Katharine Lee Bates

(1859-1929 / United States)

The Death Of Olaf Tryggvision - Poem by Katharine Lee Bates

BLUE as blossom of the myrtle
Smiled the steadfast eyes of Olaf
On the host of ships that harried
His enraged, gold-glittering Dragon,
Snared within that ring of sea-birds,
By their fierce beaks rent and bitten;
All men knew the crimson kirtle,
Rich-wrought helm and shield that dazzled
Back the whirling wrath of sword-edge,
But the king, while doom yet tarried,
Bleeding fast beneath his byrny,
Still throughout the savage hurtle
Of the ax-play and the spear-play,
Blinding storm of stones and arrows,
Shivering steel and shock of iron,
Stood erect above the slaughter,
An unblenching lord of battle,
Till about his knees were drifted
Heaps of slain, his last earl smitten.
From the poop then sprang King Olaf,
Faring on his farthest journey,
With his shield above him lifted,
Shield whose shimmer mocked the rattle
Of the missiles rained upon it,
Down into the deep sea-water.
Nevermore shall he thrust keel
Into billow, fain to feel
Pull of rudder 'neath his hand,
Swing of tide that bears his folk
On to spoil some startled strand,
Rick and homestead wrapt in smoke.
All the daring deeds are done
Of King Olaf Tryggvison.
As the red-stained waves ran o'er him,
Faithful to their friend, sea-rover,
Hid the flickering shield forever
From the fury of his foemen,
Hushed the war-din to his hearing,
Sweetened on his swooning senses
Even that wild roar of victory,
Through the dim green gloom appearing
Women's faces flashed before him.
Fair the first, but wan with vigil,
Mother-tender, mother-valiant,
Face of Astrid, she who bore him
On a couch of ferns and clover
In a little, lonely island,
Warded only by her fosterer,
Old Thorolf, who would not sever
His rude service from her sorrows;
She who flitted with her man-child
On from fen to forest, hunted
By the murderers of his father,
Every rustling branch an omen
Of the dangers darkening over
That rich seed of frail defenses;
She whose last look smiled him courage,
Rosy wean of three rude winters,
When the pirate crew had seized them,
Sold the gold-haired boy and mother
Into sundering thraldom, slaughtered
Old Thorolf as stiff and useless.
Then the face of Queen Allogia,
Like a sudden shield, white-shining,
Raised between the vengeful blood-wrath
And the lad whose earliest death-blow
Smote the slayer unforgotten
Of Thorolf. Soft gleamed another,
Younger face, white rose of passion,
Geira, to whose grace her lover
Bowed his boyhood's turbulences,
Gentled in that blissful bridal,
Till death stole upon their joyance,
Gathering her fragrant girlhood
Like a flower, and frenzy-driven
Forth King Olaf fared a-warring,
South-away to sack and harry
Every quiet shore that silvered
On his homeless, waste horizon.
Still amid the flying splinters
Of the swords, and famous morrows,
When the Norns did as it pleased them
With their secret shuttle, twining
In the pattern of his life-days
Strands of mirth and splendor only
For the rending, for the strewing
On the whirlwind, still the Viking
Was of women loved and hated.
Swift their faces glinted on a
Drowning sight, —the Irish Gyda,
Wise of heart to ken a hero,
Stepping by her silken suitors,
Choosing for her lord the towering,
Shag-cloaked Northman, rough and royal;
Then Queen Sigrid, called the Haughty,
With the blow his glove had given
Whitening on her lips, a striking
That became his scathe; young Gudrun,
Who, to her slain father loyal,
Would her bridegroom's breast have riven,
Glorious as he slept beside her,
With a stab too long belated,
With the steel he, waking, wrested
From that slender hand; and Thyri,
Clinging, coaxing, pouting, weeping,
Craving still the thing denied her,
With a sting in all her sweetness,
Yet to him a new Madonna
For the baby-boy who nestled
On her bosom, all bedrifted
With her yellow hair, their starry
Little son too dear for keeping,
Tender guest that might not tarry,
Though upon those tiny temples,
Crystal cold beneath the kisses,
Like midsummer storm came showering
Down the last wild tears of Olaf,
Ever longing, ever lonely.
Nevermore to him, who there
Chokes with brine, shall maidens bear
Honey-mead in well-carved cup,
While the harpers strike the strings,
And the songs and shouts go up
Till the hollow roof-tree rings.
All the wine of life is run
For King Olaf Tryggvison.
All had vanished from the vision
Of those blue eyes, blankly staring
Through that pall of purple waters,
Through that peace below all motion
Of intoning tides and billows,
Where sad palaces are peopled
By the gods he had forsaken.
Too divine for vain derision
And the empty sound of censure,
Wondered they upon the waster
Of their temples, their blasphemer,
As that drifting body rested
On the knees of Ran, the husher
Of all hearts beneath the ocean.
Many mariners, far-faring
By the swan-road, subtly taken
In her nets, have proved her pillows
Soft with slumber. Azure-vested
Clustering came her thrice-three daughters,
While her lord, the hoary Ægir,
From his castle coral-steepled
Wended slow, the seaweed woven
In his mantle. Comely Niörd,
Crowned with shells, and mystic Mimir,
Ay, and many another followed,
Musing on this altar-crusher,
On this sleeping king, awaker
In a realm not theirs, this taster
Of strange bread and wine, this dreamer
Of the new dream that had cloven
Even their dusk region hollowed
Out of chaos by All-Maker,
By the Power past peradventure.
Nevermore shall Olaf's rod
Smite a silent, oak-hewn god;
Nevermore shall Olaf's torch
Fire great Woden's house, or Thor's,
Where the stubborn heathen scorch,
Constant to their ancestors,
— Souls too steadfast to be won
By King Olaf Tryggvison.
From that pallid body parted,
Sped the proud, impetuous spirit
Forth to seek his throne of splendor,
Not the benches of Valhalla
In the ancient Grove of Glistening,
Palace wrought of spears, roofed over
With gold shields, the tiles of Woden,
Where brave warriors feast forever
On the boar's flesh, making merry
With the foaming mead, with minstrels
And the hero-sport of battle,
But that far more dazzling dwelling
Of the young God radiant-hearted,
Christ, whose loyal earl was Olaf.
Oh, what welcome would he merit,
He, the new faith's fierce defender,
Forcing thousands, as a drover
Urges wild, unwilling cattle,
To the font, their blond heads shrinking
From the sacred dew? Who would not
Be faith-changers, take the christening
At his gracious word, gainsayers
Of his will, had been the players
In grim shows,—maimed, torn asunder,
Stoned, slow-strangled with the swallowing
Of live snakes. So did he sever
Norway from her shrines, excelling
All Christ's folk in fealty. Should not
Horns blow up for him in Heaven,
Olaf Tryggvison, who even
Had the wizards well outwitted,
Bidding them to feast, and firing,
While they drowsed there, dull with drinking,
Hall and all; caught those who flitted,
Chained them fast on tide-swept skerry,
Sorcerers whose best spell-singing
Had not stayed the waves from following?
Are not saints and angels listening
For his rumored coming, choiring
Till their praises are as thunder
Of great minster-bells a-ringing?
Olaf stood imparadised
In the loneliness of Christ,
Of the White Lord Christ, Who said:
'Only precious stones of pity,
Holy pearls of peace may build
For each soul the Shining City.
When in thee is Heaven fulfilled,
I shall claim my champion,
Not King Olaf Tryggvison,
But my shepherd Mercy, fed
On Love the wine and Love the bread.'

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Poem Submitted: Friday, April 16, 2010

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