‘A Legend of the Northland’ by Phoebe Cary presents a story of an old lady who turned into a woodpecker for her greed. The legend of the old lady was popular in the Northland comprising the extreme northern regions of the earth. The poet presents this story in this poem for imparting a moral lesson to the readers. However, the poetic persona of the poem rationally says she is doubtful about the truthfulness of the tale. But, she takes recourse to this story for highlighting the values of sharing and sacrifice.
Explore A Legend of the Northland
‘A Legend of the Northland’ by Phoebe Cary first of all describes the Northland and the people living there. Thereafter, the poet introduces the folk story that is popular in that region. In the tale, there are two characters. One is an old lady and another is Saint Peter. Once, St. Peter visited Northland to preach. As he walked a long distance he was hungry and tired. He came to seek some food from the old lady. She, being selfish, tried to bake a small cake for the guest. Each time she baked, the cake turned out to be bigger. She became confused about what was happening to her. So, she refused to offer a cake to the saint. It made the pious Peter angry and he cursed the lady for her selfishness. Consequently, she turned into a woodpecker and flew away from the cottage.
‘A Legend of the Northland’ by Phoebe Cary is a ballad consisting of sixteen ballad stanzas and each stanza contains four lines in it. In ballad stanzas alternate lines rhyme. Likewise, in each stanza of this poem only the second and third lines rhyme. Hence, the rhyme scheme of the poem is ABCB and it goes on like this. There are three or four stressed syllables in each line of the poem. However, the poet uses mixed anapestic and iambic meter lines. Moreover, there are some spondees in the poem. As an example, “Northland” contains a spondee. Here, both of the syllables are stressed. Apart from that, the poet directly converses with the readers in this poem. This feature makes it an example of the dramatic monologue.
‘A Legend of the Northland’ by Phoebe Cary contains several literary devices. Likewise, the poet begins with assonance and palilogy in “Away, away”. In “swift reindeer” the poet uses a personal metaphor. Moreover, “the children look like bear’s cubs” contains a simile. There is an alliteration in “funny, furry clothes”. It also presents a metaphor. However, there are some more instances where the poet uses repetition of consonant and vowel sounds. Moreover, there is irony in the lines, “My cakes that seem too small/ When I eat of them myself/ Are yet too large to give away.” The poet also uses sarcasm in these lines, “And surely such a woman/ Was enough to provoke a saint.”
However, the repetition of the word, “boring” is meant for referring to a continuing activity. Apart from that, the “boring” present in the last line appears to be a pun. It seems the lady who was turned into a woodpecker became bored in search of food.
‘A Legend of the Northland’ by Phoebe Cary contains themes such as selfishness, greed, sinfulness, sacrifice, and sharing. Firstly, through the character of the old lady, the poet presents the themes of selfishness and greed. She was so greedy that she refused to give a single piece of cake from her store even after seeing the saint’s condition. Moreover, the theme of sinfulness gets reflected through the perception of the lady. The cakes weren’t becoming bigger each time. It was she who felt that the cakes were bigger. Moreover, through this poem, the poet highlights the importance of sacrifice and sharing. Her story might be a fairy tale but the essence is true. If one doesn’t share what she has in excess, it makes her soul burdened. The woodpecker is just a symbol to depict the suffering of the soul.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
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;
‘A Legend of the Northland’ by Phoebe Cary describes how the Northland looked like. It was far away from where normally people lived. Here, the daytime was short in comparison to wintry nights. The nights of Northland were so chilling that it was hard for the people to sleep at night. From the description, it is clear that the poet is referring to Norway and the regions similar to that of the northern hemisphere. Apart from that, the repetition of “away” twice at the beginning refers to the distance of the place.
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:
Thereafter, in ‘A Legend of the Northland’, Phoebe Cary describes the inhabitants of the place. They harnessed the reindeer to their sledges when it snowed. These sledges are the same that the Eskimos use. The children of Northland wore the clothes made of fur. Wearing those clothes they appeared as bear cubs. Such images used in this section gives a cold and chilling sensation to the readers.
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.
In the third stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, the poet refers to the main subject matter of the poem. There is a curious story popular in Northland. The poet isn’t sure about the truthfulness of the story. Yet, she wants to reiterate the story for the moral lesson in it. Excluding the fictional elements, the morale of the story is important. Thereafter, in the following sections, the poet presents the story to the readers.
Once, when the good Saint Peter
Lived in the world below,
And walked about it, preaching,
Just as he did, you know,
The fourth stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, begins playfully. The poet doesn’t give any extra attention to Saint Peter, one of the apostles of Jesus Christ. Being a children’s poem, she keeps the mood of the poem playful and conversational. However, the poet says, Saint Peter lives “in the world below” and walked about preaching the importance of Christianity to others. The poet metaphorically refers to Northland as if it was in the upper story of the world. And St. Peter preached in the regions beneath Northland.
He came to the door of a cottage,
In traveling round the earth,
Where a little woman was making cakes,
And baking them on the hearth;
The fifth stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’ introduces the old lady. St. Peter after traveling around the world came to Northland. He came to the cottage-door of the lady. At that time, the old lady was making cakes and baking them on the hearth. However, “hearth” is the floor of a fireplace. In the old days, cakes were baked in 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.
The sixth stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, describes the condition of St. Peter. As he walked for a long time, he was hungry. His body was so weak that he couldn’t stand. He was about to faint. He asked the lady to give him a single piece of cake from her “store of cakes”. Here, the “store of cakes” is a symbol of worldly possessions.
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.
This stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’ by Phoebe Cary, highlights the selfishness of the lady. She had already a “store of cakes” still she went to cook “a very little cake” for St. Peter. It reflects how materialistic she was. Moreover, the lady laid the dough for baking. As it was about to be fully cooked, she looked at it. The lady thought that the cake was too large to give away. The cake wasn’t big. It was her mind that made the cake appear bigger to her worldly eyes.
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 eighth stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’ presents the lady’s attempt to make a smaller cake. Having confused, the lady kneaded another smaller dough. This time the cake also seemed as large as the first one. It was all about her perception. Moreover, here the poet illustrates the effect of greed and selfishness in a person’s mind. It makes one’s vision smaller that’s why the person sees everything bigger than its actual size. Consequently, it makes the person unhappy and agitated with the illusion.
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.
In this stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, the lady tried to make another cake for the third time. She took a tiny scrap of dough just like her heart. Moreover, the lady rolled it so flat that it became as thin as a wafer. But, at the and, she couldn’t part with that too. The trial and error of the lady to make a cake that would best suit for sharing didn’t exist in reality at all. All she did and thought were the creation of her selfish mind.
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.
In this stanza, of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, the comment of the lady presents how greed made her blind to reality. She said her cakes seemed smaller when she baked them for herself. In contrast, at the time of giving away the cakes appeared too larger to give away. After uttering this, she put them on the shelf forgetting about St. Peter who was very hungry and demanded only a piece of her cakes. Moreover, this section reflects how a greedy mind distorts reality and creates a paradoxical understanding of everything. However, this section also presents the essence of materialism.
Then good Saint Peter grew angry,
For he was hungry and faint;
And surely such a woman
Was enough to provoke a saint.
The eleventh stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’ comes back to St. Peter after the long cake-baking episodes. The poet says the behavior of the lady made good Saint Peter angry as he was hungry and about to faint. Moreover, the poet ironically says such a woman or any person having the same mentality provoke a saint. The last two lines of this section are sarcastic too.
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.
Thereafter, in ‘A Legend of the Northland’, St. Peter became angry. He told the lady that she was too selfish to dwell in human form. She lacked the essential qualities that make a human humane. She had food, shelter, and fire to keep her warm. The lady had all the three elements namely food, shelter, and warmth that God gives his children freely. Still, she was hesitant to give him a few of her cakes.
“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.”
In the thirteenth stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, St. Peter cursed the lady. He told her that she should build as the birds do. In the future, she would get a scanty amount of food and had to search for it by boring into trees. She had to bore all day long in dry wood for sustaining herself. As she couldn’t understand the value of the things she had and refused to help a person in need, she should suffer just like that to know the value of sharing.
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.
In this section of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, the old lady turned into a bird. She went through the chimney and never spoke a word. When she came out of the top of her cottage, she was changed into a woodpecker. The following stanza describes her appearance. However, the description in the previous stanza already made it clear that she was going to turn into a woodpecker for the Saint’s curse.
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.
In this stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, the poet describes that the lady, who turned into a woodpecker, had a scarlet cap on her head. It was left the same. But her clothes got burned as she entered into the chimney. The flame made her body black as coal. The reference to the “flame” is a symbolic reference to the flame of greed that she nurtured in her heart. In the end, it burnt her pride and she was all black except for the scarlet cap.
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.
In the last stanza of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, the poet addresses the readers. She says that every country schoolboy has the lady in the form of a woodpecker. She still lives in the trees to this very day. In searching for food, she keeps boring through the rough bark of trees. On this note, the poet ends this poem. Moreover, this section acts as a moral warning to readers. If one chooses the path of the lady, she won’t turn into a woodpecker for sure. But, she can’t ever be happy. And, being in a constant chain of suffering is no less than the suffering of the woodpecker-lady.
About Phoebe Cary
The poet of ‘A Legend of the Northland’, Phoebe Cary was an American poet. She was born on 4th September 1824. She was the younger sister of Alice Cary. Both of them co-published “Poems of Alice and Phoebe Cary” in 1849. Thereafter they went to publish their poetry. Phoebe Cary was brought up in a Universalist household and also attended the Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist services. The poem ‘A Legend of the Northland’ belongs to their poetry collection, “Ballads for Little Folk by Alice and Phoebe Cary” (1873), compiled and edited by Mary Clemmer Ames. However, Phoebe Cary died on July 31, 1871, in Newport, Rhode Island. Both of the sisters were buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.
Like ‘A Legend of the Northland’ by Phoebe Cary, here is a list of a few poems that similarly talks about the themes of selfishness and greed.
- The World is Too Much With Us by William Wordsworth – Reveals the vices of the world and causes one to search for more in nature.
- The Telephone Call by Fleur Adcock – Here, Fleur Adcock presents the theme of greed.
- The Vanity Of Wealth by Samuel Johnson – Addresses what is important in one’s life other than wealth.
- The Sunshine Cat by Kamala Das – Describes the consequences of lust.
You can read about 10 of the Best Family-Friendly Poems here.