Joseph Sterling, "Scalder: An Ode" (1782)

Joseph Sterling (1765–1794)

1.        Joseph Sterling was a poet and antiquary, known as the leading Irish Spenserian of his generation. His poetry centred on romance. An example of this is Bombarino, a Romance (1768), which was an imitation of Tasso, Ariosto, and Spenser. A heroic poem on Richard Coeur de Lion appeared in Poems (Dublin, 1782) as La Gierusalemme soggettita, written in Spenserian stanza form. Included in the same volume are a section of poems labelled Odes from the Icelandic, including “The Scalder” and “The Twilight of the Gods”, an imitation of the Völuspá section of the Poetic Edda, which deals with Ragnarök. This had previously been imitated by Thomas James Mathias. These were prefaced by a short “Dissertation”, which spoke of the legend that Odin had emigrated from Asia and praised the poetry of Thomas Gray. His poems were republished in London in 1789. In the year of Sterling’s death, a collection of his odes was published.

2.        Like Thomas Penrose’s poem, this composition is centrally concerned with the role of the Norse skald in encouraging warriors on the battlefield. In a “Dissertation”, introducing Sterling’s Norse-inspired poems, the skald’s voice is described with a Romantic sense of loss: “The abilities of the Scalder may be compared to the rays of passing light, when launched out into the regions of infinite space, from whence they are never to return, and where their heat and splendour is diffused in vain” (Poems 34). The poem focuses on the rewards of the afterlife, which the poet brings into being. There are two competing visions involved. Sterling explains:

The Flath Innis [also spelled Flaitheas], or Noble Isle, is described; it was the paradise of the Celtæ, and differed in some particulars from Valhalla. In the former the mind was not fatigued with scenes of unvaried carnage; but the imagination was soothed with the most soothing prospects; the sunny landscape and the murmur of the murmurs of the falling stream, were contrasted to the glittering amour, and the shock of encountering heroes. (Poems 35)

3.        The preoccupation with the differences between Gothic and Celtic religion was almost certainly inspired by Thomas Percy’s preface to his translation of Northern Antiquities, in which clear fault lines were drawn.

4.        Nathan Drake, an important literary critic, an advocate of vernacular and Gothic poetry, praised “The Scalder” in the third volume of Literary Hours (1804). He calls it “a beautiful Ode”, and Sterling’s poetry collection is referred to as “little known, though certainly meriting considerable applause”. Drake expresses the hope that the reader will “procure the volume”, since “he will, I have no doubt, be highly gratified in the perusal”. [1] 


Scalder: An Ode (1782)

Illustrious chiefs, whose deathless fame
The Scalder’s song shall blazon wide:
In any prospect see! they stream.
Kings and heroes swell the tide:
A shining train (their tribute to receive)
From bright Valhalla pours (the mansion of the brave).
In long array the godlike forms appear,
(Their harness brightening in the western beam)
They shake the glitt’ring sword, and pointed spear;
Their polish’d helms with dreadful splendour gleam;
On airy steeds the warriors rush along,
Swift as the lightnings flash, as wintry tempests strong.

Now the rage of combat burns.
Haughty chiefs on chiefs lie slain;
The battle glows and sinks by turns,
Death and carnage load the plain.
Pale fear, grim horror stalk around;
The blood of heroes dies the verdant ground.
But at the brazen trumpet’s shrilling call.
Quick into life the eager champions spring;
With headlong speed they crowd the banner’d hall.
Where sits enthron’d in gold the sceptered king,
Immortal Odin, sov’reign of the gods,
Who rays with glory’s beams Valhalla’s bright abodes.

The banquet of the mighty chine
(Exhaustless the stupendous boar);
Virgins of immortal line [2] 
Present the goblet foaming o’er:
Of heroes skulls the goblet made,
With figur’d deaths, and snakes of gold inlaid.
The king of men [3]  with bounteous smile surveys
The dauntless souls, who fall in glory’s cause;
Who vow to him the period of their days,
Who fight his battles, and uphold his laws:
For these Serimner  [4]  on the board is spread,
And on Leradas  [5]  leaves the shaggy goat is fed.

Far in the West there lies an isle
Lash’d by the tempest and the wave;
Rude rocks (a formidable pile)
The fury of the Atlantic brave;
Winds roar, and oceans rave in vain,
Unmov’d the Noble Isle for ever shall remain.
Here length’ning distance fades on the sight,
Nor nearness thrown fatigue upon the eye;
Mild the resplendent are the beams of light,
Empurpled blushes deck the vernal sky;
The sun in brightness shines along the hills,
Green th’embosm’d vales, perennial are the rills.

From Selma’s  [6]  halls, and Morven’s streamy coast,
When death has sped his bitter shaft,
Descends the visionary host:
The morning breezes on their pinions waft
The blooming fair, who blest the brave,
With joys divinely pure that glow beyond the grave.
Some chace with hounds the shadowy deer,
Some the harp attune the song;
Some the streamlet lend an ear,
Which wildly murmurs through the vale along:
Some, who in life had prov’d the generous friend,
Enshrin’d in hov’ring clouds still on his steps attend

Hence the love of combat flows,
Hence the warrior’s throbbing breast;
Bright his kindling courage glows,
Fierce he makes his frowning crest;
He grasps his sword, he burns with noble rage,
To rush where thronging hosts, and giant chiefs engage;
In other climes his glory shall be known,
For him the tale shall live in future times;
For him his sons shall rear the chisel’d stone,
For him the harps of bards and Runic rhymes:
With screams the drooping eagle mourns his fall,
And his the Noble Isle, or Odin’s echoing hall

Lost in wild Fancy’s fairy dream,
Bright visions pass’d before his eyes;
The gods, and heroes were his theme,
Who roll the thunder of the skies:
To sooth his sorrows for a while,
Thus sung the Scalder of the Lonealy Isle; [7] 
A shaggy rock o’erhung the raging flood,
Here sat the tow’ring bard in dreadful state;
Loud roar’d the tempest through the crashing wood;
Rude was the scene, majestically great:
The western clouds still held their yellow glow;
And Hecla  [8]  pour’d her flames thro’ boundless wastes of snow.

Source: Poems (Dublin: Joseph Hill, 1782), 36–41.


[1] Nathan Drake, Literary Hours: or, Sketches, Critical, Narrative, and Poetical, vol. 3 (London: Longman et al., 1820), 171. BACK

[2] A reference to the Valkyries. BACK

[3] A name for Odin. BACK

[4] Sæhrímnir was the beast slaughtered every night in Valhalla for the warriors to feast on. In the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning, ch. 38, it is described as a boar. This is also what is referred to earlier in the stanza. BACK

[5] Sterling’s note: “There is a large goat in the Valhalla, which feeds upon the leaves of the tree Lerada, and from this goat the heroes have an efficient quantity of mead to inebriate them every day”. BACK

[6] Sterling’s note: “Selma was the palace of Fingal, king of Morven, which is supposed to be the western part of Argyleshire”. BACK

[7] Sterling’s note: “The name of Iceland in the language of the Scalders”. BACK

[8] Hekla is an active volcano on the south-side of Iceland. It had erupted in 1766, lasting until 1768. BACK