William Wordsworth,The Danish Boy A Fragment and A Fact, and an Imagination or, Canute and Alfred, on the Seashore

William Wordsworth (1770–1850)

1.        Wordsworth is considered one of the canonical poets of the Romantic Age, not least for the collection Lyrical Ballads (first published 1798), on which he collaborated with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth was born in Cockermouth, Cumberland, in the Lake District, which had been settled by Norsemen – although it was technically outside of the Danelaw (the area in which Danish law obtained, according to the treaty between King Alfred and the Viking invader Guthrum from the late ninth century). “The Danish Boy” is one of the only places, where this fact is turned into a poetic theme. Wordsworth was made Poet Laureate in 1843.

[The Danish Boy] A Fragment (1800). [1] 

1.        Wordsworth spent the winter 1798–99 with his sister, Dorothy, and S. T. Coleridge in Goslar, Germany. There, he wrote several works, including the enigmatic “Lucy” poems and the poem of the Boy of Winander. The “Fragment” on the Danish Boy, which first appeared in Lyrical Ballads (2nd ed., 1800), has a theme in common with these: the death of a young person.

2.        The scene of the poem appears to be set in the landscapes of Wordsworth’s native north-west England. Like “The Thorn” from Lyrical Ballads, this is also a poem about a haunted place, which seems like it is based on local folklore. However, in 1843, when Wordsworth dictated to his friend Isabella Fenwick a set of notes to his poems (intended as a reference guide for his family and heirs), he made clear that the “Fragment” was “entirely a fancy”. [2]  In the 1827 edition of his poetical works, Wordsworth added a note that gave a background for this “fancy” and explained that it was only a fragment of an aborted work:

‘These Stanzas were designed to introduce a Ballad upon the Story of a Danish Prince who had fled from Battle, and, for the sake of the valuables about him, was murdered by the Inhabitant of a Cottage in which he had taken refuge. The House fell under a curse, and the Spirit of the Youth, it was believed, haunted the Valley where the crime had been committed. [3] 

3.        The poem is remarkable in presenting English violence against the Danes, when Viking rovers were otherwise known as the “Cruel Dane”, as Wordsworth has it in “The Danish Conquest”, a poem from his late poetic cycle of Ecclesiastical Sketches. Danish violence may be condemned, but the late poem focuses on the Danes’ ability to integrate into English society with their conversion to Christianity. The early “Fragment” emphasizes the poetic abilities of northern warriors, who (like Regnar Lodbrog or Harold Hardrade) were reputedly accomplished skalds.


A Fragment

Between two sister moorland rills
There is a spot that seems to lie
Sacred to flowerets of the hills,
And sacred to the sky.
And in this smooth and open dell
There is a tempest-stricken tree;
A corner-stone by lightning cut,
The last stone of a lonely hut;
And in this dell you see
A thing no storm can e’er destroy,
The shadow of a Danish Boy.

In clouds above, the lark is heard,
He sings his blithest and his best;
But in this lonesome nook the bird
Did never build her nest.
No beast, no bird hath here his home;
The bees, borne on breezy air,
Pass high above those fragrant bells
To other flowers, to other dells
Nor ever linger there.
The Danish Boy walks here alone:
The lovely dell is all his own.

A Spirit of noon day is he;
He seems a Form of flesh and blood;
A piping Shepherd he might be,
Nor Herd-boy of the wood.
A regal vest of fur he wears,
In colour like a raven’s wing;
It fears not rain, nor wind, nor dew;
But in the storm ’tis fresh and blue
As budding pines in Spring;
His helmet has a vernal grace,
Fresh as the bloom upon his face.

A harp is from his shoulder slung;
He rests the harp upon his knee,
And there in a forgotten tongue
He warbles melody.
Of flocks and herds both far and near
He is the darling and the joy,
And often, when no cause appears,
The mountain ponies prick their ears,
They hear the Danish Boy,
While in the dell he sits alone
Beside the tree and corner-stone.

When near this blasted tree you pass,
Two sods are plainly to be seen
Close at its root, and each with grass
Is cover’d fresh and green.
Like turf upon a new-made grave
These two green sods together lie.
Nor heat, nor cold, nor rain, nor wind
Can these two sods together bind,
Nor sun, nor earth, nor sky,
But side by side the two are laid,
As if just sever’d by the spade

There sits he: in his face you spy
No trace of a ferocious air,
Nor ever was a cloudless sky
So steady or so fair.
The lovely Danish Boy is blest
And happy in his flowery cove;
From bloody deeds his thoughts are far;
And yet he warbles songs of war,
That seem like songs of love,
For calm and gentle is his mien;
Like a dead Boy he is serene.

Source: Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems, 2nd ed., vol. 2 (London: N. Longman and O. Rees 1800), 171–174.

A Fact, and an Imagination or, Canute and Alfred, on the Seashore (1820)

1.        Wordsworth honoured the Danish King Canute (reigned in England 1016–1035) as a monarch who set the Christian Lord higher than earthly kingship. In Wordsworth’s poem “Canute” from the Ecclesiastical Sonnets series, the Danish ruler sails past the monastery of Ely and is captivated by the devout and beautiful song of the monks emanating from there. Wordsworth based the first part of “A Fact, and an Imagination”, from the same series, on John Milton’s History of Britain (1670), where the story of Canute’s demonstration of God’s infinite power is told.

2.        The relevant passage is

Canute was famous through Europe, and much honour’d of Conrade the emperor, then at Rome, with rich Gifts and many Grants of what he there demanded for the freeing of passages from Toll and Custom. I must not omit one remarkable action done by him, as Huntingdon reports it, with great scene of Circumstance, and emphatical Expression, to shew the small Power of Kings in respect of God; which, unless to Court Parasites, needed no such laborious Demonstration. He caus’d his Royal Seat to be set on the shore, while the tide was coming in; and with all the state that Royalty could put into his countenance, said thus to the Sea; “Thou Sea belongest to me, and the Land whereon I sit is mine; nor hath any one unpunish’d resisted my commands: I charge thee come no further upon my Land, neither presume to wet the Feet of thy Sovereign Lord.” But the Sea, as before, came rowling on, and without Reverence both wet and dash’d him. Whereat the King quickly rising, wish’d all about him to behold and consider the weak and frivolous Power of a King, and that none indeed deserv’d the Name of a King, but he whose eternal Laws both Heaven, Earth, and Sea obey. A Truth so evident of it self, as I said before, that unless to shame his Court-flatterers, who would not else be convinc’d, Canute needed not to have gone wet-shod home: The best is, from that time forth he never would wear a Crown, esteeming earthly Royalty contemptible and vain. [4] 

3.        Milton refers to the medieval historian Henry of Huntingdon (c. 1080–1160), who included the story of Canute in his Historia Anglorum (History of the English People).

4.        Wordsworth adds a self-invented story concerning King Alfred (reigned 871–899) to the legendary account of Canute. This second part, a product of the poet’s own “imagination”, also uses the powers of nature as a metaphor.


A Fact, and an Imagination or, Canute and Alfred, on the Seashore

The Danish Conqueror, on his royal chair,
Mustering a face of haughty sovereignty,
To aid a covert purpose, cried – “O ye
“Approaching Waters of the deep, that share
“With this green isle my fortunes, come not where
“Your Master’s throne is set.”– Absurd decree!
A mandate uttered to the foaming sea,
Is to its motion less than wanton air.
– Then Canute, rising from the invaded Throne,
Said to his servile Courtiers, –“Poor the reach,
“The undisguised extent, of mortal sway!
“He only is a king; and he alone
“Deserves the name (this truth the billows preach)
“Whose everlasting laws, sea, earth, and heaven, obey.”
This just reproof the prosperous Dane
Drew, from the influx of the Main,
For that time forth did his brows disown
The ostentatious symbol of a Crown;
Esteeming earthly royalty
Contemptible as vain.

Now hear what one of elder days,
Rich theme of England’s fondest praise,
Her darling Alfred, might have spoken;
To cheer the remnant of his host
When he was driven from coast to coast,
Distressed and harassed, but with mind unbroken;
“My faithful Followers, lo! the tide is spent
“That rose, and steadily advanced to fill
“The shores and channels, working Nature’s will
“Among the mazy streams that backward went,
“And in the sluggish pools where ships are pent:
“And now, his task performed, the Flood stands still,
“At the green base of many an inland hill,
“In placid beauty and sublime content!
“Such the repose that Sage and Hero find;
“Such measured rest the sedulous and good
“Of humbler name; whose souls do, like the flood
“Of Ocean, press right on; or gently wind,
“Neither to be diverted nor withstood,
“Until they reach the bounds by Heaven assigned.”

Source: The Miscellaneous Poems of William Wordsworth, vol. 4 (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1820), 130–32.


[1] In editions of Wordsworth’s poems until 1836, this poem was known only as A Fragment. From 1836 onwards it was named The Danish Boy. A Fragment. BACK

[2] The Fenwick Notes of William Wordsworth, ed. Jared Curtis (Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, 1993), 12. BACK

[3] The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, vol. 2 (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1827), 352. BACK

[4] A Complete Collection of the Historical, Political, and Miscellaneous Works of John Milton, Vol. 2 (London, A. Millar, 1738), 108–9. BACK