Home » Poetry Archives » Poets » George Borrow » “The Death-Raven (From The Danish Of Oehlenslaeger)”
The Death-Raven (From The Danish Of Oehlenslaeger)
The silken sail, which caught the summer breeze, Drove the light vessel through the azure seas; Upon the lofty deck, Dame Sigrid lay, And watch’d the setting of the orb of day: Then, all at once, the smiling sky grew dark, The breakers rav’d, and sinking seem’d the bark; The wild Death-raven, perch’d upon the mast, Scream’d ’mid the tumult, and awoke the blast. Dame Sigrid saw the demon bird on high, And tear-drops started in her beauteous eye; Her cheeks, which late like blushing roses bloom’d, Had now the pallid hue of fear assum’d: “O wild death-raven, calm thy frightful rage, Nor war with one who warfare cannot wage. Tame yonder billows, make them cease to roar, And I will give thee pounds of golden ore.” “With gold thou must not hope to pay the brave, For gold I will not calm a single wave, For gold I will not hush the stormy air, And yet my heart is mov’d by thy despair; Give me the treasure hid beneath thy belt, And straight yon clouds in harmless rain shall melt, And down I’ll thunder, with my claws of steel. Upon the merman clinging to your keel.” “What I conceal’d beneath my girdle bear, Is thine—irrevocably thine—I swear. Thou hast refus’d a great and noble prey, To get possession of my closet key. Lo! here it is, and, when within thy maw, May’st thou much comfort from the morsel draw!” The polish’d steel upon the deck she cast, And off the raven flutter’d from the mast. Then down at once he plung’d amid the main, And clove the merman’s frightful head in twain; The foam-clad billows to repose he brought, And tam’d the tempest with the speed of thought; Then, with a thrice-repeated demon cry, He soar’d aloft and vanish’d in the sky: A soft wind blew the ship towards the land, And soon Dame Sigrid reach’d the wish’d-for strand. Once, late at eve, she play’d upon her harp, Close by the lake where slowly swam the carp; And, as the moon-beam down upon her shone, She thought of Norway, and its pine-woods lone. “Yet love I Denmark,” said she, “and the Danes, For o’er them Alf, my mighty husband, reigns.” Then ’neath her girdle something mov’d and yearn’d, And into terror all her bliss was turn’d. “Ah! now I know thy meaning, cruel bird . . . ” Long sat she, then, and neither spoke nor stirr’d. Faint, through the mist which rob’d the sky in gray, The pale stars glimmer’d from the milky way. “Ah! now I know thy meaning, cruel bird . . . ” She strove in vain to breathe another word. Above her head, its leaf the aspen shook— Moist as her cheek, and pallid as her look. Full five months pass’d, ere she, ’mid night and gloom, Brought forth with pain an infant from her womb: They baptiz’d it, at midnight’s murky hour, Lest it should fall within the demon’s power. It was a boy, more lovely than the morn, Yet Sigrid’s heart with bitter care was torn. Deep in a grot, through which a brook did flow, With crystal drops they sprinkled Harrald’s brow. He grew and grew, till upon Danish ground No youth to match the stripling could be found; He was at once so graceful and so strong— His look was fire, and his speech was song. When yet a child, he tam’d the battle steed, And only thought of war and daring deed; But yet Queen Sigrid nurs’d prophetic fears, And when she view’d him, always swam in tears. One evening late, she lay upon her bed, (King Alf, her noble spouse, was long since dead) She felt so languid, and her aching breast With more than usual sorrow was oppress’d. Ah, then she heard a sudden sound that thrill’d Her every nerve, and life’s warm current chill’d:— The bird of death had through the casement flown, And thus he scream’d to her, in frightful tone: “The wealthy bird came towering, Came scowering, O’er hill and stream. ‘Look here, look here, thou needy bird, How gay my feathers gleam.’ “The needy bird came fluttering, Came muttering, And sadly sang, ‘Look here, look here, thou wealthy bird, How loose my feathers hang.’ “Remember, Queen, the stormy day, When cast away Thou wast so nigh:— Thou wast the needy bird that day, And unto me didst cry. “Death-raven now comes towering, Comes scowering, O’er hill and stream; But when wilt thou, Dame Sigrid fair, Thy plighted word redeem.” A hollow moan from Sigrid’s bosom came, While he survey’d her with his eye of flame: “Fly,” said she; “demon monster, get thee hence! My humble pray’r shall be my son’s defence.” She cross’d herself, and then the fiend flew out; But first, contemptuously he danc’d about, And sang, “No pray’r shall save him from my rage; In Christian blood my thirst I will assuage.” Young Harrald seiz’d his scarlet cap, and cried, “I’ll probe the grief my mother fain would hide;” Then, rushing into her apartment fair, “O mother,” said he, “wherefore sitt’st thou there, Far from thy family at dead of night, With lips so mute, and cheeks so ghastly white? Tell me what lies so heavy at thy heart; Grief, when confided, loses half its smart.” “O Harrald,” sigh’d she, yielding to his pray’r, “Creatures are swarming in the earth and air, Who, wild with wickedness, and hot with wrath, Wage war on those who follow virtue’s path. One of those fiends is on the watch for thee, Arm’d with a promise wrung by him from me: His blood-shot eyes in narrow sockets roll, And every night he leaves his mirksome hole. “He was a kind of God, in former days; Kings worshipp’d him, and minstrels sang his praise; But when Christ’s doctrine through the dark North flam’d, His, and all evil spirits’ might was tam’d. He now is but a raven; yet is still Full strong enough to work on thee his will: Lost is the wretch who in his power falls— Vainly he shrieks, in vain for mercy calls.” She whisper’d to him then, with bloodless lip, What had befallen her on board the ship; But youthful Harrald listen’d undismay’d, And merely gripp’d the handle of his blade. “My son,” she murmur’d, when her tale was told, “Fear withers me, but thou look’st blythe and bold.” The youth uplifted then his sparkling eye, And said, whilst gazing on the moon-lit sky, “Once, my dear mother, at the close of day, Among tall flowers in the grove I lay, Soft sang the linnets from a thousand trees, And, sweetly lull’d, I slumber’d by degrees. Then, heaven’s curtain was, methought, undrawn, And, clad in hues that deck the brow of morn, An angel slowly sank towards the earth, Which seem’d to hail him with a smile of mirth. “He rais’d his hand, and bade me fix my eye Upon a chain which, hanging from the sky, Embrac’d the world; and, stretching high and low, Clink’d, as it mov’d, the notes of joy and wo: The links that came in sight were purpled o’er Full frequently with what seem’d human gore; Of various metals made, it clasp’d the mould,— Steel clung to silver, iron clung to gold. “Then said the angel, with majestic air,— ‘The chain of destiny thou seest there. Accept whate’er it gives, and murmur not; For hard necessity has cast each lot.’ He vanish’d—I awoke with sudden start, But that strange dream was graven on my heart. I go wherever fate shall please to call,— Without God’s leave, no fly to earth can fall.” It thunders—and from midnight’s mirky cloud, Comes peal on peal reverberating loud: The froth-clad breakers cast, with sullen roar, A Scottish bark upon the whiten’d shore. Straight to the royal palace hasten then A lovely maid and thirty sea-worn men. Minona, Scotland’s princess, Scotland’s boast, The storm has driven to the Danish coast. Oft, while the train hew timber in the groves, Minona, arm in arm, with Harrald roves. Warm from his lip the words of passion flow; Pure in her eyes the flames of passion glow. One summer eve, upon a mossy bank, Mouth join’d to mouth, and breast to breast, they sank: The moon arose in haste to see their love, And wild birds carroll’d from the boughs above. But now the ship, which seem’d of late a wreck, Floats with a mast set proudly on her deck. Minona kisses Harrald’s blooming face, Whilst he attends her to the parting place. His bold young heart beats high against his side— She sail’d away—and, like one petrified, Full long he stood upon the shore, to view The smooth keel slipping through the waters blue. Months pass, and Sigrid’s sorrow disappears; The wild death-raven’s might no more she fears; A gentle red bedecks her cheek again, And briny drops her eye no longer stain. “My Harrald stalks in manly size and strength; Swart bird of darkness, I rejoice at length; If thy curst claw could hurt my gallant son, Long, long, ere this, the deed would have been done.” But Harrald look’d so moody and forlorn, And thus his mother he address’d one morn: “Minona’s face is equall’d by her mind; Methinks she calls me from her hills of wind? Give me a ship with men and gold at need, And let me to her father’s kingdom speed; I’ll soon return, and back across the tide Bring thee a daughter, and myself a bride.” Dame Sigrid promis’d him an answer soon, And went that night, when risen was the moon, Deep through the black recesses of the wood, To where old Bruno’s shelter’d cabin stood. She enter’d—there he sat behind his board, His woollen vestment girded by a cord; The little lamp, which hung from overhead, Gleam’d on the Bible-leaves before him spread. “Hail to thee, Father!—man of hoary age, Thy Queen demands from thee thy counsel sage. Young Harrald to a distant land will go, And I his destiny would gladly know: Thou read’st the stars,—O do the stars portend That he shall come to an untimely end? Take from his mother’s heart this one last care, And she will always name thee in her pray’r.” The hermit, rising from his lonely nook, With naked head, and coldly placid look, Went out and gaz’d intently on the sky, Whose lights were letters to his ancient eye. “The stars,” said he, “in friendly order stand, One only, flashes like an angry brand:— Thy Harrald, gentle Queen, will not be slain Upon the Earth, nor yet upon the Main.” While thus the seer prophetically spoke, A flush of joy o’er Sigrid’s features broke: “He’ll not be slain on ocean or on land,” She said, and kiss’d the hermit’s wrinkled hand; “Why then, I’m happy, and my son is free To mount his bark, and gallop through the sea: Upon the grey stone he will sit as king, When, in the grave, my bones are mouldering.” The painted galley floats now in the creek— Flags at her mast, and garlands at her beak; High on the yard-arm hoisted is the sail, Half spread it flutters in the evening gale. The night before he goes, young Harrald stray’d Into the wood where first he saw his maid: Burning impatience fever’d all his blood, He wish’d for wings to bear him o’er the flood. Then sigh’d the wind among the bushy grounds, Far in the distance rose the yell of hounds: The flame-wisps, starting from the sedge and grass, Hung, ’mid the vapours, over the morass. Up to him came a beldame, wildly drest, Bearing a closely-folded feather-vest: She smil’d upon him with her cheeks so wan, Gave him the robe, and was already gone. Young Harrald, though astonish’d, has no fears; The mighty garment in his hand he rears: Of wond’rous lovely feathers it was made, Which once the roc and ostrich had array’d. He wishes much to veil in it his form, And speed as rapidly as speeds the storm: He puts it on, then seeks the open plain,— Takes a short flight, and flutters back again. “Courage!” he cried, “I will no longer stay; Scotland shall see me, ere the break of day.” Then like a dragon in the air he soars, Startled from slumber, in his wake it roars. His wings across the ocean take their flight; Groves, cities, hills, have vanish’d from his sight,— See! there he goes, lone rider of the sky, Miles underneath him, black the billows lie. He hears a clapping on the midnight wind: Speed, Harrald, speed! the raven is behind. Flames from his swarthy-rolling eye are cast:— “Ha! Harrald,” scream’d he, “have we met at last?” For the first time, the youth felt terror’s force; Pale grew his cheek, as that of clammy corse, Chill was his blood, his nervous arm was faint, While thus he stammer’d forth his lowly plaint: “I see it is in vain to strive with fate; Thank God, my soul is far above thy hate; But, ere my mortal part thou dost destroy, Let me one moment of sweet bliss enjoy: The fair unmatch’d Minona is my love, For her I travell’d, fool-like, here above: Let me fly to her with my last farewell, And I am thine, ere morning decks the fell.” Firmly the raven holding him in air, Survey’d his prize with fiercely-rabid glare: “Now is the time to wreak on thee my lust; Yet thou shalt own that I am good and just.” Then from its socket, Harrald’s eye he tore, And drank a full half of the hero’s gore:— “Since I have mark’d thee, thou art free to go; But loiter not when thou art there below.” Young Harrald sinks with many a sob and tear, Down from the sky to nature’s lower sphere: He rested long beneath the poplar tall, Which grew up, under the red church’s wall. Then, rising slow, he feebly stagger’d on, Till his Minona’s bower he had won. Trembling and sad he stood beside the door— Pale as a spectre, and besprent with gore! “Minona, come, ere Harrald’s youthful heart Is burst by love and complicated smart. Soon will his figure disappear from earth, Yet we shall meet in heaven’s halls of mirth: Minona, come and give me one embrace, That I may instantly my path retrace.” Thus warbles he in passion’s wildest note, While death each moment rattles in his throat. Minona came: “Almighty God!” she cried, “My Harrald’s ghost has wander’d o’er the tide; Red clots of blood his yellow tresses streak, Drops of the same are running down his cheek.” “Minona, love, survey me yet more near, It is no shadow which accosts thee here; Place thy warm hand upon my heart, and feel Whether it beats for thee with slacken’d zeal.” At once the current of her tears she stopp’d, His arm upheld her, or the maid had dropp’d; The roses faded from her face away, And on her head the raven locks grew gray. All he had borne, and what he yet must bear, He murmurs to her whilst she trembles there: The hero then with dying ardour press’d, For the last time, his bosom to her breast. “Farewell! Minona, all my fears are flown, And if I grieve, it is for thee alone: Give me a kiss, and give me too a smile, And let not tears that parting look defile. Now will I drink the bitter draught of death, And yield courageously my forfeit breath:— Farewell! may heaven take thee in its care,” He said, and mounted swiftly in the air. She gaz’d; but he had vanish’d from her view; She stood forsaken in the damp and dew, Then dark emotion quiver’d in her eye, And thus she pray’d, with hands uplifted high: “Thou who wert vainly tempted in the wild, Thou who wert always charitably mild, Thou who mad’st Peter walk on billows blue, Enable me my Harrald to pursue.” Sunken already was the morning star, The song of nightingales was heard afar, The red sun peep’d above the mountain’s brow, And flowers scented all the vale below. There came a youthful maiden, gaily drest, Bearing upon her back a feather-vest; Fondly she kiss’d Minona’s features wan, Gave her the robe, and then at once was gone. And straight Minona clothes in it her limbs, And soaring upward through the ether swims: To moan and sob, her madden’d breast disdains, Too big for such low comfort are its pains. The fowls that meet her in yon airy fields, She clips in pieces with an axe she wields; Each clanging pinion ceaselessly she plies, But cannot meet the raven or his prize. She hears a faint shriek in the air below, And, swift as eagle pounces on his foe, Down, down, she dropp’d, and lighted on the shore, Which far and wide was wet with Harrald’s gore. She smil’d so ruefully, but still was mute— His good right hand was lying at her foot: That pledge of truth, in love’s unclouded day, Was the sole remnant of the demon’s prey. Deep in her breast she hid the bloody hand, And bade adieu, for ever, to the land: Again she scower’d through the airy path, Her eyeballs terrible with madden’d wrath: The raven-sorcerer at length she spied, And soon her steel was with his hot blood dyed: The huge black body, piecemeal, found a grave Amid the bosom of the briny wave. The ocean billows fret and foam no more, But softly rush towards the pebbled shore, On which the lindens stand, in many a group, With leafy boughs that o’er the waters droop. There floats one single cloudlet in the blue, Close where the pale moon shows her face anew: It is Minona dying there that flies,— She sinks not!—no—she mounts unto the skies.