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.  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.  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. 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unpublished The French Revolution (1791), in Songs of Innocence and Experience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
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
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
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
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;
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
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.
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,
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,”
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
“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:
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
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;
The workman throws his hammer down
To heave the bloody bill.
Like the tall ghost of Barraton 
Who sports in stormy sky,
Gwin leads his host, as black as night
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.
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
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;
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
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.
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,
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;
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;
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!
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,
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;
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
The pleasant south country.
Source: Poetical Sketches. By W. B. (London, 1783),
 Theodore T.
Stenberg, “Blake’s Indebtedness to the Eddas”, Modern Language Review
18.2 (1923): 204–206. BACK
 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),
 Blake, America, pl. 1, l. 12, in
Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake,
 Probably a reminiscence of
“Berrathon”, which is the name of a Scandinavian
island in Macpherson’s Ossian. BACK