Anna Seward, Herva at the Tomb of Argantyr. A Runic Dialogue (1796)

Anna Seward (1747–1809)

1.        Anna Seward was dubbed “the Swan of Lichfield”. During the 1770s her residence became the centre for a local literary circle of some renown, including Lichfield physician Erasmus Darwin and, at times, also Thomas Day and Richard Lovell Edgeworth. She is sometimes seen to share bluestocking sympathies, but she remained critical of other such poets, including Anna Barbauld, Hannah More and Charlotte Smith. She was, however, an admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft’s controversial Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). She called it a “wonderful book”, but also qualified her praise with the statement that “the ideas of absolute equality of the sexes are carried too far”. [1] 

2.        The original Herva at the Tomb of Argantyr survives as part of the thirteen-century Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks (The Saga of Hervor and King Heidrek), which collects a number of older legends. The saga was first edited in 1672 by the Swedish antiquarian Olaus Verelius (Norse text with Latin translation). In English, it is alternatively known as “The Incantation of Hervar” or “The Waking of Angantyr”. It takes the form of a dialogue over the magic sword Tyrfing, which is endowed with magical properties. However, its Dwarfish makers also cursed it, so that it killed every time it was unsheathed.

3.        Hervar, a shield-maiden (a virgin taking up arms) has travelled to the Danish island of Samsoe to awaken the ghost of her father, Angantyr, in his tomb. She demands possession of Tyrfing, which she sees as her ancestral right. The ghost, actually a Norse draugr or haugbui (an animated corpse) refuses to give her the sword. However, when Hervar accuses her father of lacking courage, it becomes too much for him and he reluctantly yields his possession. Hervar later learns her mistake as the curse leads to the death of her son (also named Angantyr) at the hands of his brother Heiðrek (“Hydreck” in Seward’s version).

4.        The poem was first translated into English by the Oxford philologist George Hickes in the first volume of his monumental Thesaurus (1703–5). A version was re-printed in Dryden’s popular Miscellany Poems (first added in 1716) and since that time has become one of the Norse poems most often translated into English. The popularity of the poem was undoubtedly due to its setting in a tomb, coinciding with a growing fascination for graveyards, ghosts and claustrophobic confinement – the regular furniture of Gothic literature. The poem was also translated by Thomas Percy and in a dramatically gloomy version by Matthew Lewis. Seward provides what she herself refers to as a “bold Paraphrase, not a translation”, which stresses the sentiments and inner turmoil of the young female warrior who stands up to the authority of her father.


Herva at the Tomb of Argantyr. A Runic Dialogue (1796)

1.        Doctor Hick’s literal prose Translation in his Thesaurus Septentrionalis, of this ancient Norse Poem, is here given to gratify the reader’s curiosity; also to show that it is used only as an outline, and that the following Poem is a bold Paraphrase, not a Translation. The expressions in Dr. Hick’s prose, have a vulgar familiarity, injurious to the sublimity of the original conception. [2]  A close translation, in English verse, will be found in a valuable collection of Runic Odes, by the ingenious and learned Mr. Mathias. [3]  After his example, some slight changes have been made in the names, for their better accommodation to the verse.

ARGANTYR, wake! — to thee I call,
Hear from thy dark sepulchral hall!
‘Mid the forest’s inmost gloom,
Thy daughter, circling thrice thy tomb,
With mystic rites of thrilling power
Disturbs thee at this midnight hour!
I, thy Sauferlama’s child, [4] 
Of my filial right beguil’d,
Now adjure thee to resign.
The charmed Sword by birth-right mine!
When the Dwarf, on Eyvor’s plain, [5] 
Dim glided by thy marriage-train,
In jewel’d belt of gorgeous pride;
To thy pale and trembling bride,
Gave he not, in whisper deep,
That dread companion of thy sleep?—
Fall’n before its edge thy foes,
Idly does it now repose
In the dark tomb with thee?—awake!
Spells thy sullen slumber break!
Now their stern command fulfill!—
Warrior, art thou silent still?—
Or are my gross senses found
Deaf to the low sepulchral sound?—
Hrani  [6] , mid thy slumber drear!
Spirits of a dauntless race,
In armour clad, your tombs I trace.
Now, with sharp and blood-stain’d spear,
Accent shrill, and spell severe,
I wake you all from slumber mute,
Beneath the dark oak’s twisted root!—
Are Andgrym’s hated sons no more
That sleeps the Sword, that drank their gore?
Living,—why, to Magic Rhyme,
Speaks no voice of former time,
Low as o’er your tombs I bend
To hear th’ expected sounds ascend,
Murmuring from your darksome hall,
At a virgin’s solemn call?—
Hrani,—mark my spell severe!
Henceforth may the semblance cold,
That did each warrior’s spirit hold,
Parch, as corse unblest, that lies
Withering in the sultry skies!—
Ghastly may your forms decay,
Hence the noisome reptile’s prey,
If ye force not, thus adjur’d,
My Sire to yield the charmed Sword!

Arm’d amid this starless gloom,
Thou, whose steps adventurous roam;
Thou, that wav’st a magic spear
Thrice before our mansions drear,
Devoted virgin,—know in time
The mischiefs of the Runic Rhyme,
Forcing accents, mutter’d deep,
From the cold reluctant lip!
Me no tender father laid
Entomb’d beneath an hallow’d shade;
It was no friendly voice that gave
The oak, that screen’d a warrior’s grave,
Gave it, in malignant tone,
To the blasting thunderstone.—
Timeless now these bones decay,
Pervious to the baleful ray
Of the swart star.— ’Mid battle’s yell
The charm’d, the fatal weapon fell
From my unwary grasp.—A knight
Seiz’d the Sword of magic might-
Virgin, of thy spells demand
His name,—and from his victor hand,
Try if thy intrepid zeal
May win the all-subduing Steel.

Warrior, thus, with falsehood wild,
Seek’st thou to deceive thy child?—
Sure as Odin doom’d thy fall,
And hides thee in this silent hall,
Here sleeps the Sword.—Pale Chief, resign
That, which is by birthright mine!
Fear’st thou, spirit of my sire,
At thy only child’s desire,
Glorious heritage to yield,
Conquest in the deathful field?

Daring Herva, listen yet,
Spare thy heart its long regret!
Why trembling shrunk thy mother’s frame
When the Fatal Present came?
Virgin, mark the boding word,
Sullen whispered o’er the Sword!
It prophesied Argantyr’s foes
Should rue its prowess;—yet that woes
Greater far his Race should feel,
Victims of the Cruel Steel,
When, in blood of millions dyed,
It arms an ireful fratricide.
Maid, no erring accents warn;—
Of sons to thee, hereafter born,
One thy Chiefs shall Hydreck name,
Dark spirited!—but dear to fame
Shall blooming Hiaralmo live.—
Maid, his doom thy mandates give!
Renounce, renounce the dire demand,
Or to thy sons, in Hydreck’S hand,
Fatal proves, some future day,
The Charmed Sword.—Disturb it not!—away!

Argantyr,—hear thy daughter’s voice,
Spells decree an only choice!
Or, in perturbed tomb unblest,
The silence of sepulchral rest
Shall no more thy sunk eye steep,
Close no more thy pallid lip,
Or, ere this night’s shadows melt,
Mine the Sword, and gorgeous belt.

Young maid,—who as of warrior might,
Roamest thus to tombs by night,
In coat of mail, with voice austere,
Waving the corse-awakening Spear
O’er thy dead ancestors;—offence,
And danger threaten!—hie thee hence!

Obey, obey, or sleep no more!
Now my sacred right restore!
The Sword, that joys when foes assail,
Sword, that scorns the ribbed mail,
Scorns the car, in swift career,
Scorns the helmet, scorns the spear;
Scorns the nerv’d experience’d arm;
Argantyr, yield it to my charm!
‘Tis not well the victor’s pride,
With thee in silent tombs to hide;
Thy child, thy only child, demands,—
Reach it with thy wither’d hands!

The death of Hiaralmo lies
Beneath this mouldering arm!—and rise
Round its edge, the lurid fires,
Hostile to unaw’d desires.
Hie thee hence, nor madly dare
The death-denouncing grasp;—beware!

Not if thousand fires invade
Streaming from its angry blade.
Innoxious are the fires that play
Round the corse, with meteor ray.
And in these waste hours of night
Silent death-halls dimly light;
Yet, gliding with consuming force,
Undaunted would I meet their course.

Thou, whose awless voice proclaims
Scorn of the sepulchral flames,
Lest their force around thee swell,
Punishing thy daring spell,
And thy mortal form consume,
Herva, see!—thy father’s tomb
Opens!—mark, to thee restored,
Rising slow, the baneful Sword!—
See, it meets thy rash desire
Bickering with funereal fire!

Warrior, now dost thou reclaim
The lustre of thy former fame;
Lo, the Sword, a seeming brand,
Blazes in thy daughter’s hand!
Nor perishes that hand beneath
Vapourous flames, that round it wreathe,
Gleam along the midnight air,
Illume the forest wide,—and glare
On the scath’d Oak!—Sepulchral wood,
Thee I quit for fields of blood!
Nor would I, on its fateful range,
This Sword, with all its meteors, change
For the Norweyan sceptre.—Lo,
Death, and conquest, wait me now!—

Hiaralmo’S future bane,
Grasp’d with exultation vain,
Fatal, fatal shall be found
To thee, and thine, in cureless wound!
By that wound ‘tis now decreed
Hydrek’S self at length shall bleed!
Herva, less thy long regret
Had thy chiefs in combat met
Andgrym’S sons, with warlike zeal,
Met them in uncharmed steel.

Sleep, Argantyr,—Chief of might,
Thro’ the long, the dreary night;
Nor let strife, and bitter scorn,
‘Mid Herva’S offspring, yet unborn,
Disturb thee in the tomb!—and mark,
The Spear, that broke thy slumber dark,
Round the blasted oak I wave,
That ill protects a warrior’s grave!
Soon shall its scath’d trunk be seen
Cloth’d in shielding bark, and green
As before the vengeful time,
When, by force of baleful Rhyme,
It shrunk amid the forest’s groan,
Smote by the red thunder-stone.
Thro’ the renovated boughs,
Guardians of thy deep repose,
Shall the hail no longer pour,
The livid dog-star look no more!
Spirits of the elder dead,
Spell-awak’d from slumber dread,
Not to your spears, in martial pride,
Resting by each hero’s side,
Not to your gore-spotted mail,
Steely shroud of warrior pale,
Shall, thro’ thousand winters, drain
Driving snow, or drenching rain;
Nor, while countless summers beam
On arid plain, or shrinking stream,
Thro’ the widening chink be known
Reptile vile of sultry noon,
To wind the slimy track abhorr’d I—
Fate is mine, since mine the Sword!

Herva, thine the source of woes,
Direful long to all thy foes,
Ere against thy peace it turn,
And thou thy bleeding race shalt mourn.
When extinct the tomb’s blue fires,
Whose light now gleams, and now retires,
Quivering o’er its edge, forbear
To touch the Venom’d Blade;—beware!
Venom, for the blood prepar’d
Of twelve brave chiefs, their dread reward.
Herva, now thy father’s tomb
Slowly closes!—Ne’er presume
Again to breathe, in Odin’S hall,
Shrill the corse-disturbing call!

I go,—for these blue fires infest
The troubled tomb’s presumptuous guest;
As of step profane aware,
Round me, more and more they glare.—
Hervardor, Hiarvardor,—keep
Lasting slumber!—Hrani sleep!
And sleep Argantyr!—Chiefs of might,
Quiet be your mornless night!

Source: Llangollen Vale, with Other Poems (London: G. Sael, 1796), 24–38.


[1] Letter to Mr Whalley, Feb. 26, 1792, printed in Letters of Anna Seward: Written between the Years 1784 and 1807, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: A. Constable … Co., 1811), 115–17. BACK

[2] In a footnote running over several pages, Seward transcribed Hickes’s version in order to point out her own romanticizing departures. Hickes’s original English version is printed here (without Seward’s transcription mistakes):

—Awake Angantyr, Hervor the only daughter of thee and Suafu doth awaken thee. Give me out of the tombe, the hardned sword, which the dwarfs made for Suafurlama. Hervardur, Hiorvardur, Hrani, and Angantyr, with helmet, and coat of mail, and a sharp sword, with sheild and accoutrements, and bloody spear, I wake you all, under the roots of trees. Are the sons of Andgrym, who delighted in mischief, now become dust and ashes, can none of Eyvors sons now speak with me out of the habitations of the dead! Harvardur, Hiorvardur! so may you all be within your ribs, as a thing that is hanged up to putrifie among insects, unlesse you deliver me the sword which the dwarfs made … and the glorious belt.
—Daughter Hervor, full of spells to raise the dead, why dost thou call so? wilt thou run on to thy own mischief? thou art mad, and out of thy senses, who art desperatly resolved to waken dead men. I was not buried either by father or other freinds. Two which lived after me got Tirfing, one of whome is now possessor thereof.
—Thou dost not tell the truth: so let Odin hide thee in the tombe, as thou hast Tirfing by thee. Art thou unwilling, Angantyr, to give an inheritance to thy only child? …
—Fals woman, thou dost not understand, that thou speakest foolishly of that, in which thou dost rejoice, for Tirfing shall, if thou wilt beleive me, maid, destroy all thy offspring.
—I must go to my seamen, here I have no mind to stay longer. Little do I care, O Royall friend, what my sons hereafter quarrell about.
—Take and keep Hialmars bane, which thou shalt long have and enjoy, touch but the edges of it, there is poyson in both of them, it is a most cruell devourer of men.
—I shall keep, and take in hand, the sharp sword which thou hast let me have: I do not fear, O slain father! what my sons hereafter may quarrell about …. Dwell all of you safe in the tombe, I must be gon, and hasten hence, for I seem to be, in the midst of a place where fire burns round about me.
Source: George Hickes, Linguarum vett. septentrionalium thesaurus grammatico-criticus et archæologicus, vol. 1 (Oxoniæ : e Theatro Sheldoniano, 1703), 193–5. BACK

[3] Thomas James Mathias (1753/4–1835), satirist and Italian scholar, who published a version of the poem in Runic Odes: Imitated from the Norse Tongue in the Manner of Mr. Gray (1781). Mathias’s decision to alter the names is responsible for the variant form Argantyr instead of Angantyr etc. BACK

[4] Tyrfing. Svafrlami, a grandson of Odin was its first owner. BACK

[5] Eyvor is Hervar’s mother. BACK

[6] Sons of Arngrim (Seward’s “Andgrym”). Arngrim (Hervar’s grandfather) was the first in her family line to gain possession of Tyrfing. He had twelve sons, but all the brothers had been slain in battle, with Angantyr as the last to fall. BACK