Letter from Poetry Magazine

Letter to the Editor

By Jo Sarzotti

Dear Editor,

As one familiar with the Poetic Edda, I read with great interest William T. Vollmann’s account of a stanza from Helgavitha Hundingsbana II [“Show Me a Howe,” September 2009]. I, too, was puzzled by the line “now that heroes perch on ash-tree limbs.” Vollmann asks, “But why do the heroes perch on ash branches? It is as if in death they have diminished into bird-sized ghosts, or perhaps even into leaves” before traveling on to Valhalla. Vollmann amplifies the content of this image engagingly, and the uniqueness of this variation on the Norse hero’s usual transport to Valhalla (by a Valkyrie straight from the battlefield) compelled me to check the text. What I found in my edition of Lee M. Hollander’s translation (the one Vollman cites) is not “heroes” but “eagles,” which is also the case in Carolyne Larrington’s Oxford translation. Thus, the last two lines, said by Sigrun when she realizes Helgi will not return, are an image of nightfall:

now the eagles perch    on ash-tree limbs,
and all hosts hie them     to the home of dreams.

Larrington translates “hosts” as “householders” and “home of dreams” as “dream-assembly,” or place where one dreams, i.e., the householders “hie” themselves to bed. Apparently Vollmann has either misremembered or is in possession of a faulty edition. However, he is to be praised for singling out this “haunting” stanza as an image of longing for the dead to return, if only for one night.

Originally Published: October 30th, 2009
Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In