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~ Historical & Classical Poetry ~

The Death of Arnkel
from "Firdausi in Exile: And Other Poems" (1885)

ACROSS the roaring board in Helgafell,
Above the dash of ringing horns of ale,
The guests of Snorri, reddened with the frost.
Weighed all their comrades through a winter night.
Disputing which was first in thew and brain
And courteous acts of manhood; some averred
Their host, the shifty Snorri, first of men.
While some were bent to Arnkel, some to Styrr.

Then Thorleif Kimbi shouted down the hall,
" Folly and windy talk I the stalwart limbs
Of Styrr, and that sharp goodly face of thine,
All-cunning Snorri, make one man, not twain, —
One man in friendship and in rede, not twain, —
Nor that man worthy to be named for skill.
Or strength, or beauty, or for popular arts.
With Arnkel, son of Thorolf the grim ghost.
Wit has he, though not lacking therewithal
In sinew; see to it, comrades, lest he crush
The savage leaders of our oligarchy,
Vast, indolent, mere iron masks of men.
Unfit for civic uses; his the hand
To gather all our forces like the reins
Of patient steeds, and drive us at his will,
Unless we stir betimes, and are his bane."

So from his turbulent mouth the shaft struck home,
Venomed with envy and the jealous pride
Of birth; and ere they roared themselves to rest,
The chieftains vowed that Amkel must be slain.
Nor waited many days; for one clear night
Freystein, the spy, as near his sheep he watched,
Saw Amkel fetching hay from Orlygstad,
With three young thralls of his own household folk.
And left the fold, and crept across the fell.

And wakened from their first sweet midnight sleep
The sons of Thorbrand, and went on, and roused
Saoni, who dreamed of blood and dear revenge.
Then through the bosij moonlit night they sped.
Wanned to the heart with hopes of murderous play.
Nine men from Snorri's house; and by the sea
At Alptofjord they roet the sii men armed
With Tborlief scarcely greeted they, but slummed
Along the black shore of the Suhiog Qord,
Lit by the lai^ moon in a cloudless sky ;
Over the swelling, waving ice they flew.

Grinding the tnfis of grass beneath their sleigh
So ^lent, that the twigs of juniper
Snapped under them, sharp, like a cracking whip.
Echoing, and to to Orlygstad they came.
Bat Arnkel saw them through the cold bright air,
Andtamed, ttDdb«de the three young thcnlls haste home.
To bring back othos of their kith to fight j
So, maddened by base fear, they nuhed, and one
Or ever he neared the homestead, as be fled.
Slipped on the forehead of a monntaiii-fbtce,
And volleying down from i^ plane to plane.
Woke all the echoes of that waterfall,
And died, while numb with fright the others ran.

But Arnkel bowed, and loosened from his sleigh
The iron runner with its shining point.
And leaped upon the fence, and set his back
Against the hay-stack ; through the frosty night
Its warm deep odour passed into his brain.
But Snorri and his fellows with no word
Sprang from their sleighs, and met below the fence.
And reaching upwards with their brawny arms,
Smote hard at Arnkel with the runner he.

Cleaving with both hands, parried blow on blow,
Till, shaft by shaft, their spears splintered and snapt ;
Nor would they yet have reached him, but that he.
Gathering a mighty stroke at Thorleifs head.
Dashed down his runner on the icy fence
And shivered it, while backwards Thorleif fell.
Bending the slimness of his supple loins,
Unwounded. Then a moment's space they stood
Silent. Then from the haystack at his back
His glittering sword and buckler Amkel seized,
And like a wild-cat clomb the stack, and stood
Thigh-deep astride upon the quivering hay,
'Raining down thrusts and blinding all his foes
With moony lightnings from the flashing steeL

But Thorleif clambered up behind his back ;
And Snorri, with his shield before his face.
Harried him through the wavering veil of hay ;
And Styrr, like some great monster of the falls.
Swayed his huge broadsword in his knotted fists,
And swept it, singing, through the helm and brain,
And deep sank Amkel on the bloody stack.

They wrapped his corse in hay, and left him there ;
To whom within the silence of the night
Came that dark ghost, his father, whose black face
Affrights the maidens in the milking-stead ;
And till afar along the frozen road
The tinkling of the sleighs he heard, and knew
That, all too late, the thralls of Amkel came,
He hung above the body of his son,
Casting no shadow in the dazzling moon,
Cursing the gods with inarticulate voice,
And cursing that too-envious mood of men
That brooks no towering excellence, nor heeds
Virtue, nor welfare of th' unsceptered state.

Edmund William Gosse (1849-1928)