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Norse Romanticism: Themes in British Literature 1760-1830, Edited By Robert W. Rix

William Blake (1757–1827)

1.        William Blake was a poet, painter and printmaker. He is known as the most singularly unique artist of his age. Although virtually unknown during his lifetime, his productions in both word and picture have inspired many, including William Butler Yeats, the Beat poets, and the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch.

2.        In his poetry, Blake is interested in all mythological systems, which he generally finds inadequate or false. He mentions Odin, Thor and Frigga, but also a deeper impact of the Eddas on his own self-invented mythological system has been observed. [1]  In one of his marginal notes to a book in his library, he lists the Edda as one among a number of works that are inspired, as the biblical testaments were. [2]  There seems to be direct borrowing from Thomas Gray’s English appropriation of Norse mythology: like Gray’s Loki, who will “burst his tenfold chain” at Ragnarök, Blake’s rebellious son Orc breaks free from his “tenfold chains” in the beginning of America (1793), as a sign of the old order ending and a new beginning. [3] 

3.        Blake began as a writer of poetry supporting radical politics. This can be seen in his enthusiastic response to the upheaval in France, the unpublished The French Revolution (1791), in Songs of Innocence and Experience (1789–1793), and the prophetic verses of America (1793) and Europe (1794). Mythology here becomes a vehicle to further political and spiritual liberty.

4.        “Gwin. King of Norway” is from The Poetical Sketches (1783), Blake’s earliest verses (written between c. 1769 and 1778). This publication of Blake’s juvenilia was financed by the sculptor John Flaxman and his friends, the Rev. A. S. Mathew and his wife Harriet, who hosted a London literary and artistic circle to which the young Blake had been invited. The poems are generally imitative: there are imitations of eighteenth-century popular nature poetry, “King Edward the Third” is a Shakespearean drama, while “Imitation of Spenser” is self-explanatory. “Gwin, King of Norway” and “Fair Elenor” reconstruct the form of ancient ballads. At the time Poetical Sketches was published, the ballad form was increasingly associated with radicalism and the people’s rebellion. This was made evident in the radical antiquary Joseph Ritson’s three-volume A Select Collection of English Songs (1783).

5.        Inspiration from Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and Macpherson’s Ossian poetry (1760–1763) is diffused throughout. The most conspicuous references in his poem of Gwin’s fall are to Thomas Chatterton’s forged translation “Godred Crovan” (1769). Godred (d. 1095) was a Norse-Gael ruler of Dublin, the Isle of Man and the Hebrides. Chatterton’s poem details a significant battle in the campaign to invade the Isle of Man. Blake takes the Norse connection and creates an early political hymn. However, Blake’s Gordred has little in common with Chatterton’s king Godred, who is also described as “rising” himself to battle; but this is not a popular uprising. However, the link between liberty and the Old North was sufficiently made in Paul Henri-Mallet’s chapter “Of the Form of Government which formerly prevailed in the North”.

6.        Blake’s Gordred figure is a “giant”, symbolizing the will of the people against the tyrant king. He rises to overturn Gwin, pointing forward to the giant Albion who rises to assert his ancient liberties against oppression, religious and political, in Blake’s later poetry. The diction of the poem also anticipates many of the later images he connects with political upheaval, depicted as a cataclysmic change, such as the blazing comets, rolling clouds, thunder and trumpets.

***

Gwin, King of Norway (1783)

Come, Kings, and listen to my song:
When Gwin, the son of Nore,
Over the nations of the North
His cruel sceptre bore:

The Nobles of the land did feed
5
Upon the hungry poor;
They tear the poor man’s lamb, and drive
The needy from their door!

The land is desolate; our wives
And children cry for bread;
10
Arise, and pull the tyrant down!
Let Gwin be humbled.

Gordred the giant rous’d himself
From sleeping in his cave;
He shook the hills, and in the clouds
15
The troubl’d banners wave.

Beneath them roll’d, like tempests black,
The num’rous sons of blood;
Like lions’ whelps, roaring abroad,
Seeking their nightly food.
20

Down Bleron’s hills they dreadful rush,
Their cry ascends the clouds;
The trampling horse and clanging arms
Like rushing mighty floods!

Their wives and children, weeping loud,
25
Follow in wild array,
Howling like ghosts, furious as wolves
In the bleak wintry day.

“Pull down the tyrant to the dust,
“Let Gwin be humbled,”
30
They cry; “and let ten thousand lives
“Pay for the tyrant’s head.”

From tow’r to tow’r the watchmen cry,
“O Gwin, the son of Nore,
Arouse thyself! the nations, black
35
“Like clouds, come rolling o’er!”

Gwin rear’d his shield, his palace shakes,
His chiefs come rushing round;
Each, like an awful thunder cloud,
With voice of solemn sound:
40

Like reared stones around a grave
They stand around the King;
Then suddenly each seiz’d his spear,
And clashing steel does ring.

The husbandman does leave his plough
45
To wade thro’ fields of gore;
The merchant binds his brows in steel,
And leaves the trading shore;

The shepherd leaves his mellow pipe,
And sounds the trumpet shrill;
50
The workman throws his hammer down
To heave the bloody bill.

Like the tall ghost of Barraton [4] 
Who sports in stormy sky,
Gwin leads his host, as black as night
55
When pestilence does fly,

With horses and with chariots —
And all his spearmen bold,
March to the sound of mournful song,
Like clouds around him roll’d.
60

Gwin lifts his hand—the nations halt;
“Prepare for war!” he cries—
Gordred appears! —his frowning brow
Troubles our northern skies.

The armies stand, like balances
65
Held in th’ Almighty’s hand; —
“Gwin, thou hast fill’d thy measure up:
Thou’rt swept from out the land.”

And now the raging armies rush’d
Like warring mighty seas;
70
The heav’ns are shook with roaring war,
The dust ascends the skies!

Earth smokes with blood, and groans and shakes
To drink her children’s gore,
A sea of blood; nor can the eye
75
See to the trembling shore!

And on the verge of this wild sea
Famine and death doth cry;
The cries of women and of babes
Over the field doth fly.
80

The King is seen raging afar,
With all his men of might;
Like blazing comets scattering death
Thro’ the red fev’rous night.

Beneath his arm like sheep they die,
85
And groan upon the plain;
The battle faints, and bloody men
Fight upon hills of slain.

Now death is sick, and riven men
Labour and toil for life;
90
Steed rolls on steed, and shield on shield,
Sunk in this sea of strife!

The god of war is drunk with blood;
The earth doth faint and fail;
The stench of blood makes sick the heav’ns;
95
Ghosts glut the throat of hell!

O what have Kings to answer for
Before that awful throne!
When thousand deaths for vengeance cry,
And ghosts accusing groan!
100

Like blazing comets in the sky
That shake the stars of light,
Which drop like fruit unto the earth
Thro’ the fierce burning night;

Like these did Gwin and Gordred meet,
105
And the first blow decides;
Down from the brow unto the breast
Gordred his head divides!

Gwin fell; the sons of Norway fled,
All that remain’d alive;
110
The rest did fill the vale of death,
For them the eagles strive.

The river Dorman roll’d their blood
Into the northern sea;
Who mourn’d his sons, and overwhelm’d
115
The pleasant south country.

Source: Poetical Sketches. By W. B. (London, 1783), 19–23.

Notes

[1] Theodore T. Stenberg, “Blake’s Indebtedness to the Eddas”, Modern Language Review 18.2 (1923): 204–206. BACK

[2] Annotations to Bishop Waton’s Apology for the Bible (1798), in Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Doubleday, rev. ed., 1988), 543. BACK

[3] Blake, America, pl. 1, l. 12, in Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, 5. BACK

[4] Probably a reminiscence of “Berrathon”, which is the name of a Scandinavian island in Macpherson’s Ossian. BACK

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Published @ RC

March 2012

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