The Skeleton in Armor

Original Text: 
The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with Bibliographical and Critical Notes, Riverside Edition (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1890), I, 55-60. PS 2250 E90 Robarts Library.
2Who, with thy hollow breast
3Still in rude armor drest,
4    Comest to daunt me!
5Wrapt not in Eastern balms,
6But with thy fleshless palms
7Stretched, as if asking alms,
8    Why dost thou haunt me?"
9Then, from those cavernous eyes
10Pale flashes seemed to rise,
11As when the Northern skies
12    Gleam in December;
13And, like the water's flow
14Under December's snow,
15Came a dull voice of woe
16    From the heart's chamber.
17"I was a Viking old!
18My deeds, though manifold,
20    No Saga taught thee!
21Take heed, that in thy verse
22Thou dost the tale rehearse,
23Else dread a dead man's curse;
24    For this I sought thee.
25"Far in the Northern Land,
27I, with my childish hand,
29And, with my skates fast-bound,
30Skimmed the half-frozen Sound,
31That the poor whimpering hound
32    Trembled to walk on.
33"Oft to his frozen lair
34Tracked I the grisly bear,
35While from my path the hare
36    Fled like a shadow;
37Oft through the forest dark
39Until the soaring lark
40    Sang from the meadow.
41"But when I older grew,
42Joining a corsair's crew,
43O'er the dark sea I flew
44    With the marauders.
45Wild was the life we led;
46Many the souls that sped,
47Many the hearts that bled,
48    By our stern orders.
49"Many a wassail-bout
50Wore the long Winter out;
51Often our midnight shout
52    Set the cocks crowing,
54Measured in cups of ale,
55Draining the oaken pail,
56    Filled to o'erflowing.
57"Once as I told in glee
58Tales of the stormy sea,
59Soft eyes did gaze on me,
60    Burning yet tender;
61And as the white stars shine
62On the dark Norway pine,
63On that dark heart of mine
64    Fell their soft splendor.
65"I wooed the blue-eyed maid,
66Yielding, yet half afraid,
67And in the forest's shade
68    Our vows were plighted.
69Under its loosened vest
70Fluttered her little breast,
71Like birds within their nest
72    By the hawk frighted.
73"Bright in her father's hall
74Shields gleamed upon the wall,
75Loud sang the minstrels all,
76    Chanting his glory;
78I asked his daughter's hand,
79Mute did the minstrels stand
80    To hear my story.
81"While the brown ale he quaffed,
82Loud then the champion laughed,
83And as the wind-gusts waft
84    The sea-foam brightly,
85So the loud laugh of scorn,
86Out of those lips unshorn,
87From the deep drinking-horn
88    Blew the foam lightly.
89"She was a Prince's child,
90I but a Viking wild,
91And though she blushed and smiled,
92    I was discarded!
93Should not the dove so white
95Why did they leave that night
96    Her nest unguarded?
97"Scarce had I put to sea,
98Bearing the maid with me,
99Fairest of all was she
100    Among the Norsemen!
101When on the white sea-strand,
102Waving his armed hand,
103Saw we old Hildebrand,
104    With twenty horsemen.
105"Then launched they to the blast,
106Bent like a reed each mast,
107Yet we were gaining fast,
108    When the wind failed us;
109And with a sudden flaw
111So that our foe we saw
112    Laugh as he hailed us.
113"And as to catch the gale
114Round veered the flapping sail,
115'Death!' was the helmsman's hail,
116    'Death without quarter!'
117Mid-ships with iron keel
118Struck we her ribs of steel;
119Down her black hulk did reel
120    Through the black water!
121"As with his wings aslant,
122Sails the fierce cormorant,
123Seeking some rocky haunt,
124    With his prey laden, --
125So toward the open main,
126Beating to sea again,
127Through the wild hurricane,
128    Bore I the maiden.
129"Three weeks we westward bore,
130And when the storm was o'er,
131Cloud-like we saw the shore
132    Stretching to leeward;
133There for my lady's bower
135Which, to this very hour,
136  Stands looking seaward.
137"There lived we many years;
138Time dried the maiden's tears;
139She had forgot her fears,
140    She was a mother;
141Death closed her mild blue eyes,
142Under that tower she lies;
143Ne'er shall the sun arise
144    On such another!
145"Still grew my bosom then,
146Still as a stagnant fen!
147Hateful to me were men,
148    The sunlight hateful!
149In the vast forest here,
150Clad in my warlike gear,
151Fell I upon my spear,
152    Oh, death was grateful!
153"Thus, seamed with many scars,
154Bursting these prison bars,
155Up to its native stars
156    My soul ascended!
157There from the flowing bowl
158Deep drinks the warrior's soul,
160    Thus the tale ended.


1] Longfellow said that the poem "is connected with the old Round Tower at Newport. This skeleton in armor really exists. It was dug up near Fall River, where I saw it some two years ago. I suppose it to be the remains of one of the old Northern sea-rovers, who came to this country in the tenth century. Of course I make the tradition myself; and I think I have succeeded in giving the whole a Northern air." (Editor, p. 52.) The skeleton is described in The American Monthly Magazine (Jan. 1836) as follows: "In digging down a hill near the village, a large mass of earth slid off, leaving in the bank and partially uncovered a human skull, which on examination was found to belong to a body buried in a sitting posture; the head being about one foot below what had been for many years the surface of the ground. The surrounding earth was carefully removed, and the body found to be enveloped in a covering of coarse bark of a dark color, Within this envelope were found the remains of another of coarse cloth, made of fine bark, and about the texture of a Manilla coffee bag. On the breast was a plate of brass, thirteen inches long, six broad at the upper end, and five in the lower. This plate appears to have been cast, and is from one-eighth to three-thiry-seconds of an inch in thickness. It is so much corroded that whether or not anything was engraved upon it has not yet been ascertained. It is oval in form, the edges being irregular, apparently made so by corrosion. Below the breastplate, and entirely encircling the body, was a belt composed of brass tubes, each four and half inches in length, and three-sixteenths of an inch in diameter, arranged longitudinally and close together, the length of the tube being the width of the belt. The tubes are of thin brass, cast upon yellow reeds, and were fastened together by pieces of sinew. Near the right knee was a quiver of arrows. The arrows are of brass, thin, flat, and triangular in shape, with a round hole cut through near the base. The shaft was fastened to the head by inserting the latter in an opening at the end of the wood and then tying with a sinew through the round hole, a mode of constructing the weapon never practised by the Indians, not even with their arrows of thin shell. Parts of the shafe still remain on some of them. When first discovered, the arrows were in a sort of quiver of bark, which fell to pieces when exposed to the air." (Editor, pp. 311-12.) Back to Line
19] Skald: Scandinavian bard or ancient poet. Back to Line
26] Baltic's strand: the shores of Denmark and the Scandinavian peninsula along the Baltic Sea, an extension of the Atlantic into northern Europe. Back to Line
28] gerfalcon: hunting falcon. Back to Line
38] were-wolf: man-wolf (ancient Germanic compound of words for "man" and "wolf"). Back to Line
53] the Berserk's tale: the story of a fierce Scandinavian warrior, one wearing a "bear-skin sark" (or shirt). Back to Line
77] Hildebrand: a name found in early Germanic tales that means"war-sword." Back to Line
94] sea-mew: European sea-gull. Back to Line
110] Skaw: northmost headland, promontory, ofJutland in Denmark. Back to Line
134] the lofty tower: that found at Newport. Back to Line
159] Skoal: a "toast" made at the raising of a cup. Back to Line
Publication Start Year: 
Publication Notes: 
Knickerbocker Magazine (Jan. 1841); Ballads and Other Poems (1841)
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1998.