Norse Romanticism: Themes in British Literature, 1760–1830
1. Norse Romanticism: Themes in British Literature, 1760–1830 collects twenty-one British writers from c. 1760–1830, a period which is today associated with the rise of Romantic sensibilities. A number of literary works in Britain were inspired by Old Norse manuscripts, collections of Danish folklore or similar such texts from Scandinavia. The periodical press printed a number of original Norse-inspired verses and generally reviewed the works that dealt with the subject.  This electronic edition is a selection of the adaptations and new compositions. This interest laid the foundation for a broader reception in the Victorian period, when the interest in saga-literature became widespread. 
2. Recent anthologies, reader’s companions and critical discussions have engaged with Romanticism’s fascination with the mysterious or foreign “other” in the attempt to define British national and ethnic identities. In these works, the East (Orientalism) has been a significant preoccupation. The Scandinavian-inspired texts included in this electronic edition shift the geographical focus to the North. Pre-Romantic and Romantic appropriations of Old Norse religion and practices may have constituted yet another form of sensationalist writing – especially in the way it became associated with Gothic terror – but it was equally an attempt to recover a national past. Part of the reason for the appearance of Norse “medievalism” in British texts was the belief that Icelandic texts represented the pre-Christian traditions of the Anglo-Saxons, traditions which had not been recorded in writing in Britain due to the early introduction of Christianity.
3. The majority of the examples selected for this edition are by well-known writers (Thomas Gray, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Robert Southey, Walter Scott, Ann Radcliffe etc.), but the available editions of these authors’ works generally lack the contextual framework, commentaries, and annotations which are needed to give meaning to their use of Scandinavian material. Writers who are lesser known figures today have also been included. Their writings (in most cases not available in modern editions) are interesting in their own right for the success they enjoyed at the time; but they also help to reconnect the poems of the major Romantic figures with their original literary context.
4. The texts are selected in order to exemplify the wide spectrum of interest in medieval northern forms: from skaldic song to sagas, addressing subjects such as pagan heroism, mythology, and folklore. The texts can be divided into two groups. One is the attempt at translating Scandinavian manuscript poems (through Latin). These compositions are best described as resourceful “imitations” or free “adaptations”, rather than attempts at philologically accurate translation. The second group – the majority of examples – consists of original compositions. For both types, the editorial head-notes will explain how the textual universe of the Norse Middle Ages came to serve contemporary ends: ideologically, nationally, and in terms of defining an alternative to hackneyed Neoclassical aesthetics.
5. This introduction will describe the emergence and development of literary interest in Scandinavian matters: the early discovery of Old Norse/Scandinavian texts, the use of these in the construction of an Anglo-Saxon past, and the themes on which Scandinavian-inspired literature was focused.
Early Discoveries and Misappropriations
1. The interest in Old Norse poetry began in the seventeenth century in Scandinavia as part of a nationalist-antiquarian movement. Many of the critical works produced at this time achieved European-wide circulation and were used as reference books by authors of the Romantic era. An important early work was the Danish antiquary Ole Worm’s [Runer] seu Danica literatura antiquissima (1636, rev. 1651). The title means “Runes [transcribed in runic script], or the Old Danish Literature”. Worm was primarily concerned with runic inscriptions on stones and other objects, but, in an appendix, he printed two poems: the Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrog (Ragnarr Loðbrók) and the composition known as Höfuðlausn (“Head-Ransom”) by Egill Skallagrímsson. These were both skaldic poems, i.e. part of a Scandinavian poetic court tradition. The Icelandic antiquary and poet Magnús Ólafsson assisted Worm in translating these poems into Latin. But, in the printed version, a transcription into runic script was also added. The reason for this was that Worm erroneously assumed that all Old Norse literature had originally been recorded in runes, before Scandinavian countries were converted to Christianity and Roman letters.
2. In fact, runes were not part of manuscript culture, but intended and used only for inscription on hard surfaces, such as wood and metal. Nonetheless, Worm’s mistaken theory was generally accepted, and Norse literature and culture came to be known as “Runic”, an adjective often used in English from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries, especially in relation to poetic composition. The important statesman and writer Sir William Temple wrote in his essay “Of Poetry” (1690): “Runes were properly the Name of the ancient Gothic letters or characters … But, because all the writings they had among them of many ages were in verse, it came to be the common name of all sorts of poetry among the Goths”. 
3. The use of the term Goth, and its adjective Gothic, also had wide application, referring more broadly to medieval Germanic/Teutonic culture. Part of the reason for the adoption of this term was the popularity of the sixth-century Ostrogothic historian Jordanes, who had spoken about Scandza (Scandinavia) as “a hive of tribes or certainly a womb of nations [vagina nationum]” from which many European peoples had come.  This included the people of England. Sir William Temple struck a generally accepted chord in Introduction to the History of England (1695), when he explained that the Anglo-Saxons were “one branch of those Gothic Nations … swarming from the Northern Hive”.  In the vocabulary of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Gothic came to mean “medieval Germanic”. Since anglophone writers spoke about their Gothic ancestors almost exclusively from what was revealed in Scandinavian sources (primarily Icelandic texts), the medieval warrior culture they described is most accurately labelled Gothic/Scandinavian. This combined term will be used in this introduction to indicate when an idea of the Anglo-Saxon or Germanic past relies on the images provided in Old Norse texts.
4. A significant source of knowledge about the religious concepts of the old Gothic North was revealed in the two Eddas. A key figure in bringing these manuscripts to a wider readership was the Danish scholar Peder Hansen Resen (Lat. Resenius, 1625–1688). In 1665, he produced the first Latin edition of Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda (1220s), entitled Edda Islandorum. In the same year, Resen also published examples from the Poetic Edda, a thirteenth-century collection of much older mythological and heroic lays. In Ethica odini pars Eddœ Sœmundi vocata Haavamaal, he printed the long Odin-poem Hávamál (“Sayings of the High One”); and in Philosophia antiquissima norvego-danica dicta Volupsa, we find the apocalyptic Völuspá (Prophecy of the Seeress). The latter especially, was seen to provide a parallel to the biblical destruction at the end of the world, was repeatedly translated and referred to by English writers.
5. It had long been known that the English language had adopted some names of the weekdays from the Norse pantheon: Tuesday (Tiu or Tyr), Wednesday (Woden), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Frigg or Freya).  But the first in England to quote more extensively from the two Eddas was the Cambridge linguist Robert Sheringham. In De Anglorum gentis origine disceptatio (Treatise on the Origins of the English People) from 1670, Norse heroic poetry is included to establish links to pre-Christian mythology and religion, as this was believed to have been practised by the pagan Anglo- Saxons.
6. Sheringham’s history of the English people was concerned with the remarkable courage and inherent love of liberty in the Gothic race. As exemplification, he quotes stanzas 25 and 29 from Worm’s Latin translation of Ragnar’s Death Song.  In the poem, Ragnar recalls his warrior feats from a pit of poisonous snakes, into which he has been thrown by his enemy, King Ella of Northumbria. Ragnar faces his own finality with the famous remark “I die laughing” (in Worms’s edition: ridens moriar), which concludes the poem. The reason for the triumphant pose can be gleaned from the preceding stanzas, in which Ragnar makes clear that he is secured a place in Odin’s Valhalla (Valhöll, “hall of the slain”), a privilege reserved only for those who prove their bravery on the battlefield. In the Gylfaginning (The Tricking of Gylfi) section of the Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson created a vigorous image of Valhalla, where dead warriors fight all day in preparation for the final battle against evil, and are rewarded by drink and mead provided afresh each night. Despite the many appropriations of this theme as it appears in the Death Song, it was never noted that Ragnar’s poem is in fact an aberration in this respect: it is one of only a few cases in the whole body of Norse literature where a non-battle death makes the hero eligible for Valhalla.
7. Stanzas 25 and 29, in which Ragnar explains the religious motives for his courageous defiance of death, were quoted time and again by subsequent British writers. Only six years after Sheringham’s publication, the antiquary Aylett Sammes translated these stanzas into English in his in Britannia antiqua illustrata: Or, the Antiquities of Ancient Britain (1676).  The stanzas also became known through Sir William Temple’s essay “Of Heroick Virtue” (1690). 
8. Not unexpectedly, a reference to the Death Song also begins Antiquitatum Danicarum de causis contemptæ a Danis adhuc gentilibus mortis (1689; Danish Antiquities on the Pagan Danes’ Disdain of Death), a thesis written by the Danish official Antiquary to the Crown (from 1684), Thomas Bartholin. In this thesis, the author promoted the theory that the religious tenets of the Old Norse religion engendered an extraordinary patriotic heroism and death-defying courage amongst its believers. Bartholin provided many quotations from Icelandic manuscript, for the translation of which he was helped by the Icelandic scholar Árni Magnússon. The thesis became a standard work for British antiquaries, who adapted several of the citations for English letters.
9. The first was John Campbell, miscellaneous writer and friend of Samuel Johnson, who printed two “Danish Odes” in the mid-eighteenth century.  These are used as a conclusion to Campbell’s grievance that England’s Scandinavian past was ignored. His fictional correspondent Leander explains: “The Expeditions of the Danes into this Island make a considerable Part of our ancient History, a Part hitherto very loosely treated thro’ the Partiality of some, and the Ignorance of most of our Writers, who have affected to represent all the Attempts of the Danes, as so many thievish Enterprizes undertaken by a mean barbarous Enemy …”. 
10. Old Norse poetry was usually cited as historical documentation, giving information on past beliefs and attitudes that could not be retrieved from chronicles, wills, laws and other such utilitarian texts.  But its aesthetic qualities were usually not seriously considered. Nonetheless, Temple intimates in connection with Ragnar’s Death Song that it is “very well worth reading, by any that love Poetry”. In this and Egill Skallagrímsson’s poem (both printed by Worm), he sees “a vein truly Poetical”. 
11. Scandinavian history and poetry found a European-wide audience through the writings of the Geneavan professor in Copenhagen, Paul-Henri Mallet (1730–1807). Under the sponsorship of the Danish government, Mallet wrote two important books.  The first was Introduction à l’histoire du Danemarch où l’on traite de la religion, des moeurs, des lois, et des usages des anciens Danois (1755, rev. ed. 1763, 1773). This work deals with the ancient history and religion of the North. Mallet relied to a large extent on literary texts, from which he drew information about the manners of the Old Scandinavians. The second work was Monumens de la mythologie et de la poesie des Celtes, et particulierement des anciens Scandinaves (1756), a collection of primarily Icelandic source texts (extracts from the two Eddas and skaldic poetry), but also including the legendary tale of King Grym’s courtship.
12. Mallet’s writings were translated into German by A. F. Roese (1765–69), receiving enthusiastic praise from the important antiquary and critic J. G. Herder.  In Britain, reception was more modest. Reviews in the Monthly Review (1757) and the Grand Magazine of Universal Intelligence (1758) were lengthy, but consisting mostly of summaries and extracts from the poetry translated. However, in 1770, the antiquary Thomas Percy translated Mallet’s texts into English in a two-volume edition entitled Northern Antiquities.  In fact, the first volume was a translation of the 1763 revised edition of Introduction. Over the years, as Mallet worked with the material, he became interested in the aesthetic appeal of Norse poetry. In the second edition, Mallet added passages to his text addressing the merits of Norse poetics and its connection with the sublime.  This made it a work that could inspire an emergent Romantic sensibility. Mallet is referred to in the notes accompanying several of the poems in this anthology.
13. Another reason for the positive reception of Northern Antiquities in Britain was that Mallet’s description of the Scandinavian pre-Christian culture could be seen as valid for the study of early English history. Percy with his publisher Thomas Carnan, a former associate with the famous bookseller John Newbery, announced on the title page of the English translation that the volumes contained not only information about “the ancient Danes”, but also about “our own Saxon ancestors”. This was despite the fact that Mallet only mentions the Anglo-Saxons in passing.
14. This was not the only alteration introduced in the English version. Mallet had not adequately distinguished between Celtic and Germanic peoples, using the designation Celtique indiscriminately about all northern peoples. Thus, when speaking about the Germanic ancestors, Mallet refers to the Druids (an exclusively Celtic priesthood). This ethnic and cultural confusion was often perpetuated in authoritative sources, such as Philipp Clüver’s Germaniae Antiquae (Leiden, 1616), Johann Georg Keysler’s Antiquitates selectae Septrionales et Celtae (Hannover, 1720), and Simon Pelloutier’s Histoire des Celtes (La Haye, 1750). Pelloutier, for example, held that the German language derived from the ancient language of the Celts.  Percy set out to put an end to this ethnographic mix-up of Germanic and Celtic cultures. In the “Translator’s Preface” to the English edition of Mallet’s work, he painstakingly labours out the differences between the “two races of men” as “ ab origine distinct”.  Throughout the English version, we find an intrusively interventionist translator, introducing evidence against Mallet’s confusion in the form of notes and annotations, and supplanting Mallet’s term Celtique with Gothic. Hence, Northern Antiquities reads like a virtual palimpsest.
15. Percy introduces a clear Germanic bias. But it is only later that his fault lines between Gothic and Celtic cultures were turned into racist slurs, such as we find in the writings of the fierce anti- Celtic Scot John Pinkerton.  When I. A. Blackwell, in 1847, published a new edition of Percy’s translation, this editor’s “Remarks on Bishop Percy’s Preface” proposes an even harder division between the Germanic and the Celtic races through references to both craniology and the psychological constitution of men.  Among the texts anthologized here, Joseph Sterling’s “Scalder: An Ode” compares Celtic and Germanic culture, while druids and Norse gods appear together in Ann Radcliffe’s Salisbury Plains. Stonehenge.
Norse Poetry and Britain
1. Rosemary Sweet, in her extensive survey of antiquarianism in the eighteenth century, interrupts her narrative to remind readers that “[t]o speak of Saxon antiquities and scholarship without reference to the broader scope of Gothic antiquities … is something of a distortion”.  The recognition that the Anglo-Saxons were part of a wider North Sea culture had slowly emerged in the course of the seventeenth-century. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Oxford philologist George Hickes (1642–1715) tied Norse poetry to English tradition in his monumental Linguarum veterum septentrionalium thesaurus grammatico-criticus et archaeologicus, published in three volumes between 1703 and 1705. Hickes’s investigation into “northern” cultures presented itself as a rather haphazard amalgamation of Anglo-Saxon and medieval Germanic cultures, as this could possibly be recovered through numismatics, linguistics and poetics.
2. In the long chapter on De dialecto poetica, præsertim de dialecto poetica Dano-Saxonica (“The Language of Poetry, especially the Language of Dano-Saxon Poetry), Hickes scrutinized the fourteenth-century poem Piers Plowman in an attempt to find traces of Norse poetic diction.  More importantly, he connected Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon heroic traditions in the discussion of the poem known as “The Waking of Angantyr” (lines originally embedded in the Icelandic Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks). This poem presents a dialogue between the shield-maiden Hervor and her dead father Angantyr over possession of the magical sword Tyrfing. Hickes prints the poem alongside the Anglo-Saxon fragment The Battle of Finnsburh, where a sword with similar lightening properties is mentioned.  Hickes was the first to translate a Norse poem into English in its entirety.
3. Hickes’s claim that Old Norse and Anglo-Saxon language and traditions were closely related was taken up by later eighteen-century promoters of Nordic poetry, not least Thomas Percy. In connection with his new translation of the Hervor/Angantyr dialogue in Five Pieces of Runic Poetry Translated from the Islandic Language (1763), Percy refers to Hickes’s studies. In the preface to this short volume, Percy follows Hickes’s lead in emphasizing the linguistic closeness of the Saxon language to Norse, using the filial metaphor: “sister dialect”.  He further explains that Icelandic manuscripts were relevant for Anglo-Saxons. This was due to the fact that Iceland was converted to Christianity so late (the Alting made it law in 999 or 1000); thus, they had preserved their “original manners and customs longer than any other of the Gothic tribes”, securing the survival of their literary representations “down nearer to our own time”, i.e. long enough to be recorded in writing. 
4. In one of the notes to the translation of Mallet’s Northern Antiquities, Percy argues even more sharply that Anglo-Saxon literary practices can be gleaned from skaldic odes:
5. Like Percy, the poet Thomas Gray also seems to have studied early English and Old Norse poetry in tandem. In the advertisement to Gray’s two famous Norse odes, he explains that the examples were originally translated to illustrate how Scandinavian verses were an early influence on English poetry, through the incursion of Scandinavian invasions into the British Isles. The poetic history, on which he collaborated with the poet William Mason, was later aborted; but both Gray and Mason later published the Norse pieces that they had translated for the project. Their three poems are found in this electronic edition.
6. An undated entry, entitled “Gothic”, in Gray’s Commonplace Book (begun c. 1736 and used more or less continuously until about 1761) refers to a poem about Norse goddesses of Destiny as “The Song of the Weird Sisters, or Valkyries” (in its published 1768 version retitled “The Fatal Sisters”).  Gray appears to take up the claim made by eighteenth-century Shakespeare critics: that Scandinavian lore was ultimately responsible for Shakespeare’s “weird sisters” in Macbeth, having lingered in the once Danish-occupied north of Britain.
7. Later, Frank Sayers, author of the collection Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology (1st ed. 1790), wrote in his preface about Norse religion as one of “the superstitions and mythologies which have contributed … to decorate the poetry of England”.  Richard Hole deals with the Germanic invasion of erstwhile Celtic Britain in Arthur; or, The Northern Enchantment (1789). In the introduction, he explains that his image of the Norse goddesses, the Valkyries, would assume the character of the more lowly witches in Macbeth, so that it could be fitted it in to “our British system of Dæmonology”. 
8. When Gray abandoned his history of poetry, he sent his notes in a letter to Thomas Warton, the famous literary critic and later Poet Laureate. Warton mentions this letter in the preface to his monumental The History of English Poetry, published between 1774 and 1781. Warton decided to exclude “Saxon poetry” altogether and begin his account only after the Norman Conquest. The reason for this, he explains in the preface, is that “Saxon poems are for the most part religious rhapsodies” and therefore not marked by the images of the people in their native state.  This assessment was not entirely unjustified, since the amount of Old English poetry published in the eighteenth century was sparse and primarily religious.  The heroic poems Battle of Finnsburh (in Hickes’s Thesaurus) and Battle of Maldon (in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) had been printed, but since they were not translated they remained practically unknown. Beowulf, the major Old English heroic epic, had not been discovered, and it would not be translated into modern English until 1837.
9. For this reason, Warton looked to Old Norse poetry for a sense of what pre-Christian Anglo- Saxon poetry would have looked like. In the Dissertation: Of the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe, appended to the first volume of the History of English Poetry, Warton is centrally concerned with the continuity between Norse and Saxon literary pasts. He spends several pages on giving an account of how Norse poetry was introduced into Britain from Scandinavia.  He insists on using the ethnological classifications “Dano-Saxon” and “Saxon Danish” for the culture that prevailed in England until the Norman invasion. 
10. The theory that Anglo-Saxon manners could be recuperated from the evidence of their Scandinavian brethren was generally accepted. James Macpherson, in his An Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland (1771; rev. 1772, 1773), has recourse to the Prose Edda and Ragnar’s Death Song and other example of Viking-related literature to draw the lineaments of Anglo-Saxon attitudes. When François-René de Chateaubriand wrote about the history of English Literature in 1836, he noted: “it would be almost impossible to take a separate view of literature during the epoch of the Anglo-Saxons and that of the Danes; I shall therefore treat of them together”. 
11. When it came to literary texts about England’s past as part of a Viking empire, a number of poems were written. In the electronic edition, examples are William Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad “The Danish Boy”, as well as his later poem on King Canute. Richard Hole and Walter Scott use Viking England as their historical setting. But often, literary texts borrowing ideas of heroism and pagan religion from Scandinavian sources presented these as characteristics of the pagan Anglo- Saxons, without mentioning the Viking invasions.
12. In translating Norse poetry into English, the influence of James Macpherson’s “translations” from the fourth-century Celtic bard Ossian cannot be underestimated. The first instalment of this purportedly ancient oral tradition was published as Fragments of Ancient Poetry, Collected in the Highlands of Scotland in 1760. Thomas Gray had seen two specimens of Macpherson’s compositions before of their appearance in print. In a letter, he wrote that he was in “ extasie with their infinite beauty”, although unsettled about their authenticity.  The year after, in 1761, he composed his Norse odes, based on verifiable manuscript tradition, but in English versions that enhanced and altered the original source texts. 
13. In the “Preface” to Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, Thomas Percy is candid about his motives for publishing when he refers to Macpherson’s “translations”: “It would be as vain to deny, as it is perhaps impolitic to mention, that this attempt is owing to the success of the ERSE [i.e. Scots- Gaelic] fragments”.  Already in a letter dated 21 July 1761, to the Welsh antiquary Evan Evans, Percy argued that his motive for putting together the collection was to restore balance in the book market, which he believed was overzealous for Scottish poetry. Percy complains that the Scots are “everywhere recommending the antiquities of their country to public notice, vindicating it’s [sic] history, setting off it’s poetry”. In this letter, Percy refers to the Ossian Fragments as part of the Scotophilia dominating the literary book market, while he mentions the plans for publishing both Old Norse poetry and Reliques as a means to vindicate English history.  The Ossianic poems, together with Evan Evans’s researches into Welsh antiquity, acted on Percy as a catalyst: a Gothic/Anglo-Saxon tradition that could rival the Celtic antiquities would be located and offered to the public.
14. However, for a number of other translators and poets, the Norse tradition was not taken up primarily for competitive or nationalist reasons, but because it provided scope for expanding a heroic, vernacular imagination independent of Macpherson’s politically problematically and historically questionable Ossian. Nonetheless, a number of literary writers backed both horses: Thomas James Mathias included in his Runic Odes: Imitated from the Norse Tongue in the Manner of Mr. Gray (first ed. 1781), a poem inspired by “Images selected from the Works attributed to Ossian”; Frank Sayers’s Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology (1790) contained inspiration from both Norse and Celtic traditions; and Poems Chiefly by Gentlemen of Devonshire and Cornwall (1792), edited by Richard Polwhele, printed translations and imitations of both Norse and Ossianic poetry. Richard Hole, who contributed a Norse poem (from Njal’s Saga, through Bartholin) to this last collection, had previously published a Poetical Translation of Fingal (1772). Finally, Thomas Love Peacock uses Macpherson’s Ossianic terminology when composing the Norse-inspired Fiolfar (1806).
15. But it was not only in England that there was an interest in the Norse past. Historically, the Okney Isles and the Hebrides had also been affected by Viking imperialism. Indeed, a syncretic culture of Norse-Gaels (or Gall Gaidel), a people dominating the Irish Seas and western Scotland for a substantial part of the Middle Ages, had developed in these regions. In Ragnar Lodbrog’s Death Song (which begins this anthology), we find a list of military battles and conquests, including several British locations, such as Orkneys, Hebrides, Scotland and Northumbria. In fact, some critics have argued that the original may have been written in, or at least taken a route past, the Orkneys. 
16. Until 1468, the Orkneys were under the suzerainty of the kings of Norway. Shetland only became Scottish territory in 1472, as a result of the marriage between James III of Scotland and Margaret, daughter of the Danish king Christian I. The islands preserved the Norn language, a descendent of Norse, which survived into the eighteenth century.  The survival of this culture was the background for Thomas Gray’s “The Fatal Sisters”, which sets the scene in eleventh-century Caithness, in the northern Scottish Highlands. Gray found the poem in the Icelandic historian Tormod Torfœus’ history of Scotland and the Orkneys: Orcades, seu rerum Orcadensium historiœ (1697). This history had particular interest to British readers, since it showed the Viking heritage continuing in parts of Britain after the Battle of Stamford Bridge (1066), which otherwise ended Norse influence in England.  Walter Scott’s novel The Pirate (1822) is about the survival of Norse culture and traditions in the Orkney Islands into the late seventeenth century.
17. James Johnstone, a Scot, who took employment as chaplain and secretary to the British Envoy Extraordinary in Copenhagen from 1779 to 1789, made several translations of Norse texts relevant to the northernmost British Isles: Anecdotes of Olave the Black King of Man and the Hebridean Princes (Copenhagen, 1780), advertised as “A Piece of Ancient Scottish History”, and The Norwegian Account of King Haco’s Expedition against Scotland (Copenhagen, 1782). Both were extracts from Hákonar saga Hákonarsonar and stand as the first saga texts translated into English. Later, in 1786, Johnstone published a compilation of Old Norse sagas, Antiquitates Celto- Scandicae, with texts in Icelandic and Latin. In the notes, he often turns his attention to showing the close affinity between Old Norse and English.
18. The Icelandic scholar Grímur Jónsson Thorkelin published in London Fragments of English and Irish History in the Ninth and Tenth Century (1788), including the piece Nordymra, which retells the story of Ragnar Lodbrog. During his sojourn in Britain, Thorkelin found and transcribed the Old English poem Beowulf, which he was also the first to translate and publish in Copenhagen under the title Poëma Danicum dialecto Anglosaxonica (1815; A Danish Poem in Anglo-Saxon Dialect). However, it was only later that this came to be seen as an English heroic poem. Therefore, it had no impact on the texts collected in this edition.
Reception of Norse Poetry
1. In the eighteenth century, national and literary history was reconceived under the sign of the bard, with Ossian as the most conspicuous example. The bardic voice would speak to and for his age. In English poems on Norse themes, focus is often on the skalds and their ability to move men to heroic action (rather than the deeds themselves). The skald’s task was to commemorate great battles in immortal verse and thereby encourage new fervour. This became symbolic of the poetic voice possessing a mystical power capable of commanding social action. It is possible to read these examples as an expression of anxiety about the poet’s social role in the modern world. The poet’s role, as it is well known, was a central Romantic concern, leading to the aggrandizement of the poet as a guide and teacher of mankind. In the present anthology, Thomas Penrose’s The Carousal of Odin deals centrally with the skaldic voice, while Edward Jerningham, in The Rise and Progress of the Scandinavian Poetry, has the “hallow’d bards” impart “truth” and “touch with joy the human heart,/ In man’s too transient perishable frame”. Both Thomas Percy in An Essay on the Ancient Minstrels in England and Thomas Warton in Of the Origin of Romantic Fiction in Europe call attention to the skald as a pivotal and revered figure in societies of old.
2. Beyond the national and historical interest in Gothic/Scandinavian poetry, British poets also had literary reasons for being attracted to it. In 1731, the Oxford fellow John Husbands wrote in the preface to A Miscellany of Poems by Several Hands (1731) that worthwhile literatures could be found among the “barbarous” nations. He includes the Scandinavians alongside Laplanders, American Indians, and ancient Welsh odes. Later in the century, this was to develop into a full- blown philo-primitivism for non-classical poetry. Husbands gives particular attention to Egill’s “Head-Ransom” poem, from which he quotes two passages, challenging his readers that this specimen, measures up to anything by Pindar. 
3. In the second half of the eighteenth century, writers began to actively seek for alternatives to Neoclassical forms. This was not initially a call for a replacement of classical sophistication and decorum, but, more modestly, an attempt to explore a simpler and, in some sense, truer poetry. At the end of his introduction to Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, Percy explains that the objects of his interest may not be “works of taste or classic elegance”, but the Norse poetry serves: “to unlock the treasures of native genius they present us with frequent sallies of bold imagination and constantly afford matter for philosophical reflection by showing the workings of the human mind in its almost original state of nature”.  This statement anticipates the poetics of later Romantic writers. The unfamiliarity of Norse mythology made it new and exciting compared to the trite references to Greek and Latin pantheons. However, the scant knowledge of Norse mythology among the British reading public, evidently made it necessary to supply a number of explanatory notes. For several examples in the present anthology, the author’s original annotations have been preserved, since they are often an integral part of communicating the newly-embraced Norse tradition to an English audience.
4. In the final analysis, the very novelty of Norse references attracted writers who tired of old forms, but the foreignness of this mythology was probably also the reason why Norse-inspired poetry never established itself as a major Romantic mode. The Ossianic poems (which required no knowledge of complex mythological narratives) remained the best-selling books of vernacular poetry in Britain and abroad.
5. If the Ossian poetry was charged with positive social and political ideals of previous grandeur for the Highlands, the Gothic/Scandinavian past was also routinely associated with a number of similar characteristics. The Scottish philosopher and poet James Beattie (1735–1803) provided a concise overview in the form of “four peculiarities” for which Britain’s “northern conquerors” were to be praised: “ They were bold and hardy:  they despised death, or rather, they thought it honourable and advantageous to fall in battle:  they were indulgent and respectful to their women: and  they were animated with a spirit of liberty and independence”.  These “peculiarities” were given literary expression in Norse-inspired fiction of the period.
6. Beattie’s first point about heroism served as prism thorough which other facets of Gothic/Scandinavian culture would come into view and begin to make sense. The most positive manifestation of this was the idea of the Germanic North as a beacon of liberty. After all, the Scandinavians had never been conquered by the Romans or anyone else. Mallet, in the preface to his history of Denmark, speaks of Northerners as having released Europe from the “yoke of Rome”, a repressive regime which had banished “all elevation of sentiment, all things that were noble and manly”.  Mallet’s analysis inspired by Montesquieu’s Enlightenment thinking and his eulogy to “our ancestors the ancient Germans” in the political treatise De l’esprit des lois (1748), a work to which Mallet refers several times.
7. If the Gothic virtue of liberty was essentially a pan-European heritage, British claims to exclusiveness were also often emphasized. It was felt that Britain had preserved the Gothic virtues more so than nations of southern Europe, which had succumbed to various degrees of Catholic tyranny.  To be sure, the first recorded usage in the OED of the adjective Gothic comes from the parliamentarian Nathaniel Bacon, who stated in Historical Discourse of … the Government of England (1647) that no nation could “shew so much of the ancient Gothique Law as this Island”.
8. Thomas Warton’s “Ode on His Majesty’s Birthday, June 4th, 1788” (written as one of his duties as Poet Laureate) refers to Ragnar Lodbrog’s heroism. Here, Warton expands on the Germanic heritage of George III, a monarch of the Hanoverian line. Warton, after having praised the Gothic ancestors’ “unconquerable soul”, speaks of how they were ignited with “the fires of social zeal”: from this zeal, British constitutional balances were descended. 
9. The Norse skalds were often seen as guarantors of libertarian values, as in Edward Jerningham’s reference to how they “rouse the tyrant from his flatt’ring dream” in his The Rise and Progress of the Scandinavian Poetry. In the latter half of the eighteenth century, when Britain was going through a turbulent period of political unrest, this laid open the libertarian legacy of the North to interpretations that reflected more radical, if not anti-royalist, sentiment. Examples of this can be seen in the present edition through the poems of William Blake and Robert Southey.
10. From the reading of Norse literature grew a notion that the old Northmen had an unusual respect for women (mentioned by Beattie). In turn, this fostered a theory that Scandinavia was the place of origin for the development of medieval chivalry. Mallet drew on Montesquieu’s pseudo-scientific theory, linking virtues of the Gothic ancestors to climatic conditions, to argue that the harsh northern climate cools the “warm passion of love”, which is found in excess among southern nations. Not overcome by unrestrained sexual desire, the northerners treated their women as equals. Mallet developed this idea to make capital of the Scandinavians’ reputation for belligerency by reading it into a romantic context of chivalrous courtship of women. He claims that the esteem of Scandinavian women “could only be obtained by a proper exertion of virtue and courage”. Thus, we see here “a turn for chivalry as it were in the bud”.  Mallet points to Ragnar’s Death Song as proof that the “Laws of Chivalry” were not a product of “an institution so late as the eleventh century”, but that the “spirit of gallantry” was partly institutionalized in Scandinavia well ahead of the rest of Europe. 
11. In Whiggish histories of social development, a higher status was granted those societies that treated their women with courtesy and respect. This was a theory particularly popular among writers of the Scottish Enlightenment. William Alexander, in The History of Women (1779), for example, quoted the English translation of Ragnar Lodbrog’s epicedium to argue that the custom of ancient Scandinavia “had rendered necessary to make a man deserving of his mistress”.  The historian John Adams saw Northern landscapes and savage forests as the “nurseries of chivalry” which had produced “our customs of manners and policy” of considering “women as sovereigns”, mingling “politeness with the use of the sword” and taking delight in “protecting the weak”.  He also referred to Ragnar’s poem, as well as the love song of Harald Hardraade, and lines on courtship from Hávamál, which allegedly showed that the ancient poems of Scandinavia contained “the warmest expressions of love and regard for the female sex”. 
12. Most forcefully, the claim was taken up by Thomas Percy in the essay On Ancient Metrical Romances &c, prefixed to the third volume of Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. In this essay, he carefully worked out an argument for a northern origin of the medieval chivalrous romance. According to Percy, skalds had accompanied Germanic warlords in their conquest of Britain and established a thriving romance tradition there. The production of romantic fiction was later bolstered by Danish Viking invasions and settlements. Hence, what was introduced post-1066 in the form of Anglo-Norman romances was not an entirely new import, but a sophistication of the already familiar (Normans were of Danish extraction). By integrating the medieval romance with that of prior skaldic compositions, Anglo-Saxon England could be relocated towards the centre of European literary progress, rather than at the receiving end of foreign influences from the Mediterranean. 
13. An example allegedly supporting this conception of northern literary primacy was the tale of the Swedish King Grym, which had appeared in Mallet’s anthology of Scandinavian texts.  Percy claims this tale provides evidence for his assertion that “old pieces” of Norse literature were “in effect complete Romances of Chivalry”, well ahead of later developments in romance writing in Spain, Italy and France.  Surprisingly, Grym’s story was not versified during the period. But Walter Savage Landor’s Gunnlaug (included in this anthology) was based on the Norse scholar William Herbert’s prose summary of an Icelandic saga. Landor expands this tale, developing its themes of chivalrous sentiments and tragic love.
14. A poem allegedly illustrating the ideas of the northerners’ penchant for romantic composition was included in Percy’s Five Pieces of Runic Poetry under the title “The Complaint of Harold”, originally a skaldic composition embedded in Knytlinga saga. It is a monologue purportedly spoken in the first person by the eleventh-century Norwegian King Harald III. For many readers, Percy’s title was likely evoke the English lyric mode of “complaints”, popular in the Petrachan-inspired Renaissance –“A Complaint by Night of the Lover Not Beloved” by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, is an often mentioned example. However, unlike the Earl of Surrey, we have no admission of a “pang, that inwardly doth sting” in Harald’s poem. Even if one ignores the English title Percy gave the poem, it is hard to reconcile this skaldic piece with Percy’s description of it as “modern”: that is to say, its “subject … turns upon the softer passions”.  In fact, the poem is focused on Harald’s masculine achievement and never gives way to emotional reflection on the inner torments of love. Nonetheless, Thomas Warton described Harald’s ode as “professedly a song of chivalry” with the “romantic air of a set of stanzas, composed by a Provencial troubadour”.  In this electronic edition, a version of Harald’s poem is included in a translation by William Mason, which adds to it in ways that make it a modern-sentimental piece.
15. In relation to Beattie’s point about Scandinavian death-defiance, it became commonplace to refer the northern warriors’ death defiance as an explanation for their martial success.  Several of the poetic examples included in this anthology contain allusions to Ragnar Lodbrog’s anticipation of a glorious afterlife in Valhalla. But almost just as frequently, the fear of not reaching Valhalla is found in English compositions. References abound to the cold underworld of Norse mythology, where those who did not achieve a heroic death were fated to go. Niflheim (“Abode of Mist”) was a world ruled over by Hel, a cruel mistress who makes an appearance in several poems. Among the writers who took advantage of Niflheim as a means of creating literary effects of terror were Robert Southey in “The Death of Odin”, Thomas Love Peacock in “Fiolfar”, while Ann Radcliffe uses Hel as a central antagonist in the long poem Salisbury Plain. Stonehenge. The fact that Radcliffe, the doyenne of terror fiction, involved herself in a tale with references to Norse mythology goes to show how the superstitions of the old Northmen were ransacked for its chilling effects. As it is apparent, in several of the texts, ideas from Norse mythology came to serve as subspecies of terror writing. We lack a coherent survey of what we may coin Gothic Gothicism; the few notes that there is room for here may only invite further study.
16. The association between the Gothic/Scandinavian past and the literary vogue for horror owed a great deal to Thomas Gray’s Norse Odes. “The Fatal Sisters” deals with Norse goddesses spinning the fate of men on a loom with human entrails and skulls, while “The Descent of Odin” is an account of the awakening of a seeress from her grave through the use of magic incantations. Witness to Gray’s influence is Charles Maturin, who cites the latter ode in the beginning of his Gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer (1820).  Lecturing in 1840, Thomas Carlyle took Gray to task for having distorted the reception of Norse culture in Britain, essentially obscuring its noble heroic imperatives. According to Carlyle, Gray had prejudiced generations of readers to view the religion of Odin as merely “gloomy palace of black ashlar marble, shrouded in awe and horror”. 
17. Richard Hole is just one of several writers who learned from Gray’s Norse poems. The passage extracted from in his Arthur; or, the Northern Enchantment (1789) in this edition shows how Norse mythology could be called upon to evoke an atmosphere of dread and horror. Another writer who exhibited a similar technique was Joseph Cottle (whose brother, Amos, translated parts of the Poetic Edda in 1797). The first book of Arthur (1800), an epic poem (not included here), deals with the Danish invasion of Britain in the ninth century: in a dark Scandinavian landscape, Ivar (son of Ragnar Lodbrog) encounters night-hags and suffers horrible illusions engineered by a Norse sorceress. This first book has little relation to the rest of the poem, an incongruity for which Cottle apologizes in the preface. But, as he explains, the departure arose “from the peculiar scope to the imagination which the wildness of the Gothic superstitions afforded”. 
18. Norse black magic, ghosts and necromancy became themes that often dominated literary composition. James Mathias, in Runic Odes: Imitated from the Norse Tongue in the Manner of Mr. Gray (1781), for example, adds to his adaptation of the harrowing Ragnarök myth from the Poetic Edda a piece entitled “An Incantation Founded on the Northern Mythology”. This is included in this edition as is William Wordsworth’s “The Danish Boy”, a lyrical ballad about a Scandinavian prince haunting the English landscape. One of the most influential Wordsworth critics, Geoffrey Hartman, has described this piece as “the closest Wordsworth comes to a supernatural or explicitly visionary poem”.  Walter Scott’s Harold the Dauntless, a tale from the final days of Danelaw England, has several apparitions. Its denouement is Harold’s challenging the spirit of Odin, the demon-ruler of pre-Christian Danes, in the truly Gothic “Castle of Seven Shields”. Odin’s defeat marks the beginning of a new era of light and Christianity.
19. The late eighteenth century book buyers, from their reading of the Ossian poems, came to know that facing ghosts was one of the most heroic endeavours a warrior could undertake. So it was for the Gothic/Scandinavian warrior, as Walter Scott explicitly points out, when commenting on Old Norse heroes: “they … held nothing more worthy of their valour than to encounter supernatural beings”.  Scott refers to the most famous of Norse ghost stories: Hervor’s encounter with her father Angantyr’s ghost (actually a Norse draugr or haugbui, an animated corpse). Since the first English translation of this poem in George Hickes’s scholarly Thesaurus (1703–5), this poem was frequently translated in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. When Anna Seward, the poetess “Swan of Lichfield”, wrote a free adaptation based on it, she indulged not only in its tomb horrors but also gave it a feminine angle by magnifying the daughter’s heroic defiance of her father. The result is included in the present edition.
20. The most notorious of Gothic writers, Matthew “Monk” Lewis, also took up the poem, first incorporated into The Monk (1796). This was written within the context of parodying superstitious beliefs and enthusiast religion. “The Sword of Angantyr” was later featured as one of several Scandinavian poems in his Tales of Wonder (1800). Included here from this collection is another adaptation of an original tale. The story of the cunning Water-King, who abduct a young maiden was taken from a collection of Danish folklore tales. These tales of supernatural imps and spirits were opportune for literary exploitation in a book market that had shown itself hungry for horror.
21. In the process of adapting original folktales in Tales of Wonder, Lewis celebrated his own tawdriness as a manager in a circus of horrors by including a literal translation for comparison. He also introduced elements of satire to the collection through the use of editorial notes and not least by providing his own parody of the ancient ballad form. Douglass H. Thomson has recently discussed Lewis’s strategy in this respect as a means of defusing allegations that he was an enthusiast of the non-rational. 
22. Walter Scott, who contributed genuine Scandinavian ballad material to the collection, expressed misgivings about Lewis’s parodic antics: “Tales of Wonder were filled, in a sense, with attempts at comedy which might be generally accounted abortive”.  Scott was interested in examining how superstitions had exerted an influence on communities in history. With an emphasis on the historical dimension, Scott tended to debunk his own interest in horror writing through the uses of scholarly annotation, such as is evident from the extensive historical notes on Norse superstition which he provided for his semi-gothic novel The Pirate (1822), in which Norna, a seeress of Scandinavian descent, practices magic, visits tombs, and sings of Old Norse heroic virtues. As one critic has argued, Scott gives the reader irregularity whilst remaining regular himself.  Nonetheless, when Scott wrote his Norse-inspired ballad Harold the Dauntless (1817), he chose to place it within a framework that diffuses any claim to seriousness and ends with a stanza apologizing for having “scorn’d to add a note” from scholarly authorities on Norse poetry.
23. We may sum up this introduction by observing that the translations, adaptations, and imitations of Scandinavian literature during the period from 1760 to 1830 were guided by pre-Romantic and Romantic concerns – aesthetically, ideologically, and not least nationally. Knowledge of the tradition was slight and the choice of themes even more limited in scope. This is why it has made sense to compile a representative selection of texts.