William Mason, Song of Harold the Valiant ([1766], 1797)

William Mason (1724–1797)

1.        William Mason was a clergyman and poet known for his poem Musaeus, a Monody on the Death of Mr. Pope (1747), as well as his historical tragedy Elfrida (1752). In 1759, he wrote Caractacus, the title of which refers to the name of the British chieftain who led the last resistance to the Roman conquest. It was a poem imitating the form of Greek tragedy but with a lot of detailed information on Welsh antiquities, included Druidic rites. Mason was a close friend of Thomas Gray, with whom he collaborated on the failed “history of poetry” project. He edited Gray’s works in 1775.

2.        The original of Song of Harold the Valiant survives as part of Knýtlinga saga (the saga of King Canute’s descendants). The speaker of the poem is the Norwegian King Harald Sigurdsson (1015– 1066), who was given the byname Hardraade (harðráði), sometimes rendered “Hard Ruler” or “the Ruthless” in English.

3.        To an English audience, Harald was of historical interest, since he famously ended his days (and thereby Viking influence in England) at the Battle at Stamford Bridge. Mason says in a note to the poem that his version of the poem was meant to have been “inserted in an Introduction to a projected Edition of a History of English Poetry … and was meant so be a specimen of the first Ballad (properly so called) now extant of northern origin”. [1] 

4.        According to Snorri Stulurson, who quotes a stanza from the poem in Heimskringla, Harald had originally composed sixteen stanzas on board a ship escaping from prison in Constantinople. In the poem, each stanza ends with a refrain referring to a woman, who rejects him (við mér skolla, literally: “keeps herself aloof”). The woman is not named, but her residence is assigned to Görðum, which in Norse textual tradition is a place name habitually given to areas east of the Baltic. Snorri identifies the woman as Ellisif, the daughter of Prince Jaroslav at Kiev. Harald had met Ellisif at court here and would return to marry her during the winter of 1042–3. [2] 

5.        Mason first made use of his translation of the poem in the drama Argentile and Curan (1766). Mason built this drama on the basis of a piece Thomas Percy edited for inclusion in the second volume of Reliques about Curan, the son of a Danish prince, who falls in love with a noble maiden of Yorkshire. An English prince dons the disguise of a minstrel in order to win a princess. In these robes, he entertains two courtiers with a translation of Harald’s poem. The stanzas are here introduced as a sonnet-like “sad burthen”, ascribed to a speaker who “woo’d a princess/ Of cruel sort, who mock’d his loving suit”. [3]  To enhance this interpretation of the poem, Mason adds a line (not in the original) before the refrain: “Ah Harold! check the empty boast”. As a textual invention, this gives us a modern, self-conscious speaker, who realises his swagger may be detrimental to winning the beloved. This was one way of making it fit the idea of the poem as an expression of the Northmen’s capacity for romance. The poem was later featured as an independent piece in Mason’s collected poems.

6.        Mason’s translation was later made into a “glee” for three voices by the eminent English composer John Wall Callcott. [4] 


Song of Harold the Valiant ([1766], 1797)

My ships to far Sicilia’s coast
Have row’d their rapid way,
While in their van my well-man’d barque
Spread wide her streamers gay.
Arm’d on the poop, myself a host,
I seem’d in glory’s orb to move—
Ah Harold! check the empty boast,
A Russian maiden scorns thy love.

To fight the foe in early youth,
I march’d to Drontheim’s field;
Numbers were theirs, but valour ours,
Which forc’d that foe to yield.
This right hand made their king a ghost:
His youthful blood now stains the grove—
Ah Harold! check the empty boast,
A Russian maiden scorns thy love.

Rough was the sea, and rude the wind,
And scanty were my crew;
Billows on billows o’er our deck
With frothy fury flew:
Deep in our hold the waves were tost,
Back to their bed each wave we drove—
Ah Harold! check the empty boast,
A Russian maiden scorns thy love.

What feat of hardihood so bold
But Harold wots it well?
I curb the steed, I stem the flood,
I fight with falchion fell;
The oar I ply from coast to coast,
On ice with flying skates I rove—
Ah Harold! check the empty boast,
A Russian maiden scorns thy love.

Can she deny, the blooming maid,
For she has heard the tale,
When to the South my troops I led,
The fortress to assail?
How, while my prowess thinn’d the host,
Fame bade the world each deed approve—
Ah Harold! check the empty boast,
A Russian maiden scorns thy love.

On Norway’s cloud-cap’d mountains bred,
Whose sons are bow-men brave,
I dar’d, a deed that peasants dread,
To plough old Ocean’s wave;
By tempest driven, by dangers crost,
Through wild, unpeopl’d climes to rove—
Ah Harold! check the empty boast,
A Russian maiden scorns thy love.

Source: The Works of William Mason, vol. 1 (London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1811), 196–8.


[1] See also Mason’s comments in The Poems of Mr. Gray, to which are Added Memoirs of His Life and Writings, vol. 4 (York: A. Ward, 1778), 143. BACK

[2] See Hazzard Cross, “Yaroslav the Wise in Norse Tradition”, Speculum, 4.2 (1929): 177–97. BACK

[3] William Mason, Poems, vol. 3 (York: W. Blanchard, 1797), 222. BACK

[4] The musical version appears in several collections, see, for example, A Selection of Favourite Catches, Glees, &c. as sung at the Bath Harmonic Society (Bath: R. Cruttwell, 1799), 159–60. BACK