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

Thomas Penrose (1743–1779)

1.        Thomas Penrose enlisted as a soldier in the British capture of Nova Colonia, South America, which had been seized by the Spanish. He was wounded in an ill-fated naval battle of 1762 and never fully recovered. When he returned to England he took orders and received the curacy of Newbury. Much of Penrose’s poetry is concerned with Britain’s wars. His main work is the collection Flights of Fancy (1775), which contained the poem given below. It also included “The Helmet”, which is a poem about the Civil War of the mid-seventeenth century. Also in 1775, Penrose published “Address to the Genius of Britain”, in which he deprecates the struggle then about to commence between England and its American colonies. His focus is often on principles, such as patriotism, which guide national decisions and seal the fate of men.

2.        The poem included here is the first original composition published in English, i.e. a poem which was not based on a Norse source text. The text has a military theme, which deals with the theme of patriotism. It focus is the power of the poetic voice, which awakens docile warriors to new courage. Its setting and theme are more than a little reminiscent of the banquet scene in John Dryden’s much- revered poem Alexander’s Feast, or the Power of Music (1697), which deals with the rewards of heroism and martial success, when Alexander the Great is fired with zeal to war, leading to the burning of Persepolis. Dryden’s theme of artistic composition compelling a warrior’s fervour was perhaps seen as an apt analogy to the skalds encouraging warriors to battle through their verses (this was explained by Mallet and others) At least Dryden’s poem was later referred to in one of the many translations of Ragnar Lodbrog’s Death Song. [1] 

3.        Despite Penrose’s inaccuracies in describing the old Scandinavian warriors’ armour, his experiment with a Norse setting was well received. The editor of The General Biographical Dictionary called it one of “the rare productions of modern genius”. [2] 

***

The Carousal of Odin (1775)

Fill the honey’d bev’rage high, [3] 
Fill the sculls, [4]  ’tis Odin’s cry:
Heard ye not the powerful call,
Thund’ring thro’ the vaulted hall?
“Fill the meath, and spread the board,
5
“Vassals of the griesly Lord.”—

The portal hinges grate,—they come—
The din of voices rocks the dome.
In stalk the various forms, and, drest
In various armour, various vest,
10
With helm and morion, [5]  targe [6]  and shield,
Some quivering launces couch, some biting maces  [7]  wield:
All march with haughty step, all proudly shake the crest.
The feast begins, the scull goes round,
Laughter shouts—the shouts resound.
15
She gust of war subsides—E’en now
The grim chief curls his cheek, and smooths his rugged brow.

“Shame to your placid front, ye men of death!”
Cries Hilda, with disorder’d breath.
Hell echoes back her scoff of shame
20
To the inactive rev’ling Champion’s name.
“Call forth the song,” she scream’d;—the minstrels came
The theme was glorious war, the dear delight
Of shining best in field, and daring most in fight;

“Joy to the soul,” the Harpers sung,
25
“When embattl’d ranks among,
The steel-clad Knight, in vigour’s bloom,
(Banners waving o’er his plume)
“Foremost rides, the flower and boast
“Of the bold determin’d host!”
30
With greedy ears the guests each note devour’d,
Each struck his beaver down, and grasp’d his faithful sword.
The fury mark’d th’ auspicious deed,
And bad the Scalds proceed.

“Joy to the soul I a joy divine I
35
“When conflicting armies join;
“When trumpets clang, and bugles sound;
“When strokes of death are dealt around;
“When the sword feasts, yet craves for more;
“And every gaunlet drips with gore.”—
40

The charm prevail’d, up rush’d the madden’d throng,
Panting for carnage, as they fum’d along.
Fierce Odin’s self led forth the frantic band,
To scatter havock wide o’er many a guilty land.

Source: Thomas Penrose, Flights of Fancy (London, 1775), 11–14.

Notes

[1] “Part of the Epicedium of Regner Lodbrog, Translated”, in Poems, Chiefly by Gentlemen of Devonshire and Cornwall, ed. R. Polwhele, vol. 2 (Bath: R. Cruttwell, 1792), 25–8. BACK

[2] The General Biographical Dictionary, ed. Alexander Chalmers, new ed., vol. 24 (London: J. Nichols, 1815), 308. BACK

[3] Mead. BACK

[4] This is a reference to the misunderstood passage in stanza 25 of Ragnar Lodbrog’s Death Song. BACK

[5] A metal helmet. BACK

[6] A light shield or buckler. BACK

[7] A form of Heavy war clubs. BACK

Published @ RC

March 2012

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