Robert Southey, "The Race of Odin" (1795), "Death of Odin" (1795), and Extract from "To A. S. Cottle from Robert Southey" (1797)

Robert Southey (1774–1843)

1.        Robert Southey is considered to be one of the major Romantic poets. He held office as Poet Laureate from 1813 to his death. Southey had a life-long interest in Norse poetry. On several occasions, he seems to have planned a long poem on a Norse theme. [1]  Southey is known for his epics, among which Joan of Arc (1796), Thalaba (1801) and Madoc (1805) are the best known. Thalaba is an “Oriental” fantasy, in the preface to which Southey tells us that he was inspired to poetic experiment by the use of irregular verse and mythological subject matter in Frank Sayers’s Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology (1790). [2]  In the Romantic period, both Norse and Arab literature were investigated for their richness of fantastic imagery in the attempt to create a space for the construction of a literary tradition independent of classical letters.

2.        The two poems “Race of Odin” and “Death of Odin” are based on the theory that Odin was a historical chieftain who had been deified. Through a false etymology, Odin’s Æsir (the word used in Norse mythology about the family of the gods) were interpreted as “Asia-men”, who had travelled from beyond Europe’s borders to a new settlement in Scandinavia. This historicizing and euhemerist theory was known through the works of Snorri Sturluson, the Icelandic historian, poet and politician. It is found in the prologue to the Prose Edda and with variations in Ynglinga saga (which makes up the first part of Heimskringla) (both from the 1220s). Snorri speaks of Odin’s flight from military aggression in his homeland (either Troy or the Black Sea), presumably alluding to the Roman imperial advances under Pompey. If we square this with verifiable history, Odin’s migration can be placed in the first century BC. We know from historical texts that Mithridates VI, Rome’s most formidable antagonist in the East, had to yield to Pompey.

3.        The idea of Odin’ Æsir as a retinue of migrating Asians was intensely discussed (and believed as historical fact) in the eighteenth century. [3]  William Wordsworth thought Mithridates and Odin were the same person, when he considered using the legend as a theme for an epic. [4]  The idea of Odin as a chieftain migrating from the East was also the foundation of George Richards Odin. A Drama (1804), taking the form of Greek tragedy, and William Drummond’s high-flown verses in Odin. A Poem(1817).

4.        Southey’s poems fall within his radical period and have anti-establishment connotations. He turned to conservatism in later years, as did fellow poet-radicals Wordsworth and Coleridge. Southey probably sees Odin’s desire to revenge himself on imperial Rome as applicable to the fight against the state terrorism of the 1790s. To be sure, a similar theme is taken up in the dedicatory epistle (see below), which Southey contributed to Amos Cottle’s translation of the Poetic Edda. In a passage (not included below) from the poem, Southey names revolutionary heroes forced to flee their homelands due to political persecution: the French Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), the English Joseph Priestly (1733–1804) and the Polish-Lithuanian Andrzej Tadeusz Kościuszko (1748–1817), who are all celebrated as “Persecuted men! … sufferers in the cause/ Of Truth and Freedom!”


The Race of Odin (1795)

LOUD was the hostile clang of arms,
And hoarse the hollow sound,
When Pompey  [5]  scatter’d wild alarms
The ravag’d East around,
The crimson deluge dreadful dy’d the ground:
An iron forest of destructive spears
Rear’d their stern stems, where late
The bending harvest wav’d its rustling ears:
Rome, through the swarming gate,
Pour’d her ambitious hosts to slaughter forth:
Such was the will of fate!
From the cold regions of the North,
At length, on raven wings, shall vengeance come,
And justice pour the urn of bitterness on Rome.

Roman! (’twas thus the chief of Asgard cry’d) [6] 
Ambitious Roman !triumph for a while’;
Trample on freedom in thy victor pride;
Yet, though now thy fortune smile,
Though Mithridates fly forlorn, [7] 
Once thy dread, but now thy scorn,
Odin will never live a shameful slave;
Some region will he yet explore,
Beyond the reach of Rome;
Where, upon some colder shore,
Freedom yet thy force shall brave,
Freedom yet shall find a home:
There, where the eagle dares not soar,
Soon shall the raven find a safe retreat.
Asgard, farewell! farewell my native seat!
Farewell for ever! yet, whilst life shall roll
Her warm tide thro’ thine injur’d chieftain’s breast,
Oft will he to thy memory drop the tear:
Never more shall Odin rest,
Never quaff the sportive bowl,
Or soothe in peace his slothful soul,
Whilst Rome triumphant lords it here.
Triumph in thy victor might,
Mock the chief of Asgard’s flight;
But soon the seeds of vengeance shall be sown,
And Odin’s race hurl down thy blood-cemented throne.”

Nurtur’d by Scandinavia’s hardy soil,
Strong grew the vigorous plant;
Danger could ne’er the nation daunt,
For war, to other realms a toil,
Was but the pastime here;
Skill’d the bold youth to hurl the unerring spear,
To wield the falchion, to direst the dart,
Firm was each warrior’s frame, yet gentle was his heart.

Freedom, with joy, beheld the noble race,
And fill’d each bosom with her vivid fire;
Nor vice, nor luxury, debase
The free-born offspring of the free-born sire;
There genuine poesy, in freedom bright,
Diffus’d o’er all her clear, her all-enlivening light.

From Helicon’s meandering rills
The inspiring goddess fled;
Amid the Scandinavian hills
In clouds she hid her head;
There the bold, the daring muse,
Every daring warrior wooes;
The sacred lust of deathless fame
Burnt in every warrior’s soul:
“Whilst future ages hymn my name,
(The son of Odin cries).
I shall quaff the foaming bowl [8] 
With my forefathers in yon azure skies;
Methinks I see my foeman’s skull
With the mantling beverage full;
hear the shield-roof’d hall resound
To martial music’s echoing sound;
I see the virgins, valour’s meed,—
Death is bliss—I rush to bleed.”

See where the murderer Egill  [9]  stands,
He grasps the harp with skilful hands,
And pours the soul-emoving tide of song;
Mute admiration holds the listening throng:
The royal sire forgets his murder’d son;
Eric forgives; a thousand years
Their swift revolving course have run,
Since thus the bard could check the father’s tears,
Could soothe his soul to peace,
And never- shall the fame of Egill cease.

Dark was the dungeon, damp the ground,
Beneath the reach of cheering day,
Where Regner dying lay;
Poisonous adders all around
On the expiring warrior hung,
Yet the full stream of verse flow’d from his dauntless
“We fought with swords,” the warrior cry’d, [10] 
“We fought with swords,” he said—he dy’d.

Jomsburg [11]  lifts her lofty walls,
Sparta revives on Scandinavia’s shore;
Undismay’d each hero falls,
And scorns his death in terror to deplore.
“Strike, Thorchill, strike! drive deep the blow, [12] 
Jomsburg’s sons shall not complain,
Never shall the brave appear
Bound in slavery’s shameful chain,
Freedom ev’n in death is dear.
Strike, Thorchill, strike! drive deep the blow,
We joy to quit this world of woe;
We rush to seize the seats above,
And gain the warrior’s meed of happiness and love.”

The destin’d hour at length is come,
And vengeful heaven decrees the queen of cities’ doom,
No longer heaven withholds the avenging blow
From those proud domes whence Brutus fled; [13] 
Where just Cherea bow’d his head, [14] 
And proud oppression laid the Gracchi low: [15] 
In vain the timid slaves oppose,
For freedom led their sinewy foes,
For valour fled with liberty:
Rome bows her lofty walls,
The imperial city falls,
“She falls—and lo, the world again is free!”

Death of Odin (1795)

SOUL of my much-lov’d Freya! [16]  yes, I come!
No pale disease’s slow-consuming power
Has hasten’d on thy husband’s hour;
Nor pour’d by victor’s thirsty hand
Has Odin’s life bedew’d the land:
I rush to meet thee by a self-will’d doom.
No more my clattering iron car
Shall rush amid the throng of war;
No more, obedient to my heavenly cause,
Shall crimson conquest stamp his Odin’s laws.
I go—I go;
Yet shall the nations own my sway
Far as yon orb shall dart his all-enlivening ray:
Big is the death-fraught cloud of woe
That hangs, proud Rome, impending o’er thy wall,
For Odin shall avenge his Asgard’s fall.
Thus burst from Odin’s lips the fated sound,
As high in air he rear’d the gleaming blade;
His faithful friends around
In silent wonder saw the scene, affray’d:
He, unappall’d, towards the skies
Uplifts his death-denouncing eyes;
“Ope wide Valhalla’s shield-roof’d hall,
“Virgins of bliss! obey your master’s call;
“From these injurious realms below
“The sire of nations hastes to go.”

Say, faulters now your chieftain’s breath?
Or chills pale terror now his death-like face?
Then weep not, Thor, thy friend’s approaching death,
Let no unmanly tears disgrace
The first of mortal’s valiant race:
Dauntless Himdal, [17]  mourn not now,
Balder! [18]  clear thy cloudy brow; I go to happier realms above,
To realms of friendship and of love.

This unmanly grief dispelling,
List to glory’s rapturous call;
So with Odin ever dwelling,
Meet him in the shield-roof’d hall:
Still shall Odin’s fateful lance
Before his daring friends advance;

When the bloody fight beginning,
Helms and shields, and hauberks ringing,
Streaming life each fatal wound
Pours its current on the ground;
Still in clouds portentous riding
O’er his comrade host presiding.
Odin, from the stormy air,
O’er your affrighted foes shall scatter wild despair.

‘Mid the mighty din of battle,
Whilst conflicting chariots rattle,
Floods of purple slaughter streaming,
Fate-fraught falchions widely gleaming;
When Mista marks her destin’d prey,
When dread and death deform the day;
Happy he amid the strife,
Who pours the current of his life;
Every toil and trouble ending,
Odin from his hall descending,
Shall bear him to his blest retreat,
Shall place him in the warrior’s seat.

Not such the destin’d joys that wait
The wretched dastard’s future fate:
Wild shrieks shall yell in every breath,—
The agonizing shrieks of death.
Adown his wan and livid face
Big drops their painful way shall trace;
Each limb in that tremendous hour
Shall quiver in disease’s power.
Grim Hela  [19]  o’er his couch shall hang,
Scoff at his groans, and point each pang;
No Virgin Goddess him shall call
To join you in the shield-roof’d hall;
No Valkery for him prepare
The smiling mead with lovely care:
Sad and scorn’d the wretch shall lie,
Despairing shriek—despairing die!
No Scald in never-dying lays
Shall rear the temple of his praise;
No Virgin in her vernal bloom
Bedew with tears his high-rear’d tomb;
No Soldier sound his honor’d name;
No song shall hand him down to fame;
But rank weeds o’er the inglorious grave
Shall to the blast their high heads wave;
And swept by time’s strong stream away,
He soon shall sink—oblivion’s prey;
And deep in Niflehim [20] —dreary cell,
Aye shall his sprite tormented dwell,
Where grim Remorse for ever wakes,
Where Anguish feeds her torturing snakes,
Where Disappointment and Delay
For ever guard the doleful way;
Amid the joyless land of woe
Keen and bleak the chill blasts blow;
Drives the tempest, pours the rain,
Showers the hail with force amain;
Yell the night-birds as they fly
Flitting in the misty sky;
Glows the adder, swells the toad,
For sad is Hela’s cold abode.

Spread then the Gothic banners to the sky,
Lift your sable banners high;
Yoke your coursers to the car,
Strike the sounding shield of war;
Go, my lov’d companions, go
Trample on the opposing foe;
Be like the raging torrent’s force,
That, rushing from the hills, speds on its foaming

Haste, my sons, to war’s alarms,
Triumph in the clang of arms;
Joy amid the warlike toil,
Feed the raven with your spoil;
Go, prepare the eagle’s food,
Go, and drench the wolf with blood,
‘Till ye shall hear dark Hela’s call,
And virgins waft ye to my hall;
There, wrapt in clouds, the shadowy throng
To airy combat glide along;
‘Till wearied with the friendly fight,
Serimner’s flesh [21]  recruits their might;
There, whilst I grasp the Roman skull,
With hydromel sweet-smiling full,
The festive song shall echo round,
The Scald repeat the deathless sound:
Then, Thor, when thou from fight shall cease,
When death shall lay that arm in peace,
Still shall the nations fear thy nod,
The first of warriors now, and then their god;
But be each heart with rage possest,
Let vengeance glow in every breast;
Let conquest fell the Roman wall,
Revenge on Rome my Asgard’s fall.

The Druid throng shall fall away,
And sink beneath your victor sway;
No more shall nations bow the knee,
Vanquish’d Taranis, to thee;
No more upon the sacred stone,
Tentates, shall thy victims groan; [22] 
The vanquish’d Odin, Rome, shall cause thy fall,
And his destruction shake thy proud imperial wall.

Yet, my faithful friends, beware
Luxury’s enerving snare;
‘Twas this that shook our Asgard’s dome,
That drove us from our native home;
‘Twas this that smooth’d the way for victor Rome:
Gaul’s fruitful plains invite your sway,
Conquest points the destin’d way;
Conquest shall attend your call,,
And your success shall gild still more Valhalla’s hall.
So spake the dauntless chief, and pierc’d his breast,
Then rush’d to seize the seat of endless rest.

Source: Poems, containing The Retrospect, Odes, Elegies, Sonnets, &c. by Robert Lovell, and Robert Southey(London, 1795), 97–102.

“To A. S. Cottle from Robert Southey” (1797)

1.        Robert Southey’s dedicatory poem to Amos Cottle was prefixed to the latter’s English translation of the Poetic Edda, which was entitled Icelandic Poetry, or The Edda of Saemund (1797). Amos’s brother, Joseph, later gave an explanation of how this work was produced.

A young friend of my brother’s wanted more information respecting the Scandinavian Mythology than he could obtain from English books, and during one of Amos’s long Cambridge vacations, he kindly undertook to translate literally for his friend the whole of the Edda of Sæmond, with the notes. Soon after he had commenced the work, Mr Southey (between whom and my brother there existed reciprocal respect), seeing his engagement advised him rather to make verse the vehicle of his translation in the free manner of Gray’s “Descent of Odin,” one of the poems. This advice was adopted and was the origin of my brother’s translation of the “Edda of Sæmond”. [23] 

2.        The poem takes metaphors from the Norse tradition to serve a radical agenda. Southey sees Gothic bloodiness as part of a primitive but sincere creed, while he condemns the hypocrisy of Christian priests, who in the past have pretended to benevolence; their prayers constitute “a bloodier hate than ever rose/ At Odin’s altar”. It is impossible not to read this as connected with Southey’s deeply felt antipathies against the Roman Church, since he levels precisely such criticisms of hypocrisy against Papal wars in his anti-Catholic diatribe Letters Written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal, published the same year. [24]  In the extract given below, Southey praises Norse fortitude and bravery, as well as the moving force of the poetry. He also praises the Scandinavian landscape, described in Mary Wollstonecraft’s recently published Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark (1796), to which he refers in a later footnote.


Extract from To A. S. Cottle from Robert Southey

But now I know
Thro’ wildest scenes of strange sublimity
Building the Runic rhyme, thy Fancy roves;
Niflhil’s nine worlds [25]  and Surtur’s fiery plain [26] 
And where upon Creation’s uttermost verge
The weary Dwarfs that bear the weight of Heaven [27] 
Hope the long winter that no spring must cheer
And the last found that from Heimdaller’s trump [28] 
Shall echo thro’ all worlds and found the knell
Of earth and heaven

A strange and savage faith
Of mightiest power! it fram’d the unfeeling soul
Stern to inflict and stubborn to endure
That laugh’d in death
When round the poisn’d breast
Of Regner [29]  clung the viper brood and trail’d
Their coiling length along his festering wounds
He, fearless in his faith the death-song pour’d
And lived in his past fame; for sure he hoped
Amid the Spirits of the mighty dead
Soon to enjoy the fight. And when his sons
Avenged their father’s fate and like the wings
Of some huge eagle spread the fevered ribs
Of Ella in the shield roof’d hall they thought
One day from Ella’s skull to quaff the mead
Their valours guerdon

Wild the Runic faith
And wild the realms where Scandinavian Chiefs
And Scalds arose and hence the Scalds strong verse
Partook the savage wildness

And methinks
Amid such scenes as these the Poet’s soul
Might best attain full growth pine cover’d rocks
And mountain forests of eternal shade
And glens and vales on whose green quietness
The lingering eye reposes and fair lakes
That image the light foliage of the beech
Or the grey glitter of the aspen leaves
On the still bough trembling.

Source : Icelandic Poetry, or The Edda of Saemund, trans. Amos Cottle (Bristol: 1797), xxxiii–xxxvi.


[1] In 1796 Southey was preparing a “Norwegian tale of [Harald] Harfagre”, in 1799 he had plans “to build up a Runic song”, and references to Norse mythology in relation to his plans for future literary endeavours crop up in his later correspondence; see Herbert G. Wright, “Southey’s Relations with Finland and Scandinavia”, The Modern Language Review, 27.2 (1932): 149–67. BACK

[2] Robert Southey, Thalaba, the Destroyer (London: T. N. Longman and O. Rees, 1801), vii–ix. BACK

[3] See Robert Rix, “Oriental Odin: Tracing the East in Northern Culture and Literature”, forthcoming in History of European Ideas. BACK

[4] William Wordsworth, The Prelude: or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind (Text of 1805), rev. ed. Stephen Gill (Oxford: OUP, 1970), Bk. I, ll. 185–9: “I would relate/ How vanquished Mithridates northward passed./ And, hidden in the cloud of years, became … Odin, Father of a Race …”. In William Drummond’s Odin. A Poem (London, 1817), the eponymous hero is identified with Phamaces, son of Mithridates. BACK

[5] Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106–48 BC), was a military and political leader of the late Roman Republic, who set out to fight Mithridates VI of Pontus in the East. With this campaign of c. 65–62 BC, Rome conquered much of western Asia. BACK

[6] Asgard is the home and capital city of the Norse god. In Snorri Sturluson’s interpretation, it was an actual place in Asia, the home of the Æsir (“Asia-men”). BACK

[7] Mithradates VI (d. 63 BC), Rome’s most formidable enemy in the East. He had to take flight after defeat in the battle against the invading Roman forces under Pompey. BACK

[8] The following lines are inspired by Ragnar’s Death Song, in which the hero looks forward to drinking mead in Valhalla (which has a roof thatched with warriors’ shields). BACK

[9] The following lines refer to Egill Skalla-Grímsson (c.910–c.990), an Icelandic skald who was also a warrior and appears in Norse heroic saga tradition. In Egils saga(c. 1220s), Egil feuded with King Erik Bloodaxe ( Eiríkr blóðôx), after having killed the king’s son. Erik, who rules in York, later captures Egill and has him sentenced to death. The skald saves his own life by composing in one night a long poem in praise of the king. Erik was charmed by the gesture and granted Egill his freedom. BACK

[10] Southey refers to the repeated first line of the stanzas in the Ragnar’s Death Song. BACK

[11] Jomsburg was a legendary Viking stronghold at the southern coast of the Baltic Sea (medieval Wendland, modern Pomerania). Its inhabitants were known as Jomsvikings, whose story is told in Jómsvíkinga saga. BACK

[12] Thorchill was a warrior, who brought out eight men from the Viking town Jomsburg and executed them with his sword. The story is related by both Thomas Bartholin and Paul-Henri Mallet. BACK

[13] Marcus Junius Brutus (85–42 BC), one of the main conspirators in the murder of Julius Cæsar (44 BC). Brutus subsequently fled to Crete. BACK

[14] Cassius Cherea, a Roman centurion who murdered Caligula in AD 41. He was executed for this crime. BACK

[15] Either this is Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (163–132 BC), or his younger brother Gaius Gracchus (154–121 BC). Both were proponents of reform and were killed for their radicalism. BACK

[16] Freya is a goddess of love and fertility, who is associated with Odin in some mythological representations. BACK

[17] Heimdall is the guardian of the gods, who will alert the other gods when Ragnarök begins. Cf. reference to his “trump” below. BACK

[18] Balder, son of Odin and Frigg. BACK

[19] Hel[a] is the being who presides over a hellish realm in Norse mythology. It is described as located downward and northward. Those who did not die gloriously in battle would end up in this terrible place of pain and torment. BACK

[20] Niflheim (or Niflheimr) is a northern region of ice and mists, shrouded in eternal darkness and cold. It is situated on the lowest level of the universe. Hel, the realm of death is located here. BACK

[21] Serimner was a wild boar that delivered meat for warriors in Valhalla. It would regenerate the meat on its bones every day. BACK

[22] Taranis and Tentates (or Teutates) were among the principal deities of Celtic Britain. These gods were described by the Roman poet Lucan (1 cent. AD) in his Pharsalia, where they are associated with human sacrifice. BACK

[23] Joseph Cottle, Early Recollections: Chiefly Relating to the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, during His Long Residence in Bristol, vol. 1 (London: Longman, Rees & Co., 1837), 110. BACK

[24] Robert Southey, Letters Written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (London: T.N. Longman and O. Rees, 1799); see for example 427–31. BACK

[25] According to Norse cosmology, there are nine worlds, unified by the World Tree, Yggdrasil. Nifilheim is the world of ice. BACK

[26] Surtr is a giant. At the end of the long cold winter (Fimbulvetr) preceding the end of the world (Ragnarök), Surtr will come with flames that will burn the whole world. BACK

[27] At the creation, the ur-creature Ymir’s skull became the dome of the sky, and a dwarf was placed at each of the four corners to balance it above the earth. BACK

[28] Heimdall was the last of the gods to die at Ragnarök when he and Loki would both perish in a battle against each other. BACK

[29] For Ragnar Lodbrog and King Ella mentioned below, see the poem by Thomas Percy in this collection. BACK