A baneful comet from the Bear
Flamed in the northern sky;
It summoned sinful men to prayer,
It summoned Svend to die.
Beneath its influence malign
The pole star sickly grew;
Too well the meaning of the sign
The aged viking knew.
Before his birth a warlock wise
Thus had his fate foretold
To that fair girl with noonday eyes
And hair of sunset gold,
Who, haply lingering in the bay
To watch the turning tide,
From home and kin was rapt away
To be a robber's bride.
"The babe thou bearest with thee now
No fertile land shall till,
The barren ocean shall he plough
And thereof reap his fill.
"With him shall no man kinship claim,
But none shall dare refuse
What he shall ask in friendship's name,
Or uninvited choose.
"A welcome never bought with gold
From all shall he receive,
For what their hate would fain withhold
Their fear shall freely give.
"The cheeks of maidens in their play
At thought of him shall pale;
Herdsmen shall drive their herds away
When they espy his sail;
"The warders of the lonely coasts,
Within their castles strong,
All night shall sit, unwilling hosts,
To hear his drinking song.
"But humble fisherfolk from sea
Shall leave their weary toil,
His faithful followers to be,
And share the captured spoil.
"So wandering on the waves afar
Shall rove his homeless crew;
The Bear that guards the northern star
Shall be his guardian too.
"But when the Bear with fiery breath
The star shall dare consume,
Then let his spirit look for death,
And meet the appointed doom.
"Yet after life, 'tis so ordained,
He once again shall sail;
A land, where never mortal reigned,
A deathless king shall hail."
Year after year had passed away,
Hot summers, winters cold,
And now was come the fatal day
Whereof the wizard told.
With age the face of Svend was scarred,
His beard was white and long;
But, as in youth, his thews were hard,
His bones and joints were strong.
But what avails man's utmost power
Against the Fates' decree?
Theirs is it to appoint the hour,
His but to bow the knee.
Now twice by night that token same
Had shone for all to view,
And on the third, when evening came,
Svend summoned up his crew.
"Come round me now, my faithful friends
Alike in storm and fight;
Yon fiery sign in heaven portends
That I shall die to-night.
"Receive ye then my last command,
And swear my word to keep,
So may you prosper in the land,
So I in peace may sleep."
They raised their hands with one accord,
With one accord they swore
Inviolate to keep his word,
Then wept in silence sore.
So Svend uprose beneath the stars
And put his armour on,
Reflected in the steely bars
The fateful comet shone.
His battle-axe in hand he held,
His mighty sword was slung
Beside his thigh, his studded shield
Upon his shoulder hung.
On heaven he fixed his eyes a space
As who should gaze his last,
Then o'er the sea's familiar face
A loving look he cast;
Awhile to all his gods in prayer
His head he humbly bent,
Then bade his weeping comrades cheer
And cease from vain lament.
"Build me," he cried, "no mound of stones
My buried corpse to hold,
Nor burn the flesh from off my bones
And leave them bare and cold.
"Clad in my arms and coat of mail
Seat me within my ship,
Gather the cords that hold the sail
And tie them in my grip;
"Lash firm my right hand to the helm,
The rudder let go free,
For I must steer to seek a realm
Alone beyond the sea.
"So, when the tide is ebbing fast
And grows the morning light,
Hoist up the sail upon the mast
And watch me out of sight."
Softly the dawn began to creep
Across the slumbering land,
No need to waken Svend from sleep
Or rouse that faithful band.
All night their torches flamed amid
The silence and the gloom,
All things were done as he had bid,
And now the time was come.
Clad in his arms and coat of mail,
His right hand on the helm,
They launched him out with hoisted sail
Alone to seek his realm.
No breeze was there to carry him,
Yet fast he sped along,
And for a final requiem
They sang his battle-song.
So to the north he sailed away,
They watched him out of sight
Upon his left the ocean lay,
The coast upon his right.
Soon were the bays and headlands crost
Where pines and birches grow,
And where the stunted firs are lost
In fields of endless snow.
It seemed as though the sail were swelled
By some mysterious breath,
Or the uplifted keel impelled
By mermen from beneath.
Norwegian fishermen with awe
A magic ship descried,
Laplanders trembled as they saw
No mortal vessel glide.
An eagle dropping from the height
Swooped once about his head,
She dipped her wings to cross his sight,
Then on her way she sped;
Seagulls, awakening from their sleep,
Like souls of drowned men
Rose silently from out the deep,
And followed in his train;
A school of porpoises swam round
And kept the ship in view,
And formed as if on duty bound
A royal retinue;
Two seals, fleet coursers of the sea,
A league in front set forth
To herald his advance as he
Sailed on toward the north;
In ordered ranks the whales drew out
And lay to at the sign,
Saluting with their waterspout
In turn along the line.
Still on he passed beyond the land,
To where in seas unknown
The breakers on a frozen strand
In flakes of ice fall down.
But further north and yet more far
He steered with steadfast gaze,
As if he sought the northern star
By old familiar ways.
At last the waves grew firm and hard
His errant ship to block,
Gigantic icebergs rose and barred
His path, like hills of rock.
Here, where the winds in council meet
And sally forth to blow,
His rigid fingers loosed the sheet
And let the halliards go;
Down dropped the sail, the vessel swung
Secure beneath the lee
Of cliffs of ice, that overhung
And formed a canopy.
With frost bedecked, her sides, her mast,
Her spars, her rigging shone;
No earthly potentate could boast
So glorious a throne.
Upright he sat, and on his brow
Was placed a coronet,
With flashing emeralds aglow,
And sapphires richly set.
Across his shoulders to his feet
A mantle white was spread,
And all the deck about his seat
With white was carpeted.
The Arctic lights shot up on high
Above the starry dome,
Illuminating all the sky
To give him welcome home.
And now throughout the pathless waste,
That leads nowhence nowhere,
To greet their new-found king, in haste
His subjects gathered near;
Old Winter's chosen favourites,
Who wear his livery,
Wont to pursue their loves and fights,
Undisciplined and free.
The bears approached with stately stride,
Lords of the great white sward,
They made obeisance at his side,
And set a body-guard.
The foxes limped around and stared
With hunger in his face,
They touched him not, and scarcely dared
To snarl about the place.
The timid hares forgot their foes
Beneath his rule benign,
They crowded in from all the snows
Like pilgrims to a shrine.
Within the presence of the king
The king's own peace prevailed,
His influence kept a hallowed ring,
A refuge unassailed.
In heaven above to mark his reign,
In token of his sway,
The northern star shone forth again,
The comet passed away.
But him no summer sun shall warm,
No winter tempest chill,
Alike to him are calm and storm,
Alike are good and ill.
There in the frozen solitude
That guards the Arctic zone,
Where mortal man may not intrude,
He sits and reigns alone.