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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

§ 8. Translations from the Icelandic: Gray

Gray’s two translations from the Icelandic are far the finest result of those antiquarian studies, and they help to explain how comparatively small was the influence of the north upon English poetry. How much Gray knew of the language is doubtful; but he certainly knew something, and did not depend entirely on the Latin translations which he found in Bartholinus or Torfaeus. He must have caught something of the rhythm in

  • Vindum, vindum
  • Vef darradar,
  • and have appreciated the sharpness and brilliance of certain among the phrases. His Descent of Odin and his Fatal Sisters are more than a mere exercise in a foreign language, or a record of romantic things discovered in little-known mythologies. The Icelandic poems were more to Gray than they were to any other scholar, because they exactly correspond to his own ideals of poetic style—concise, alert, unmuffled, never drawling or clumsy. Gray must have felt this. It meant that there was nothing more to be done with “runic” poetry in English. It was all too finished, too classical. No modern artist could hope to improve upon the style of the northern poems; and the subjects of northern mythology, good as they were in themselves, would be difficult and dangerous if clothed in English narrative or dramatic forms. Gray uses what he can, out of his Icelandic studies, by transferring some of the motives and phrases to a British theme, in The Bard.