American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

Poems of Places 4

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From Poems of Places, vol. 8, Scotland 3: Scotland, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden (Boston: Houghton, Osgood and Company, 1880), edited by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

[Sweden]

In this instance I am going to give the entire poem (anyway, the entire poem as presented by Longfellow), as the full text is not available online; also because the poem is pretty delightful. A trek through the southern provinces of Sweden, with special attention paid to the wildness of the people and their way of life.  Terrifyingly rich mutton-steaks, biscuits only a hammer could break; men with frost-bit faces, dressed in “beast-skins”; houses made from upright trees, with rooms where fifty people all sleep together on beds of straw. Who needs Winnetou when there are Gothlanders around?

The author, Pierre Daniel Huet, was a French bishop and philosopher who knew Sweden well. Near the end of the poem, he reports a conversation with the queen, and his disparagement is almost titillating in its tone of familiarity. The translator is also an interesting figure: John Duncombe, a British clergyman and writer; he apparently wrote a poem in celebration of female genius, The Feminead, when he was 22.

The poem ends with a “candelabrum-headed ornament,” as Marianne Moore once put it; that is, a reindeer.

Gothland

Spite of the wind’s tempestuous roar,
We cross the sound to Schonen’s shore.
Our host there cooks a strange repast,
Delicious to a Gothland taste:
He kindly urged us first to eat,
Sprinkled with saffron, salted meat:
Then on the board at once appear
Raw mutton-steaks, dried currants, beer,
Sweet-scented herbs, rice pounded, wine,
Cloves, and quick pepper, sifted fine:
The table, last, fully many a pound
Of ginger, butter, sugar crowned;
With mustard, honey, fennel, oil,
And coriander. — All the toil
And skill of Hecaté could ne’er
In Stygian shades such cates prepare;
Nor worse the drugs, if fame be true,
Which unrelenting step-dames brew.
Each dish untouched, we haste away,
Resolved to travel night and day.

To Helmstadt first our car proceeds,
Where, tired, we bait our dusty steeds.
Hence, ordered to his native land
(For such the queen’s severe command),
Vossius with many a tear departs,
But leaves his image in our hearts.

Through fir-tree forests, large and brown,
We pass, to Gothlanders well known:
Our thirst with proffered mead we slaked;
They then brought biscuits, which, well baked,
With salt and cumin they prepare,
And harden in the smoke and air:
Your knife can no impression make;
Then, in its stead, a hammer take.

Smaland’s steep rocks we clamber o’er,
And trace Lake Vetter’s winding shore.
Here, at our servant, as we passed,
Unnumbered jokes and jeers were cast;
While, on the coach’s summit placed,
His empty head with nightcap graced,
He in Marot’s melodious lay
King David’s psalms would sing or say;
For, though composed by Claude, each note
Was jargon in his raven throat.

Now wild East Gothland’s bounds we gain,
Where beast-skins clothe each livid swain;
Frost-bit their faces, coarse their fare,
Caps of warm frieze the women wear;
Well jolted with the rugged way,
Each night in cottages we lay,
Which upright trunks of trees compose;
Grass on the turfy covering grows,
Where sheep, as on a level mead,
Undaunted, unmolested, feed:
The roof has peep-holes; so, ‘t is said,
Thy temple, Terminus, was made.
Within are fifty beds, where rest,
On straw, wife, husband, slave, and guest.

*          *          *          *          *

Wide-branching pines, as hence we past,
A welcome shade around us cast.
The night o’ertook us at a town,
Named Lidcoping, to fame well known,
Where first their breath the Magni drew,
Johannes and Olaus too.

At Norkoping, where copper-plates
Are forged, the steed our driver baits.
Large coins are here impressed, and threads
Formed of vast length from copper shreds.
To distant lands these precious wares
In loaded ships the merchant bears.

At Nykoping, our next day’s stage,
Queen Leonora, worn with age,
In vain complaints her sorrow vents,
And still Gustavus’ death laments.

Once famed, by subterraneous fires
Now wasted, Telga next aspires.
Each stable here reindeer contains,
The denizens of northern plains;
Two curling horns their lofty brow
Defend; like stags their bodies show:
O’er ice and snow, the lake, and mead,
They whirl the sledge with Eurus’ speed.

— Bishop Huet (tr. J. Duncombe)

Longfellow Poems of Places volume 8

Bibliographic note: Unlike the other volumes, the Scotland trio do not appear to be available in scanned form on the net. The set I acquired (withdrawn from the Osterhaut Free Library in Wilkes-Barre, PA) has a publication date of 1880, but later volumes in the series have earlier dates. I need to do some research to figure out the actual order of appearance.

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Written by Ben Friedlander

March 29, 2009 at 9:42 pm

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