Thursday, January 14, 2010

"What was that?" said Olaf

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.


  1. You are too funny! I read Ex libris a few years ago and enjoyed it. I remember reading an Arnold novel at school (Old wives tale, as I recollect) and enjoying it but that was a LOOONG time ago. I would rather like to read it again now...but, while I did some of his poetry at university I have no particular desire to revisit it, not the way, anyhow, that I love revisiting Hopkins or the Romantic poets or, even, Thomas Hardy. Arnold was, as I recollect, somewhat ponderous. Anyhow, I'm rambling - I think I'd better get back to my long novel. I have promised myself that after this one I am going to read a short one!

  2. I swear, yes, he's one of those Victorian poets who gives Victorian poetry a bad name. Tennyson had the kind of rhythmic leap that could make archaic words like "fixt" or "strewn" sound natural (or unobtrusive, anyway), but Arnold isn't very musical, and he's infected with the Ancient Greeks, he keeps striving for grandeur. It's all right, Arnold, I keep wanting to say. Be gay, be light, loosen up! We won't jump on you if you're not being wise, wise, wise every moment of the day. It's possible to be relaxed and profound at the same time. No, seriously, it is.

    I think like that especially after I find him writing something like this:

    "But hardly have we, for one little hour,
    Been on our own line, have we been ourselves;
    Hardly had skill to utter one of all
    The nameless feelings that course through our breast,
    But they course on forever unexpress'd.
    And long we try in vain to speak and act
    Our hidden self, and what we say and do
    Is eloquent as well -- but 'tis not true"

    He seems to brood on themes of inevitable restraint and impossible freedom a fair bit.