And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

mandag 6. februar 2017

Ultima Thule, a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

I am currently putting the final touches on an article with which I have been preoccupied for the past month or so. In this article I have been pursuing a favourite fascination of mine, namely the descriptions of the peripheral and unfamiliar in medieval and pre-medieval writing. Consequently, my article has brought me into contact with descriptions of wild men and women inhabiting the most forbidding and inhospitable parts of the earth, and I have relished in the tales of these distant lands and their various inhabitants, different from the authors of the medieval texts in several respects.

One of the most famous symbols of geographical remoteness that has come down from us from the Graeco-Roman literature, which infused the medieval authors with a wide range of ideas about the geographical periphery, is the land of Thule or Tile. This island was first described by Pytheas of Massilia in 330 BC, and has since then been identified as a range of different locations in the North Atlantic, including Iceland, and Greenland.

The cultural history of Thule is longwinded and immensely fascinating, and one that I would love to return to at some point. For the time being, however, I will only present one of the many appearances Thule has made in cultural history, namely a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Text taken from

I was pointed to this poem when I read a fascinating blogpost about the island of Kerguelen in the southern Indian Ocean, and it reminded me that Thule as a symbol of immense remoteness and the edge of the world is no longer limited to the northern hemisphere, but also carries a symbolic value for the geography of the southern part of the globe.

The island of Thule
As depicted in Olaus Magnus' Carta Marina from 1539
Courtesy of Wikimedia

Ultima Thule

With favouring winds, o'er sunlit seas,
We sailed for the Hesperides,
The land where golden apples grow;
But that, ah! that was long ago.

How far, since then, the ocean streams
Have swept us from that land of dreams,
That land of fiction and of truth,
The lost Atlantis of our youth!

Wither, ah, wither? Are not these
The tempest-haunted Orcades,
Where the sea-gulls scream, and breakers roar,
And wreck and sea-weed line the shore?

Ultima Thule! Utmost Isle!
Here in thy harbors for a while
We lower our sails; a while we rest
From the unending, endless quest.

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