A coincidence. Last night I read Anne Fadiman's Ex Libris. Fadiman is the woman whose critic father Clifton thought The Salzburg Tales better than the Decameron. Anyone who's read Ex Libris will know that in one of the essays she mentions Longfellow's Tegner's Drapa.
When I was thirteen or fourteen, I read C.S. Lewis's recollection of the central epiphany of his childhood, the moment he stumbled across a Norse-influenced poem by Longfellow that began with the line
I heard a voice, that cried,
"Baldur the Beautiful
Is dead, is dead!"
"I knew nothing about Baldur," wrote Lewis, "but instantly I was uplifted into huge regions of northern sky …"
Ex Libris is a short book. I finished it, and decided to start on Alberto Manguel's memoir, About Borges, which I'd borrowed the night before from the library. On page thirty-eight I found this:
His breath would stop when he came to the line the Norwegian sailor says to his king as the mast of the royal ship cracks: "That was Norway breaking/from thy hand, O king!" in a poem by Longfellow (a line, Borges pointed out, then used by Kipling in 'The Most Beautiful Story in the World').
The line comes from one of Longfellow's other Norse-influenced poems, Einar Tamberskelver.
"What was that?" said Olaf, standing
On the quarter-deck.
"Something heard I like the stranding
Of a shattered wreck."
Einar then, the arrow taking
From the loosened string,
Answered, "That was Norway breaking
From thy hand, O King!"
About Borges is a short book too, only seventy-four pages long, and when I reached the end I went to a bookshelf to search for something else. "Look," I said to M., who was in the room. "I have a book of poems by Matthew Arnold." My Arnold is a small blue hardback, printed in 1940, with an introduction that I like for the scolding tone the writer takes toward his famous poet - he sounds like a teacher about to give him a bad mark -
We suppose that no English poet before or since has so overworked the interjection "Ah!" But far worse than any number of ah!s is Arnold's trick of italic type -
How I bewail you!
We mortal millions live alone
In the rustling night-air comes the answer:
"Wouldst thou be as these are? Live as they!"
- a device almost unpardonable in poetry.
I opened the book and stumbled almost immediately across this poem:
So on the floor lay Balder dead; and round
Lay thickly strewn swords, axes, darts, and spears
Which all the Gods in sport had idly thrown
At Balder, whom no weapon pierc'd or clove;
Bu in his breast stood fixt the fatal bough
Of mistletoe, which Lok the Accuser gave
To Hoder, and unwitting Hoder threw
Arnold was longwinded. I went away to read Portrait of a Lady instead.
Currently I am on page nine and men are drinking tea.