I used to enjoy Longfellow’s Skeleton in Armor. In fact, when I was supposed to memorize a poem by Longfellow for our English class, I chose this poem.
I still like the poetry, but the story no longer appeals to me. Its plot centers on the theft of a maiden, and the story ends in suicide.
A skeleton, dressed in warlike armor, approaches the poet. It is a warlike Viking whose story has never been told. The fearful specter demands that the poet serve as his bard.
The Viking was born “far in the Northern Land by the by the wild Baltic’s strand.” As a child, he tamed the gyrfalcon, boldly skated on thin ice, and tracked the grisly bear.
When he grew older, he became a typical Viking marauder. The dominant pursuits of his life were drinking and fighting.
His life changed when he noticed a beautiful princess. He won her heart, approached her father Hildebrand, and asked for her hand in marriage. His suit was scornfully rejected.
That night, he stole the maiden from her chamber. They boarded a ship and sailed away.
They did not escape detection. Hildebrand and twenty horsemen boarded a ship and pursued them.
As Hildebrand’s ship approached, the wild Viking faced certain death; but a skillful maneuver saved him. He sank Hildebrand’s ship by ramming its side with his prow.
He sailed westward for three weeks. Finally he reached land, undoubtedly somewhere in the New World. For their home, he built a lofty tower on the coast.
They lived there for many years. Time eventually “dried the maiden’s tears.” She became a mother.
When she finally died, the wild Viking began to hate the sun. He fell upon his sword and died.
In the last verse, his soul ascended to the stars and began to drink from the flowing bowl. This reflected the Viking belief that warriors killed in battle feasted in Valhalla after death. If someone failed to die in battle, suicide was supposed to be an alternate means of gaining entrance to Valhalla. It was thought that those who died a natural death would shiver in Niflheim.
Longfellow did not explain why the skeleton in armor remained unburied after his suicide, even though he had children who presumably would have buried their father.
The Skeleton in Armor may be read online. It is presented by Classical Literature.