The Fatal Sisters: An Ode

Original Text: 
Thomas Gray, Poems (London: J. Dodsley, 1768). B-10 3244 Fisher Rare Book Library (Toronto).
1Now the storm begins to lower,
2(Haste, the loom of Hell prepare.)
5Glitt'ring lances are the loom,
6Where the dusky warp we strain,
7Weaving many a soldier's doom,
9See the grisly texture grow,
10('Tis of human entrails made,)
12Each a gasping warrior's head.
13Shafts for shuttles, dipt in gore,
14Shoot the trembling cords along.
15Sword, that once a monarch bore,
16Keep the tissue close and strong.
17Mista black, terrific maid,
18Sangrida, and Hilda see,
19Join the wayward work to aid:
20Tis the woof of victory.
21Ere the ruddy sun be set,
22Pikes must shiver, javelins sing,
23Blade with clatt'ring buckler meet,
25(Weave the crimson web of war)
26Let us go, and let us fly,
27Where our friends the conflict share,
28Where they triumph, where they die.
29As the paths of fate we tread,
30Wading thro' th' ensanguin'd field:
32O'er the youthful king your shield.
33We the reins to slaughter give,
34Ours to kill, and ours to spare:
35Spite of danger he shall live.
36(Weave the crimson web of war.)
37They, whom once the desert-beach
38Pent within its bleak domain,
39Soon their ample sway shall stretch
40O'er the plenty of the plain.
41Low the dauntless earl is laid
42Gor'd with many a gaping wound:
43Fate demands a nobler head;
44Soon a king shall bite the ground.
45Long his loss shall Erin weep,
46Ne'er again his likeness see;
47Long her strains in sorrow steep,
48Strains of immortality.
49Horror covers all the heath,
50Clouds of carnage blot the sun.
51Sisters, weave the web of death;
52Sisters, cease, the work is done.
53Hail the task, and hail the hands!
54Songs of joy and triumph sing!
55Joy to the victorious bands;
56Triumph to the younger king.
57Mortal, thou that hear'st the tale,
58Learn the tenor of our song.
59Scotland thro' each winding vale
60  Far and wide the notes prolong.
61Sisters, hence with spurs of speed:
63Each bestride her sable steed.
64Hurry, hurry to the field.


1] This poem and other such translations or paraphrases were originally intended by Gray as illustrations, in a projected history of English poetry, of "the style that reigned in ancient times." The history was never written, The Fatal Sisters is a translation or paraphrase of an Icelandic court poem of the eleventh century entitled The Lay of Darts. Later translated into Norwegian and Latin, it tells of the battle of Clontarf, fought in Ireland in 1014 A.D., and represents the Sisters as appearing before the battle, and weaving the web of the fate of Ireland and of King Brian. Gray's main sources were Latin versions made by Torfaeus (Torfason), a learned Icelander (d. 1719), and Bartholinus (Bartholin), a Danish physician and scholar (d. 1690). The following outline of the story (possibly written by Gray) appeared as preface to the first edition of the poem: "In the eleventh century Sigurd, Earl of the Orkney Islands, went with a fleet of ships and a considerable body of troops into Ireland, to the assistance of Sictrygg with the silken beard, who was then making war on his father-in-law Brian, King of Dublin; the Earl and all his forces were cut to pieces, and Sictrygg was in danger of a total defeat; but the enemy had a greater loss by the death of Brian, their king, who fell in the action. On Christmas Day (the day of the battle) a native of Caithness in Scotland saw at a distance a number of persons on horseback riding full speed towards a hill, and seeming to enter into it. Curiosity led him to follow them, till looking through an opening in the rocks he saw twelve gigantic figures resembling women: they were all employed about a loom; and as they wove they sung the following dreadful song: which, when they had finished, they tore the web into twelve pieces, and (each taking her portion) galloped six to the north and as many to the south. These were the Valkyriur, female divinities, servants of Odin (or Woden) in the Gothic mythology. Their name signifies Choosers of the Slain. They were mounted on swift horses, with drawn swords in their hands; and in the throng selected such as were destined to slaughter, and conducted them to Valkalla, the hall of Odin, or paradise of the brave; where they attended the banquet, and served the departed heroes with horns of mead and ale." Back to Line
3] "'How quick they wheel'd; and dying, behind them shot/Sharp sleet of arrowy showers.' Milton, Paradise Regained, (iii, 324)" (Gray). Back to Line
4] "'The noise of battle hurtled in the air.' Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, (II, ii)" (Gray). Back to Line
8] Orkney and Randver are figures in ancient Gothic and Icelandic sagas. Back to Line
11] The weights that hold the threads stretched in the warp. Back to Line
24] "The hauberk was a texture of steel ringlets, or rings interwoven, forming a coat of mail, that sat close to the body, and adapted itself to every motion" (Gray's note to The Bard, 5). Back to Line
31] Gondula and Geira: Valkyries. Back to Line
62] falchion: broad, curved sword. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
G. G. Falle
RPO Edition: 
3RP 2.227.