Walter Savage Landor, Gunlaug (1806)

Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864)

1.        Landor was an English writer and poet. He is best known for his long poem Gebir (1798), which tells the story of a prince of Spain who becomes enamoured with Queen Charoba of Egypt, his enemy. Robert Southey praised it highly, but most other reviews were hostile, mainly because of the indications in the poem of Landor’s anti-establishment politics. His later volumes of Imaginary Conversations (1824–1829) established his reputation as a writer. He kept producing fresh instalments of these in his later years. He also wrote critical essays on Shakespeare and drama.

2.        In Gunnlaug romantic love is writ large. Walter Savage Landor adapts a tale originally found in Gunnlaugs saga ormstunga (Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue), where medieval Iceland is the scene of a romantic love triangle, centering on the love for Helga the Fair. The saga presented the theme of passionate love along with the ideals of heroic honour. The story shares themes with a number of other sagas of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which contain a competition among heroes as to whose love is the greater. Landor found a simple, but profound, tension of troubled love in this narrative. It is a truly heroic ideal of bravery, manliness and courtship which unfolds in Landor’s verses. His version maintains many of the Icelandic and Swedish place names, his historical sense is romanticized with his poem taking place in a “verdant Iceland”.

3.        The saga had been printed with a Latin translation and commentary already in 1775, under the title Sagan af Gunnlaugi ormstungu ok Skalld-Rafni, sive Gunnlaugi vermilingvis & Rafnis poetæ vita. Ex Manuscriptis Legati Magnæani cum Interpretatione Latina, as the first of the Icelandic sagas to be published in a scholarly edition. But Landor’s version is based on a prose summary of the saga from the work of the Norse scholar William Herbert (1778–1847). Walter Scott gave a favourable review of Herbert’s abilities as a Norse scholar in the Edinburgh Review of October 1806. And Herbert’s scholarship was instrumental in expanding the knowledge and repertoire of Norse themes in English literature of the Victorian era. Below, the prose summary from Herbert’s work is found, followed by Landor’s poem.


Extract from William Herbert, Select Icelandic Poetry. Translated from the Originals with Notes (London: T. Reynolds, 1804), 65–70:

1.        Gunlaug was the son of Illugi a man of great wealth and authority in Iceland. He was a youth of large and robust stature and distinguished by his poetry which was so satirical, that he acquired the name of Ormstunga, or Snake tongue.

2.        In his earliest youth he was bold and restless; and at the age of fifteen having quarrelled with his father, who would not permit him to travel he fled to the house of Thorstein son of the famous Egill Skallagrimsson, who received him with kindness. Thorstein had a daughter called Helga the fair, who was esteemed the most beautiful woman in the island. A mutual and fatal attachment soon commenced between her and Gunlaug and the wild disposition of his mind was considerably softened by her gentle conversation.

3.        The three following years were passed by Gunlaug partly at the abode of Thorstein, and partly at that of his father at the expiration of which he again pressed Illugi to send him abroad. The request was now granted, and a share in a trading vessel was purchased for him.

4.        While Thorkell, who was to be the companion of his voyage, was employed in loading the vessel, Gunlaug preferred [t]he society of Helga, and returned to the house of Thorstein. He soon found an opportunity of asking for the hand of his daughter, which at first was refused on account of his fickle disposition; but Thorstein at length agreed that the marriage should take place if at the end of three years he returned to claim the promise.

5.        Soon after Gunlaug sailed from Iceland, and having visited several other countries, he arrived at the court of king Olave at Upsala. There he met his countryman Rafen, a man of noble birth, and skilled in poetry; with whom he formed a close intimacy, which however was disturbed by a dispute about precedence in reciting their poems before the king.

6.        Rafen returned to Iceland; and at the expiration of third year, Gunlaug being still absent, he solicited the hand of the fair Helga. Some difficulties were made by Thorstein, but he gave his consent at last to Rafen, in case Gunlaug should not return in the course of the next summer. A day was fixed for the nuptials: Gunlaug who had been severely hurt in wrestling, did riot appear; and the melancholy Helga was forced to espouse her new suitor.

7.        On that very day Gunlaug arrived at the house of his father, and would have proceded [sic] immediately to the abode of Thorstein, but his lameness rendered it impracticable. The sorrows of the lovely Helga were doubled by the faithful return of the fond companion of her childhood, and the society of her husband became hateful to her.

8.        Soon after Rafen was challenged by Gunlaug in the public assembly; for by the law of Iceland at that time, whoever had received an injury might call out the offender to single combat. Rafen, as challenged, gave the first blow his sword broke against the shield, but a splinter from it struck the face of Gunlaug. One being wounded, the other disarmed, each claimed the victory; but their relations interfered, and the next day, in a crowded assembly, it was decreed, that from that hour no duels should be fought in Iceland.

9.        Rafen afterwards challenged Gunlaug to meet him again in Norway, and after some delay they and their followers arrived severally at Throndhiem, but earl Eric, who had heard their history, forbade their lighting in his dominions. Gunlaug passed the winter at his court in the deepest melancholy; but, galled at last by the satyrical reflections of some of the Norwegians, he asked leave to depart, and followed his antagonist towards the Swedish territory.

10.        By the side of a lake they met upon a spot called Dvngiunes; and their companions, having protested, that they could not remain inactive, were permitted to join in the combat. The guides, who were less ambitious, seated themselves and did not interfere.

11.        The conflict was bloody and expeditious; Gunlaug and Rafen were soon the only survivors, and after a few blows Gunlaug cut off the foot of his enemy, who did not however fall, but supported himself by the stump of a tree Gunlaug refused to continue the fight with a man, who was so maimed; but Rafen replied, that, “though he certainly was a little curtailed if he could procure water to drink, he should be still his match.” – “Do not then deceive me,” said Gunlaug, “if I bring thee water in my helmet.” Rafen answered, “That will I not.” Then went Gunlaug to the lake, and brought water his helmet, and presented it to him. Rafen took in his left hand, and at the same moment smote the head of Gunlaug with his sword. “Ill hast deceived me,” said Gunlaug, “and this was most when I trusted thee.” – “It was so replied but I cannot bear that thou shouldst enjoy fair Helga.” The fight was then renewed, and Gunlaug slew him; but the wound in his head was mortal, and he expired after the third night.

12.        The beautiful Helga was afterwards married to a noble Icelander called Thorkell; but she never loved him and retained the sad recollection of her early attachment till the hour of death.


Walter Savage Landor, Gunlaug (1806)

SOPHIA, pity Gunlaug’s fate.
Perfidious friendship, worse than hate,
And love, whose smiles are often vain,
Whose frowns are never, were his bane.
For war his rising spirit sigh’d
In unknown realms o’er ocean wide.
“Illugi, father, let me go,
“I burn to meet my country’s foe.”
“A blessing, Gunlaug, on thy head!”
The fond afflicted father said.
“Go when invader comes to spoil
“Our verdant Iceland’s native soil:
“But wait with patient zeal til then
“And learn the deeds of mightier men.”

To Thorstein’s house, whose daring prow
Thro’ ocean pounced upon his foe,
Stung with denial, Gunlaug went,
But breathed no word of discontent.
“Thorstein,” he cried, “I leave my home,
“Yet not for shelter am I come;
“Thorstein, I come to learn of thee
“The dangers of the land and sea.
“Speed thee! together let us go,
“And Thorstein’s shall be Gunlaug’s foe.”
“Brave youth,” said Thorstein, “stay awhile.
“I love too well my native isle;
“Whether the sandy dog-rose blows
“Or sparkle fierce the starry snows;
“And never shall this hand again
“Direct the rudder o’er the main.”
Thus as he spake, he would have prest
The hand of his aspiring guest:
But Gunlaug cried, “I will not here
“Partake thy hospitable cheer:
“For war’s, for danger’s gifts I came,
“Keep thou thy fears, leave me thy fame.”
Aloud the manly veteran laught;
“Come! come!” said he, “one social draught!
“My fears I’ll keep that none shall see,
“And I will leave my fame to thee.”
“Out sprang the tears from Gunlaug’s eyes:
“O noble Thorstein, bold and wise!
“Shall Gunlaug dare to tarry here?
“Shall Helga see this blush, this tear?”

At Helga’s and her father’s name,
The beauteous blue-eyed virgin came.
No word had then the youth to say,
But turn’d his downcast face away.
He heard her sandal sip the floor,
And, ere she reacht the palace-door,
His heaving bosom could not brook
Reproach or wonder from her look.
And couldst thou, Gunlaug, thus refrain
And seek’st thou conquests o’er the main?

She saw, but knew not his distress,
And eyed him much, nor loved him less.
Long stood, and longer would have staid
The tender-hearted blue-eyed maid:
But fear her stifling throat opprest,
And something smote her bounding breast.
Far off, alone, she would remain,
But thought it time to turn again.
“Yet better not perhaps,” she thought,
“For fear the stranger hold me naught.
“I dare not wish, they call it sin,
“But, would my father bring him in!”
He came; their friendship grew; he woo’d;
Nor Helga’s gentle heart withstood.
Her milk-white rabbit oft he fed,
And crumbled fine his breakfast-bread;
And oft explored, with anxious view,
Spots where the crispest parsley grew.
Her restive horse he daily rid,
And quite subdued her stubborn kid,
Who lately dared to quit her side,
And once with painful rashness tried
Its ruddy horn against her’ knee,
Bold as its desp’rate sire could be.
Mosses he knew of every race,
And brought them from their hiding-place,
And mingled every sweet-soul’d plant
On mountain-top, or meadow slant,
And checker’d (while they flowered) her room
With purple thyme and yellow broom.

There is a creature, dear to heaven,
Tiny and weak, to whom is given
To enjoy the world while suns are bright
And shut grim winter from its sight..
Tamest of hearts that beat on wilds,
Tamer and tenderer than a child’s.
The dormouse, this he loved and taught
(Docile it is the day it’s caught,
And fond of music, voice or string)
To stand before and hear her sing,
Or lie within her palm half-closed,
Until another’s interposed,
And claim’d the alcove wherin it lay,
Or held it with divided sway.

All living things are ministers
To him whose hand attunes the spheres
And guides a thousand worlds, and binds
(Work for ten godheads!) female minds.
I know not half the thoughts that rose,
Like tender plants neath vernal snows,
In Helga’s breast, and, if I knew,
I would draw forth but very few.
Yet, when the prayers were duly said
And rightly blest the marriage-bed,
She doubted not that Heaven would give
To her as pretty things as live.

The cautious father long delay’d
The wishes of the youth and maid.
His patient hand, like her’s, unrolls
The net to catch the summer shoals;
And both their daily task compare,
And daily win each other’s hair.
One morn, arising from her side,
He, as he paid the forfeit, cried,
“Behold my hair too trimly shine,
“Behold my hands are white as thine.
“O! could I loose our blissis bar!
I burn for wedlock and for war.”

“For war,” said she, “when lovers burn,
“To wedlock, Gunlaug, few return.
“In Samsa brave Hialmar lies, [1] 
“Nor Inga’s daughter closed his eyes.
“By sixteen wounds of raging fire
“The enchanted sword of Angantyre,
“Withering, laid waste his fruitless bloom,
“And housed the hero in the tomb.
Oh Oddur, said the dying chief,
Take off my ring, my time is brief;
My ring, if smaller, might adorn
The plighted hand of Ingebiorn.
“Swift to Sigtuna flew the friend,
“And sorely wept Hialmar’s end.
“By Mæleren’s blue lake he found
“The virgin sitting on the ground.
“A garment for her spouse she wove,
“And sang Ah speed thee, gift of love!
“In anguish Oddur heard her sing,
“And turn’d his face and held the ring.
Back fell the maiden; well she knew
“What fatal tidings must ensue;
“When Oddur raised her, back she fell,
“And died, the maiden loved so well.
“Now gladly, swore the generous chief,
I witness death beguiling grief;
I never thought to smile again
By thy blue waters, Mæleren!
“But grant that on the hostile strand
“Thy bosom meet no biting brand,
“Grant that no swift unguarded dart
“Lay thee beneath the flooded thwart, [2] 
“Yet how unlike a nuptial day,
“To stand amid the hissing spray,
“And wipe and wipe its tingling brine,
“And vainly blink thy pelted eyn,
“And feel their stiffening lids weigh’d down
“By toil no pleasure comes to crown!
“Say, Gunlaug, wouldst thou give for this
“The fire-side feast and bridal kiss?”

He told the father what he said,
And what replied the willing maid.
“My son,” said Thorsteki, “now I find
“Wavering with love the sea-bound mind.
“Away to war, if war delight,
“Begone three years from Helga’s sight:
“And if perchance at thy return
“That breast with equal transport burn,
“Its wishes I no more confine.
“Thine is my house, my Helga thine.”

Away the tow’ring warrior flew,
Nor bade his Helga once adieu.
He felt the manly sorrows rise,
And open’d wide his gushing eyes;
He stopt a moment in the hall,
Stil the too pow’rful tears would fall.
He would have thought his fate accurst
To meet her as he met her first,
So, madly swang the sounding door,
And reacht, and reaching left, the shore.

Three years in various toils had past,
And Gunlaug hasten’d home at last.
Rafen at Upsal he had seen,
Of splendid wit and noble mien:
Rafen with pleasure he beheld,
For each in arms and verse excell’d.
Rafen he heard from sun to sun,
And why? their native land was one.
O friends! mark here how friendships end!
O lovers! never trust a friend!
In fulness of his heart he told
What treasures would his arms enfold;
How in the summer he should share
The blissful bed of maid so fair.
For, as suspicion ne’er supprest
One transport of his tuneful breast,
The low and envious he past by
With scornful or unseeing eye:
From tales alone their guile he knew,
Believing all around him true,
And fancying falsehood flourisht then,
When earth produced two-headed men.

In Sweden dwell the manliest race
That brighten earth’s maternal face:
Yet never would proud Gunlaug yield
To any man in any field.
The day was fixt for his return,
And crowding friends around him burn
Their pomp and prowess to display,
And celebrate the parting day.
Amid them up a wrestler stood
And call’d to wrestle him who wou’d.
So still were all, you might have heard
The motion of the smallest bird:
Some lookt, some turn’d away the eye,
Not one among them dared reply.
“Come hither, friend!” said Gunlaug bold,
“O; ne’er in Iceland be it told
“I stood amid the feast defied,
“Nor skill nor strength nor courage tried.”
The wrestler then beheld and smiled,
And answer’d thus in accent mild:
“O stranger! tho’ thy heart be stout,
“And none like thee sit round about,
“Thou bringest to unequall’d might
“A form too beauteous and too slight.”
“Well, friend, however that may be,
“Let Gunlaug try his strength with thee.”
They closed; they struggled; nought avail’d
The wrestler’s skill, his prowess fail’d.
One leg he moved a little back
And sprang again to the attack.
Gunlaug, in trying to elude
A shock so sudden and so rude,
Avoided half the whelming weight,
But slipt aside, alas! too late.
His combatant flew with him past,
Yet round his neck one arm he cast,
And threw him headlong on the ground,
Wounded, but with no warrior’s wound.
The grass and springing flow’rs amid
A rotten pointed stake was hid.
Swung by the rapid jerk in air,
His nervous leg descended there.
When Rafen saw the spouting blood
Bewilder’d in new joy he stood,
And scarce his features could controul
The ’rapture of a selfish soul,
Yet tended ev’ry day his couch
And emptied there the hawking-pouch,
And brought him game from lake and land
And fed the falcon on his hand.
“Go, haste” said Gunlaug “haste, my friend,
“May peace and love thy steps attend.
“Ah wretched! thus to stay alone!
“Ere the day fixt I too am gone.
How far more wretched should I be
“If my sweet Helga mourn’d for me.”
When twice the sabbath-day had past,
Rafen, as one compell’d at last
By his impatient listeners, said..
And lower’d his voice and shook his head.
“Gunlaug unwillingly I left
“Of reason as of love bereft.
“At Upsal, famed for damsels bright
“And flatter’d wit’s bewildering light;
“Him courts and pleasures yet detain,
“And Helga’s charms have charm’d in vain.”
“Accursed man!” the father cried,
“My Helga ne’er shall be his bride.”
“O father!”
“Peace!” cried he, “I swear,
“Deluded Helga, thou shalt ne’er.”
A swoon her swelling bosom smote,
And serpents seem’d to clasp her throat,
And underneath the father’s chair
Stream’d on his dog her auburn hair.
Then Rafen raised her in his arms,
And gazed and gloated on her charms.
“Gaze: she is thine,” said Thorstein fierce,”
“If she be Gunlaug’s ’tis in verse.”
She wept all night; her woe increast
When in the morn she saw the priest.
O “father! pause to break my vow.
“I know his heart, ah! could’st but thou!
“By all divine, all human laws,
“Kindest and best of fathers, pause.
“If Rafen loves, he loves the dead,
“I live not for his hated bed.”

At early dawn the youth she lost
Arrived upon his native coast.
Blessing his fortune to survive,
And on the appointed day arrive,
He hung around his father’s neck
And groan’d the thoughts he could not speak;
And as his neck he hung around
The father’s tears dropt o’er the wound.
The servants came with anxious heed,
And brought their lord the luscious mead,
Pray’d not to issue forth so soon,
But eat and drink and sleep till noon;
And mention’d other valiant lords
Who dozed thus long upon their swords,
Yet ne’er had suffer’d gash nor prick,
Nor bruise, unless from hazel-stick.
He was persuaded; for his brain
Floated in firy floods of pain,
From hopes, three long long years afloat,
Now, by one evil turn, remote.
He was persuaded; for he knew
Whose was of all true hearts most true.
Then strew’d he bear-skins on the stone,
And bade the tardy men begone.
The servants watch his eyelids close,
They watch the flush of bland repose,
They raise his shaggy pillow high’r,
With tender caution trim the fire,
And (for his breath might be opprest)
Pick out the pine-tree from the rest,
And fan the flame, nor fear the smoke
From ash well-dried and shipwreck oak.
A frolic maid was passing by,
And, as she saw the hero lie,
His arms and armour thrown around,
Upon the bench, the couch, the ground,
Removed the clinking hawberk mail, [3] 
And took a wolf-skin from a nail;
Across his throat she placed the teeth
And tuckt the clasping claws beneath,
And would have kist him, but she fear’d
To tickle with her breast his beard.

Sound was his sleep; at length he woke,
And thus, in hurried accent, spoke.
“What means, my men, the noise I hear?
“Nearer the window … still more near.
“ Despach … I feel no pain … despach …
“Why look upon that idle scratch?
“Ay, Rafen and his friends are come,
“I know, to bid me welcome home.
“Oft has he trod the sunless dew,
“And hail’d at last my bark in view.
“O Rafen, my best friend, for this
Shall Helga give thy brow a kiss.”

Then in rusht Thorkell “Stay thee, lord!
“Nor blast thee at the sight abhorr’d.
“I thought that heaven could send no curse
“Lake slighted love; it sends a worse.
“Now is my joy what was my pain,
“To find so soon I loved in vain.
“Rafen leads homeward from the shrine
“Thy Helga … for her heart is thine.”
Gunlaug with pleasure heard him speak,
And smiles relumed his faded cheek.
Thorkell, who watcht him all the while,
With more than wonder saw him smile.
“Thorkell, I thank thee,” he-replied,
What, have we both, then, lost the bride?
No, generous rival, neither quite
Hath understood the nuptial rite.
Rafen leads homeward from the shrine
My Helga, for her heart is mine.”

Then Thorkell shook his head and sigh’d,
“I’ll the suspicious soul betide!
“But he whom no suspicions move,
“Loves not, or with ill-omen’d love.
“These eyes, that yet in wonder swim,
“Saw the fair Helga sworn to him.”

His horror Gunlaug could not check,
But threw his arm round Thorkell’s neck.
“O loose me, let me fall, my friend,”
Cried he, “let life and sorrow end.”
Now rage, now anguish, seized his soul,
Now love again resumed the whole;
Now would he upon Helga’s name
Pour vengeance; tears for vengeance came.
“Thorkell, two days alone I wait,
“The third shall close with Rafen’s fate.
“I scorn to stay for strength restored.
“Go … at the corner whet my sword.”
On the third morn their friends decreed
That one or both of them should bleed.
On the third morn what pangs opprest
The tender lover’s valiant breast!
His only hope on earth below
To die, and dying slay the foe.
He slept not, nor had ever slept
Since the first day, but said, and wept …
“Arouse thee, Gunlaug, why complain?
“She never can be thine again!
“The bark shall lean upon the shore,
“Nor wave dash off the rested oar:
“The flowers shall ope their sparkling eyes,
“And dance in robes of richest dyes,
“And, flying back, again shall meet
“The south-wind’s kisses, soft and sweet:
“Young eagles build their first fond nest,
“And sink from rapine into rest:
“Ah, see them soar above my head!
“Their hopes are come, but mine are fled!
“Arouse thee, Gunlaug, haste away,
“And rush into the mortal fray.”

From far the listening Rafen heard
His rival’s armour ring, nor fear’d.
Fear may be stifled in the breast,
But shame burns fiercer when supprest.
Onward he rusht and dared defy
His arm, but dared not meet his eye.
Madly he struck and blind with guilt,
And his blade shiver’d from the hilt.
O’er Gunlaug’s shield with action weak
It fell, and falling razed his cheek.
Away disdainful Gunlaug turn’d,
And cried, while rage within him burnt,
“Rafen, take up thy broken sword;
“Live; see thou Helga be restored.
“Ah, why?” then to himself he said;
“O Helga, beauteous blue-eyed maid!
“Sure were the tender words of yore,
“Ah, never can speak them more!
“By Rafen’s side hath Helga slept,
Upon my fruit the snail hath crept,
The blindworm hath his poison shed …
O Rafen! curses on thy head.”
Afar was he as Gunlaug spoke,
And every tie of honour broke.
Before the court of chieftains old
He stood, and well his story told:
Much for religion and for laws
He pled, and bade them guard his cause:
“Though baffled and disarm’d,” he cried,
“I gave the wound, and claim the bride.” [4] 

Some with disdain his reasons heard,
While others wisht the cause deferr’d.
Then Ormur spake, in speech of scorn,
Ormur, the friend of Asbiorn,
Who, daring singly to engage
A jotun, [5]  proved his fatal rage.
“Go, finish this unmanly strife,
“And keep the vow, but quit the wife.
“So neither party shall repine,
“But love be his, and laws be thine.
“Go home, and with the world’s applause
“There quaintly kiss the cold-lip laws.”

But Rafen, when he saw the sneer
Run dimpling on from peer to peer,
“Has not the priest then join’d our hands
“In holy everlasting bands?
“One would have thought ’twas thee I wrong’d,
“Right second to the viper-tongued. [6] 
The assembly, wishing to compose
The strife of single combat, rose ;
But order’d first that none decide
His right by arms o’er Iceland wide.
“In Auxar then once more we meet,
“And thou shalt never thence retreat,”
Swore valiant Gunlaug, when he heard
The suit that Rafen had preferr’d.
“Thy courage shall not screen thy guile,
“When once we meet in Auxar’s isle.”
Urged by his friends, as by his foe,
Again to fight must Rafen go.
But furious winds each pinnace drove
Past little Auxar’s lonely cove.
Beyond the strait, their anchors bit
The yellow sand of Agnafit, [7] 
Where Inga reign’d, whose daughter’s fate [8] 
Gunlaug heard Helga once relate.
Here too the wise and old impede
The brave in lawless fray to bleed.
By Sota’s shore their course they take
And anchor near Dyngiunes lake.
There spred the heath its evener ground,
And purer water there was found.
They meet; and all their friends unite
In the full fury of the fight,
‘Till with the champions none remain
But the sore wounded on the plain.
The chiefs had closed, nor space was now
That either urge the deadly blow;
But oft they struggle, breast to breast,
Oft give, unwilling, mutual rest.
Gunlaug with desperate strain recoil’d,
Yet his free force and aim were foil’d ;
Else had his sword athwart the side
Of Rafen oped life’s sluices wide.
The foot he struck, so far he sprung,
The foot upon its tendon hung:
He stagger’d : just within his reach
Stood, chosen for the shade, a beech:
He shrunk against it, and his foot
Was resting on the twisted root.
“Now yield thee,” loud the hero cried,
“Yield; and resign the blooming bride.”
“True, on these terms we fought before,”
Said he, “but now we fight for more.
“This day life only shall suffice,
“And, Gunlaug, he who kills not, dies.
“Life yet is left me, and the worst
“I suffer now, is fainting thirst.”

Eager the combat to renew,
Fast to the lake then Gunlaug flew,
There from his neck the helm unbraced,
Nor, though he thirsted, staid to taste:
Prone, and on tottering knee, he stoopt,
With vigorous arm the surface scoopt,
And swiftly to his rival bore
The clear cold water, running o’er.
By treachery yet untaught to doubt,
With his right arm he held it out.
Valour and praise and pride forsook
The soul of Rafen, fierce he strook
His generous rival’s naked head,
And (for the dying are not dead)
Gunlaug was fell’d; the unsated foe
Strove hard to follow up the blow:
His foot denies his deadly hate,
And doubt and horror round him wait.

Gunlaug pusht faintly from his breast
The shield that struggling life opprest.
The gales that o’er Dyngiunes play
Recall his roving soul today.
Up would he start; his wound denies;
Fresh shadows float before his eyes:
On his right elbow now he leans;
Now brighten the surrounding scenes:
Trees, mountains, skies, no more are mixt;
The lake, and earth, and foe, stand fixt.
His silence then he sternly broke,
And thus, his eye on Rafen, spoke.
“Rafen, with powers renew’d I rise:
“Yes, traitor! he who kills not, dies.
“Yet would I leave a little space,
“To hear thee own this deed was base.”

Now first in speech was Rafen slow.
Wrung with remorse and weak with woe,
He fixt his eyes upon the ground,
And thus confest, in faltering sound.
“’Twas base: but how could Rafen bear
That Gunlaug be to Helga dear?”

Paus’d had the conqueror : he had stood
And slowly wiped the welling blood,
With patience, pity, grief, had heard,
And had but Rafen spared that word,
His youthful head had not lain low..
Gunlaug scarce felt the fatal blow;
But hearing how could Rafen hear
That Gunlaug be to Helga dear!
Rage swell’d his heart and fired his eye,
And thro’ the forest rang the cry,
“What! tho’ thy treachery caught her vow,
“God’s vengeance! Rafen! e’er wert thou ?”
Then hatred rising high with pain,
He smote the traitor’s helm in twain.

Source: Gebir, Count Julian: and Other Poems (London: E. Moxon, 1831), 261–83.


[1] The following account refers to the account in Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks and Örvar-Oddr saga, legendary sagas from the thirteenth century. Oddur is Örvar-Oddr who met the Swedish champion Hjalmar in battle. The two warriors were evenly matched in battle. They became friends and entered entered sworn brotherhood. They fought together many times. But in the famous battle of Samsoe (a Danish island in the southern Baltic) against the sons of Arngrim (who was in possession of the magic sword Tyrfing), Hjalmar was killed by Angantyr, after receiving 16 blows of the sword. Oddr brings back the sad news to Hjalmar’s betrothed Ingeborg, the daughter of the Swedish king. Ingeborg learning of Hjalmar’s demise is so overcome with grief that she takes her own life. BACK

[2] Landor’s note: “A thwart is a bench for rowers”. BACK

[3] Hauberk, a long tunic made of chain mail. BACK

[4] Landor’s note: “According to the laws of duel in Iceland, he who gave the first wound was gainer of the suit”. BACK

[5] Landor’s note: “The jotuns were giants: their existence is not fabulous. In the north at all times have existed men of enormous stature. We ourselves have seen them from Ireland; our fathers have seen them, our children will see them. That the number was much greater formerly cannot be doubted; but it must always have been very disproportionate to that of ordinary men. These would fear them, lie in ambush for them, persecute them, and, whenever they could do it with advantage, combat them, until, where their numbers once were formidable, not a single one remained. Where they were fewer, as they were in Ireland, their alliance would rather be sought against a common enemy, and they would be objects more of curiosity than of terror. In peaceful times their stature and strength would, after a few generations, diminish from inactivity; and mothers at last would produce creatures of nearly or quite the common size; yet occasionally one resembling the old stock would reappear.” BACK

[6] Landor’s note: “Ormstunga. Gunlaug was called so, from the sharpness of his satire”. BACK

[7] Agnafit is a historical name for the location where Lake Mälaren met the Baltic Sea. Snorri Sturlusson mentions Agnafit in Heimskringla as the location where the Swedish king Agne was hanged by his captive bride Skjalf. BACK

[8] Inga was king of Sweden. His daughter, Ingeborg, took her own life. See note 1 above. BACK