“And the golden halls were dumb”: Norse Fatalism and Mourning in Matthew Arnold’s Balder Dead

  • Kim Zarins

Abstract

For many Victorian readers, the medieval period was a spiritually rich age of faith, an aesthetic setting for knights and ladies, and an era with a paternal social order in which landowners sat at table with the men who tilled their land.1 Medieval Norse literature offered Victorian readers an experience more fraught with violence that exemplified a masculine yet uncorrupt culture of warriors. William Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung celebrates a dragon slayer’s valor,2 and Thomas Carlyle includes Odin as his first hero in his On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History; such Victorian medievalists idealized Norse society’s manly integrity and vitality as a model for the more industrial, less innocent present. In Arnold’s Balder Dead (1855), the medieval past is not a model but a mirror of the present, a way for his Victorian audience to see and know themselves. For him, Balder’s death is a profound moment in a mythology otherwise bustling with empty heroic exploits. Arnold rejects his contemporaries’ idealization of Norse violence and Valhalla as a paradise for the bold of heart. Instead, he shows Heaven to be gaudy and joyless, Odin cold and despairing, the gods and heroes trapped in a life of daily death. As empty songs of strife, Valhalla’s poetry refreshes the soul as little as Valhalla’s banquets nourish the body. Balder, by contrast, is a poet and figure of light living in a darkened age. In Arnold’s adaptation, Balder’s new life in Hell is not tragic, for he finds comparative peace there with opportunities for contemplation and friendship and a role as poet and prophet of a new age of peace in which a true Heaven of light and love emerges from Valhalla’s ruins.3

Keywords

Dust Beach Straw Funeral Pyre Ghost 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Alice Chandler, “Order and Disorder in the Medieval Revival,” Browning Institute Studies, 8 (1980): 1; A Dream of Order: The Medieval Ideal in Nineteenth-Century English literature (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1970).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Many readers of this poem have criticized it as a failure or considered the subject matter obscure, or both. Some of Arnold’s contemporaries called it “Balder Dash”; see Nicholas Murray, A Life of Matthew Arnold (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996), 147. Warren D. Anderson thinks Arnold works “at cross-purposes with himself,” the goals set out in his 1853 preface clashing against his “inward vision”; Matthew Arnold and the Classical Tradition (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1965), 61. Dwight Culler finds that Balder Dead does “not even have the saving grace of Sohrab and Rustum” ; Imaginative Reason (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966), 215. On the poem’s poor reception and obscure subject matter, seeGoogle Scholar
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  8. 4.
    Macpherson’s “translations” from this alleged fourth-century Scottish bard were questioned by Percy and others as soon as they were published, so Matthew Arnold knew them as a form of modern medievalism. Even so, Arnold appreciated the poetry for its “Titanism,” its fierce, melancholy power. The book moved “like a flood of lava” through the last century, and in spite of its forged elements, “there will still be left in the book a residue with the very soul of Celtic genius in it, and which has the proud distinction of having brought this soul of the Celtic genius into contact with the genius of the nations of modern Europe, and enriched all our poetry by it.” Mathew Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature, vol. 5, The Works of Matthew Arnold (London: Macmillan and Co., 1903), 126–127. Arnold’s defense of Ossianic poetry hints at some of his feelings for Norse poetry and its similar style, its heightening mode of expression that creates “spiritual excitement” (118), and his approval of modern poets remaking the medieval and tapping into its power.Google Scholar
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    Kenneth Allott, ed., Balder Dead in The Poems of Matthew Arnold (London: Longmans, 1965).Google Scholar
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  20. 26.
    Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes, Hero Worship, and the Heroic in History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1966), 7, 27. See also Mallet, whose Norsemen “subsist in full vigor and maturity, even during the infancy of reason” (Northern Antiquities, 1770, II, 268).Google Scholar
  21. 28.
    See also Robert Southey, “The Race of Odin,” in The Poetical Works (Paris: A. & W. Galignani, 1829), 711. Peter Mortensen discusses the political allegory of modern revolutionary wars in Southey’s poem, “The Descent of Odin: Wordsworth, Scott, and Southey Among the Norsemen,” in Romanticism (Edinburgh) 6, no. 2 (2000): 211–233.Google Scholar
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  24. 39.
    A number of scholars have profitably read aspects of Arnold’s relationship to his father with his poetry, especially Sohrab and Rustum. See James Najarian, “ ‘Curled minion, dancer, coiner of sweet words’: Keats, Dandyism, and Sexual Indeterminacy in Sohrab and Rustum,” Victorian Poetry 35, no. 1 (Spring 1997): 23–42. Park Honan remarks that Balder Dead arose from Arnold knowing “he cannot live his father’s life,” much as Arnold’s Balder cannot be like Odin and the other gods: Matthew Arnold: A Life (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1981), 286. Honan describes how Sohrab “fights to discover—and protect— a psychic self” (281), yet this is what Odin does, rather than passive Balder. Odin’s insistence on “daily life” is a determination to keep fighting for a rigid stability, whereas Balder accepts his fate and the redefinition it brings.Google Scholar
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    Linda Georgianna, “Carlyle and Jocelin of Brakelond: A Chronicle Rechronicled,” Browning Institute Studies, 8 (1980): 103–125.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Lorretta M. Holloway and Jennifer A. Palmgren 2005

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  • Kim Zarins

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