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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

X. The Literary Influence of the Middle Ages

§ 7. Percy’s Five Runic Pieces

It is repeated, under the title The Incantation of Hervor by Percy, as the first of his Five Runic Pieces; and, after this, it became a favourite subject for paraphrase; it did not escape “Monk” Lewis; and it appears as L’Épée d’ Angantyr in the Poëmes barbares of Leconte de Lisle.

Percy’s second piece is The Dying Ode of Ragnar Lodbrog. This had not been left unnoticed after Temple’s quotation from it. Thomas Warton the elder translated the two stanzas which Temple took from his authority, the Literatura Runica of Olaus Wormius; they appeared as “a Runic Ode,” in the posthumous volume of his poems (1748). They counted for something in the education of Thomas the younger and Joseph Warton, together with the architecture of Winchester and Windsor, and the poetry of Spenser and Milton.

It will be observed that Old English poetry had none of this success—very slight success indeed, but still ascertainable—which attended The Death-Song of Ragnar and The Incantation of Hervor. Perhaps, if Hickes had translated The Fight at Finnsburh—but he did not, and so the Icelandic page was taken and the Old English left. Apart from that accident, there was good reason for the greater success of the “runic” or “Islandic” poems. They are much more compact and pointed than anything in Old English. The poem of Hervor is an intensely passionate lyrical drama; the song of Ragnar is an emphatic rendering of the heroic spirit of the north; the poem is itself the product of an early romantic movement which had learned the artistic use of heroic phrases, and makes the most of them in a loud metallic way. The literary artifice can be detected now; the difference from the older heroic style is as great as that between Burns and Barbour in their idea of the valiant king Robert and the eloquence of Bannockburn. But this calculated and brassy emphasis all went to establish The Death-Song as a remarkable proof of early poetical genius in the north, and a type of northern heroic virtue.

The other three pieces in Percy’s volume had less vogue than Ragnar and the sword of Angantyr. One is The Ransome of Egill the Scald, taken from Olaus Wormius. It had been appreciated already by Temple, who calls the poet by the name of his father, but means Egil when he says “Scallogrim.” The passage may be quoted; it follows immediately on The Death-Song of Ragnar:

  • I am deceived, if in this sonnet, and a following ode of Scallogrim (which was likewise made by him after he was condemned to die, and deserved his pardon for a reward) there be not a vein truely poetical, and in its kind Pindaric, taking it with the allowance of the different climates, fashions, opinions, and languages of such distant countries.
  • Unfortunately, the prose history of Egil Skallagrimsson was not printed as yet, and could not be used by Percy. There is a curious neglect of history in Percy’s notes on the two poems that follow: The Funeral Song of Hacon and The Complaint of Harold. The selection of the poems is a good one; but it is clear that, with the editor, the mythological interest is stronger than the historical. His principal guide is Introduction à l’histoire du Dannemarc by Chevalier Mallet, as to which we read: “A translation of this work is in great forwardness, and will shortly be published.” It is curious to see how the connection with the Oxford press and the tradition of Junius and Hickes is still maintained; Percy here (as also in the preface to his Reliques) acknowledges the help of Lye, whose edition of the Gothic Gospels was published at Oxford in 1750. The “Islandic Originals,” added by Percy after his translations, were plainly intended as a reminder to Macpherson that the original Gaelic of Fingal was still unpublished. The Five Pieces, it should be observed, were issued without Percy’s name.