“BALDER DEAD” by Matthew Arnold (first published 1855)
I’ll be quite clear about this. As I have written about poetry this week, I know I have at once halved the readership of this blog. Wiseacres now say “Nobody reads poetry!”. Except poets and critics. This is not quite true, but near enough to be common wisdom. Some poets reply sharply that it doesn’t matter if they are little read, so long as their works achieve what they intended them to achieve. This is the line taken by the Dunedin poet David Howard in the after-word to his little collection S(t)et (Gumtree Press, 2009), where he professes not to be concerned about the “market share” he gets.
Good for him. I think this is a sane attitude for a poet.
Still, I’m aware that people are not storming book-shops to buy volumes of poetry, and remainder bins fill up with those which book-stores have “bought in”’ rather than getting on a “sell-or-return” basis.
So, I think pig-headedly, if I have broached the topic of poetry in my “Something New”, and alienated casual browsers, I might as well push on and devote “Something Old” to poetry too. And, being as ready to be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb, I’ll set about commending a poem that is now regarded as a period piece, finding little favour and reflecting too much the tastes of its own age.
Balder Dead is High Victorian narrative poetry. It runs to approximately 2,000 lines and fills up 28 pages in the Everyman’s edition of Matthew Arnold’s Collected Poetry which I have on my shelf.
Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) is regarded as a very intellectual and sympathetic Victorian figure - the man who regretted the decline of religious faith but who couldn’t bring himself to be a religious believer, as he made plain in his best-known short lyric Dover Beach. This made him a religiously-inclined agnostic and therefore very representative of intellectuals who were his contemporaries. In universities, Arnold is now studied more for his literary and social criticism (especially his book Culture and Anarchy) than for his poetry. This is true even in courses specialising in Victorian Poetry where he is seen to stand, with Arthur Hugh Clough, some way behind the two big boys, Tennyson and Browning.
Balder Dead is, therefore, the type of poem which is known to sit in the collected works of an esteemed figure, but which is hardly ever read.
The poem is written in blank-verse iambic pentameter, with heroic extended metaphors of the sort that Homer would have approved; and with key lines and phrases sometimes repeated, as in the days of the oral-culture bards.
It re-tells a story from Norse mythology.
Balder (his name is more commonly spelt Baldur), the beautiful and peaceful Sun God, is dead. Lok (more commonly known as Loki) the trickster cheated poor Hoder into a situation where Hoder accidentally killed Balder. Like so many mythic and legendary heroes (like Achilles, like Siegfried, like Superman) Balder was invulnerable except for one small weakness. The gods used to make sport with him by hurling weapons at him that bounced off him and did not harm him. But Balder succumbed to contact with his nemesis (or Krypton), mistletoe. This detail suggests that, before Matthew Arnold got hold of the story, the death of Balder had something to do with ancient legends about the death of the sun in the coming of long Norse winters.
The gods lament for the dead Balder. They want him returned to them. So Hermod mounts Odin’s horse and rides down to the underworld to ask for Balder back. But the Queen of the Underworld says Balder will be returned to the gods only if all things on Earth and in the heavens weep for the death of Balder. At the gods’ bidding all things do indeed weep for Balder (again, like the rain and snow-storms that follow the “death” of the sun in winter). All things, that is, except for Lok. Balder is not returned to the gods.
Odin plans to storm the underworld and rescue Balder by force. But Odin’s wife Freya argues that not even the Father of the Gods can contradict things like Death, which have been set for all eternity. The gods burn Balder’s mortal remains in a ship. The long poem therefore ends with Hermod sadly farewelling the shades of Balder and Balder’s wife Nanna, and Hoder (who committed suicide after accidentally killing Balder) as the three of them fade into the mists of the underworld of Death.
This is not a poem of densely-expressed philosophy, but a narrative poem taking all the opportunities for long descriptive passages provided by Hermod’s long journey. Its main theme seems simply to be the irreversibility of death, with suggestions of the “twilight of the gods”. The tone is elegiac – Arnold is farewelling a whole mythic way of seeing the world, a whole system of belief, as if it were analogous to the system of belief he saw dying in his own age. Hence Balder Dead is something like an extension of Dover Beach. Yet near the end, the shade of Balder gives a formal speech suggesting a better world will arise in the future – perhaps the obligatory piece of Victorian optimism.
To me, it is extraordinary that Arnold was only 33 when he wrote this death-haunted piece. Apparently critics have spilt much ink discussing the extent to which Arnold identifiedhimself with Balder – that is, as one who was wearied by the modern world and would have been glad to escape from it, as Balder tells Hermod he is glad to escape the ceaseless warfare that goes on in Valhalla. This is in an episode, near the end of the poem, which Arnold invented and which does not appear in the old legend as he found it.
How do we now read a poem like this? When it first appeared in 1855, Balder Dead was reasonably acclaimed, although the humour magazine Punch couldn’t resist an obvious pun when it said that it wasn’t Balder Dead but balderdash.
In part, I take the advice of one old critic who said that all long poems are chaplets – strings threading together the good bits and the striking images. This is the imagist view that there are really no long poems – only collections of short ones. I’m sure this does an injustice to the skill that goes into making an extended narrative poem, but as I read Balder Dead it was the isolated images that held my attention and found their way into my notebooks.
Consider, for example, the six lines it takes (in Part One) to tell us that Hoder’s arm brushed against Hermod’s arm in the dark:
“And as a spray of honeysuckle flowers
Brushes across a tired traveller’s face
Who shuffles through the deep dew-moistened dust,
On a May evening, in the darken’d lanes,
And starts him, that he thinks a ghost went by –
So Hoder brushed by Hermod’s side….”
This is indeed extended heroic simile.
Or take this quick snapshot from Hermod’s journey to the underworld (in Part Two):
“And o’er a darksome tract, which knows no sun,
But by the blotted light of stars, he fared…”
(“Blotted”? I think that’s brilliant.)
Then there is this couplet on Niord, the god of storms, in Part Three:
“He knows each frith, and every rocky creek
Fringed with dark pines, and sands where seafowl scream”
It may now be a cliché to speak of birds “screaming”, but it jumps out at us in a decorous Victorian poem.
Finally, I quote some of the eulogy the warlike Thor speaks for Balder as Balder’s corpse is burned:
“…from thy lip, O Balder, night or day,
Heard no one ever an injurious word
To God or Hero, but thou keptest back
The others, labouring to compose their brawls,
Be ye then kind, as Balder too was kind!
For we lose him who smoothed all strife in Heaven.”
This, alas, is not great poetry. In fact it’s rather lame. But it does advance Balder to the position of exemplary Christ-like Prince of Peace, and again suggests that Matthew Arnold was viewing the old Norse myth as a platform for a critique of the religion he saw dying in his own age.
I doubt if anything I’ve written here will persuade you to rush out and borrow a copy of Arnold’s poems. or to read Balder Dead on-line (as you can do). But at the very least, I’ve enjoyed reminding you that not all venerable-but-unfashionable poetry need moulder unread in small-print collected editions. Balder Dead speaks for its age capably. Reading it gives more perspective on ours.