Menella Bute Smedley

Odin's Sacrifice

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Thirty days have trickled by
Since the grisly Plague drew nigh,
Since he breathed into the woods,
And the mountain solitudes,
Soft recesses, spreading lights,
Steadfast waters, purple heights,
Such a spirit of despair
You might see that Death was there.
Thirty days from sun to sun,
And so well the work is done
Living men are not enow
Even their dead to bury now;
Yet unslaked is still his thirst,
Arm unwearied as at first;
All that toil of death so grim
Seems but as a sport to him;
Still he springs from prey to prey,
Smiting thousands every day.

Up and down the fields and streets
Each man that his neighbour meets
Hurries darkly from the place,
Looking in that other face
With a wild and shrinking eye,
For he fears to see him die;
But the women patient sit,
Waiting death, not dreading it,
For each one of them would fain
Join some well-beloved again;
Take this comfort, tearful throng,
You have not to linger long!

Not a sound is in the air
Save before the Temple, where
Some have gathered them for prayer
Round about the walls they stand,
With wan lip and shaking hand,
For the priest is yet within;
Ere those awful rites begin,
He is kneeling by the throne
Of the angry god alone,—
Kneeling, till he wring reply
From that dumb divinity.
Six long days and nights, I ween,
In the Temple hath he been
Watching there 'twixt Life and Death,
Gaunt with hunger, fierce with faith,—
Watching with unquivering eyes
From soft eve to keen sunrise,
From clear dawn till day is spent,
Till that ruthless god relent;
Till he show by voice or hand
Wherefore he afflicts the land,
Till the lives to Odin due,
Be they many, be they few,
Can be counted down and paid
That the pestilence be stayed.

All the people wait without,
In a mute and ghastly doubt,
Till the priest's dread lips proclaim
(Each expects) some fatal name;
Each expects his own and fears
As if death were in his ears,
As if this poor life and cold
Seems, when he must loose his hold,
Like a sceptre and a crown
Which a monarch must fling down.

Lo! the dark gates stir and crack!
All the waiting host shrinks back,—
Back in senseless, speechless fear
Of the thing which they must hear;
Two or three break through and fly,
Shrieking up against the sky
With a wild and hollow shriek
That makes white each hearer's cheek,
If the cheeks death-pale before
Can put on one whiteness more.
But the king, who sate alone
On a grey and mossy stone
Nearest to the temple-gate,
Shrank not from the word of fate;
See, he lifts heroic eyes,
Fearing nothing if he dies!
Only one of that pale troop
Had a soul that could not stoop,
Only one a heart whose power
Was sufficient for the hour;
Hearts are frail when hope is gone,—
Be we thankful there was one.

“Speak,” that kingly voice exclaimed,
“Speak, but ere thou speakest, hear!
And the vow my soul hath framed
Shall be uttered in thine ear.
Let great Odin say his will,
I that mandate will fulfil!
Ay, though he bid me cast in dust
The sword in which my people trust,
And from my brow dishonoured tear
The crown whose fitting place is there,—
I will obey him still, and stand
A throneless king in mine own land;
And with your homage you may grace
Another monarch in my place,
If for such sacrifice he deign
To grant my people health again.
Speak, and I promise to obey!
Speak, and I fling my crown away!
Only kinghood from my heart
Can but with my life depart.”

Dumb the people listened; each
Had a heart too full for speech.
Dark the days when such a word
Could be with such silence heard!
Then the ruthless priest advanced,
Slow his step, his eye entranced,
As though still that vacant eye
Communed with his deity;
Wild and fast his utterance streams,
Void of consciousness it seems,
As if spoken among dreams;
Other breath than his that hour
Forces out the voice of power!

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Menella Bute Smedley