A Legend of the Northland
By Phoebe Cary
About the Poet
Image Reference: mypoeticside.com
Phoebe Cary and her sister Alice Cary were 19th century American poets who grew up writing together, Alice being the older by four years. They initially published their poetry jointly in 1849, and then each went on to publish volumes of her own. After their deaths in 1871, joint anthologies of the sisters’ unpublished poems were also compiled.
Born: 4 September 1824, Mount Healthy, Ohio, United States
Died: 31 July 1871, Newport, Rhode Island, United States
Text Reference: Wikipedia
A Legend of the Northland
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:
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Legend: old traditional story
Saint Peter: an apostle of Christ
Provoke: make angry
The poem ‘A Legend of the Northland’ is a ballad. A ballad is a song narrating a story in short stanzas. Ballads are a part of folk culture or popular culture and are passed on orally from one generation to the next.
The Northland is a very cold region covered with snow. Here hours of the day are few and nights are so long in winter that people are unable to spend the whole night sleeping. When it snows, people harness their reindeer to pull their sledges. Because of extreme cold children look like bear’s cubs in furry clothes. The poet tells a story though he doesn’t believe it true but it conveys a good message. Once Saint Peter was on his usual round of travelling and preaching people, he felt hungry. He chanced upon an old cottage where a little woman was making cakes. Saint Peter went near the woman and asked for some cakes to eat. The little woman started to bake a small cake for Saint Peter. After the cake was done she found it too big to be given for free. So she decided to bake an even smaller cake. This went on and on till she made a paper thin wafer for Saint Peter. She even kept that wafer instead of giving it to Saint Peter because she was too greedy to part with a single morsel of food. On observing her greed Saint Peter became very angry at her. He said that she was too selfish to dwell in human form. He cursed her to become a bird and live searching for scant food in the jungle, by boring all day in the dry and hard wood. After Saint Peter’s curse the little woman went up through the chimney and got changed to a woodpecker. After that people have been seeing her in the wood where she lives by boring and boring the dry wood in search of food. This poem conveys a message that we should not be selfish and always help the people in need.
Short and Long Answer Type Questions
Q. Which country or countries do you think “the Northland” refers to?
Ans. “The Northland” refers here to the extremely cold country/countries of the Earth’s North Polar Region, such as Greenland, the northern regions of Russia, Canada, Norway etc.
Q. What did Saint Peter ask the old lady for? What was the lady’s reaction?
Ans. Saint Peter was hungry and asked the old lady for some cakes to eat. The lady tried to bake a small cake for the saint.
Q. How did he punish her?
Ans. He cursed the lady by changing her into a woodpecker and live searching for scant food in the jungle, by boring all day in the dry and hard wood.
Q. How does the woodpecker get her food?
Ans. The woodpecker gets her food by boring all day in the dry and hard wood.
Q. Do you think that the old lady would have been so ungenerous if she had known who Saint Peter really was? What would she have done then?
Ans. No, she would have tried to please him with her cakes for the fulfilment of her greedy desires.
Q. Is this a true story? Which part of this poem do you feel is the most important?
Ans. No, this not a true story; it is a legend.
I feel that the point in the story where the old lady is changed into a woodpecker is the most important. This is because the punishment meted out to the lady teaches us the value of generosity and charity.
Q. What is a legend? Why is this poem called a legend?
Ans. A ‘legend’ is a popular story from the past which is believed by many but one cannot prove whether it is true or not. It usually contains a message or a moral and is narrated to children. The poet himself says that she doesn’t believe this tale to be true. This poem is called a ‘legend’ because it preaches generosity towards fellow beings.
Q. Write the story of ‘A Legend of the Northland’ in about ten sentences.
Ans. Once Saint Peter stopped by an old lady’s cottage because he was feeling hungry and weak after the day’s fasting. The lady was baking cakes on the hearth. Since he was weak with fasting, he asked her for a cake from her store of cakes. The selfish lady tried to bake small cakes but each time they seemed too big for her to give away. Finally, she baked one that was as thin as a wafer. Unable to part with it too, she put it on a shelf and did not give any cake to the Saint. Saint Peter was very angry with her behaviour and said she was too selfish to live as a human and have food, shelter and a fire to keep her warm. He punished her by changing her into a woodpecker that would have to build a nest to live in, bore for food in the trunks of trees. Her clothes were burned and she was left with her scarlet cap on her head as she flew out through the chimney. Even today she still lives in the woods and is seen by all the country school boys.