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

Richard Hole (1746–1803)

1.        Richard Hole was a graduate from Oxford University, who considered a military career, but was eventually ordained in the Church of England. He held the curacy of Sowton, and later Buckerell, both near Exeter. He contributed to several periodicals, such as the Monthly Review, British Magazine, and Gentleman’s Magazine, and, most notably, a series of satirical dialogues to the London Magazine during 1782. In 1789, Hole published a paraphrase of a passage from Njals saga, which he entitled “The Tomb of Gunnar”. The source was a Latin translation by Thomas Bartholin. In Hole’s adaptation, Gunnar, a famous warrior of outstanding prowess, awakes in his tomb to raise a “loud-resounding song”. When Hogner, Gunnar’s son, arrives with his friend Sarhedine (versions of the Saga-names Högni and Skarpheðinn) to investigate, Gunnar delivers a poetic clarion call to martial fortitude: “Unmanly flight the brave despise/ Conquest of death is the warrior’s prize!” [1]  The reason for Hole’s interest, given his later poetic focus on heroic romance, seems to be the dramatization of how valiant virtues of the past may be communicated through poetry to a new age.

2.        Hole was a founding member of a literary society at Exeter, whose members included Richard Polwhele, Hugh Downman, and William Jackson. Hole wrote a number of Miltonic odes that appeared in the society’s publication Poems Chiefly by Gentlemen of Devonshire and Cornwall (1792). This also included a new version of “The Tomb of Gunnar”, which was printed alongside a number of other Norse translations concerned with the heroic (including Regnar’s Death Song). The collection was partly a response to the debates over the French Revolution; and the Norse poems were surrounded by several patriotic and alarmist pieces. The collection was edited by Richard Polwhele, who would later emerge as a prolific anti-Jacobin.

3.        Hole’s major work, Arthur, or, The Northern Enchantments, is a romance epic in seven books, written in imitation of both Ariosto and Ossian. It is an Arthuriad, focussing on how Arthur’s Britons encountered the invading Saxons and Scandinavians in the fifth century. An essential part of the action concerns the magician Merlin’s daughter, who is betrothed to Arthur. However, Hengist, the legendary leader of the Germanic invasion, according to the Venerable Bede, also woos her. However, Anglo-Saxon practices are confounded with Scandinavian ideals of the Viking age. Hole further assumes that Scandinavians were part of the invasion force, placing the Danish leader Valdemar as a cohort of Hengist (perhaps inspired by James Macpherson’s description of Anglo-Saxon culture through the use of examples taken from Old Norse literature in An Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland (1771; rev. ed, 1772, 1773). However, in the scholarly preface to Arthur, Hole repeats the argument made by Thomas Percy that the medieval romance tradition originated in Scandinavia: the ideals of chivalry and Scandinavian manners were “really and originally the same”. [2] 

4.        Hole’s romance is an examination of early heroism in Britain. He shows how the Anglo- Saxon/Scandinavian warriors were motivated by their superstition: the conviction of heavenly rewards for the fallen warrior and the fear of a terrible abode for those who die an unheroic death. The poem is awash with references to magic and incantations, pitting Merlin against Urda, the Norse goddess of fate, who assists Hengist and Valdemar. Much Gothic horror emerges from the use of magic.

5.        The extract below is taken from Book four of the poem, in which Valdemar, king of Denmark, and the northern chieftains are feasting in Calisle, when Urda adopts the form of Odin and appears to them. She exhorts the Scandinavian warriors to show the death-defying courage for which they were known and march against the Britons, who are marching towards them.

***

From Book four of Arthur; or, the Northern Enchantment. A Poetical Romance (1789)

In Carlile’s lofty hall, in festive state,
The Dacian monarch [3]  mid his heroes sate.
In Hengist’s absence, such the king’s commands,
Th’ appointed leader of the Northern bands.
Ill-brook’d by Hacon, grown in combats grey,
5
Norway’s dread lord, beneath whose iron sway
E’en distant Thule groan’d, and lands unknown
To fame, that stretch beneath the frigid zone.

Sullen and stern he marks the genial rites;
The music charms not, nor the feast delights.
10
Sweno in silent grief his father view’d,
A generous youth with milder thoughts endued;
And lovely as the rosy morn that streams
Thro vernal showers its joy-diffusing beams:
Whose voice when untam’d passions sway’d his soul
15
Alone could sooth his woes, or rage controul.

The goblet circles; the resounding lyre,
And lofty strain heroic thoughts inspire.
Some vaunt their high exploits in former wars:
Some shew their batter’d shields, and deep-trenched scars:
20
In brutal riot some the hours employ,
And all is dissonance, and barbarous joy.

Sudden, dark clouds the rafter’d dome o’ercast;
Upwards they turn their anxious eyes aghast:
And thro’ the quick disparting shades behold
25
Dread Odin, seated on his throne of gold.
Black vapors, such as clothe the wintry night,
His foot-stool form’d; a meteor’s vivid light
His brows encircled: radiant arms he wore,
And shook his flaming lance distain’d with gore,
30
Loud as when thunder roars he silence broke –
The vast dome trembled as the phantom spoke.

“Offspring of heroes! fam’d in fields of fight,
“Who sport in danger, and in death delight,
“Docs this become you, sons of battle! say,
35
“To wear in shameful sloth the hours away?
“Is this a time to feast in bower or hall,
“When foes advancing to the combat call?
“The host you deem’d beneath the roaring main
“O’erwhelm’d, defies you to the lifted plain.
40
“The cloud of war on Cambria’s height impends
“No more, but darkly-lowering hither bends.
“Awake, arise, and in your might confide!
“Rush on, and let destruction be your guide!
“Think on your fathers’ fame, your own renown,
45
“My favour, who with joys perpetual crown
“The chiefs, who boldly in the combat fall,
“And guide their spirits to my lofty hall,
“O’er-arch’d with golden shields, whose dazzling blaze [4] 
“Exceeds the mid-day sun’s unclouded rays.
50
“There shall each hero share, a welcome guest,
“The foaming goblet, and perpetual feast.
“Again their souls with martial fire shall burn,
“And host conflicting adverse host o’erturn:
“While bright Valkeries, blue-eyed nymphs shall crown
55
“With plausive smiles their actions of renown.
“Be conquest yours, and fame’s unfading wreath,
“Or, more than victory, a glorious death!”

This said, the dark’ning cloud, the meteor’s glare
And stately form dissolves, and melts in air.
60
“Be all our warriors summon’d to the field!
“Cried Valdemar, and struck his echoing shield:
“On every height your banners wide unfold!
“At morn we march; and let the sun behold,
“As in the purpled East he rises bright,
65
“Our arms of splendor emulate his light!”

“Tho’ Valdemar’s proud banners brave the skies
“Beneath his sway we march not; Hacon cries.
“Know, tho’ a God commands, the soul is free,
“To mortal power we scorn to bend the knee,
70
“Or yield subjection—no, were Hengift here,
“Whose distrust I admire, and fame revere,
“Thus had I spoke: nor deem my words, O king!
“From mean distrust, or canker’d envy spring.
“To lead the Danes, the Saxon bands, be thine;
75
“So Hengist will’d, but Norway’s sons are mine.
“Resolv’d as brave allies your cause to own,
“And no superior but their king alone.”

Cerdic and Ida, Saxons far renown’d,
Upstarting at the word, indignant frown’d.
80
In fiercer wrath the Dacian chieftains rise;
Biorno, Grimal, roll their silent eyes,
As secretly they grasp the ready blade,
On their lov’d lord. He, doubtful, long survey’d
His haughty rival; but reflection quell’d
85
The vengeful thoughts that in his bosom swell’d,
“If Hacon at our rule, he cried, repine,
“Be his apart to lead Norwegian line.
“Brave are thy warriors, and a foe draws nigh,
“Who soon their prowess will severely try.
90
“Then, generous emulation be our aim,
“Best to deserve, and win the meed of fame!”

Performing barbarous rites, a gloomy band,
The priests all night before their altars stand.
Meanwhile, in cadence low, or choral chime,
95
The bards alternate wake the Runic rhyme, [5] 
With mystic import fraught: but chief to thee,
Swells the full peal of mingled harmony,
Dread god of battle! so they fondly deem,
Bewilder’d, lost in error’s fatal dream.
100
Now, a vain shadow, and an empty name,
Is he, who foremost trod the fields of fame.
Not his the form that struck their wond’ring sight,
Urda that form assum’d thro’ magic sleight.
And whilst their rugged altars stream with gore,
105
And their wild cries the hapless victims pour;
Whilst loft in trance extatic seems the seer,
Whose words as heaven’s high dictates they revere,
Urda his foul with high-wrought frenzy fires,
And fate’s ambiguous oracles inspires.
110

“Sons of the North! ignoble fear despise;
“Propitious smiles the god who rules the skies:
“And, as the wild winds, mingling in their course,
“O’erturn the forest with united force;
“Your strength united shall dismay the foe;
115
“And lay the towering ranks of battle low.
“Unwonted fear shall seize the hostile band,
“And the pois’d lance drop from the valiant hand.
“Unless your heroes first in arms renwn’d,
“Plant in each other’s breasted deadly wound;
120
“Arthur shall ne’er the British throne ascend;
“But all his dream of pride in ruin end.”
He ceas’d; convulsions shook his lab’ring frame,
And his red eye-balls gleam’d with living flame;*
Then, as th’ inspiring fiend forsook his breast,
125
He sunk unconscious in the arms of rest.
With loud acclaim the priests and minstrel train,
The presage hail, and pour the suppliant strain.
“Hear, mighty father of thy battle! hear,
“Lift thy broad buckler, shake the flashing spear
130
“With wrath’s dark cloud thy aweful brows invest,
“And scatter terror from thy nodding crest!
“The foes shall fink beneath the dreadful sight,
“And ghastly horror seize them in the fight.”

Faint streaks of light shoot thro’ the eastern skies,
135
And wrapt in mist the distant mountains rise.
As round their hollow oak bees swarming play,
When the sun downward shoots his fervid ray,
Athwart, direct, along the echoing plain
In wild confusion pour the martial train;
140
Till rang’d in order by their leader’s care,
The clarion founds, and onward rolls the war.

In two black columns their destructive way
They bend; like clouds in summer’s sultry day:
Each in his womb the lurking thunder hides,
145
And waving lightnings edge their sable sides.

In Nubia’s desarts, by th’ attractive beam
Of heaven exhal’d, as poisonous vapours steam,
Ascend the skies, and from their flagging wings
Shake pestilence, and death’s pernicious flings
150
Such havoc marks their course; by sword, by fire,
The land lies waste, and man and beast expire.

Where Deva’s streams the Cestrian plains divide,
Hacon and Denmark’s lord, on either fide,
High-towering in their battle’s front, pursu’d
155
Their rapid way: at length the warriors view’d
The distant heights in clouds of dust array’d,
And arms faint-gleaming thro’ the rolling shade.

“Behold, fierce Hacon cried, behold our foes!
“(Whilst in his soul the martial transport rose)
160
“To rage unbounded give the loosen’d rein!
“Banquet your hungry falchions on the slain!
“Impel, as meteors cleave the vault of night,
“A radiant fliower! yourfliafts’ deftrucive flight!
“In British blood the vengeful spear embrue,
165
“And give the sacrifice to Odin due!”

Fired by their monarch’s words, his daring train
Advanc’d impetuous o’er the founding plain.
As Valdemar their rapid march beheld,
Athwart the current swiftly he impell’d
170
His bounding steed; the furious king addrest,
And thus the ardour of his soul represt.
“If terror-struck yon warriors shun’d the fight,
“It then were fit to urge their shameful flight;
“But lo! defiance stern their battle wears:
175
“Still, as of old, amid the shock of spears,
“On highest deeds resolv’d is Britain’s train,
“To die or conquer—fame to give or gain.
“Then, let us wait till morn the skies illume,
“To prove our matchless force, and seal their doom.
180
“For see, the sun descending from his height,
“Discloses many a gulf of dazzling light
“Thro’ black, obstructing clouds that westward rise;
“And now in sanguine radiance cloaths the skies.
“A dreadful omen of the coming day
185
“To Britain’s race. Soon o’er their destin’d prey
“The birds of heaven shall shake their founding wings,
“Exulting—the gaunt wolf shall feast on kings.
“’Tis ours, let dastards veil their acts in night,
“To claim the sun a witness to our might.”
190

Hacon assents: heaven’s setting splendors gild
The snow-white tents.—Thus scatter’d o’er the field,
Appears the fleecy flock at even tide,
Recumbent by the fountain’s rushy fide.
Not thrice an arrow’s flight across the plain
195
Approach the vanguard of the hostile train.
Their cornets found; their fiery coursers neigh,
And high in air their waving banners play.

END OF BOOK FOURTH.

Source: Richard Hole, Arthur; or, the Northern Enchantment. A Poetical Romance, in Seven Books (London: G. G. J. and J. Robinson, 1789), 117–31.

Notes

[1] “The Tomb of Gunnar, Imitated from an Ancient Islandic Fragment, preserved by Bartholin”, Gentleman’s Magazine (October 1789): 937. BACK

[2] Hole, Arthur, pp. xi–xii. BACK

[3] Dacia = medieval term for Denmark. The king is Valdemar BACK

[4] Hole’s note: “The Scandinavian Valhalla, like the Mahometan Paradise, was supposed to have been roofed with shields. The Valkeries were employed by Odin to choose in battle these who were to perish, and like the Houries to wait on the selected heroes. These ‘Posters of the sea and land” have been confounded by other writers, as well as Shakespeare, with the northern Parcæ or Destinies: but the latter, according to, Scandinavian mythology, had their abode near the great ash Ygdrasil in Asgard, or city of the gods. Skulda only, the youngest of them, is mentioned in the Edda, as accompanying the Valkeries, when encased in fulfilling the commands of Odin. From these beautiful Divinities, so they were once esteemed, who bestrode the “sightless coursers of the air,’ was most probably derived in subsequent times (with grief be it spoken) the degrading idea of witches riding upon broomsticks. At least, so soon as Christianity began to prevail, severe edicts were promulgated in different kingdoms against those who travelled through the air in the night-time. The belief in such nocturnal flight, scarcely yet exploded among our country people, was the fashionable creed in the days of James the First …”. BACK

[5] Hole’s note: “The invention of letters is attributed to Odin, and in the Edda of Sæmund Frode, he is called the ‘fire of spells.’ In an old poem entitled the Runic Chapter, or the Magic of Odin. (Mallet V. 2.) he boasts that by the use of the Runic characters, and power of poetical numbers, he could raise the dead, and produce the most strange and miraculous effects.—These characters, it may be supposed, were merely the common letters of the Gothic alphabet, and represented by those few who could write and read, as possessing a mysterious nature and hidden virtue their barbarous countrymen. Sheringham asserts, that after the introduction of Christianity, its zealous converts not only destroyed a great number of these pretended charms, but defaced many records and monumental inscriptions, by which means the history of the Goths has been irreparably injured. Many of the lower class of people still attribute a hidden virtue to amulets and magical inscriptions; an opinion doubtless derived from our Gothic forefathers. In progress of time the less they were understood, the more mysterious and terrible they appeared to be; and the old mode of writing was called, and now is, by many who little apprehend its origin, casting a figure”. BACK

Published @ RC

March 2012

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