William Lisle Bowles, Hymn to Woden (1801)

William Lisle Bowles (1762–1850)

1.        William Lisle Bowles, English poet and critic, first achieved fame in 1789 with Fourteen Sonnets, Written Chiefly on Picturesque Spots during a Journey (1789). He later published a series of long poems on historical themes with a cosmopolitan scope, such as The Spirit of Discovery (1804), The Missionary of the Andes (1815), The Grave of the Last Saxon (1822). The last of these poems, peopled by Northmen, Englishmen and Normans around the time of William the Conqueror, reflected Bowles’s antiquarian interests. This was later followed by another poem on British history, this time with a local setting: Days Departed, or Banwell Hill (1828). Bowles’ principal antiquarian work in prose was Hermes Britannicus (1828), on the Celtic deity Teutates.

2.        Bowles’s poetry on medieval Britain was intended to present a new direction for English verse composition, in the same way that his prose criticism fought the poetic icons of the past. His ten-volume edition of Alexander Pope’s works (1806), with notes and a critical essay, attacked Pope’s morals and poetics. Bowles’s attack on this revered figure of English literature sparked a long pamphlet war.

3.         Hymn to Woden represents a good summary of how pagan Germanic religion was perceived at the beginning of the nineteenth century. In the notes originally published with the poem, Bowles quotes long passages from the Poetic Edda and “The Death Song of Haco” (from Mallet’s work) to show his erudition, but he draws mostly on stock images used by English poets before him.

4.        The fact that the Anglicized name “Woden” is used instead of the Norse form Odin (Óðinn) points to an English setting for the poem. The mentioning of “Cumri’s hills” (l. 23) substantiates this reading. [1]  Bowles, like many other writers at the time, took an interest in the battle-god Woden as the most important deity for the Germanic invaders who fought and subjugated the Britons in the fifth and sixth centuries. The poem sketches the religious beliefs that motivated the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons in their conquest of England.


Hymn to Woden

god of the battle, hear our pray’r!
By the lifted falchion’s glare;
By th’ uncouth fane sublime,
Mark’d with many a Runick rhyme;
By the “weird Sisters” [2]  dread, 5

That posting through the battle red
Choose the slain, and with them go
To Valhalla’s halls below,
Where the phantom-chiefs prolong
Their echoing feast, a giant throng; 10
And their dreadful bev’rage drain
From the skulls of warriors slain.
God of the battle, hear our pray’r!
And may we thy banquet share!

Save us, God, from slow disease; 15
From pains that the brave spirit freeze;
From the burning fever’s rage;
From wailings of unhonour’d age,
Drawing painful his last breath!—
Give us in the battle death! 20
Let us lift our glitt’ring shield,
And perish, perish in the field!

Now o’er Cumri’s hills of snow
To death, or victory, we go!
Hark! the chiefs their cars prepare! 25
See, they bind their yellow hair—
Frenzy flashes from their eye— [3] 
They fly—our foes before them fly.

woden, in thy empire drear,
Thou the groans of death dost hear, 30
And welcome to thy dusky hall
Those that for their country fall.
Hail, all hail the godlike train,
That with thee the goblet drain;
Or with many a huge compeer, 35
Lift as erst the shadowy spear;
Whilst hela’s inmost caverns dread
Echo to their giant tread,
And ten thousand thousand shields
Flash light’ning o’er the glimm’ring fields! 40

Hark! the battle-shouts begin—
Louder sounds the glorious din!
Louder than the ice’s roar,
Bursting on the thawing shore;
Or crashing pines that strew the plain, 45
When the whirlwinds hurl the main!
Riding through the death-field red,
And singling fast the destin’d dead,
See the sable Sisters fly!
Now my throbbing breast beats high— 50

Now I urge my panting steed,
Where the foemen thickest bleed—
Soon exulting I shall go,
woden, to thy halls below;
Or o’er the victims as they die, 55
Chaunt the song of Victory.

1.         Source: Sonnets, and Other Poems, vol. 2 (London: T. Cadell, Jr., 1801), 69–72.


[1] The poet Frank Sayers had in the notes to his Norse-inspired masque The Descent of Frea [Insert: Hyperlink to this text in the anthology] from Poems, Containing Sketches of Northern Mythology, &c (London: Cadell and Davies, 1803), 110, explained that the old Britons were known by the name of “Cumri” in classical sources. Bowles read Sayers’s poem and wrote a letter of enthusiastic praise to the author; see Frank Edgar Farley, Scandinavian Influence in the English Romantic Movement, Studies and Notes in Philology and Literature, Vol. 9 (Boston: Ginn & Co., 1903), 123. BACK

[2] Bowles’s note: “Valkyriæ, or Choosers of the Slain:—See Gray’s ‘Fatal Sisters’”. BACK

[3] The description of the enemy with yellow hair and flashing eyes points to the Celts. This was essentially how they were described in James Macpherson’s An Introduction to the History of Great Britain and Ireland, 3rd ed. (London, 1773), 263: the British Celts had “long yellow hair” and blue eyes, which “animated their looks into a kind of ferocity” commanding “respect and awe”. BACK