Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"Scandinavian Ballad Stories: Agnes & the Merman", Adam Oehlenschläger; "Agneta & the Sea King", John Bauer

 Illustrations from the book, Swedish Folk Tales
(The poem & the illustrations are not from the same book)
Agneta & the Sea King, illustrated by John Bauer
Coronation of the Sea Queen
"Now you shall be my queen & stay with me forever."

“Agneta, look at me,” he pleaded.
But she did not raise her face. She kneeled on the spot as still as a statue.

 Scandinavian Ballad Stories, by Robert Buchanan

Adam Oehlenschläger
MAID AGNES musing sat alone
Upon the lonely strand;
The breaking waves sighed oft and low
Upon the white sea-sand.
 Watching the thin white foam, that broke
 Upon the wave, sat she,
 When up a beauteous merman rose
 From the bottom of the sea.
 And he was clad unto the waist
 With scales like silver white,
 And on his breast the setting sun
 Put rose gleams of light. 
 The merman’s spear a boat-mast was,
 With crook of coral brown,
 His shield was made of turtle-shell,
 Of mussel-shells his crown.
 His hair upon his shoulders fell,
  Of bright and glittering tang;
 And sweeter than the nightingale’s
 Sounded the song he sang.
 “And tell to me, sweet merman,
 Fresh from the deep, deep sea,
 When will a tender husband come
 To woo and marry me?"
 “O hearken, sweetest Agnes,
 To the words I say to thee—
 All for the sake of my true heart, 
Let me thy husband be.
“Far underneath the deep, deep sea,
 I reign in palace halls,
 And all around, of crystal clear,
 Uprise the wondrous walls.

 “And seven hundred handmaids wait,
 To serve my slightest wish—
 Above the waist like milk-white maids,
 Below the waist, like fish.

 “Like mother-of-pearl the sea-sledge gleams,
 Wherein I journey crowned,
 Along the sweet green path it goes,
 Dragged by the great seal-hound.

 “And all along the green, green deeps
 Grow flowers wondrous fair;
 They drink the wave, and grow as tall
 As those that breathe the air.”

 Fair Agnes smiled, and stretched her arms,
 And leapt into the sea,
 And down beneath the tall sea-plants
 He led her tenderlie.


Eight happy years fair Agnes dwelt
     Under the green-sea wave,
And seven beauteous little ones
     She to the merman gave.

She sat beneath the tall sea-plants,
     Upon a throne of shells,
And from the far-off land she heard
     The sound of sweet kirk bells.

Unto her gentle lord she stept,
 And softly took his hand:
“And may I once, and only once,
     Go say my prayers on land?”

“Then hearken, sweet wife Agnes,
     To the words I say to thee—
Fail not in twenty hours and four
     To hasten home to me.”

A thousand times “Good night” she said
     Unto her children small,
And ere she went away she stooped,
     And softly kissed them all;

And, old and young, the children wept
     As Agnes went away,
And loud as any cried the babe
     Who in the cradle lay.

Now Agnes sees the sun again,
     And steps upon the strand—
She trembles at the light, and hides
     Her eyes with her white hand.

Among the folk she used to know,
 As they walk to kirk, steps she,
“We know thee not, thou woman wild,
     Come from a far countrie.”

The kirk bells chime, and into kirk
     And up the aisle she flies;
The images upon the walls
     Are turning away their eyes!

The silver chalice to her lips
     She lifteth tremblinglie,
For that her lips were all athirst,
     Under the deep, deep sea.

She tried to pray, and could not pray,
 And still the kirk bells sound;
She spills the cup of holy wine
     Upon the cold, cold ground.

When smoke and mist rose from the sea,
     And it was dark on land,
She drew her robe about her face,
     And stood upon the strand.

Then folded she her thin, thin hands,
 The merman’s weary wife:
“Heaven help me in my wickedness,
     And take away my life!”

She sank among the meadow grass,
     As white and cold as snow;
The roses growing round about
     Turned white and cold alsò.

The small birds sang upon the bough,
     And their song was sad and deep—
“Now, Agnes, it is gloaming hour,
     And thou art going to sleep.”

All in the twilight, when the sun
     Sank down behind the main,
Her hands were pressed upon her heart,
     And her heart had broke in twain.

The waves creep up across the strand,
     Sighing so mournfullie,
And tenderly they wash the corse
     To the bottom of the sea.

Three days she stayed beneath the sea,
     And then came back again,
And mournfully, so mournfully,
     Upon the sand was lain.

And, sweetly decked by tender hands,
     She lay a-sleeping there,
And all her form is wreathed with weeds,
     And a flower was in her hair.

The little herd-boy drove his geese
     Seaward at peep o’ day,
And there, her hands upon her breast,
     Sweet Agnes sleeping lay.

He dug a grave behind a stone,
     All in the soft sea-sand,
And there the maiden’s bones are dry,
     Though the waves creep up the strand.

Each morning and each evening,
     The stone is wet above;
The merman hath wept (the town girls say)
     Over his lost true-love.

You can read The Sea King's Second Bride, by CSE Cooney, if you find yourself so inclined.  It's a continuation of the merman's story, though not by the original author.  While charming, I don't find it quite as beautiful.


  1. Beautifully sad.Well done.

  2. The 'Songs of Separation' album which came out this year has a lovely version of this by Kate Young titled 'Sea King'.