The Trumpet of Nordland
The Norwegian American
As a scholar of literature, I’ve long been susceptible to Romantic impulses, so it should come as no surprise that I am drawn to the northern reaches of Norway, where such romantically disturbing landscapes abound in rock-hewn coasts, Arctic waters, winter darkness, and summer light.
One of northern Norway’s undersung regions is Helgeland, the southernmost stretch of Nordland County, which extends up to the Arctic Circle. In that region, in Herøy, in 1647, Petter Dass was born. Dass would become the Vicar of Alstahaug, a welathy, influential island parish in Helgeland known for the Seven Sisters, a string of seven distinctive peaks that gaze out on the Norwegian Sea.
But Dass is perhaps better known as the singer of Helgeland—and of Northern Norway in general—from his topographical poem, The Trumpet of Nordland, written between 1678 and 1700 and published posthumously in 1739. Longtime Norwegian professor at St. Olaf College, Theodore Jorgensson, first translated Nordlands Trompet to English in 1954. The book eventually went out of print, but in 2015, Helgeland Museum resuscitated the translation and began reprinting the Norwegian poet-pastor’s paean to the weather-pummeled lands of the North.
The 173-page, largely secular poem is a descriptive journey northward along the coast from Dass’s native Helgeland. It is a celebration of the land of Norway’s north, as the poet ornately describes the elements of nature, the birds and wildlife, the sea creatures, and the practices of the peoples who scratch out a life in the windy expanses. He moves from province to province, dwelling on Helgeland, Salten, Lofoten, Vesterålen, Senja, and Tromsø—although he admits at the start that he himself has never left Helgeland and these are but second-hand descriptions. Nonetheless, Dass’ poem evokes a rich, imaginative view into a northern Norway some 250 years past, and Jorgensson’s translation captures well the lilt of Dass’ original verse.
Educated in the classical tradition, the Norwegian draws subtly on the conventions of epic poetry from ancient Greece and Rome to contrast it with the meager means and harsh weather of the rugged Nordland coast.
Dass greets his readers, whether they are “yeomen, in tunics homespun,” those “who are drying the fish and salting the cod,” or the “priesthood, both prelate and clerk.” He welcomes them all to his table but mitigates any expectations of Mediterranean excess. Instead, he offers them, with implicit pride, “a plate full of butter,” loaves of “barley-made flatbread,” “winter-made sausages,” and “a barrel of herring … well soured a season or more.” Instead of “olives and pickles and melons, the like,” they will get “but cabbage.” Don’t worry, he insists, there is “lefse and sweet cheese in plenty” and a dessert of “pancakes of eggs”—and, of course, blood sausage. This ode to the northern landscapes is equally an ode to the hardiness of its people, who’ve long survived on the simple offerings of their harsh environment.
In a similar vein, Dass contrasts the gods of ancient Greece with the modest religiosity of Nordland. For him, “the road to Olympus would be strange,” and in Helicon, he fears, “Old Satan would greet me.” It is instead the Christian teachings of Lutheranized Norway that will sustain this traveler. His missionary instincts, however, can at times smother his healthy curiosity. In his imagined encounter with the Sámi people, he sees them more covered by “heathenish fogs” than anyone else in the country. He longs to know their language, not to understand and appreciate how they think and live, but to convert them. A voice of his time, his poetry reflects the prevailing colonial attitude that gave rise to the historical wrongs against the Sámi, which Norway in our own era has taken some significant steps to amend.
Nonetheless, with the exception of that historical limitation, the poem is truly worthwhile for anyone with a curiosity about the craggy, fjord-carved coastal reality of northern Norway and the endurance of the peoples who have lived under its spell over the centuries. With its lilting poetry, Dass’ work provides ample fodder for the imagination. It well deserves its place in Norwegian literature.
It is, sadly, difficult to find copies in the United States. If you happen to be in Nordland, you can buy one in person at the Petter Dass Museum in Alstahaug. But I also found the people at the Petter Dass Museum to be quite helpful in finding ways to ship copies overseas. Their order form and contact information can be found here: www.petterdass-museet.no/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/product-info-The-Trumpet-of-Nordland.pdf.
This article originally appeared in the November 1, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.