Introduction

A Legend of the Northland is a long poem in which the poet tells how greed can lead us to disaster. In this poem, the poet talks about a story which he believes is fictional yet moral.

In this poem, a woman denies food to a saint because of her greed and is cursed by the later. She is converted into a woodpecker and keeps struggling for food for rest of her life.

Poem

Stanza 1

Away, away in the Northland,
Where the hours of the day are few,
And the nights are so long in winter
That they cannot sleep them through;
Where they harness the swift reindeer
To the sledges, when it snows;
And the children look like bear’s cubs
In their funny, furry clothes:

The first stanza is an incomplete sentence. It continues to the second stanza for complete sense.

The poet says that far away in Northland where the days are short and the nights are so long during the winter that people can’t sleep for long, where the people harness (tie) swift reindeer (a deer) to the sledges during the snowfall (for travelling) and where the children look like bear’s cubs in their funny and furry clothes (as it is chilly cold there).

The stanza ends here. However the sentence continues to the next stanza.

Stanza 2

They tell them a curious story —
I don’t believe ’tis true;
And yet you may learn a lesson
If I tell the tale to you.
Once, when the good Saint Peter
Lived in the world below,
And walked about it, preaching,
Just as he did, you know,

According to the poet, the people of Northland tell him a curious (interesting) story. The poet knows that the story is not real but it does have a moral lesson. This is why he is willing to narrate the story to us.

According to him, long ago, there was a saint named Saint Peter who lived on the earth and wandered here and there preaching his message to the people.

Stanza 3

He came to the door of a cottage,
In travelling round the earth,
Where a little woman was making cakes,
And baking them on the hearth;
And being faint with fasting,
For the day was almost done,
He asked her, from her store of cakes,
To give him a single one.

While travelling on the land, he reached the door of a cottage in which a little woman was making cakes and baking them on the hearth (fireplace). Saint Peter was fainted because of fasting. In addition, he had spend all his day preaching his message.

He asked the woman to give him a cake so that he may be able to feed his empty stomach and regain energy.

Stanza 4

So she made a very little cake,
But as it baking lay,
She looked at it, and thought it seemed
Too large to give away.
Therefore she kneaded another,
And still a smaller one;
But it looked, when she turned it over,
As large as the first had done.

The woman did not like to give a cake from those already made. Instead, she made a small-sized cake for him. However, when she looked at it, she thought that it is too big to give Saint Peter.

Hence, she again started making a new one, smaller in size. But again it looked too big to give away.

Stanza 5

Then she took a tiny scrap of dough,
And rolled and rolled it flat;
And baked it thin as a wafer —
But she couldn’t part with that.
For she said, “My cakes that seem too small
When I eat of them myself
Are yet too large to give away."
So she put them on the shelf.

Finally she took a small amount of dough and started rolling it. It was as thin as a wafer. However, because of her greed, she could not even give this away and told Saint Peter that her cakes look too small when she eats by herself and too large when she gives them away. Saying this she put that small piece of cake on the shelf.

Stanza 6

Then good Saint Peter grew angry,
For he was hungry and faint;
And surely such a woman
Was enough to provoke a saint.
And he said, “You are far too selfish
To dwell in a human form,
To have both food and shelter,
And fire to keep you warm.

Saint Peter grew angry as he was fainted because of fatigue and hunger. This act of that greedy woman was enough to provoke him. He then cursed her saying that she is too selfish and greedy to live as a human on earth and have all the things like food, shelter and fire.

Stanza 7

Now, you shall build as the birds do,
And shall get your scanty food
By boring, and boring, and boring,
All day in the hard, dry wood."
Then up she went through the chimney,
Never speaking a word,
And out of the top flew a woodpecker,
For she was changed to a bird.

Saying this, he added that he she will now build nests as the birds do and get very little food for which she will have to struggle hard every day in the dry forest.

As soon as Saint Peter said this, the woman transformed into a woodpecker and flew away from the chimney without uttering a word.

Stanza 8

She had a scarlet cap on her head,
And that was left the same;
But all the rest of her clothes were burned
Black as a coal in the flame.
And every country schoolboy
Has seen her in the wood,
Where she lives in the trees till this very day,
Boring and boring for food.

Now, she had a scarlet (red coloured) cap on her head and this was what she had. Her clothes got burnt and became black as coal in the fire flames.

According to the poet, every schoolboy of that country saw her in the forest where she is still living on the trees and struggling for food.

Read important questions and answers of this poem.