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"I consider that it has a natural propriety of diction and rhythm which is what we all prize so much in Virgil."1 Matthew Arnold wrote this in a letter to a friend to explain the style he chose for his poem "Balder Dead" (1855). Although the poem was one of Arnold's favorites, critics and the public were not impressed, and…
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"I consider that it has a natural propriety of diction and rhythm which is what we all prize so much in Virgil."1 Matthew Arnold wrote this in a letter to a friend to explain the style he chose for his poem "Balder Dead" (1855). Although the poem was one of Arnold's favorites, critics and the public were not impressed, and at first glance, it can be challenging to look past the detached tone. However, readers will be pleasantly surprised by Arnold's writing skills once they dive into the poem's meaning and an analysis of its themes.
“Balder Dead” is Arnold’s interpretation of a story from Norse mythology. It’s about the death of the god Balder and the attempt the other gods make to have him returned to Asgard, the realm where the gods and heroes live.
Odin: Known as the “All-Father,” Odin oversees the other gods.
Balder: Balder is the son of Odin and Frigg. He is the most beloved god. When he was having visions of his death, Frigg went to everything in the world and collected oaths that nothing would harm Balder, leaving him almost invincible. She passed over mistletoe because it seemed harmless.
Hoder: Hoder is Balder’s blind twin.
Frea: Frea is Odin’s wife and can influence the Nornies (beings who design fate).
Lok: Lok is the trickster god of Norse mythology.
Hela: Hela is Lok's daughter. She rules over Hell, the realm of the dead.
Hermod: Hermod is Odin’s son and is the messenger of the gods.
“Balder Dead” is comprised of three sections:
Section One opens with the image of Balder dead on the floor of Valhalla, surrounded by various weapons. Under the impression that Balder can’t be killed, it has become a sport for the gods to throw their weapons at him. Balder’s arrogance angered Lok, so he found Balder’s weakness. Lok manipulated Hoder into throwing the mistletoe dart Lok made, which pierces Balder’s chest and kills him.
Valhalla is the hall in Asgard where the gods and fallen warriors gather for their dinner feast each day.
The gods are shocked and inconsolable, but Odin tells them to stop wasting tears on something that was fated to happen. Instead, Odin prefers they plan vengeance against Lok and prepare Balder’s ship for his funeral.
Horrified about killing Balder, Hoder visits Frea to offer his life for Balder’s. Frea tells him that if it were that easy, any god in Odin’s hall would offer the same. Frea tells Hoder it’s a long shot, but he could try traveling to Hell and pleading with Hela to release Balder. Unfortunately for Hoder, the journey is too dangerous for him to go, so Frea tells him to approach the first god he comes in contact with on his way home and pass the journey on to them.
Hermod brushes by Hoder in the dark and Hoder gives him the instructions for the mission to Hell. Hermod doesn't see who is speaking, but agrees because he recognizes that the gods are ordering him to act and that he will be under their protection. Once he gets home, Hoder falls on his sword and dies because of the guilt and sorrow he feels.
In the next scene, Balder's wife, Nanna, cries over his body and then goes home to bed. As she sleeps, Balder’s ghost comes to visit her. He tells her Frea will snip her life cord as she sleeps so they can be together in death as they were in life. Frea does so, and Nanna’s spirit follows Balder’s to Hell.
The first stanza of Section Two describes the daily routine of the gods and warriors that call Valhalla home. They wake up in the morning and battle each other during the day. At nightfall, their wounds disappear, and they gather in Odin’s hall. Then, the Valkyries and Skulda, beings who are responsible for collecting fresh souls, travel to earth and select the best of the best warriors who died that day to join the other warriors in Valhalla.
However, the day after Balder’s death, they gather the supplies for Balder’s funeral after receiving instruction from Odin, and Hermod takes Odin’s horse, Sleipner, and heads out on his mission.
After nine days and nights, Hermod reaches Hela’s throne. As he approaches, he sees Balder sitting on a throne next to Hela’s. Hermod drops to his knees and clutches at Hela, imploring her to allow Balder to return to Asgard.
Hela finds Hermod’s request odd because she and her siblings live as outcasts since they are Lok's offspring. She points out that she and her siblings suffer their fate until Ragnarok (the end of the world) and don't ask the gods who could grant mercy to do so. So she refuses to release Balder but tells Hermod that if everything in the world cries for Balder, she will let him go.
After getting permission from Hela, Hermod talks to Balder and asks him if he thinks there’s a trick to what Hela is offering. Balder replies that Hela is probably being deceptive somehow because she’s Lok’s daughter, so it’s her nature. He gives his ring to Hermod to take back to Odin and asks him to tell the gods he is being treated honorably. Hermod then leaves Hell and returns to Asgard on the morning of Balder’s funeral.
When Hermod arrives at Balder’s funeral, Lok is the first to see him. Lok makes fun of him, saying that he looks like a farmer who has been chasing a lost dog all over town, only to have the dog end up at someone else’s home. The funeral attendees within earshot become furious and tell him he better shut his mouth before Odin ties him up and throws him in a lake to see if he’s guilty of Balder’s murder.
Odin notices Hermod, who tells the congregation the terms Hela has set. Odin then begins Balder’s funeral. After Odin speaks, Thor gives a eulogy talking about Balder’s kindness. Freya follows and talks about how Balder used to soothe her when she missed her husband, Oder. She asks Balder to send him her way if he ever sees him. Finally, the legendary Viking king Regner says he will miss Balder because his singing reminded him of his home.
As dusk approaches, Odin orders them to set Balder’s ship to sail. Thor pushes the ship containing Balder, Nanna, and Hoder into the water, and they light the pyre, which burns far out into the night.
The following morning, Odin goes to see Mimir. Mimir is the being who held the gods’ ancestral knowledge and offered them wisdom when asked. Odin wants to find out what Hela is hiding and to ask if he could storm Hell and take Balder by force. Frea objects, saying that Balder’s fate was set and that Odin is suggesting breaking his own rules. Frea recognizes that it’s challenging to trust Hela but that the correct course of action is for Odin to take his chances with the deal she offered. Odin agrees and orders the gods on their way.
All over the world, there is so much weeping in Balder’s name that it is like the first thaw at the end of winter. Hermod and Niord, the sea god, also get everything on the coast to weep. However, Lok takes the form of an old woman, Thok, then mocks them and refuses to cry, which breaks the deal. Hermod tells Niord to report to the gods what Lok did, then begins the ride back to see Hela.
When Hermod arrives back in Hell, Hoder approaches him. At first, Hermod belittles Hoder, but Hoder reminds him that this all happened because of Lok. Hermod agrees and apologizes, then asks to speak to Balder. Balder and Nanna appear. Hermod tells him there was a trick, and Balder must stay in Hell. Balder replies that it’s okay because he has Nanna with him and is loved in Hell as he was in Asgard.
Hermod is happy Balder is at peace but is sad Balder won’t be fighting by their side when Lok attacks Asgard. Balder replies that the only ones Hermod should mourn for are the gods, who will be sad because of Balder’s absence. However, he argues that they have plenty of strength among them if that’s what they’ll need to win the fight. Finally, Balder says he’s tired of fighting and looks forward to a happier day.
Balder tells Hermod that after the earth and Asgard are destroyed by Ragnarok, a second Heaven will emerge and he, Nanna, and Hoder will live again. They say their goodbyes, and Balder, Nanna, and Hoder leave. Hermod looks wistfully after them and then begins his journey home.
“Balder Dead” is an example of a narrative poem because it tells a story. It is written in blank verse, meaning its lines are written in a specific meter (rhythm), in this case, iambic pentameter, but there is no rhyme scheme.
“Balder Dead” contains elements of an elegy and an epic poem.
When someone who has died is memorialized in a poem, it is called an elegy. It contains three stages of loss:
An epic poem tells a story about a mythological or heroic journey. Though unsuccessful, the gods’ efforts to return Balder to Asgard include a dangerous journey requiring superhuman strength. Upon hearing the treacherous conditions of the journey, Hoder tells Frea, “‘a dreadful way is this thou show’st./No journey for a sightless God to go’” (Section One, Lines 185-186).
Much like the “austere control” (Section One, Line 317), Hela holds over Hell, Arnold chose to write “Balder Dead” with a lack of passion. Arnold explains his thought process when he writes, “the action itself . . . was to stand the central point of interest . . . the tone of the parts was to be perpetually kept down . . . in order not to impair the grandiose effect of the whole . . . not a word wasted, not a sentiment capriciously thrown in."2 In this, Arnold succeeds because what it lacks in flowery language, it makes up for with the development of the themes that murmur beneath the story of Balder’s death.
The effectiveness of his method is evident in the final stanza as Balder, Nanna, and Hoder walk away after Balder explains to Hermod why he prefers to stay in Hell and wait for the second Heaven. The speaker relates that as Hermod watches them go, he “gaz’d and yearn’d to join his kin./ /At last he sigh’d, and set forth back to Heaven” (Section 3, Lines 571-572). The sparse language and the space before the final line convey Hermod’s deep desire to stay in Hell with Balder, Nanna, and Hoder.
Arnold uses the story of Balder's death to explore his frustrations with life in the mid-nineteenth century. The human-like gods of Norse mythology endure similar disenchantment to what Arnold sees around himself. As Frea observes in Section One, "not so gladsome is that life in Heaven/Which Gods and Heroes lead, in feast and fray,/Waiting the darkness of the final times" (Lines 122-124). Industrialization and scientific advancements created conflict in society that Arnold wished religion could soothe.
In the world of Norse mythology, fate dictates life. Arnold uses Balder’s death as a jumping-off point to discuss the role of destiny. Balder’s death is a tragedy, but Odin orders the gods to stop crying because his fate was set the day he was born. When Hoder approaches Frea to undo what he has done, Frea offers a possible solution but says it “must still be tried, which shall but fail” (Section One, Line 129).
The moral of “Balder Dead” is to accept the parts of life beyond personal control. Balder exemplifies mastery of this in the change he exhibits between the first time Hermod speaks to him in Hell, when he says, “Better to live a slave, a captur’d man,/Who scatters rushes in a master’s hall,/Than be crown’d king here, and rule the dead” (Section Two, Lines 265-267), and the second time when he tells Hermod he is at peace.
Arnold shifts the focus in “Balder Dead” from the death of Balder to the fruitless attempts of the gods to outwit Death. Balder dies, not in battle, but because he and the other gods have become arrogant and make a game of flouting death. Ironically, it’s revealed that Balder had carved symbols into the columns on his home “that recall the dead to life/ . . . /[though] he did not know/To keep his own life safe, and see the sun–” (Section One, Lines 209-213).
The first stanza of Section Two recounts the daily routine of Asgard’s inhabitants, during which “they are hack’d and hewn/ . . . and limbs lopp’d off” (Lines 15-16) only to emerge “[w]oundless and fresh” (Line 18) for dinner. However, death hovers over regeneration in Asgard, as numerous times Odin comments, “you yourselves, ye Gods, shall meet your doom” (Section One, Line 28) during Ragnarok, or, as he calls it, “the Twilight of the Gods” (Section Three, Line 68). Balder’s death forces the gods to acknowledge their mortality.
Arnold’s source for “Balder Dead” is the Prose Edda, a compilation of Norse mythology, which was written when Norse mythology had begun to be influenced by Christianity. As such, “Balder Dead” operates as an allegory for Christianity. Balder is Christ-like with his “rays . . . round his head” (Section One, Line 284). The battle of Ragnarok mirrors Armageddon, after which there will be a second Asgard “[m]ore fresh, more verdant than the last, with fruits/Self-springing, and a seed of man preserv’d,/Who then shall live in peace” (Section Three, Lines 535-537) and Balder, Hoder, and Nanna will rise and live again.
An allegory is a story with a hidden moral or political meaning beneath its surface.
Arnold's precise language and deliberate imagery allow the reader to contemplate the deeper meanings within the story of Balder's death.
Rather if it fits you,
[ . . . ]
By me shall vengeance on the murderer Lok,
The Foe, the Accuser, whom, though Gods, we hate,
Be strictly car’d for, in the appointed day. (Section One, Lines 34, 37-39)
Arnold didn’t include the gods’ revenge against Lok in “Balder Dead.” However, Hela predicts Lok’s punishment in Section Two and that his escape will trigger Ragnarok. Each of the gods plays their part in the path of fate.
And Hermod saw the towers of Asgard rise:
And he drew near, and heard no living voice
In Asgard, and the golden halls were dumb.
Then Hermod knew what labor held the Gods. (Section Two, Lines 304-307)
Arnold uses the death-like silence that falls over Asgard to create the fleeting image of the coming day when the rest of the gods will die.
Then; but a Power he could not break withheld.
And as a stork which idle boys have trapp’d,
And tied him in a yard, at autumn sees
Flocks of his kind pass flying o’er his head/
[. . .]
He strains to join their flight, and, from his shed,
Follows them with a long complaining cry– (Section Three, Lines 564-570)
Arnold uses the image of a trapped stork to illustrate Hermod’s feeling about being bound by fate to return to Asgard.
Themes in "Balder Dead" include fate, the victory of death over life, and resurrection.
"Balder Dead" is about the death of the god Balder and the other gods' unsuccessful attempt to return him to Asgard.
"Balder Dead" was written (published) in 1855.
Lok provided the mistletoe dart and guided blind Hoder's hand in throwing the dart that killed Balder. The gods considered Lok responsible for Balder's death.
The moral of “Balder Dead” is to accept the parts of life beyond personal control.
"Balder Dead" is Arnold's interpretation of a story from which mythology?
True or False: "Balder Dead" can be read as an allegory for Christianity?
True: "Balder Dead" can be read as an allegory for Christianity because Balder resembles a Christ-like feature, Ragnarok mirrors Armageddon, and it prophesizes a resurrection.
Themes in "Balder Dead" include
All of the above
What do Arnold's precise language and deliberate imagery accomplish?
Arnold's precise language and deliberate imagery allow readers to focus on the deeper meanings within the story of Balder's death.
How is Lok important to the story of Balder's death?
Lok is important to the story of Balder's death because he is an agent of Fate.
How does the change in Balder's feeling about being in Hel exemplify the moral of "Balder Dead"?
The change in Balder's feeling about being in Hel exemplifies the moral of "Balder Dead" because he accepts his fate as being beyond his control.
What does Balder's death force the other gods to do?
Balder's death forces the other gods to acknowledge their mortality.
How are the symbols carved into the columns on Balder's home ironic?
The symbols carved into the columns on Balder's home are ironic because they can bring the dead back to life, but Balder has no such control over his own life.
Why can't Odin storm Hel and bring Balder back by force?
Odin can't storm Hel and bring Balder back by force because it would thwart fate and break Odin's own rules.
Which elements of an elegy and epic poem does "Balder Dead" contain?
The elements of an elegy that "Balder Dead" contains are three stages of loss: lament, praise, and solace. "Balder Dead" contains elements of an epic because it includes a journey that requires superhuman strength.
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