A Legend of Northland: Stanza Wise Explanation & Analysis

A Legend of Northland: Stanza Wise Explanation & Analysis, Summary, Meanings: “A Legend of the Northland” by Phoebe Carry 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. “A Legend of Northland” is a well-written and thought-provoking poem that teaches us an important lesson about the importance of giving and sharing. Class 9 students click here for more poems.


In the poem “A Legend of the Northland” by Phoebe Cary, the story revolves around a woman in the Northland who is visited by Saint Peter. Hungry and seeking food, Saint Peter asks the woman for a cake. She hesitates and tries to make small cakes, but they all appear too large to give away. Frustrated by her selfishness, Saint Peter punishes her by turning her into a woodpecker. In her bird form, she retains a scarlet cap, but the rest of her clothes are blackened. The transformed woman continues to live in the trees, boring for food as a woodpecker.

  • The poem begins by describing a faraway land in the North, where the days are short and the nights in winter are exceptionally long.
  • In this land, people use reindeer to pull sledges during snowy weather, and the children wear warm, furry clothes resembling bear cubs.
  • The speaker introduces the tale of Saint Peter, a saintly figure, who one day approached a cottage where a woman was baking cakes.
  • Hungry and tired, Saint Peter asked the woman for a cake. She hesitated, feeling that even her smallest cakes were too large to give away.
  • She attempted to make smaller cakes, but they all appeared too large to her. Even the tiniest scrap of dough seemed too precious to part with.
  • Saint Peter grew frustrated with the woman’s selfishness. He decided to punish her by transforming her into a woodpecker, a bird that must work hard for food.
  • The woman transformed into a woodpecker, retaining only her scarlet cap while the rest of her attire turned black from the flames.
  • The poem ends by noting that this transformed woman, now a woodpecker, can still be seen by schoolboys in the woods, where she bores into trees for food.

The poem serves as a cautionary tale about selfishness and the consequences of not sharing with those in need. The woman’s greed leads to her transformation, teaching a lesson about generosity and empathy.

Stanza Wise Explanation

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;


  • Northland: The northern regions, especially associated with colder climates.
  • Few: Not many, a small number.


Literal Explanation: The poem opens by describing a distant Northland where daylight hours are limited, and the nights in winter are exceptionally long, making it difficult for people to sleep.

Literary Explanation: This stanza sets the geographical and temporal context of the poem, creating a remote, mysterious atmosphere that captures the reader’s imagination. The Northland becomes a metaphorical space where unusual events and moral lessons unfold.

Stanza 2:

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:


  • Harness: the arrangement of straps and fittings used to attach the reindeer to the sledges. (here it means pulling the sledges in snowy conditions.)
  • Reindeer: A species of deer found in cold regions, often domesticated in the North for pulling sledges.
  • Sledges: Vehicles with runners for transportation, especially over snow, pulled by animals like reindeer.
  • Cubs: Young animals, in this context, referring to bear cubs, emphasizing the warmth of their clothing.


Literal Explanation: In the Northland, people use swift reindeer to pull sledges when it snows. The children, dressed in warm, furry clothes, resemble bear cubs.

Literary Explanation: This stanza paints a vivid picture of the Northland’s wintry setting and the unique way of life there. The imagery of children resembling bear cubs adds to the charm, creating a visual contrast with the cold surroundings and emphasizing the innocence of the characters involved.

Stanza 3:

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.


  • Curious: Strange or unusual, inspiring interest or wonder.
  • Lesson: A piece of information useful for learning or understanding something.


Literal Explanation: In this land, there is a peculiar story that the speaker doubts but believes holds a valuable lesson. The speaker hints at sharing this story.

Literary Explanation: The stanza introduces the central theme of the poem – the curious story. The speaker acknowledges doubt but implies that the narrative carries a moral lesson, piquing the reader’s curiosity and setting the stage for the tale’s unfolding.

Stanza 4:

Once, when the good Saint Peter
Lived in the world below,
And walked about it, preaching,
Just as he did, you know,


  • Saint Peter: In Christian tradition, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and a prominent figure in early Christianity.
  • Preaching: Delivering a sermon or religious speech to an audience.


Literal Explanation: The story shifts to a time when Saint Peter, a religious figure, lived on Earth and preached to people.

Literary Explanation: The introduction of Saint Peter, a revered figure in Christianity, brings a religious and moral dimension to the narrative. His presence adds authority to the story, indicating that it might convey profound lessons about human behaviour and virtue.

Stanza 5:

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;


  • Cottage: A small, simple house, typically located in a rural or semi-rural area.
  • Hearth: The floor of a fireplace, usually a symbol of home and warmth.


Literal Explanation: Saint Peter visits a cottage where a woman is baking cakes. Hungry and tired, he requests a cake from her.

Literary Explanation: This stanza marks the beginning of the encounter between Saint Peter and the woman. His hunger emphasizes his humanity, making him relatable. The act of baking creates a domestic, cozy setting, contrasting with the impending moral dilemma.

Stanza 6:

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.


  • Faint: Feeling weak and tired
  • Fasting: Abstaining from food, often for religious purposes or as a form of discipline.


Literal Explanation: The woman, hesitant to part with her food, bakes a cake but finds it too large to give away.

Literary Explanation: This stanza introduces the conflict: the woman’s hesitation to share what she has. The oversized cake symbolizes her reluctance to be generous, laying the foundation for the moral lesson about selfishness and greed.

Stanza 7:

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.


Kneaded: Worked and pressed with hands, as in dough for making bread.


Literal Explanation: Attempting to make a smaller cake, she fails; it appears as large as the first one.

Literary Explanation: The woman’s attempts to make a smaller cake reflect her internal struggle. Despite her efforts, her greed and attachment to her possessions prevent her from making a genuinely selfless gesture. This reinforces the theme of selfishness.

Stanza 8:

Therefore she kneaded another,
And still a smaller one;
But it looked, when she turned it over,
As large as the first had done.


Wafer: A thin, crisp cake or biscuit, often unleavened.


Literal Explanation: Continuing her efforts, she makes an even smaller cake, but it still seems too substantial to give away.

Literary Explanation: The woman’s persistent attempts highlight the irrationality of her greed. The stanza emphasizes the futility of her actions, underscoring the moral lesson about the consequences of selfishness and the inability to find fulfilment in hoarding.

Stanza 9:

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.


  • Selfish: Concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself; seeking one’s own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others.
  • Part with: To give to or share with others the things that you would generally no like to do so


Literal Explanation: She tries to make a wafer-thin cake but cannot bring herself to part with it.

Literary Explanation: The woman’s final attempt illustrates her extreme selfishness. The wafer-thin cake symbolizes the minuscule generosity she is willing to show, but even this small act of giving is beyond her capacity. This intensifies the moral dilemma and sets the stage for the resolution.

Stanza 10:

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.


Shelf: A flat, usually horizontal support, typically a long, narrow board for holding objects.


Literal Explanation: Unable to share any of the cakes, the woman decides to keep them all for herself, placing them on a shelf.

Literary Explanation: This stanza marks the climax of the story, depicting the woman’s ultimate choice: her greed over compassion. Placing the cakes on the shelf symbolizes her detachment from the idea of sharing, solidifying her fate as a result of her selfishness.

Stanza 11:

Then good Saint Peter grew angry,
For he was hungry and faint;
And surely such a woman
Was enough to provoke a saint.


  • Angry: Feeling or showing strong displeasure or hostility.
  • Provoke: Stimulate or give rise to (a reaction or emotion, typically a strong or unwelcome one).


Literal Explanation: Saint Peter becomes angry due to the woman’s selfishness, deeming her behavior unacceptable for a human being.

Literary Explanation: Saint Peter’s anger represents divine judgment and moral accountability. His reaction signifies the gravity of the woman’s actions, emphasizing the severity of her selfishness in the eyes of a moral authority.

Stanza 12:

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.


  • Dwell: To live or remain or keep staying in
  • Human form: The physical appearance of a human being.
  • Shelter: A place giving temporary protection from bad weather or danger.


Literal Explanation: Saint Peter decides to punish the woman by transforming her into a woodpecker. He decrees that she must find her food by boring into trees.

Literary Explanation: The transformation serves as a classic moral punishment in folklore, symbolizing the consequences of greed. Being turned into a woodpecker, a bird that must work tirelessly for sustenance, reinforces the moral lesson about the value of hard work, humility, and the inevitable repercussions of selfishness.

Stanza 13:

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.”


  • Scanty: Insufficient in quantity; barely enough.
  • Boring: Making a hole by drilling, cutting, or grinding.


Literal Explanation: The woman ascends the chimney, turning into a woodpecker. Out of the chimney flies the woodpecker, signifying her transformation.

Literary Explanation: This stanza depicts the supernatural transformation taking place, marking the woman’s transition from human to bird. The imagery of the woodpecker emerging from the chimney emphasizes the magical and transformative nature of the punishment, underscoring the folkloric aspect of the tale.

Stanza 14:

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.


  • Chimney: A vertical pipe in a building through which smoke and gases go into the atmosphere.
  • Woodpecker: A bird (कठफोड़वा) known for its habit of pecking and boring into tree trunks in search of insects.


Literal Explanation: The woodpecker retains a scarlet cap, but the rest of her clothes are burned black as a coal in the flame.

Literary Explanation: This stanza describes the physical transformation of the woman into a woodpecker. The retention of the scarlet cap adds a touch of familiarity, highlighting her former identity, while the charred clothes symbolize the irreversible nature of her punishment. The vivid imagery intensifies the reader’s emotional response.

Stanza 15:

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.


  • Scarlet: A bright red colour.
  • Coal: A black or brownish-black sedimentary rock primarily composed of carbon, often burned as fuel.
  • Flame: The visible, gaseous part of a fire.


Literal Explanation: As a bird, she retains a scarlet cap, but the rest of her attire is charred black.

Literary Explanation: This stanza portrays the woodpecker’s new life, emphasizing the bird’s struggle for survival. Boring into trees for food becomes a metaphor for the woman’s perpetual efforts to sustain herself, teaching her the value of hard work and persistence.

Stanza 16:

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.


Country schoolboy: A school going boy in rural or remote areas


Literal Explanation: The poem concludes by stating that the woodpecker, once a selfish woman, is now a common sight, even for a school boy, in the woods, pecking for food.

Literary Explanation: The poem concludes on a note of permanence, suggesting that the transformed woman continues her existence as a woodpecker, serving as a cautionary tale for others. The reference to schoolchildren seeing her in the woods underscores the enduring nature of folklore, emphasizing the timeless moral lesson passed down through generations.

Literary Analysis of The Poem

  1. Symbolism of Saint Peter: Saint Peter in this story represents a moral authority figure. His hunger and subsequent anger highlight human traits, making the tale relatable. His punishment signifies divine justice and moral lessons.
  2. The Woman’s Greed: The woman’s reluctance to share symbolizes human greed and selfishness. This theme explores the consequences of hoarding and selfishness.
  3. Transformation and Punishment: The transformation from a human to a bird is a common motif in folklore, symbolizing transformation, often as a punishment. This transformation is a literary device to convey the consequences of the woman’s actions.
  4. Lesson on Generosity: The poem teaches a lesson about generosity. The woman’s inability to share contrasts with the selflessness often associated with kindness and charity.
  5. Nature as a Teacher: Nature is used as a medium to teach the woman a lesson. The woodpecker’s need to bore into trees for food highlights the struggle for survival, teaching the woman the value of hard work and humility.
  6. Visual Imagery: The poem uses vivid imagery, painting a picture of the Northland, the woman baking, and the woodpecker in the reader’s mind. This visual imagery enhances the emotional impact of the story.
  7. Irony and Morality: The irony lies in the woman’s cakes being too large to share but small for her own consumption. This irony emphasizes the moral lesson of the story, highlighting the irrationality of greed.
  8. Cyclical Nature of Folklore: The tale’s longevity, being known to schoolchildren, shows the cyclical nature of folklore. Stories with moral lessons are passed down through generations, reinforcing cultural values.

In summary, “A Legend of the Northland” utilizes vivid imagery, symbolism, and a moral lesson to convey a timeless story about selfishness, generosity, and the consequences of one’s actions. The tale’s enduring quality lies in its ability to resonate with readers, imparting a valuable lesson about the importance of kindness and sharing.

Theme and Message of “A Legend of the Northland”


The theme of “A Legend of the Northland” revolves around selfishness, generosity, and transformation. It illustrates the consequences of selfishness and the importance of generosity and empathy in human behaviour. The narrative uses the transformation of the selfish woman into a woodpecker as a metaphorical lesson, emphasizing the idea that selfishness can lead to one’s downfall.


The poem conveys a powerful message about the significance of generosity and selflessness. The woman in the story is initially unwilling to share even the smallest amount of her food, demonstrating extreme selfishness. This selfishness leads to her transformation into a woodpecker, a bird that must work hard every day for its sustenance.

The message here is twofold:

  1. The Consequences of Selfishness: The poem illustrates the consequences of the woman’s selfishness. By refusing to share, she loses her human form and is condemned to a life of labour as a bird. This highlights the idea that selfishness can lead to one’s isolation and hardship.
  2. The Virtue of Generosity: On the other hand, the poem also implies the virtue of generosity. If the woman had shared her food willingly, she might have been spared this fate. It encourages readers to be generous, kind, and empathetic towards others, emphasizing the importance of sharing what we have with those in need.

The transformation of the woman into a woodpecker serves as a moral lesson, teaching readers about the consequences of selfish actions and the rewards of generosity. Through this story, the poem encourages readers to reflect on their own behaviour and consider the impact of their actions on others, promoting empathy and kindness as essential virtues in human interactions.

Key Points of “A Legend of Northland”

  • The poet sets the scene of a distant, cold land, emphasizing the extreme weather conditions and the unique attire of the inhabitants. This creates an otherworldly atmosphere, preparing the reader for a magical or folkloric tale.
  • The introduction of Saint Peter adds a religious and moral dimension to the poem. He represents virtue and goodness, contrasting with the woman’s actions.
  • The woman’s reluctance to share even a small cake illustrates her extreme selfishness. This behaviour serves as the central conflict of the story, highlighting the theme of generosity.
  • Saint Peter’s decision to transform the woman into a woodpecker is a divine punishment, reflecting themes of justice and retribution. This action emphasizes the consequences of selfishness.
  • The transformation symbolizes a drastic change and loss of humanity. The scarlet cap is a reminder of her past identity, while the blackened clothes represent the consequences of her selfish actions.
  • The ending reveals the woman’s perpetual punishment, forever condemned to a life of labour (boring for food) as a woodpecker. This conclusion serves as a moral lesson about the importance of generosity and selflessness.

In summary, the poem uses vivid imagery and a moral tale to convey the importance of generosity while depicting the consequences of selfishness through the transformation of the protagonist. The blend of folkloric elements and moral themes creates a compelling narrative.

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