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117. Her lion-port. “Speed, relating an audience given by Queen Elizabeth to Paul Dzialinski, ambassador of Poland, says: “And thus she, lion-like rising, daunted the malapert Orator no less with her stately port and majestical deporture, than with the tartness of her princely cheeks.' (Author's note.)
121. Great Taliessin. “Taliessin, Chief of the Bards, flourished in the sixth century. His works are still preserved, and his memory held in high veneration among his countrymen.” (Author's note.)
126. Fierce war, and faithful love. Gray here quotes from Spenser: "Fierce wars and faithful loves shall moralize my song."
Proëme to the Faerie Queene, 1. 9.
128. Buskined. “Shakespeare." (Author's note.) Tragic. The buskin was a boot worn by the ancient tragedians, hence its implied meaning.
131. A voice. “Milton.” (Author's note.)
133. And distant warblings lessen on my ear. “The succession of Poets after Milton's time." (Author's note.)
THE FATAL SISTERS
“The Fatal Sisters” was written in 1761, but did not appear in print until 1768, when it came out in the edition of Gray's poems published that year. The ode is a translation or paraphrase of a Norwegian poem entitled “Darradar Liod, or the Lay of Darts,” and refers to the battle of Clontarf, fought in 1014 between the Irish under King Brian Borohma and the Danes, aided by the rebels of Leicester.
The poem is introduced by the following advertisement and preface: “ Advertisement. The Author once had thoughts (in concert with a Friend) of giving the History of
English Poetry. In the Introduction to it he meant to have produced some specimens of the Style that reigned in ancient times among the neighboring nations, or those who had subdued the greater part of this Island, and were our Progenitors; the following three Imitations made a part of them. He has long since dropped his design, especially after he heard that it was already in the hands of a Person well qualified to do it justice, both by his taste, and his researches into antiquity.”
Preface. In the Eleventh Century, Sigurd, Earl of the Orkney-Islands, went with a fleet of ships and a considerable body of troops into Ireland, to the assistance of Sictryg with the silken beard, who was then making war on his father-in-law Brian, king of Dublin; the Earl and all his forces were cut to pieces, and Sictryg was in danger of a total defeat; but the enemy had a greater loss by the death of Brian their king, who fell in the action. On Christmas Day (the day of the battle), a Native of Caithness in Scotland saw at a distance a number of persons on horseback riding full speed towards a hill, and seeming to enter into it. Curiosity led him to follow them, till looking through an opening in the rocks, he saw twelve gigantic figures resembling women; they were all employed about a loom; and as they wove, they sung the following dreadful Song; which, when they had finished, they tore the web into twelve pieces, and (each taking her portion) galloped six to the North, and as many to the South."
The "friend” spoken of in the advertisement was William Mason (1725-1797), a poet of some ability and a close friend of Gray. The “person” referred to as engaged on a history of English poetry was Thomas Warton (1728–1790), a poet of considerable repute and one time Poet-Laureate; his “ History of English Poetry” was published in 1774–1781.
Gray originally gave his ode the title “The Song of the
Valkyries,” and in a note preceding the poem, offered the following explanation of the term: The Valkyriur were female Divinities, servants of Odin (or Woden), in the Gothic mythology. Their name signifies Chusers of the slain. They were mounted on swift horses, with drawn swords in their hands; and in the throng of battle selected such as were destined to slaughter, and conducted them to Valkalla, the hall of Odin, or paradise of the Brave; where they attended the banquet, and served the departed Heroes with horns of mead and ale."
3. Iron sleet of arrowy shower. In connection with this line, Gray quotes from Milton:
“How quick they wheeld; and flying, behind them shot Sharp sleet of arrowy shower.”
- Paradise Regained, Bk. III, II. 323–324. 4. Hurtles in the darkened air. Gray here quotes from Shakespeare: “The noise of battle hurtled in the air."
- Julius Cæsar, Act II, Sc. II, I. 22. 17–18. Mista, black terrific maid, etc. In the original, the names of the sisters are Hilda, Hiorthrimula, Sangrida, and Svipula.
24. Hauberk. See note, l. 5, “The Bard."
The Northmen. Desert-beach. Written desart-beach by Gray.
41. Dauntless earl. Segurd. (See Preface.) 44. A king. Brian. (See Preface.)
THE DESCENT OF ODIN
“The Descent of Odin” was written in 1761, but, like its companion-piece, “The Fatal Sisters," was not published until 1768. The ode is a free translation of an old Norse
poem, “Baldrs Draumar" (Balder's Dreams), found in the Elder or Poetic Edda, a collection of verse much of which dates back as far as the tenth century.
The poem is based on the myth that has to do with the death of Balder, the god of light, who was the favorite son of his father Odin. Balder dreamed several times that he was soon to die, and the other gods, anxious to save his life, exacted an oath from everything that they could think of not to harm him. They, however, overlooked the mistletoe, and it was with a branch of this shrub that he was presently slain. A short time before his death Odin decided to consult a prophetess concerning him, and visited the place of the dead for that purpose. Of her he learned that Balder was to perish at the hand of his brother Hoder, who in turn was to be killed by Vali, the son of Odin and Rinda.
4. Hela's drear abode. "Nifheimr, the hell of the Gothic nations, consisted of nine worlds, to which were devoted all such as died of sickness, old-age, or by any other means than in battle. Over it presided HELA (Hel) the Goddess of Death.” (Author's note.)
17. Right against the eastern gate. See Milton's "L'Allegro," 1. 59.
20. The prophetic maid. The prophetess that Odin went to consult. (See introductory note.)
51. Once again my call obey. “ Women were looked upon by the Gothic nations as having a peculiar insight into futurity; and some there were that made profession of magic arts and divination. They travelled round the country, and were received in every house with great respect and honor. ..." (Author's Ms. note.)
75. What virgins these. Virgins, the Norns, who were invisible to mortals; their duties were similar to those of the Fates of classical mythology.
90. Till Lok has burst his tenfold chain. “Lok (Loki) is
the evil Being, who continues in chains till the Twilight of the Gods approaches, when he shall break his bonds; the human race, the stars, and sun, shall disappear; the earth sink in the seas, and fire consume the skies; even Odin himself and his kindred-deities shall perish. For a further explanation of this mythology, see Mallet’s ‘Introduction to the History of Denmark,' 1775, quarto.” (Author's note.)
THE TRIUMPHS OF OWEN “The Triumphs of Owen” was first published in 1768, the exact date of its composition being unknown. It is a paraphrase of a Welsh poem by Gwalchmai, the son of Melir, one of the bards of the twelfth century, who wrote the original in 1157, shortly after Prince Owen Gwynedd defeated the combined fleets of Ireland, Denmark, and Norway which had invaded his country. Gray found Gwalchmai's composition in Evans's “Specimens of the Welsh Poetry,” which appeared in 1764.
The ode was introduced with the following: Advertisement. Owen succeeded his Father Griffin in the Principality of North-Wales, A.D. 1120. This battle was fought nearly forty years afterwards."
3. Roderic's stem. Owen Gwynedd was a descendant of Roderic the Great, a king who ruled Wales in the tenth century.
4. Gwyneth's shield. Gwyneth. “North-Wales." (Author's note.)
10. Squadrons three. See introductory note. 11. Eirin. Ireland.
14. Lochlin. “Denmark.” (Author's note.) Note how in the preceding lines the Danish fleet screens the Irish ships and sails on the shadow it casts in the water.
15. Norman Norwegian.