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Tegner's Drapa: a Modern English Translation

This poem's splendid refrain utterly enthralled the young C. S. Lewis: “Balder the beautiful lies dead, lies dead . . .”

"Drapa" means death-song or dirge. Esaias Tegnér has been called the father of modern Swedish poetry, and Sweden's first modern man. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who translated Tegnér's poetry into English, wrote a poem called "Tegner's Drapa" which seems to either be an elegy to Esaias Tegnér in which his death is compared to the loss of Balder the Beautiful, or perhaps a translation of a poem written by Tegnér ... I'm not sure which. But I do love the haunting refrain, which seems to have caused Lewis to have a mystical experience of what he called "northernness." The reason I believe the poem may have been written as an elegy is that Tegnér died in 1846 and the poem was published in 1849, in Longfellow's book the Seaside and the Fireside. Also, I seem to remember reading a comment by Longfellow that made it sound as if he had worked on the poem after Tegnér's passing, but I'm not absolutely sure about that. I am more sure that Longfellow and Tegnér knew each other, and corresponded from time to time, as I have read parts of their letters to each other. I have not been able to locate the original poem (if there is an earlier source poem from which Longfellow was working ), so my "translation" may not really be a translation, but more of a "take" on Longfellow's poem.

Tegner's Drapa

a modern English translation by Michael R. Burch

I heard a voice that faintly said
“Balder the beautiful lies dead, lies dead . . .”
a voice like the flight of white cranes overhead—
ghostly, haunting the sun, life-abetting,
but a sun now irretrievably setting.

Then I saw the sun’s carcass, blackened with flies,
fall into night's darkness, to nevermore rise,
borne grotesquely to Hel through disconsolate skies
as blasts from the Nifel-heim rang out with dread,
“Balder lies dead, gentle Balder lies dead! . . .”

Lost, lost forever—the runes of his tongue;
the blithe warmth of his smile; his bright face, cherished, young;
the lithe grace of his figure, all the girls’ hearts undone
O, what god could have dreamed such strange words might be said
as “Balder lies dead, our fair Balder lies dead! . . .”

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