The Earliest English
Translations of Individual Poems
of the Poetic Edda
[Historic Translations of Individual Eddic Poems]

1803 William Herbert
Vegtamskviða or Baldr's Draumr

from Miscellaneous Poetry, 2 vols




The Gods did all to council crowd,
The Goddesses talk'd fast and loud;
And this the theme of their debate,
If Balder's dreams were big with fate.
Heavy the hero's slumbers were, 5
Joy seem'd in sleep to disappear;
To mystic shrines the giants press,
And ask, if this bodes new distress.
The shrines have said, that Uller's friend,*
The loveliest, to death must tend: 10
Frigga and Suafner† grieving hea'r,
And Gods debate with anxious fear;
They send, and sue all things to seal
The peace with oaths for Balder's weal:

* Balder. † A name for Odin.


All nature swore to hold from strife; 15

Frigga took pledges for his life.
Yet did the Lord * of slaughter fear,
The sprites of joy must disappear;
He call'd the Gods, and counsel sought;
But each proposed a different thought. 20

"Uprosethe king of men with speed,
And saddled strait his coal-black steed."
&c. &c. &c.

 See Gray's poems.



  Literally, “Uprose Odin, guardian of mankind,

And on Sleipner he laid the saddle.”

Thence he rode to the lowest abyss of hell. &c. &c.





The foregoing lines are the commencement of an old Icelandic ode in Sæmund's Edda, of which the remainder has been beautifully imitated by Gray. His translation was made from the quotation in Bartholinus, (Ant. Dan.) who did not publish the whole poem; but these stanzas are almost necessary to make the rest intelligible; and on this account I have translated them closely, to serve as an introduction to that excellent fragment. An imitation of the whole ode has been published by Mr. Cottle in a volume entitled Sæmunð’s Edda* translated into English verse; but Mr. Cottle has taken such liberties with the Icelandic poetry and mythology, which in some places he has purposely amplified, and in others misunderstood, that, if he had published his work as Original, he could scarcely have been accused of plagiarism. It may be sufficient to quote his translation of the third and fourth stanzas of this ode, to shew how much he has departed from the original. The literal translation of the Icelandic words would be, "The oracles have said, that the friend of Uller singularly lovely was doomed to die. That gave sorrow to Frigga and Suafner, and the other Gods; they came to a decision, that they should send out to all things, and sue for peace, not to hurt Balder. All nature gave oath to abstain. Frigg* took the oaths and promises of all; which Mr. C. has thus amplified:


"The sacred oracles declare

Balder must for death prepare

Asi sad the tidings hear;
Frigga drops the impassiont tear,
Dignify'd in silent grief, .
Odin seeks not such relief:
But deeply ponders in his mind.
Safety for his son to find.

Let us he cry'd, forbid to fly

The stormy powers, that rule the sky ;

League with the light'nings ; thunders chain;

And quell the uprising, angry main :

Lest, mission'd by the powers of fate,

They in direful ambush wait.

For Balder, Odin, thus afraid,

Peace with willing nature made ;

And every jarring element

For once harmoniously consent." p. 11




* This is a great mistake; for the volume, which Mr. C. has translated, does not comprehend half Saemund's Edda, and professes only to contain the mythological odes not published by Resenius.


Mr. Cottle's ode begins, " The morn was up; the blast blew loud ;" and ends thus, "Muspelli their banners raise,  And Surtur wrap the world in blaze." There is nothing similar to these lines in the original, and the Muspelli and Surtur are not even alluded to; but they have been drawn out of a Latin note in the Copenhagen edition, to be placed in the text. Gray's beautiful imitation is sufficiently close, except in a few passages, where he has admitted some little amplifications, that tend to convey notions respecting the Icelandic mythology, which are not warranted by the original; such as, " coal-black steed, raven hair, thrice he traced the Runic rhyme, the portals nine of hell, foam and human gore." But in every other respect it is a most valuable translation, and the public cannot desire another, though it may require some illustration. Frigga, when she took the oaths of all nature, overlooked the misletoe; Loke, having observed this, maliciously persuaded Hoder to dart a branch of it at Balder, which proved fatal to him. Vali, or Ali, the son of Odin and Rinda, revenged his death by slaying Hoder; which wondorous feat he performed, when he was but one night old, Ein-nattr; as is stated in this ode, and in the 32d stanza of Volospa. It is not certain, what Odin means by the question concerning the weeping virgins; but it has been supposed, that it alludes to the embassy afterwards sent by Frigga to try to redeem Balder from the infernal regions, and that Odin betrays his divinity by mentioning what had not yet happened. The object of this embassy was frustrated by the perfidy of Loke; who, having assumed (as was supposed) the shape of an old woman, refused to join in the general petition, by which failure the spell was rendered ineffectual : but the Gods, having with difficulty made Loke their prisoner, bound him with a strong chain, which he will not break till the end of the world, or (as the Icelanders call it) the twilight of the Gods. To this the prophetess alludes in the last stanza.

Gray's Fatal sisters is very inferior to his descent of Odin, and in some passages he has lost much of the strength and spirit of the original; as for instance in the ninth stanza,


Nu er ogurligt um at litaz,

At dreyrugt sky dregr med himui;

Mun lopt litad lyda Modi,

Adr spar varar springa allar;


from which the following lines are translated, without the insertion or omission of a word.


‘Tis horrid now to gaze around,
While clouds thro' heaven gore-dropping sail;
Air must be stain'd with blood of men,
Ere all our oracles shall fail.

Gray has translated it thus,


"Horror covers all the heath ;
Clouds of carnage blot the Sun."


I have added a close translation of a few lines from

the descent of Odin in the Icelandic metre, which is

regulated by a corresponding letter in the two halves

of each verse, instead of rhyme. One vowel is allowed

to correspond with another.


The dog he met from hell advancing;

His adverse breast with blood was clotted,

His jaws for combat keenly grinning,

Fierce he bay'd the spell's dread father,

Oped his huge throat, and howl'd long after. 30

On rode Odin; the deep earth sounded;

He reach'd the lofty house of Hela;

Ugger rode to the Eastern portals,

There he knew was the tomb of Vala.

Strange verse he sung the slain enchanting, 35

Traced mystic letters northward looking, &c. &c. &c.


However inharmonious to an English ear, they may serve to give a more distinct idea of Icelandic poetry, and to shew exactly in what degree Gray has varied from the original. Ugger is another name for Odin. He has many, which are used indiscriminately, as Tonans or Saturnius for Jupiter. In this metre two corresponding letters are sometimes required in the first half of the line, and one in the second, as v. 35. When there is but one in each, the second generally commences with it, as v. 26 and 28. Some of the Icelandic metres are much more difficult; as,


                    Fylli ec flock thin, stillir;

                     Fellr á hönd mer elli.

Eyvind in Heimskringla

[Historic Translations of Individual Eddic Poems]