heimskringla, by Mr. Laing has kept that interest alive. Still there has been no attempt to present a general view of Scandinavian literature, ancient and modern, to the reader, and it is to supply this deficiency that the work before us has been undertaken by William and Mary Howitt; the latter, we need scarcely remind our readers, one of the most delightful of our poetesses, and unrivalled among all her contemporaries for the grace and spirit, and true 'old world' feeling of her ballads.

[ocr errors]

The earliest literature of Scandinavia, like that of all nations, is mythic, and in verse. It is contained in the elder Edda, that 'grand depository of the doctrines of Odin Mythology,' and consists of a series of poems, huge, wild, and fragmentary, full of strange gaps, rent into their very vitals by the accidents of many centuries-yet, like the ruin of the Colisseum, or the temples of Pæstum, standing aloft amid the daylight of the pre'sent time, magnificent testimonies of the stupendous genius of 'the race which reared them.'

[ocr errors]

"The mysterious Vala, or prophetess, seated somewhere unseen in that marvellous heaven, sings an awful song of the birth of gods and men, of the Great Yggdrasil, or tree of life, whose roots and branches run through all regions of space to which existence has extended, and concludes her thrilling hymn with the terrible Regnarck, or Twilight of the Gods, when the dynasty of Odin disappears in the fires which devour creation, and the new heavens and new earth come forth to receive the reign of Balder, and of milder natures. Odin himself sings his high song, and his ravens, Hugin and Munin, bring him news from all the lower worlds, but cannot divest his soul of the secret dread that the latter will one day fail to return, and the power which enabled him to shape the sky, and all the nine regions of life beneath it, shall fall from his hands. A strange mixture of simplicity and strength, of the little and the great, the sublime and the ludicrous, runs through this ancient production, or rather, collection of productions. To the antiquity of some of these songs it would be vain to attempt to fix a limit. They bear all the traces of the remotest age. They carry you back to the east, the original region of the Gothic race. They give you glimpses of the Gudahem or home of the gods, and of the sparkling waters of the original fountain of tradition. They bear you on in that direction towards the primal age of one tongue and one religion, and, in the words of the Edda, of that still greater God, 'whom no one dared to name.'-Vol. i. pp. 23, 29.

These ancient songs, handed down, perhaps through countless generations, by oral tradition, were in the eleventh century committed to the surer custody of writing, by Sämund, a learned man, and a Christian priest of Iceland. Their authenticity has been severely questioned; but it appears now the belief of the profoundest northern antiquaries, that Sämund indeed only gathered up these fragments of ancient song, which had floated down from a remote antiquity, 'carefully abstaining from filling up the lacunæ found in them, sacredly leaving the poems as he 'found them, with their blanks and loppings, or by only connecting the disjointed portions by single prose links containing the 'sense, which still lived in tradition.'

[ocr errors]

This venerable remain, the elder Edda, consists of twentyeight poems. These are divided into two parts: the first containing mythologic and ethic poems; the second, mytho-heroic, and tales relating to their earliest history. One of the most important, and perhaps one of the oldest, is the Völuspa, or Vala's Wisdom, portions of which have been frequently translated, especially the sublime conclusion which describes the coming of 'the Mighty One to the great judgment,' and the deadly strife of all the hostile powers of nature, when Odin is swallowed by the wolf Fenris, and Frey, and Thor, and the Midgard serpent are slain, and Surtur flings fire over the world, and—

The sun grows dark.
Earth sinks in the sea.

From heaven vanish

The lustrous stars.

High from the flames
Rolls the rock;
High play the fires
'Gainst heaven itself.'

But yet, from this mighty overwhelming wreck, the Vala looks forward, and

'Up sees she come,

Yet once more,
The earth from the sea,
Gloriously green.

• In Gimle the lofty,
There shall the hosts
Of the virtuous dwell,
And through all ages

Taste of deep gladness.'

Thus,' as Geijer beautifully says, 'sounds the voice of the 'northern prophetess, broken, indistinct, half-lost to us through the darkness of centuries. It speaks of other times, other men, ' and thoughts imprisoned in the fetters of superstition, but yearning, even they, after the eternal light, and uttering this 'longing, though in a faltering tongue..... No pagan mytho logy has more beautifully expressed this than the northern. It 'points us onward, however darkly, through this very perishable'ness to the Mighty One from above,' who is above all the gods, 'who are sustained by the influences of earth, to the Mightier 'than the Mighty,' whom it dared not name.'

[ocr errors]



Mr. Howitt, in his chapter on the Völuspa, gives a succinct, and, for so obscure a subject, very clear view of the Odin mythology, which, wild, and involved in strange contradictions, as in so many subordinate parts it appears to be, bears evident proofs, together with its having been brought from the East, of having derived its loftier doctrines from the echoes of that earliest time, when the one great family of mankind dwelt together, and still held in fond recollection the tradition of the Tree of Life, and of their lost Paradise.*

'Odin's Raven's Song,' and 'The Song of the Way-tamer,' are among the most poetical and singular poems of the Edda. Both relate to the death of Balder, that mysterious being, whose death and presumed resurrection occupy so large a portion of these early myths. The Raven Song' foretels approaching calamity, and Odin summons a council to avert it; in the following song the council has met, and the prophetess to whom they send answers, that sudden death menaces the comeliest of Odin's race. Odin and Frigga send, and take oaths of everything in nature not to hurt Balder-but inexorable fate causes them to overlook the mistletoe. Then Odin, fearful that something might be passed over, and that good fortune had deserted the gods, descends to hell, to consult the Vala there in her tomb. This portion was paraphrased-for in no sense can it be termed a translation-by Gray, and we subjoin the following opening stanzas, that the reader may estimate the rude force of the venerable original.

'Up stood Odin,
Lord of the people,
And upon Sleipner
Laid he the saddle;
Rode thus below,
Down unto Neflhel.

There the hound met he,
From the abyss.

'He was all bloody
About his black chest;
His murderous throat
And down-hanging jaws.
Howled he against

The father of power-song,
And gaped immensely
To hinder his passage.

• Mr. Howitt suggests, may not 'the Christmas-tree,' common to all nations of Gothic descent, be an emblem of the ash Yggdrasil? and may not this have been the symbol of the Tree of Life? He remarks also on the constant presence of a tree in the venerable sculptures from Nineveh; and we may add another coincidence which has greatly struck us in the ancient folk-lore' of the northern nations, this is the eminence given to the bull. In the fairy tales-even in some of the nursery tales--the bull acts an important part, and is always distinguished for strength and wisdom; indeed, in some of these old myths, as we might almost term them, he is the guardian genius. Might not this arise from dim tradition of 'the protecting cherub,' whose gigantic image was so often sculptured on the portals of the Assyrian palaces? and may we not, perhaps, look for an explanation of some portions of the Odin mythology to that ancient land, almost from whose northern borders Odin and his Asars came?

« PreviousContinue »