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

Edward Jerningham (1737–1812)

1.        Edward Jerningham was a gentleman poet, descended from an old Catholic family settled in Norfolk. Jerningham’s poetry, such as “The Nunnery” (1762), “An Elegy Written among the Ruins of an Abbey (1765), and “The Funeral of Arabert, Monk of La Trappe” (1771), show the influence of Thomas Gray. These poetic pieces focus on typical Gothic subjects of women in distress, suicidal lovers and doomed passion within cloisters. It thus comes as no surprise that Jerningham considered Horace Walpole a life-long mentor. The two men met in Paris in 1765, and Walpole continued to be an inspiration to Jerningham long after. Jerningham dedicated “The Rise and Progress of the Scandinavian Poetry” to his mentor, when it was included in the 1786 edition of his Poems. Walpole praised The Rise and Progress of Scandinavian Poetry as “far superior to his other works”, although it fell short of conjuring up “the most forceful feelings as Gray has done in a subject in which there is so much of the terrible”. [1] 

2.        Jerningham was frequently a victim of satire for his polished verses, such as in Thomas James Mathias’ satire The Pursuits of Literature, where the poet – infamous for his laments on deserted sheep –is referred to as “sillier than his sheep”. [2]  Nonetheless, his sentimental style did evoke the interest of the poetic circle known as the Della Cruscans.

3.         The Rise and Progress of the Scandinavian Poetry is divided into two quite unequal parts. The first (which is included here) celebrates the Norse mythology as a storehouse of poetic images. Jerningham tracks the flight of the Norse muse who flies over scenes from the Poetic Edda and images known from skaldic poetry. Among the observations made are several images that were already rehearsed in Norse-inspired poetry by the mid-1780s.

4.        The second part (not included here) is about a pagan chapel in Uppsala, which was destroyed in 1075 and a Christian chapel erected there some forty years later. This is used as an allegory of how Scandinavian poetry adopted new imagery and left the “wild conceptions” of former times to fall into disuse. This is what constitutes the later “progress” of Scandinavian poetry, as described in the title.

5.        The poem was generally considered one of the more successful of Jerningham’s efforts. The Monthly Review saw Jerningham’s efforts to use Scandinavian mythology for “the purposes of modern poetry” as a failure, but also believed that some images did contain “a kind of savage sublimity”. [3]  An obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine includes it among those where the poet “displays great vigour, and even sublimity”.  [4] 


From part one of The Rise and Progress of the Scandinavian Poetry: A Poem in Two Parts (1784)


1.         The materials that form the first part of the following Poem are taken from the Scandinavian poetics, The Edda! In the remarks on the third fable of the Edda, are these words, “a powerful Being had with his breath animated the drops out of which the first giant was formed. This Being, whom the Edda affects not to name, was entirely distinct from Odin, who had his birth long after the formation of the giant Ymir.”—

2.         This first agent, or Genius, whom the Edda affects not to name, is supposed, in the following Poem, to create, from his own immediate power, the system of the Scaldic mythology. As it would have been impossible to introduce the whole system without running into a tedious enumeration, the principal features of it are only retained, sufficient (it is presumed) to give some idea of the character of the northern poetry. Among other omissions the reader will find that no mention is made of Gimlé the mansion of bliss that was appropriated to the reception of the virtuous nor of Nastrande, the abode of the impious; these places not being supposed to exist in their full extent till the general destruction of the world, whereas the hall of Odin and the caves of Hela were peculiarly the Elysium and the Tartarus of the Runic poetry they are perpetually referred to in the ancient songs of the Scalds, and the wild system of these contrasted abodes seems well calculated to encourage that spirit of war and enterprise which runs through the whole Scandinavian minstrelsy

3.         Some expressions taken from the Edda may appear obscure without an explanation: In the language of the Scalds the world is stiled the great vessel that floats on the ages — The rainbow, the bridge of the Gods. — To drink the blood of friend, alludes to a performed by two warriors when they enter into an alliance of friendship they made incisions in their arms or breast and tasting each other’s blood they mutually swore that the death of the first of them who fell in battle should not pass unrevenged.

4.         To celebrate the mass of weapons,  [5]  was to fight against the Christians, whose religious sentiments the Scandinavians held in contempt, as thinking them adverse to the spirit of war.

5.         The Valkeries are a female troop whom Odin fends to the field of battle upon invisible steeds; their function is to choose such as are destined to slaughter, and conduct their spirits to the Paradise of the Brave.

6.         Fenris is a large wolf, who is to break his chains at the general conflagration, and to swallow the sun.

Part the First

WHEN urg’d by Destiny th’eventful year
sail’d thro’ the portal of the northern sphere,
Of Scandinavia the rude Genius rose,
His breast deep-lab’ring with creation’s throes:
Thrice o’er his head a pow’rful wand he whirl’d,
Then call’d to life a new Poetic world.
First thro’ the yawning waves that roar’d around,
Uprising flow from out the gulph profound,
Amidst the fury of the beating storm
The giant Ymir heav’d his horrid form. [6] 
Now on the stormy cloud the rainbow glows,
Where gay Diversity her colouring throws.
Beyond the sun the Pow’r now cast his eyes,
And bad the splendid city Asgard rise;
Obedient to the loud creative call
She rises, circled with a crystal wall,
Her sapphire mansions crown’d with opal tow’rs,
O’er which the Pow’r a flood of radiance show’rs.

Now a more daring talk the Genius plann’d,
He seiz’d the rapid lightning in his hand,
And as around the broken rays he flung,
From the fall’n spires the gods of Asgard Sprung.
See the dread Ash exalt its lofty head,
And o’er a wide extent its umbrage shed;
There twelve of Asgard’s gods in close divan
Sit in strict judgment on the deeds of man:
Amidst the waving boughs enthron’d on high
An eagle fends around his watchful eye.

Three virgin forms [7]  in snowy vests array’d
Stand in the deep recesses of the shade,
The rich endowment of whose radiant mind
Are by the Pow’r to different acts consign’d
He gives to thee, sage Urda, to restore
The splendid deeds of time that are no more,
And (faithful as the echo to the sound)
Repeat transactions that were once renow’d.
Clear to thy view, Vernandi, are unfurl’d
The various scenes that fill th’ extensive world.
To thee, O Skulda, the dread pow’r is giv’n,
To read the counsels in the breaft of heav’n;
With daring forecast pierce th’ abyss of time,
And (utt’ring first some strange mysterious rhyme)
Proclaim which babe, when rear’d to warlike form,
Shall o’er his country roll destruction’s storm ;
And which, directed to a better fate,
Shall rise the pride and pillar of the state.
Next, at the awful Pow’r’s commanding call
Arose to view great Odin’s festive hall!
Engrav’d with sun-beams on the crystal gate
Appear’d —
Here they reside in splendid state,
Who, as they slept in death, reclin’d their head
On valour’s tier, the battles rugged bed,
Who to the bliss th’intrepid claim aspir’d,
Who welcome’d pain, and with a smile expir’d.
Now as the Genius waves his hallow’d hand;
The Valkeries appear, a female band,
Prompt to the storm of lances to repair,
On viewless steeds to scour the fields of air;
Mark as they hover o’er the crowded plain
The chosen chiefs, the death-devoted train.
The Pow’r now form’d the coward’s dwelling-place,
The seat of pain, and mansion of disgrace:
Deep under earth he fix’d the drear abode,
Thro’ which the rueful stream of anguish flow’d;
Loud roar the surges thro’ the gulph profound,
While cavern’d echoes murmur back the sound,
Close at the gate sat Death’s terrific maid,
Her meagre form in sable weeds array’d;
A wreath of living snakes entwine her head,
And thus with shrilling voice the spectre said:
“Haste to my caves, ye impotent of heart,
“Who meanly shrink from valour’s daring part,
“Ye too, who ling’ring on with feeble breath,
“Crept thro’ the languor of old age to death.”

See on the horrid battle’s bleeding plain
The raven-brood rejoicing o’er the slain,
Yet then in vain they gorge the grateful food,
Death smites them at the dire repast of blood;
When lo! their pinions to the wond’ring view
Combining, into one vast texture grew;
The gory heads conjoin’d in one dread fold,
Around the frame a grisly margin roll’d:

Now self-upborn the sable banner [8]  flings
Bold to the wind its wide expanding wings;
Exalt, the Genius cries, the plumes on high,
Wave thy dark signal to the warrior’s eye;
Th’ intrepid youth beneath thy magic shade
Thro’ slaughter’d heaps to victory shall wade.

Now from a rock on which the genius stood,
He mark’d below a slowly-waving wood,
Then rais’d his awful voice — ’Hail, hallow’d gloom,
(Where Thought is rear’d and Fancy decks her plume)
Who hold’st within thy vast sequester’d bow’r
A numerous train, that wait the rip’ning hour:
Resign thy charge, yield to demanding time,
The living fathers of the Runic rhyme.
Swift at his word the ancient fire survey’d,
Tumultuous rushing from the solemn shade,
Arm’d with the pow’rful harp, an ardent throng,
The mighty founders of the northern song,
‘Twas then the Pow’r resum’d — Ye chosen band,
“At Nature’s furnace take your faithful stand:
“There forge the verse amidst the fiercest glow,
“And thence the thunderbolts of Genius throw;
“Rouse, rouse the tyrant from his flatt’ring dream
“Full at his vices wield the daring theme,
“Till o’er his cheek shall flash intruding flame
“That blushing dawn of Virtue’s rising flame.

“Now on the bosom of the list’ning youth
“Impress, engrave the sacred form of Truth;
“Bid them, as varying life unfolds to view
“Be still thro’ all her scenes to honor true:
“True to the man on Friendship’s list enroll’d
“Th’ entrusted secret of his foul untold:
“Woe to that Chief, and blasted be his fame,
“Whose mean soul chills affection’s holy flame;
“Forgetting that he once, with zeal impress’d,
“Drank the pure drops that flow’d from friendship’s breast.

“Now to the realm, ye hallow’d bards, impart
“This truth, and touch with joy the human heart,
“In man’s too transient perishable frame;
“A glowing unabating fire proclaim,
“Which as that frame lies mould’ring into clay,
“Shall thro’ th’encircling ruin burst its way:
“Thus wh’en a torrent of impetuous rain
“Drowns the low nest that trusted to the plain;
“High foams the bird beyond Destruction’s flow,
“And owns no kindred with the wreck below.

“Now o’er some stately tomb’s dim entrance bend,
“And from the daring harp unerring send
“(As from the founding bow with vigour sped)
“The darts of harmony that wake the dead.
“Be too of prophecy the dreadful lords,
“And strike the solemn, deep, mysterious chords;
“Skill’d to reveal futurity’s dark laws,
“Inforce the song with many an awful pause.
“In sounds that terrify the foul disclose
“(Veiled in the womb of time) destructive woes:
“Say whirlwinds shall provoke the roaring main,
“Say stars shall drop like glitt’ring gems of rain:
“Say Fenris, bursting from his time-worn chains,
“Shall bear wild horror thro’ the Runic plains;
“Doom’d while the course of havoc he shall run,
“With jaws outstretch’d to rend the falling sun.
“Say the gigantic ship, the floating world,
“Shall, on the iron rock of ruin hurl’d,
“Sink—like a dream that rushing from the mind,
“Leaves not a glimm’ring of its pomp behind.
“Ye bold Enthusiasts, [9]  join the warlike train,
“When true to fame, they seek the hostile plain;
“Bid the loud harp delight the valiant throng,
“And add the forceful eloquence of song.
“Thinn’d of his numbers, mark the struggling chief
“Encircled close, and fever’d from relief
“Now strike the cheering harp—’tis heard no more,
“Loft in the conflict’s wild encreasing roar.
“Yet strike again, yet strike the note profound,
“I to the chief will wast th’inspiring sound;
“Till thro’ the pressure of the battle’s storm,
“He o’er the slain a rugged path shall form.
“Thus on the main when frozen fragments fail,
“And with huge mounds oppose the giant whale;
“The ocean’s lord, enrag’d at the delay,
“Thro’ stubborn crashing ice-rocks bursts his way.

“Now round some death struck chief in silence throng,
“While thus he breathes his own historic song—
Tho’ gash’d with wounds, unwounded is my fame,
In the war’s field I chac’d the flying game;
Wrapt in the jealous veil of ling’ring night,
Did we not chide the time’s reluctant flight?
Did not our voices hail the morning ray,
Shouting the matins of th’important day?
When foreign steamers glitter’d to our view,
How swift our weapons from the scabbard flew.
‘Twas joy to seethe riven-helmets fly,
‘Twas joy to swell confusion’s thund’ring cry,
‘Twas joy to see (extending all around)
The hostile banners spread the lowly ground;
Methought the Danish field thus mantl’d o’er
Heave’d conscious of the gorgeous robe it wore.

“Thus as the chief shall mitigate his pain, [10] 
“With choral voice relieve the pausing strain:
“Now, now again your soothing tones suspend,
“And o’er the dying chief attentive bend
Rush’d we not forth at valor’s daring call,
To crush the forces of the Christian Gaul?
Rush’d we not forth in terrible attire,
To celebrate the mass of war a length’ning quire?
Our glitt’ring swords, impatient of the fight,
Were the dread relict that adorn’d the rite.
But agony returns — my fading breath
Denies expression to the song of death.
Farewell — ye battle-sisters hover nigh,
Receive your prize — and waft my soul on high,
“Now ere he sinks beneath the blow of fate,
“Reveal the honors of his future state;
“Where to his wond’ring vision shall expand,
“Adorn’d with heroes, a refulgent land.

“Ye glowing masters of Scaldic song,
“Still other pow’rful gifts to you belong:
“The lofty pine that meets mountain gale,
“Th’ expanding oak that crowns the lowly vale,
“Display the treasures of the musing mind:
“There by the voice of whisp’ring nature call’d,
“In future times shall he mediate the Runic store
“There woo the science of the tuneful lore;
“There view the tree with speechless wonder fraught,
“Whose womb mysterious bears the Poet’s thought;
“There (from the busy world’s incessant din)
“Inhale the breathings of the Pow’r within.

“Enough—the pow’r I now bestow enjoy,
“In Virtue’s cause the forceful harp employ:
“Go forth, ye glorious conquerors of the mind,
“Achieve the hallow’d talk to you assign’d:
“Applaud the valiant, and the base controul,
“Disturb, exalt, enchant the human soul.”
Thus to his minstrels spoke the awful pow’r—
The conscious Scalds avow th’ inspiring hour:
And now dividing into many a band,
Strew their wild poetry o’er all the land:
So while descending with resistless tide,
The snow-flood hurries down the mountain’s fide,
The sun, bright-failing ’midst his ardent beams,
Melts the rude havoc into various steams;
Which rushing thro’ the naked vales below,
Rouze Vegetation as they roughly flow;
Till a new scene o’erspreads the teeming earth,
And smiling Nature hails the summer’s birth.


Source: Mr. Jerningham, The Rise and Progress of the Scandinavian Poetry. A Poem, in Two Parts (London: James Robson, 1784), advertisement and 1–18.


[1] Letter to William Mason, 2 Feb. 1784, The Letters of Horace Walpole, ed. by P. Cunningham, vol. 8 (London: R. Bentley, 1858), 457. BACK

[2] [Thomas James Mathias], The Pursuits of Literature. A Satirical Poem in Four Dialogues, 8th ed. revised (London: T. Becket, Pall-Mall, 1798), 30; see also 154, 181, 345. BACK

[3] Monthly Review (1784), qtd. in Frank Edgar Farley, Scandinavian Influences in the English Romantic Movement (Boston, MA: Harvard University, 1903), 106. BACK

[4] Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman’s Magazine 83 (March 1813): 283. BACK

[5] This alludes to Ragnar Lodbrog’s Death Song, in which the phrase “mass of weapons” is found stanza 11. BACK

[6] Ymir was the primeval giant at the creation. He drank from the four rivers of milk that came from the cow Audumla. This cow became the ancestor of the gods Odin, Vili and Ve. These gods killed Ymir. His skull became the sky, his blood the seas, his bones the rocks. BACK

[7] The three Norns were named Verðandi, Urðr and Skuld. They are virgin goddesses, who sit by the well of fate at the base of the ash tree Yggdrasil and spin the web of destiny BACK

[8] The notorious raven banner carried by Viking armies. BACK

[9] In eighteenth-century parlance, enthusiasm was used as an expression for religious madness. BACK

[10] A reference to Regner Lodbrog’s Death Song, which contains the hope of a place in Valhalla. BACK

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Published @ RC

March 2012