Sölvar-How

Sölvar-How

Up the valley of Brathay rode Dagmar the Dane.
There was gold on her bit, there was silk on her rein.
You might see her white steed in the distance afar,
On the green-breasted hill, shining out like a star;
Where beyond her on high in his barrow lay sleeping
Old Sölvar the chief; and the shade, that sat keeping
His fame, by his tomb sang the Norseland's wild strain.

As the white steed of Dagmar shone, breasting the hill;
To the mound where old Sölvar lies lonely and still,
In the red light of evening, arresting her gaze,
Flocked the meek mountain ewes and the steers up the ways,
With the firstlings and yearlings, from hill top and hollow,
Gathering far, the sweet voice of the Phantom to follow—
To them sweeter than murmur of fountain and rill.

There was joy in their looks, in their eyes the clear light
Glistened searchingly forth on that mystical sight.
And from far, too, the white steed of Dagmar the Dane
Pricked his ears, stepping proudly, unheeding the rein;
And aside to the summit turned joyfully pacing;
While the steers and the ewes listened wistfully gazing,
And the Phantom sat singing of Sölvar the Bright.

O'er the pools of the Brathay, from Skelwith's lone tower
The sire of the princess looked forth in that hour.
He beheld the white steed of his child, like a star
On the green-breasted hill, and he cried from afar—
"She has heard his wild strains on the hill-top awaken,
And I from this hour am alone and forsaken.
—Not her voice nor her foot-fall, to come to me more!"

For to Dagmar the fair, when the flocks of the field
And the herds were in motion their homage to yield
To the bright Norseland Boy—with the fire and the grace
Of his sires in his limbs and their pride in his face—
In the garb of his country, rehearsing the story
Of chiefs and of kings and the Norseland's old glory—
Was the Phantom in all his bright beauty revealed.

There entranced in that vision, enchained by his tongue,
As the strains through his harp-strings melodiously rung,
Sat the maid on White Svend mid the yearlings; till now
Far departing he turns from the hill's sunny brow;
And the ewes at his feet awhile falteringly follow,
Then range back bewildered to hill-top and hollow;
While the Maid on his fast-fading accents still hung.

Through the still light receding his loose tresses streamed;
But to fly with him still was the dream she had dreamed;
Side by side o'er the hills, through the valleys, and on
To the Norseland to hear his wild songs all alone;
And to chase from his lips every accent of sorrow,
As they walked through the dawn of a brighter to-morrow
Into sunlight that heaven upon earth never beamed.

Springing down from White Svend, swiftly Dagmar the Dane
Cast aside on his neck the rich silk-tassel'd rein;
With her eyes fixed afar o'er the green mountain sward,
Whence the bright Norseland Boy cast a backward regard.
Call aloud from thy Tower, call aloud and implore her,
Hapless sire! to return, ere the night gathers o'er her!
She can hear but the voice of the Phantom's sweet strain.

Light and fleet was her foot over hollow and hill;
Till they reached the rude cleft of the deep-roaring Ghyll.
On the black dungeon's brink not a moment he stay'd;
O'er the black roaring Ghyll glided softly the Shade.
Like a thin wreath of mist she descried him far over—
And her cry pierced the night-boding hill tops above her;
When down the loose rocks plunged, and bridged the dark Ghyll.

Heard the eagle that shriek from his eyrie on high?
Struck his wings the poised rocks as he rushed to the sky?
Did the wild goat leap, startled, and press from their hold
With his hoof the loose crags?—that they bounded and roll'd
Far above, down, and on, soughing, plunging, and clashing,
Till they reached the dark Ghyll, and fell, wedging and crashing,
In the gulf's horrid jaws, there for ever to lie.

The fleet foot of Dagmar sprang light to the stone,
Where it bridged the dread gulf, in the twilight, alone.
For one moment she stood with her eyes straining o'er
Into space, for the bright one that answered no more.
He was gone from the hand she stretched, vainly imploring;
He was gone from the heart that beat, madly adoring:
And a voice from the waters cried wailingly—"Gone."

Roar thou on, Dungeon-Ghyll! there was mourning in vain
In the fortress of Skelwith for Dagmar the Dane.
From their tower on the cliff they looked, tearful and pale,
On her riderless steed as it came down the vale.
In her bower and in hall there was wailing and sorrow.
And the hills shone renewed with each glorious to-morrow.
But their bright star, their Dagmar, they knew not again.

Notes to "Sölvar How."

While many Celtic names of places remain to attest the prolonged sovereignty of the Britons in Cumbria, by far the greater number refer to a period when the enterprising Northmen, coming from various shores, but all included under the comprehensive title of Danes, had pushed their conquests into the mountain country of Cumberland and Westmorland and those portions of the north of Lancashire, which are comprised within the district of the English Lakes. This territory had become the exclusive possession of the Norwegian settlers. Every height and how, every lake and tarn, every swamp and fountain, every ravine and ghyll, every important habitation on the mountain side, the dwelling place amidst the cleared land in the forest, the narrow dell, the open valley, every one is associated with some fine old name that belonged to our Scandinavian forefathers. Silver How is the hill of Sölvar, and Butter-lip-how, the mound of Buthar, surnamed Lepr the Nimble; Windermere and Buttermere, and Elter-water are the meres and water called after the ancient Norsemen, Windar, and Buthar or Butar, and Eldir, Gunnerskeld, and Ironkeld, and Butter-eld-keld, are the spring or marsh of Gunnar, and Hiarn, and Buthar the Old, or Elder. Bekangs-Ghyll, and Staingill, and Thortillgill, indicate the ravines or fissures, which were probably at one time the boundaries respectively of the lands of Bekan, and Steini, and Thortil; Seatallau and Seatoller were once the dwelling places whence Elli and Oller looked on the plains below them; and in Ormthwaile, and Branthwaite, and Gillerthwaite we recognise the lands cleared amid the forests with the axe, whose several possessors were Ormr, and Biorn, and Geller; while Borrodale, and Ennerdale, and Riggindale, and Bordale recall the days when these remote valleys were subject to the lordly strangers Borrhy, and Einar, and Regin, and Bor. All these names are Scandinavian proper names, and are to be found in the language of that ancient race, of whose sojourn amongst our hills so many traces remain in the nomenclature of the district.

Coming from the wildest and poorest part of the Norwegian coast, and mixing with the Celtic tribes of these regions, in the early ages; those hardy sons of the sea made extensive and permanent settlements among them. They penetrated into the remotest recesses of the mountains, carrying thither their wild belief in the old northern gods, and their rude ideas of a future life. Their warlike recollections, and their attachment to the scenes of their valorous exploits, fostered the notion which was not uncommon among them, that the spirits of chieftains could sometimes leave the halls of Valhalla, and, seated each on his own sepulchral hill, could look around him on the peaceful land over which in life he had held rule, or on that beloved sea which had borne him so often to war and conquest. It was this thought that induced them to select for their burial places high mountains, or elevated spots in the valleys and plains. As a natural result of their long continued dominion in the North of England, they came to be classed in the imagination of the people with invisible and mystic beings which haunted that district. The shadows of the remote old hills were the abodes of enchantment and superstition. And the spirits of the departed were supposed to be seen visiting the earth, sometimes in the guise of a Celtic warrior careering on the wind, and sometimes in the form of one of the old northern chieftains sitting solitary upon his barrow. It is related of one being permitted to do so for the purpose of comforting his disconsolate widow, and telling her how much her sorrow disquieted him. Hence also the dwellers among the hills, it is said, still fancy they hear on the evening breeze musical tones as of harp strings played upon, and melancholy lays in a foreign tongue; a beautiful concert, to which we owe the exquisite medieval legend of the cattle, in thraldom to the potent spirit of harmony that rings through the air, often when no musical sound is audible to the organ of man, pricking up their ears in astonishment, as they listen to the Danish or Norseland Boy, sadly singing the old bardic lays over the barrows of his once mighty forefathers.

It has been conjectured that the colonization of this district by the Northmen was effected at two distinct periods, by two separate streams of emigration, issuing from two different parts of the Scandinavian shore. The first recorded invasion of Cumberland by the Danes appears to have taken place about the year 875; when an army under the command of Halfdene, having entered Northumberland and made permanent settlements there, commenced a series of incursions into the adjacent countries lying on the north and west, and thereby reached the borders of the lake region, first plundering them and finally settling there. The indications of the presence of the northern adventurers in that quarter are found to be more purely of a Danish character than those which abound beyond the eastern line of the district, and which may with great probability be referred to a colonization more particularly Norwegian.

Our own histories make no mention of anything bearing upon the subject, but there seem to be good reasons for concluding that Cumberland was also invaded from the sea coast. The Norwegian sea-rover Olaf, according to Snorro Sturlessen, had visited, among other countries, both Cumberland and Wales. And Mr. Ferguson supposes, from various circumstances, which concur to fix the date of the Norwegian settlements here in the interval between 945 and 1000, that his descents must have taken place somewhere about the year 990. At that period the Cumbrian Britons had been for half a century in subjugation to the Saxons, and since the death of Dunmail their country had been handed over to Malcolm to be held in fealty by the Scottish crown. The scattered remnants of the Celtic tribes were for the most part shut up amongst their hills, or had retired into Wales. The plains of Westmorland and Cumberland on the north and east were probably chiefly occupied by a mixed Saxon and Danish population; for nearly a century had elapsed since the Danes from Northumberland had overrun them. In fifty years more the result of events was, as we are informed by Henry of Huntingdon, that one of the principal abodes of the "Danes," under which title old writers comprehend all Northmen, was in Cumberland. A stream of Northern emigrants, issuing, it may be supposed, from the districts of the Tellemark, and the Hardanger, a name signifying "a place of hunger and poverty," had descended along the north of Scotland, swept the western side of the island, fixed its head-quarters in the Isle of Man, and from thence succeeded in obtaining a firm footing upon the opposite shore of England; a land, like their own, of mountains and valleys, waiting for a people as they were for a settlement, a wild and untamed country, always thinly populated and never cultivated, a land of rocks and forests and of desolation. These protected by their ships, having command of the coast, and being unopposed except by the apparently impenetrable mountain barriers before them, these warlike settlers cleared for themselves homes amidst the woods, began to gather tribute from the mountain sides, and laid the foundations of those "thwaites" and "seats" and "gates" and "garths," which at the end of almost nine centuries of fluctuation and change still bear testimony to their wide-spread rule and are called by their Northern names.

Not only do traces of them everywhere survive in names which indicate possession and location, or in words which particularise the multiform features of the country and describe the minor variations of its surface; but the sites of their legislative and judicial institutions, and their places of burial, as well as their towns and villages, are preserved in that local nomenclature which lives in the language spoken by their kinsmen in the mother-land at the present day. The old Norse element has penetrated, and diffused itself, and hardened into the dialect of the Cumberland and Westmorland "fell-siders," and emphatically pronounces from whom it came. And, lastly, the physical and moral characteristics, as well as the manners and customs of the people, are those of the hardy race, whose transmitted blood gave the larger nerve and more enduring vigour which characterise their frame. Tall, bony, and firmly knit; fair-haired, and of Sanguine complexion; possessing strong feelings of independance, and a large share of shrewdness and mother-wit; intolerant of oppression; cautious, resolute, astute and brave; these people, and the Cumbrians, especially, crown their list of claims to be of Norse descent with one more striking feature, a litigious spirit. Litigation appears to be almost as natural and necessary to their minds, as wrestling and other manly exercises are to their limbs: in respect to which, as well as to other amusements in which they are said to bear some resemblance to the old Icelanders, they bear away the palm from the rest of England.

Dungeon Ghyll in Great Langdale is a deep chasm or fissure in the southern face of the first great buttress of the Pikes. It is formed by a considerable stream from Pike o' Stickle; which after making several fine leaps down the mountain side, tumbles at length over a lofty precipice about eighty feet between impending and perpendicular rocks into a deep and gloomy basin. A few slender branches are seen springing from the crevices in either face of the chasm near the top; and immediately above the basin, a natural arch, made by two large stones which have rolled from a higher part of the mountain, and got wedged together between the cheeks of rock. By scrambling over some rough stones in the bed of the stream, the largest and finest chamber may be reached; and the visitor stands underneath the arch, and in front of the waterfall. Over the bridge thus rudely formed, Wordsworth's "Idle Shepherd Boy" challenged his comrade to pass; and even ladies have had the intrepidity or temerity to cross it, undeterred by the narrowness and awkwardness of the footing, and the threatening aspect of the dismal gulf below.

The station in the field adjoining the farm house called Skelwith-Fold, is the site where the Danish fortress is assumed to have stood.