Folklore Ballads
John Greenleaf Whittier

selected and edited by

D. L. Ashliman

University of Pittsburgh
© 1998-2011


  1. The Norsemen

  2. The Brown Dwarf of Rügen

  3. The Changeling

  4. Kallundborg Church

  5. Related Links

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Norsemen

From "Narrative and Legendary Poems" by John Greenleaf Whittier

In the early part of the present [nineteenth] century, a fragment of a statue, redely chiselled from dark gray stone, was found in the town of Bradford, on the Merrimac. Its origin must be left entirely to conjecture. The fact that the ancient Northmen visited the northeast coast of North America and probably New England, some centuries before the discovery of the western world by Columbus, is now very generally admitted.

GIFT from the cold and silent Past!
A relic to the present cast,
Left on the ever-changing strand
Of shifting and unstable sand,
Which wastes beneath the steady chime
And beating of the waves of Time!
Who from its bed of primal rock
First wrenched thy dark, unshapely block?
Whose hand, of curious skill untaught,
Thy rude and savage outline wrought?

The waters of my native stream
Are glancing in the sun's warm beam;
From sail-urged keel and flashing oar
The circles widen to its shore;
And cultured field and peopled town
Slope to its willowed margin down.
Yet, while this morning breeze is bringing
The home-life sound of school-bells ringing,
And rolling wheel, and rapid jar
Of the fire-winged and steedless car,
And voices from the wayside near
Come quick and blended on my ear,--
A spell is in this old gray stone,
My thoughts are with the Past alone!

A change! -- The steepled town no more
Stretches along the sail-thronged shore;
Like palace-domes in sunset's cloud,
Fade sun-gilt spire and mansion proud:
Spectrally rising where they stood,
I see the old, primeval wood;
Dark, shadow-like, on either hand
I see its solemn waste expand;
It climbs the green and cultured hill,
It arches o'er the valley's rill,
And leans from cliff and crag to throw
Its wild arms o'er the stream below.
Unchanged, alone, the same bright river
Flows on, as it will flow forever!
I listen, and I hear the low
Soft ripple where its water go;
I hear behind the panther's cry,
The wild-bird's scream goes thrilling by,
And shyly on the river's brink
The deer is stooping down to drink.

But hard! -- from wood and rock flung back,
What sound come up the Merrimac?
What sea-worn barks are those which throw
The light spray from each rushing prow?
Have they not in the North Sea's blast
Bowed to the waves the straining mast?
Their frozen sails the low, pale sun
Of Thulë's night has shone upon;
Flapped by the sea-wind's gusty sweep
Round icy drift, and headland steep.
Wild Jutland's wives and Lochlin's daughters
Have watched them fading o'er the waters,
Lessening through driving mist and spray,
Like white-winged sea-birds on their way!

Onward they glide, -- and now I view
Their iron-armed and stalwart crew;
Joy glistens in each wild blue eye,
Turned to green earth and summer sky.
Each broad, seamed breast has cast aside
Its cumbering vest of shaggy hide;
Bared to the sun and soft warm air,
Streams back the Northmen's yellow hair.
I see the gleam of axe and spear,
A sound of smitten shields I hear,
Keeping a harsh and fitting time
To Saga's chant, and Runic rhyme;
Such lays as Zetland's Scald has sung,
His gray and naked isles among;
Or mutter low at midnight hour
Round Odin's mossy stone of power.
The wolf beneath the Arctic moon
Has answered to that startling rune;
The Gael has heard its stormy swell,
The light Frank knows its summons well;
Iona's sable-stoled Culdee
Has heard it sounding o'er the sea,
And swept, with hoary beard and hair,
His altar's foot in trembling prayer!

'T is past, -- the 'wildering vision dies
In darkness on my dreaming eyes!
The forest vanishes in air,
Hill-slope and vale lie starkly bare;
I hear the common tread of men,
And hum of work-day life again;
The mystic relic seems alone
A broken mass of common stone;
And if it be the chiselled limb
Of Berserker or idol grim,
A fragment of Valhalla's Thor,
The stormy Viking's god of War,
Or Praga of the Runic lay,
Or love-awakening Siona,
I know not, -- for no graven line,
Nor Druid mark, nor Runic sign,
Is left me here, by which to trace
Its name, or origin, or place.
Yet, for this vision of the Past,
This glance upon its darkness cast,
My spirit bows in gratitude
Before the Giver of all good,
Who fashioned so the human mind,
That, from the waste of Time behind,
A simple stone, or mound of earth,
Can summon the departed forth;
Quicken the Past to life again,
The Present lose in what hath been,
And in their primal freshness show
The buried forms of long ago.
As if a portion of that Thought
By which the Eternal will is wrought,
Whose impulse fills anew with breath
The frozen solitude of Death,
To mortal mind were sometimes lent,
To mortal musing sometimes sent,
To whisper -- even when it seems
But Memory's fantasy of dreams --
Through the mind's waste of woe and sin,
Of an immortal origin!

The Brown Dwarf of Rügen

From "Narrative and Legendary Poems" by John Greenleaf Whittier

The hint of this ballad is found in Arndt's Märchen, Berlin, 1816. The ballad appeared first in St. Nicholas, whose young readers were advised, while smiling at the absurd superstition, to remember that bad companionship and evil habits, desires, and passions are more to be dreaded now than the Elves and Trolls who frightened the children of past ages.

THE pleasant isle of Rügen looks the Baltic water o'er,
To the silver-sanded beaches of the Pomeranian shore;

And in the town of Rambin a little boy and maid
Plucked the meadow-flowers together and in the sea-surf played.

Alike were they in beauty if not in their degree:
He was the Amptman's first-born, the miller's child was she.

Now of old the isle of Rügen was full of Dwarfs and Trolls,
The brown-faced little Earth-men, the people without souls;

And for every man and woman in Rügen's island found
Walking in air and sunshine, a Troll was underground.

It chanced the little maiden, one morning, strolled away
Among the haunted Nine Hills, where the elves and goblins play.

That day, in barley fields below, the harvesters had known
Of evil voices in the air, and heard the small horns blown.

She came not back; the search for her in field and wood was vain:
They cried her east, they cried her west, but she came not again.

"She's down among the Brown Dwarfs," said the dream-wives wise and old,
And prayers were made, and masses said, and Rambin's church bell tolled.

Five years her father mourned her; and then John Deitrich said:
"I will find my little playmate, be she alive or dead."

He watched among the Nine Hills, he heard the Brown Dwarfs sing,
And saw them dance by moonlight merrily in a ring.

And when their gay-robed leader tossed up his cap of red,
Young Deitrich caught it as it fell, and thrust it on his head.

The Troll came crouching at his feet and wept for lack of it.
"Oh, give me back my magic cap, for your great head unfit!"

"Nay," Deitrich said; "the Dwarf who throws his charmëd cap away,
Must serve its finder at his will, and for his folly pay.

"You stole my pretty Lisbeth, and hid her in the earth;
And you shall ope the door of glass and let me lead her forth."

"She will not come; she's one of us; she's mine!" the Brown Dwarf said;
"The day is set, the cake is baked, to-morrow we shall wed."

"The fell fiend fetch thee!" Deitrich cried, "and keep thy foul tongue still.
Quick! open, to thy evil world, the glass door of the hill!"

The Dwarf obeyed; and youth and Troll down the long stairway passed,
And saw in dim and sunless light a country strange and vast.

Weird, rich, and wonderful, he saw the elfin under-land, --
Its palaces of precious stones, its streets of golden sand.

He came unto a banquet-hall with tables richly spread,
Where a young maiden served to him the red wine and the bread.

How fair she seemed among the Trolls so ugly and so wild!
Yet pale and very sorrowful, like one who never smiled!

Her low, sweet voice, her gold-brown hair, her tender blue eyes seemed
Like something he had seen elsewhere or something he had dreamed.

He looked; he clasped her in his arms; he knew the long-lost one;
"O Lisbeth! See thy playmate -- I am the Amptman's son!"

She leaned her fair head on his breast, and through her sobs she spoke:
"Oh, take me from this evil place, and from the elfin folk!

"And let me tread the grass-green fields and smell the flowers again,
And feel the soft wind on my cheek and hear the dropping rain!

"And oh, to hear the singing bird, the rustling of the tree,
The lowing cows, the bleat of sheep, the voices of the sea;

"And oh, upon my father's knee to set beside the door,
And hear the bell of vespers ring in Rambin church once more!"

He kissed her cheek, he kissed her lips; the Brown Dwarf groaned to see,
And tore his tangled hair and ground his long teeth angrily.

But Deitrich said: "For five long years this tender Christian maid
Has served you in your evil world, and well must she be paid!

"Haste! -- hither bring me precious gems, the richest in your store;
Then when we pass the gate of glass, you'll take your cap once more."

No choice was left the baffled Troll, and, murmuring, he obeyed,
And filled the pockets of the youth and apron of the maid.

They left the dreadful under-land and passed the gate of glass;
They felt the sunshine's warm caress, they trod the soft, green grass.

And when, beneath, they saw the Dwarf stretch up to them his brown
And crooked claw-like fingers, they tossed his red cap down.

Oh, never shone so bright a sun, was never sky so blue,
As hand in hand they homeward walked the pleasant meadows through!

And never sang the birds so sweet in Rambin's woods before,
And never washed the waves so soft along the Baltic shore;

And when beneath his door-yard trees the father met his child,
The bells rung out their merriest peal, the folks with joy ran wild.

And soon from Rambin's holy church the twain came forth as one,
The Amptman kissed a daughter, the miller blest a son.

John Deitrich's fame went far and wide, and nurse and maid crooned o'er
Their cradle song: "Sleep on, sleep well, the Trolls shall come no more!"

for in the haunted Nine Hills he set a cross of stone;
And Elf and Brown Dwarf sought in vain a door where door was none.

The tower he built in Rambin, fair Rügen's pride and boast,
Looked o'er the Baltic water to the Pomeranian coast;

And, for his worth ennobled, and rich beyond compare,
Count Deitrich and his lovely bride dwelt long and happy there.

The Changeling

From "The Tent on the Beach" by John Greenleaf Whittier

FOR the fairest maid in Hampton
They needed not to search,
Who saw young Anna favor
Come walking into church,--

Or bringing from the meadows,
At set of harvest-day,
The frolic of the blackbirds,
The sweetness of the hay.

Now the weariest of all mothers,
The saddest two years' bride,
She scowls in the face of her husband,
And spurns her child aside.

"Rake out the red coals, goodman,--
For there the child shall lie,
Till the black witch comes to fetch her
And both up chimney fly.

"It's never my own little daughter,
It's never my own," she said;
"The witches have stolen my Anna,
And left me an imp instead.

"Oh, fair and sweet was my baby,
Blue eyes, and hair of gold;
But this is ugly and wrinkled,
Cross, and cunning, and old.

"I hate the touch of her fingers,
I hate the feel of her skin;
It's not the milk from my bosom,
But my blood, that she sucks in.

"My face grows sharp with the torment;
Look! my arms are skin and bone!
Rake open the red coals, goodman,
And the witch shall have her own.

"She'll come when she hears it crying,
In the shape of an owl or bat,
And she'll bring us our darling Anna
In place of her screeching brat."

Then the goodman, Ezra Dalton,
Laid his hand upon her head:
Thy sorrow is great, O woman!
I sorrow with thee," he said.

"The paths to trouble are many
And never but one sure way
Leads out to the light beyond it:
My poor wife, let us pray."

Then he said to the great All-Father,
"Thy daughter is weak and blind;
Let her sight come back, and clothe her
Once more in her right mind.

"Lead her out of this evil shadow,
Out of these fancies wild;
Let the holy love of the mother
Turn again to her child.

"Make her lips like the lips of Mary
Kissing her blessed Son;
Let her hands, like the hands of Jesus,
Rest on her little one.

"Comfort the soul of thy handmaid,
Open her prison-door,
And thine shall be all the glory
And praise forevermore."

Then into the face of its mother
The baby looked up and smiled;
And the cloud of her soul was lifted,
And she knew her little child.

A beam of the slant west sunshine
Made the wan face almost fair,
Lit the blue eyes' patient wonder
And the rings of pale gold hair.

She kissed it on lip and forehead,
She kissed it on cheek and chink
And she bared her snow-white bosom
To the lips so pale and thin.

Oh, fair on her bridal morning
Was the maid who blushed and smiled,
But fairer to Ezra Dalton
Looked the mother of his child.

With more than a lover's fondness
He stooped to her worn young face,
And the nursing child and the mother
He folded in one embrace.

"Blessed be God!" he murmured.
"Blessed be God!" she said;
"For I see, who once was blinded,--
I live, who once was dead.

"Now mount and ride, my goodman,
As thou lovest thy own soul!
Woe's me, if my wicked fancies
Be the death of Goody Cole!"

His horse he saddled and bridled,
And into the night rode he,
Now through the great black woodland,
Now by the white-beached sea.

He rode through the silent clearings,
He came to the ferry wide,
And thrice he called to the boatman
Asleep on the other side.

He set his horse to the river,
He swam to Newbury town,
And he called up Justice Sewall
In his nightcap and his gown.

And the grave and worshipful justice
(Upon whose soul be peace!)
Set his name to the jailer's warrant
For Goodwife Cole's release.

Then through the night the hoof-beats
Went sounding like a flail;
And Goody Cole at cockcrow
Came forth from Ipswich jail.

Kallundborg Church

From "The Tent on the Beach" by John Greenleaf Whittier

"Tie stille, barn min!
Imorgen kommer Fin,
Fa'er din,
Og gi'er dich Esbern Snares öine og hjerte at lege med!"
Zealand Rhyme.

"BUILD at Kallundborg by the sea
A church as stately as church may be,
And there shalt thou wed my daughter fair,"
Said the Lord of Nesvek to Esbern Snare.

And the Baron laughed. But Esbern said,
"Though I lose my soul, I will Helva wed!"
And off he strode, in his pride of will,
To the Troll who dwelt in Ulshoi hill.

"Build, O Troll, a church for me
At Kallundborg by the mighty sea;
Build it stately, and build it fair,
Build it quickly," said Esbern Snare.

But the sly Dwarf said, "No work is wrought
By Trolls of the Hills, O man, for naught.
What wilt thou give for thy church so fair?"
"Set thy own price," quoth Esbern Snare.

"When Kallundborg church is builded well,
Thou must the name of its builder tell,
Or thy heart and thy eyes must be my boon."
"Build," said Esbern, "and build it soon."

By night and by day the Troll wrought on;
He hewed the timbers, he piled the stone;
But day by day, as the walls rose fair,
Darker and sadder grew Esbern Snare.

He listened by night, he watched by day,
He sought and thought, but he dared not pray;
In vain he called on the Elle-maids shy,
And the Neck and the Nis gave no reply.

Of his evil bargain far and wide
A rumor ran through the country-side;
And Helva of Nesvek, young and fair,
Prayed for the soul of Esbern Snare.

And now the church was wellnigh done;
One pillar it lacked, and one alone;
And the grim Troll muttered, "Fool thou art!
To-morrow gives me thy eyes and heart!"

By Kallundborg in black despair,
Through wood and meadow, walked Esbern Snare,
Till, worn and weary, the strong man sank
Under the birches on Ulshoi bank.

At his last day's work he heard the Troll
Hammer and delve in the quarry's hole;
Before him the church stood large and fair:
"I have builded my tomb," said Esbern Snare.

And he closed his eyes the sight to hide,
When he heard a light step at his side:
"O Esbern Snare! a sweet voice said,
"Would I might die now in thy stead!"

With a grasp by love and by fear made strong,
He held her fast, and he held her long;
With the beating heart of a bird afeard,
She hid her face in his flame-red beard.

"O love!" he cried, "let me look to-day
In thine eyes ere mine are plucked away;
Let me hold thee close, let me feel thy heart
Ere mine by the Troll is torn apart!

"I sinned, O Helva, for love of thee!
Pray that the Lord Christ pardon me!"
But fast as she prayed, and faster still,
Hammered the Troll in Ulshoi hill.

He knew, as he wrought, that a loving heart
Was somehow baffling his evil art;
For more than spell of Elf or Troll
Is a maiden's prayer for her lover's soul.

And Esbern listened, and caught the sound
Of a Troll-wife singing underground:
"To-morrow comes Fine, father thine:
Lie still and hush thee, baby mine!

"Lie still, my darling! next sunrise
Thou'lt play with Esbern Snare's heart and eyes!"
"Ho! ho!" quoth Esbern, "is that your game?
Thanks to the Troll-wife, I know his name!"

The Troll he heard him, and hurried on
To Kallundborg church with the lacking stone.
"Too late, Gaffer Fine!" cried Esbern Snare;
And Troll and pillar vanished in air!

That night the harvesters heard the sound
Of a woman sobbing underground,
And the voice of the Hill-Troll loud with blame
Of the careless singer who told his name.

Of the Troll of the Church they sing the rune
By the Northern Sea in the harvest moon;
And the fishers of Zealand hear him still
Scolding his wife in Ulshoi hill.

And seaward over its groves of birch
Still looks the tower of Kallundborg church
Where, first at its altar, a wedded pair,
Stood Helva of Nesvek and Esbern Snare!

Related Links

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised July 4, 2011.