A LEGEND OF NORTHLAND, Summary, Literary Devices, Question Answers

The Poem-

A legend of 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.

                                                                         Phoebe Cary

About the poetPhoebe Cary

Phoebe Cary(1824-1871) was an American poet. She along with her sister Alice Cary published their poems jointly in 1850 – ‘Poems of Alice and Phoebe Carey. Later she individually published her work in ‘Poems and Parodies’ and ‘Poems of Faith, Hope and Love’.

Synopsis – A legend of Northland

The poem originates in the northern part of the Northern hemisphere near the poles, where the days are short and the nights are so long that people have to get up in the darkness for work.

The people in Northland use reindeer to pull their sledges during the snowy winters and children look like bear–cubs in their fur clothes.

The poet says that in the Northland there is a legend that goes around which, according to the poet, might not be a true story. However, he thinks that the story might teach the readers some lesson- so he narrates it to his readers in the form of a ballad.

He says that the story belongs to the time when Saint Peter, who was an apostle of Jesus, was alive and went around the world preaching the teachings of Lord Jesus.

One day while teaching in Northland, he came to a cottage where a little woman was busy making cakes in the fireplace.

St. Peter had been fasting throughout the day and felt hungry and weak at the end of the day, therefore he requested the little woman to give him a single piece of cake from her store of cakes.

The miserly woman thought that the cakes that she had were too big to be given away for free, so she baked a very small cake. But after baking was done, the cake began to look too big to be given away.

She therefore, made a smaller cake for St. Peter but it looked as big as the first cake when she turned it over. Her greed created an illusion in her mind and made it look too big to be given away in charity.

The woman then took a very small amount of dough to make an even smaller cake and rolled it till it was as thin as a wafer. However, the selfish woman could not give it away when it was baked.

She wondered why those very same cakes that seemed too small when she ate them appeared too big to be given to others. Her selfishness knew no limits and she decided to let Saint Peter suffer in hunger and hoarded even the thinnest of cakes on the shelf.

Though Saint Peter was kind-hearted, but the extreme heartlessness of the little woman incited his anger. Despite St. Peter’s fatigue and starvation, the pitiless woman could not give him even a scrap of food although she had stored plenty of them.

Saint Peter remarked that the woman did not deserve to live in a human form and enjoy food, shelter and fire as she lacked humane qualities of kindness, empathy and charity.

He cursed her by telling, that the woman would be turned into a bird and would have to bore into the hard, dry wood for her meagre food.

In an instant, the woman went through the chimney without a word, and flew out of it in the form of a woodpecker.

All her clothes were burnt coal-black in the chimney fire, except for her scarlet red scarf which was spared from burning. She is now a woodpecker with a black feathers and a patch of red on her head.

She is often seen by country schoolboys, flying in the woods, where she still stays and bores throughout the day for her scanty food.

Word- meanings in in A legend of Northland

Legend – old traditional story

Saint Peter – an apostle of Christ (disciple)

Sledge – vehicle pulled by draught animals in snow

swift – fast

curious – strange

preaching – (here) religious teachings

hearth – fire-place for cooking

kneaded – turning flour into dough

provoke: incite anger or make angry

dwell – live

scanty – very little

boring – (here) drilling hole

scarlet – bright red

country – countryside, rural areas

Literary Devices in ‘A legend of Northland

Assonance – (repetition of vowel sound)

Stanza 1 – ‘Away, away’

Alliteration- (repetition of consonant sound)

The poet has used alliteration throughout the poem

Stanza 1- ‘that – they’, ‘them- through’

Stanza 2- ‘they-the’, ‘look-like’, ‘funny-furry’

Stanza 3- ‘they- them’, ‘yet-you’, ‘learn-lesson’, ‘tell-tale’

Stanza 5- ‘woman-was’, ‘them-the’

Stanza 6- ‘faint-fasting’

Stanza 8- ‘still-smaller’

Stanza 9- ‘took-tiny’

Stanza 10- ‘seem-small’

Stanza 13- ‘build-birds’, ‘by-boring-boring-boring’, ‘day-dry’

Stanza 15- ‘her-head’

Stanza 16- ‘trees-till-this’

Repetition– (repeating words for emphasis)

Stanza 1 – ‘Away-away’

Stanza 9- ‘rolled and rolled’

Stanza 13- ‘boring, and boring, and boring’

Stanza 16- ‘boring and boring’

Simile – (Comparing things using ‘like’ or ‘as’)

Stanza 2 – ‘Children look like bear’s cubs’

Stanza 9- ‘baked it as thin as wafer’

Stanza 15 –‘clothes were burnt as black as coal’

Irony – (Expressing something that is opposite to the actual thing)

Stanza 10- “My cakes that seem so small when I eat them myself are yet too large to give away.”

Thinking about the Poem – Questions and answers of A legend of Northland

I. 1. Which country or countries do you think “the Northland” refers to?

Ans. ‘The Northland’ possibly refers to a country in the polar region of the northern hemisphere.

2. What did Saint Peter ask the old lady for? What was the lady’s reaction?

Ans.  Being tired after preaching through the day, Saint Peter asked the old lady to give him a single cake.

 The lady was reluctant to give him the cake and decided to bake him a smaller cake. Every time she backed one it seemed too big to be given away, so she baked a smaller one yet.

3. How did he punish her?

Ans. St. Peter decided that the old woman was too selfish to live a life of a human being and enjoy food, shelter, fire and comfort.  Therefore he decided to punish her by turning her into a woodpecker which would have to work hard for food by boring and boring into the dry and hard wood. 

4. How does the woodpecker get her food?

Ans. The woodpecker gets its food by boring all day long into the hard dry wood.

5. 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.  In my opinion, if the old lady had known about St. Peter’s true identity as an apostle of Christ, she would have been more generous.

She would possibly have given him the biggest cake as she would have wanted to receive his blessings for fulfilling her greed.

6. Is this a true story? Which part of this poem do you feel is the most important?

Ans. No, it is not a true story but a legend that has been passed through generations as a moral story. The intention of the story is to teach people to be generous human beings.

According to me, the most important part of the story is where the little lady gets turned into a woodpecker for her selfishness. She no longer possesses the comforts of food, shelter and fire.  As a woodpecker, she has to bore continuously into the hard, dry wood even for the tiniest scrap of food.

7. What is a legend? Why is this poem called a legend?

Ans.  A legend is an old traditional story that is popularly regarded as historical but lacks authenticity.

This poem has been called a legend because it has been passed on from one generation to the other for teaching generosity and charity as its moral. It has supernatural elements like a woman being turned into a woodpecker for being selfish and lacking compassion. The origin of the story cannot be authenticated.

8. Write the story of ‘A Legend of the Northland’ in about ten sentences.

Ans.  A long time ago, when St. Peter was alive. He went to Northland for preaching and after a day’s fasting reached a cottage where a little woman was baking a cake. He was faint with hunger and therefore asked the woman to give him a piece of cake. The selfish woman did not give any cake from her store of cakes as she thought they were too big to be given away. She decided to bake a small cake for the visitor and baked smaller and smaller cakes till it was thin as wafer. She was too selfish to part with even the wafer like cake which provoked the anger of St. Peter, whose curse turned her into a woodpecker for her lack of charity. He said that humans should be grateful for the food, shelter and fire that they enjoy and should have compassion for fellow beings. The selfish woman now turned into a woodpecker has to bore holes in the hard, dry wood for even a little bit of food.  She can be seen among the trees boring and boring for food all day long.

II. 1. Let’s look at the words at the end of the second and fourth lines, viz., ‘snows’

and ‘clothes’, ‘true’ and ‘you’, ‘below’ and ‘know.’ We find that ‘snows’ rhymes

with ‘clothes’, ‘true’ rhymes with ‘you’ and ‘below’ rhymes with ‘know’.

Find more such rhyming words – in A legend of Northland

‘earth’ and ‘hearth’

‘done’ and ‘one’

‘lay’ and ‘away’

‘flat’ and ‘that’

‘myself’ and ‘self’

‘faint’ and ‘saint’

‘form’ and ‘warm’

‘food’ and ‘wood’

‘word’ and ‘bird’

Q. What form of poetry is used in ‘A Legend of Northland’?

Ans.  ‘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.

Q. What is the rhyme scheme of the poem?

Ans. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ‘abcb’. The second line rhymes with the fourth line.