After the Ball
Og nu jeg ved hverken ud eller ind,
O Guder! saa skuer jeg Jagtens Mø,
|Date:||Early March 1844.|
|Form:||Three stanzas of four alternating four- and three-stress lines (in Danish) rhyming aBaB.|
|Manuscript:||Two copies, the earlier one (untitled) in KG 31 a III (facsimile KJH176; image), the later (with the title "Efter Assembléen") in ÍB 13 fol. (facsimile KJH229; image).|
|First published:||1932 (2D167-8 [the earlier copy]; image) and 1929 (1D256 [the later copy]; image).|
|Sound recording:||Niels Ingwersen reads "Efter Assembléen." [0:33]|
Commentary: The adult female of the European red deer is known as a "hind," the adult male as a "hart." "Halloo!" is the cry given by huntsmen to incite their hounds to the chase.
In writing this poem, Jónas wove together memories of three recent experiences at Sorø: attending a ball (and the consequences of that); participating in a deer-hunt; and reading the version of the Actæon story in Frederik Paludan-Müller's poetic drama Venus.
Jónas's poem is written in Danish and survives in two manuscript versions. The earlier version is found, in lieu of date or salutation, at the beginning of a letter to Konráð Gíslason, written at Sorø, probably on 3 March 1844 (2D395). This version of the poem begins with the words, "If you had known, friend," etc., and Jónas has supplied the following marginal note to the word "He" in the third line: "i.e., Eros!?!"
After citing the poem, Jónas's letter to Konráð continues: "This is the upshot of having rashly and foolishly gone to a ball during Lent. Christian VI was right to put an end to such entertainments in Iceland! The lady's name, I think, is Miss Jessen from Slagelse. But to tell you the honest truth, the parson's daughter — the one with the north and south breasts — is prettier."1
By the time Jónas entered the poem in his late manuscript anthology Lbs. ÍB 13 fol., about a year later, he had recognized its potential,2 given it a title, and made the small but important change in the first line that transformed it from an occasional, half-jocular poem to a friend, into a fully realized tragic utterance, a dramatic monologue whose speaker is a disturbing fusion of Jónas Hallgrímsson and Actæon.3
The imagery of the chase in "After the Ball" was inspired by an experience Jónas had described to Konráð in a note the previous November (4E375): "A few days ago I went hunting, like some sort of royalty, and we had hounds and "Halloo!" and guns (nota bene!) and bagged three deer and two hares" (2E18O).
The third ingredient in Jónas's poem is the powerful and disquieting story of Actæon, grandson of Cadmus,4 which has come down from classical antiquity in many forms accompanied by many interpretations. According to what is undoubtedly the best-known version, that of Ovid in his Metamorphoses (III:138-252), Actæon was a great huntsman who unluckily chanced to look upon Diana, the virgin goddess of the woods (dea silvarum), while she was naked and being bathed by her nymphs in a grotto in a grove (antrum nemorale) in the valley of Gargaphië. To punish him for this involuntary sacrilege, Diana transformed Actæon into a hart and he was pulled down and killed by his own hounds.
Although Jónas was no doubt familiar with this story, at least in broad outline, from his Bessastaðir years, his own treatment of it in "After the Ball" is deeply indebted to the version in Venus, a "mythological drama" published in 1841 by the Danish poet Frederik Paludan-Müller (1809-1876). Paludan-Müller's Actæon compares himself to a hart and speaks of pursuing a white hind (indeed, it is the goddess Diana herself whom he blasphemously imagines in this role). The clinching argument for Paludan-Müller's influence on Jónas, however, is the fact that Paludan-Müller's Actæon is pursued and killed not by his own hounds, but by the hounds of Diana's nymphs. Jónas has adopted this idiosyncratic version of the story.
As shown by Jónas's marginal note in his letter to Konráð, the "He" referred to in line 3 of the poem is Eros/Cupid. Cupid's traditional missile is a golden arrow, of course, not a golden ball, and his traditional target is men's breasts, not their foreheads. Jónas's use of the words "ball" (Bold) and "forehead" (Pande) may have been partly forced upon him: in the Danish original, both words participate in the rhyme scheme. But it is likely that he is also consciously alluding to a familiar motif in Icelandic folklore, where one can destroy trolls, giants, etc., by finding where their "life-egg" (fjöregg) is hidden and hurling it at them so that it hits them in the face, or on the temple or nose, or (most frequently) between the eyes or on the forehead.5 These life-eggs came in a variety of colors; some were golden.6 The poem's identification of Cupid's missile (which brings love) with the life-egg of Icelandic folklore (which embodies life but can bring death) resonates with extremely complex ironies and is wonderfully appropriate in a poem so obviously concerned with the relationship between love and death. (A number of other suggestions about the source of Jónas's image, fascinating but inconclusive, have been put forward by Hannes Pétursson.)
It is interesting to note that the actual metamorphosis of human being into hart is not described in Jónas's poem, nor does this metamorphosis occur as a consequence of glimpsing "the Huntress" (in line 10 of the translation). Rather, a change in the speaker's self-identification is seen to have occurred — or to be in process of occurring — with the appearance of the word "hind" in line 7. Indeed, the poem derives much of its power from its ambiguity about whether the speaker is a man or an animal, and/or when he changes from one to the other. A further ambiguity results from the poem's profound uneasiness about men's sexual pursuit of women: about "hunting" (veiðar), as Jónas's contemporaries unblushingly called it (DH83). Surely this uneasiness is one of the poem's conscious or unconscious subjects. Paludan-Müller portrays Actæon not only as a great hunter of animals but also of women: a real "lady-killer," whom Venus crowns with a garland of roses to symbolize his amorous conquests, and who is enthusiastic about the idea of "hunting" Diana herself. This aspect of his character explains why, in Paludan-Müller's version of the Actæon story, Diana curses him with the words: "Turn into a beast! Be what you have already become!" This feature of Paludan-Müller's conception has left clear traces in Jónas's poem. A further source of the poem's power may well be Jónas's ambivalence about hunting and killing animals.7 The presence of all these ambiguities makes it less than surprising that the ancient story of Actæon, with its dark, ironic message of the hunter hunted, the pursuer pursued — a theme that had haunted Jónas as early as "Plover Song" — should have galvanized him into creating poetry of such power. Finally, it is worth noting that the poem thrusts into high relief the Actæon story's nightmare-like core-situation: the situation of a man who stumbles accidentally upon mysteries not intended for human eyes, and pays for it with his life. The presence of this theme, in turn, serves to bring "After the Ball" into relationship with Heine's "Durch den Wald, im Mondenscheine," which Jónas had translated only a year before.8 The speaker in Jónas's version of Heine's poem, standing in the woods on a clear, moonlit night, sees troops of elves sweeping past on snow-white horses. The elf-queen greets him as she rides by, laughs in his direction, and leaves him wondering: "Did she do this because of the fresh love in my heart? Or was this my death calling to me?" (1E172)
Hannes Pétursson writes: "It may well be that Jónas Hallgrímsson originally set about writing 'After the Ball' as a piece of semi-facetiousness, entertaining himself with its rhymes and meter. This seems not unlikely when the poem is read in its original context, the letter to Konráð. But it did not take Jónas long, I think, to realize that he had created lines of exceptional poetic depth, lines which — thanks to the power of their symbolism — rise far above the circumstances that gave them birth and express the essential character of his own personal tragedy" (Kf127). One finds nothing to quarrel with in this assessment of the poem's achievement.
Bibliography: Hannes Pétursson's chapter "Bráð veiðigyðjunnar" ("The Prey of the Hunting Goddess"), in his book Kvæðafylgsni (Kf), is important for the interpretation of this poem. See also Aðalgeir Kristjánsson, "Fr. Paludan-Müller og Jónas Hallgrímsson: Langt mál um lítið kvæði" ("Fr. Paludan-Müller and Jónas Hallgrímsson: Extended Remarks about a Short Poem") (53TMm3/59-68).
On 6 March, Konráð replied to Jónas's letter in a tone of mock-misogyny: "You and your doxies! Some of them from Slagelse, others with weird breasts (like mermaids)! Go on, I want to hear more about them, even though I'm pretty much down on women at present. God forgive me — being at odds with dead things." (BKG62)
4 His mother was Cadmus's daughter Autonoë.
7 The theme of men's moral obligation to be kind to animals and avoid causing them unnecessary suffering comes up so often in Jónas's work that it is hard to believe he participated without mixed emotions in the deer-hunt described to Konráð. Does his identification, in "After the Ball," with the terror and anguish of the hunted hart stem in part from subconscious uneasiness about this incident?
8 He read his translation to the Fjölnir Society on 4 March 1843. Heine's poem had first been published in 1831.