The reader unfamiliar with sagas will need a little patience with the genealogies that crop out in every chapter. The sagaman has a squirrel-like agility in climbing family trees, and he is well acquainted with their interlocking branches. There are chapters in the Grettis Saga where this vanity runs riot, and makes us suspect that Iceland differed little from a country town of to-day in its love for gossip about the family of neighbors whose names happen to come into the conversation. If the reader will persevere through the early chapters, until Grettir commands exclusive attention, he will come to a drama which has not many peers in literature. The outlaw kills a man in every other chapter, but this record is no vulgar list of brutal fights. Not inhuman nature, but human nature is here shown, human nature struggling with unrelenting fate, making a grand fight, and coming to its end because it must, but without ignominy. How fine a touch it is that refuses to the outlaw's murderer the price set upon Grettir's head, because the getting of it was through a "nithings-deed," the murder of a dying man! William Morris was most felicitous in envoys and dedicating poems, and in the sonnet prefixed to this translation he was particularly happy. The first eight lines describe the hero of the saga—the last six lines the significance of this literary creation:
A life scarce worth the living, a poor fame Scarce worth the winning, in a wretched land, Where fear and pain go upon either hand, As toward the end men fare without an aim Unto the dull grey dark from whence they came: Let them alone, the unshadowed sheer rocks stand Over the twilight graves of that poor band, Who count so little in the great world's game!
Nay, with the dead I deal not; this man lives, And that which carried him through good and ill, Stern against fate while his voice echoed still From rock to rock, now he lies silent, strives With wasting time, and through its long lapse gives Another friend to me, life's void to fill.
In the three volumes of The Earthly Paradise, published by William Morris in 1868-1870, there are three poems which hail from Old Norse originals. They are "The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon," and "The Lovers of Gudrun," in Vol. II, and "The Fostering of Aslaug," in Vol. III. Of these "The Lovers of Gudrun" forms a class by itself; it is a poem to be reckoned with when the dozen greatest poems of the century are listed. The late Laureate may have equalled it in the best of the Idylls of the King, but he never excelled it. Let us look at it in detail.
First, be it said that "The Lovers of Gudrun" overtops all the other poems in The Earthly Paradise. It would be possible to prove that Morris was at his best when he worked with Old Norse material, but that task shall not detain us now. It is enough to note that the "Prologue" to The Earthly Paradise, called "The Wanderers," makes the leader of these wanderers, who turn story-tellers when they reach the city by "the borders of the Grecian sea," a Norseman. Born in Byzantium of a Greek mother, he claimed Norway as his home, and on his father's death returned to his kin. His speech to the Elder of the City reveals a touching loyalty to his father's home and traditions:
But when I reached one dying autumn-tide My uncle's dwelling near the forest-side, And saw the land so scanty and so bare, And all the hard things men contend with there, A little and unworthy land it seemed, And yet the more of Asagard I dreamed, And worthier seemed the ancient faith of praise.
Here is the man, William Morris, in perfect miniature. Modern life and training had given him a speech and aspect quite suave and cultured, but the blood that flowed in his veins was red, and the tincture of iron was in it. In religion, in art, in poetry, in economics, he loved the past better than the present, though he was never unconscious of "our glorious gains." In all departments of thought the scanty, the bare, the hard, the unworthy, drew first his attention and then his love and enthusiastic praise. And so perhaps it is explained that of all the poems in The Earthly Paradise, the one indited first in the scarred and dreadful land where neither wheat nor wine is at home, shall be the finest in this latter-day retelling.
The first seventy years of the thirteenth century were the blossoming time of the historic saga in Iceland, and those writings that record the doings of the families of the land form, with the old songs and the best of the kingly sagas, the flower of Northern literature. These family records never extend over more than one generation, and sometimes they deal with but a few years. They are half-way between romance and history, with the balance oftenest in favor of truth. In this group are found Egils Saga, known at second hand to Warton, the Eyrbyggja Saga, translated by Walter Scott, and the Laxdaela Saga. It is the Laxdaela Saga that gives the story told by Morris in "The Lovers of Gudrun." Among sagas it is famous for its fine portrayal of character.
The saga and the poem tell the story of two neighboring farms, Herdholt and Bathsted, whose sons and daughters work out a dire tragedy. Kiartan and Bodli are the son and foster-son of the first house, and Gudrun is the daughter of the second. These are the principal personages in the drama, though the list of the other dramatis personae is a long one. Not only in the name of its heroine does the story suggest the Nibelungenlied. The machinery of the Norse stories resembles the German story's in many of its parts. In this version of Morris, the main features of the saga are kept, and distracting details are properly subordinated to the principal interest. Through the nineteen divisions of this story the interest moves rapidly, and wonder as to the issue is never lost. As a story-teller, Morris is distinctly powerful in this poem, and all the qualities that endear the story-teller to us are here found joined to many that make the poet a favorite with us. There are no lyrics in the poem—the original saga was without the song-snatches that are often found in sagas—but there are dramatic scenes that recall the power of the Master-poet. Least of all the poems in the Earthly Paradise does "The Lovers of Gudrun" show the Chaucerian influence, and the reader must be captious indeed who complains of the length of this story.
To the unenlightened reader this poem reveals no traits that are un-English. What there is of Old Norse flavor here is purely spiritual. The original story being in prose, no attempt could be made to keep original characteristics in verse-form. So "The Lovers of Gudrun" can stand on its own merits as an English poem; no excuses need be made for it on the plea that it is a translation.
Local color is not laid on the canvas after the figures have been painted, but all the tints in the persons and the things are grandly Norse. This story is a true romance, in that the scene is far removed from the present day, and the atmosphere is very different from our own. This story is a true picture of life, in that it sets forth the doings of men and women in the power of the master passion. And so for the purposes of literature this poem is not Norse, or rather, it is more than Norse, it is universal. Now and then, to be sure, the displaced Norse ideals are set forth in the poem, but in such wise that we almost regret that the old order has passed away. The Wanderer who tells the tale assures his listeners of the truth of it in these last words of the interlude between "The Story of Rhodope" and "The Lovers of Gudrun":
Know withal that we Have ever deemed this tale as true to be, As though those very Dwellers in Laxdale, Risen from the dead had told us their own tale; Who for the rest while yet they dwelt on earth Wearied no God with prayers for more of mirth Than dying men have; nor were ill-content Because no God beside their sorrow went Turning to flowery sward the rock-strewn way, Weakness to strength, or darkness into day. Therefore, no marvels hath my tale to tell, But deals with such things as men know too well; All that I have herein your hearts to move, Is but the seed and fruit of bitter love.
It is aside from our purpose to tell this story here. The more we study this marvelous work, the more it is impressed upon us that in the reign of love all men and all literatures are one. To the Englishman this description of an Iceland maiden is no stranger than it was to the men who sat about the spluttering fire in the Icelander's hall. It is the form of Gudrun that is here described:
That spring was she just come to her full height, Low-bosomed yet she was, and slim and light, Yet scarce might she grow fairer from that day; Gold were the locks wherewith the wind did play, Finer than silk, waved softly like the sea After a three days' calm, and to her knee Wellnigh they reached; fair were the white hands laid Upon the door posts where the dragons played; Her brow was smooth now, and a smile began To cross her delicate mouth, the snare of man.
(Earthly Paradise, Vol. II, p. 247.)
Not less accustomed are we to such heroes as Kiartan:
And now in every mouth was Kiartan's name, And daily now must Gudrun's dull ears bear Tales of the prowess of his youth to hear, While in his cairn forgotten lay her love. For this man, said they, all men's hearts did move, Nor yet might envy cling to such an one, So far beyond all dwellers 'neath the sun; Great was he, yet so fair of face and limb That all folk wondered much, beholding him, How such a man could be; no fear he knew, And all in manly deeds he could outdo; Fleet-foot, a swimmer strong, an archer good, Keen-eyed to know the dark waves' changing mood; Sure on the crag, and with the sword so skilled, That when he played therewith the air seemed filled With light of gleaming blades; therewith was he Of noble speech, though says not certainly My tale, that aught of his he left behind With rhyme and measure deftly intertwined.
The Old Norse touch here is in the last three lines which intimate that the warrior was often a bard; but be it remembered that the Elizabethan warrior could turn a sonnet, too.
We have said that the Laxdaela Saga is famous for its portrayal of character. This English version falls not at all below the original in this quality. The lines already quoted show Gudrun and Kiartan as to exterior. But this is a drama of flesh and blood creations, and they are men and women that move through it, not puppets. Souls are laid bare here, in quivering, pulsating agony. The tremendous figure of this story is not Kiartan, nor Gudrun, nor Refna, but Bodli, and certainly English narrative poetry has no second creation like to him. The mind reverts to Shakespeare to find fit companionship for Bodli in poetry, and to George Eliot and Thomas Hardy in prose. The suggestion of Shakespearean qualities in George Eliot has been made by several great critics, among them Edmond Scherer; in Hardy and Morris, here, we find the same soul-searching powers. These writers have created sufferers of titanic greatness, and in the presence of their tragedies we are dumb.
An English artist has made Napoleon's voyage on H.M.S. Bellerophon to his prison-isle a picture that the memory refuses to forget. The picture of Bodli as he sails back to Iceland, which, though his home, is to be his prison and his death, is no less impressive:
Fair goes the ship that beareth out Christ's truth Mingled of hope, of sorrow, and of ruth, And on the prow Bodli the Christian stands, Sunk deep in thought of all the many lands The world holds, and the folk that dwell therein, And wondering why that grief and rage and sin Was ever wrought; but wondering most of all Why such wild passion on his heart should fall.
Here we have the poet's conception—and the sagaman's—of Bodli—a man in the grip of terrible Fate, who can no more swerve from the paths she marks out for him than he can add a cubit to his stature. The Greek tragedy embodies this idea, and Old Norse literature is full of it. Thomas Hardy gives it later in his contemporary novels. We sympathize with Bodli's fate because his agony is so terrible, and we call him the most striking figure in this story. But the others suffer, too, Gudrun, Kiartan, Refna; they make a stand against their woe, and utter brave words in the face of it. Only Bodli floats downward with the tide, unresisting. Guest prophesies bitter things for Gudrun, but adds:
Be merry yet! these things shall not be all That unto thee in this thy life shall fall.
And Gudrun takes heart. When Thurid tells her brother Kiartan that Gudrun has married another, his joy is shivered into atoms before him. But he can say, even then:
Now is this world clean changed for me In this last minute, yet indeed I see That still it will go on for all my pain; Come then, my sister, let us back again; I must meet folk, and face the life beyond, And, as I may, walk 'neath the dreadful bond Of ugly pain—such men our fathers were, Not lightly bowed by any weight of care.
And Kiartan does his work in the world. Poor Refna, when she has married Kiartan hears women talking of the love that still is between Gudrun and Kiartan. She goes to Kiartan with the story, beginning with words whose pathos must conquer the most stoical of readers:
Indeed of all thy grief I knew, But deemed if still thou saw'st me kind and true, Not asking too much, yet not failing aught To show that not far off need love be sought, If thou shouldst need love—if thou sawest all this, Thou wouldst not grudge to show me what a bliss Thy whole love was, by giving unto me As unto one who loved thee silently, Now and again the broken crumbs thereof: Alas! I, having then no part in love, Knew not how naught, naught can allay the soul Of that sad thirst, but love untouched and whole! Kinder than e'er I durst have hoped thou art, Forgive me then, that yet my craving heart Is so unsatisfied; I know that thou Art fain to dream that I am happy now, And for that seeming ever do I strive; Thy half-love, dearest, keeps me still alive To love thee; and I bless it—but at whiles,—
And thus she gains strength to live her life.
Here, then, in Bodli, is another of the great tragic figures in literature—a sick man. There are many of them, even in the highest rank of literary creations, Hamlet, Lear, Othello, Macbeth! Wrong-headed, defective as they are, we would not have them otherwise. The pearl of greatest price is the result of an abnormal or morbid process.
Bodli comes to us from Icelandic literature, and in that fact we note the solidarity of poetic geniuses. Not only is the great figure of Bodli proof of this solidarity, but many other features of this poem prove it. "Lively feeling for a situation and power to express it constitute the poet," said Goethe. There are dramatic situations in "The Lovers of Gudrun" which hold the reader in a breathless state till the last word is said, and then leave him marveling at the imagination that could conceive the scene, and the power that could express it. There are gentler scenes, too, in the poem, where beauty and grace are conceived as fair as ever poet dreamed, and the workmanship is thoroughly adequate. As an example of the first, take the scene of Bodli's mourning over Kiartan's dead body. It is here that we get that knowledge of Bodli's woe that robs us of a cause against him. What agony is that which can speak thus over the body of the dead rival!
... Didst thou quite Know all the value of that dear delight As I did? Kiartan, she is changed to thee; Yea, and since hope is dead changed too to me, What shall we do, if, each of each forgiven, We three shall meet at last in that fair heaven The new faith tells of? Thee and God I pray Impute it not for sin to me to-day, If no thought I can shape thereof but this: O friend, O friend, when thee I meet in bliss, Wilt thou not give my love Gudrun to me, Since now indeed thine eyes made clear can see That I of all the world must love her most?
Examples of the gentler scenes are scattered lavishly throughout the poem and it is not necessary to enumerate.
One other sign that the Icelandic sagaman's art was kin to the English poet's. The last line of this poem is given thus by Morris:
I did the worst to him I loved the most.
These are the very words of Gudrun in the saga, and summing up as they do her opinion of Kiartan, they stand as a model of that compression which is so admired in our poetry. Many such multum in parvo lines are found in Morris' poem, and at times they have a beauty that is marvelous. Joined with this quality is the special merit of Morris—picturesqueness, and so the reader often feels, when he has finished a book by Morris, like the Cook tourist after he has "done" a country of Europe—it must be done again and again to give it its due.
Of the other two Old Norse poems in The Earthly Paradise not much need be said. "The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon" is a fairy tale, in the strain of Morris' prose romances. It was suggested by Thorpe's Yule-tide Stories, the tale coming from the Voelundar Saga. There is a witchery about it that makes it pleasant reading in a dreamy hour, but except the names and a few scenes about the farmstead, there is nothing Icelandic about it. The virile element of the best Icelandic literature is wanting here, and the hero's excuse for leaving weapons at home when he goes to his watch is not at all natural:
Withal I shall not see Men-folk belike, but faerie, And all the arms within the seas Should help me naught to deal with these; Rather of such love were I fain As fell to Sigurd Fafnir's-bane When of the dragon's heart he ate.
(Vol. II, p. 33.)
This passage is nominally in the same meter as the opening lines of the poem:
In this your land there once did dwell A certain carle who lived full well, And lacked few things to make him glad; And three fair sons this goodman had.
According to old time English prosody, it is the same, too, as the meter of Scott's Marmion!
In the passages quoted from "The Lovers of Gudrun" we see a measure called the same as that of Pope's Essay on Man! Not seldom in "The Lovers" do we forget that the lines are rhymed in twos; indeed, often we do not note the rhyme at all. We are sometimes tempted to think that in this piece, if not in "The Land East of the Sun," rhyme might have been dispensed with altogether, since it often forces archaic words and expressions into use. But it is to be said generally of Morris's management of the meter in the Old Norse pieces, that it was adequate to gain his end always, whether that end was to tell an Old Norse story in English, or to carry over an Old Norse spirit into English. Of this second achievement we shall speak further in considering Sigurd the Volsung.
There is one more tale in The Earthly Paradise which originated in Norse legend. "The Fostering of Aslaug" is drawn from Thorpe's Northern Mythology, which epitomizes older sources. Aslaug is the daughter of Iceland's great hero, Sigurd, and Iceland's great heroine, Brynhild, and her life is set down in this poem most beautifully. Again we note that the added touches of later poets fail to leave the sense of the strenuous in the picture. Aslaug is like a favorite representation of Brynhild that we have seen, a lily-maid in aspect, or a Marguerite. Her mother's masculinity is gone, and with it the Old Norse flavor. It is the privilege of our age to enjoy both the virility of the Old Norse and the delicacy of the mediaeval conceptions, and William Morris has caught both.
In the opening lines of "The Fostering of Aslaug," our poet wrote his doubts about his ability to sing the life of Sigurd in be-fitting manner. At that time he said:
But now have I no heart to raise That mighty sorrow laid asleep, That love so sweet, so strong and deep, That as ye hear the wonder told In those few strenuous words of old, The whole world seems to rend apart When heart is torn away from heart.
(Vol. III, p. 28.)
It is a common complaint against the poetry of William Morris that it is too long-winded. Each to his taste in this matter, but we beg to call attention to one line in the above passage:
In those few strenuous words of old.
Whatever may have been Morris' tendency when he wrote his own poetry, he knew when concision was a virtue in the poetry of others. There is no better description of the Voelsunga Saga than the above line, and William Morris gave the English people a literal version of the saga, if mayhap that strenuous paucity might translate the old spirit. But, as if he knew that many readers would fail to make much of this version, he tried again on a larger scale, and the great volume Sigurd the Volsung, epic in character and proportions, was the result. Of these two we shall now speak.
The Voelsunga Saga was published in 1870, only two years after Morris had begun to study Icelandic with Eirikr Magnusson. The latter's name is on the title page as the first of the two co-translators. The Saga was supplemented by certain songs from the Elder Edda which were introduced by the translators at points where they would come naturally in the story. The work, both in prose and verse, is well done, and the attempt was successful to make, as the preface proposes, the "rendering close and accurate, and, if it might be so, at the same time, not over prosaic." The last two paragraphs of this preface are particularly interesting to one who is tracing the influence of Old Norse literature on English literature, because they are words with power, that have stirred men and will stir men to learn more about a wonderful land and its lore. We copy them entire:
"As to the literary quality of this work we might say much, but we think we may well trust the reader of poetic insight to break through whatever entanglement of strange manners or unused element may at first trouble him, and to meet the nature and beauty with which it is filled: we cannot doubt that such a reader will be intensely touched by finding, amidst all its wildness and remoteness, such startling realism, such subtilty, such close sympathy with all the passions that may move himself to-day.
"In conclusion, we must again say how strange it seems to us, that this Volsung Tale, which is in fact an unversified poem, should never before have been translated into English. For this is the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks—to all our race first, and afterwards, when the change of the world has made our race nothing more than a name of what has been—a story too—then should it be to those that come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us."
Morris wrote a prologue in verse for this volume, and it is an exquisite poem, such as only he seemed able to indite. So often does the reader of Morris come upon gems like this, that one is tempted to rail against the common ignorance about him:
O hearken, ye who speak the English Tongue, How in a waste land ages long ago, The very heart of the North bloomed into song After long brooding o'er this tale of woe!
. . . . . . . . .
Yea, in the first gray dawning of our race, This ruth-crowned tangle to sad hearts was dear.
. . . . . . . . .
So draw ye round and hearken, English Folk, Unto the best tale pity ever wrought! Of how from dark to dark bright Sigurd broke, Of Brynhild's glorious soul with love distraught, Of Gudrun's weary wandering unto naught, Of utter love defeated utterly, Of Grief too strong to give Love time to die!
Six years later, in 1877 (English edition), Morris published the long poem, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and The Fall of the Niblungs, and in it gave the peerless crown of all English poems springing from Old Norse sources. The poet considered this his most important work, and he was prouder of it than of any other literary work that he did. One who studies it can understand this pride, but he cannot understand the neglect by the reading public of this remarkable poem. The history of book-selling in the last decade shows strange revivals of interest in authors long dead; it will be safe to prophesy such a revival for William Morris, because valuable treasures will not always remain hidden. In his case, however, it will not be a revival, because there has not been an awakening yet. That awakening must come, and thousands will see that William Morris was a great poet who have not yet heard of his name. Let us look at his greatest work with some degree of minuteness.
The opening lines are a good model of the meter, and we find it different from any that we have considered so far. There are certain peculiarities about it that make it seem a perfect medium for translating the Old Norse spirit. Most of these peculiarities are in the opening lines, and so we may transfer them to this page:
There was a dwelling of Kings ere the world was waxen old; Dukes were the door-wards there, and the roofs were thatched with gold; Earls were the wrights that wrought it, and silver nailed its doors; Earls' wives were the weaving-women, queens' daughters strewed its floors, And the masters of its song-craft were the mightiest men that cast The sails of the storm of battle adown the bickering blast.
Everybody knows that alliteration was a principle of Icelandic verse. It strikes the ear that hears Icelandic poetry for the first time—or the eye that sees it, since most of us read it silently—as unpleasantly insistent, but on fuller acquaintance, we lose this sense of obtrusiveness. Morris, in this poem, uses alliteration, but so skilfully that only the reader that seeks it discovers it. A less superb artist would have made it stick out in every line, so that the device would be a hindrance to the story-telling. As it is, nowhere in the more than nine thousand lines of Sigurd the Volsung is this alliteration an excrescence, but everywhere it is woven into the grand design of a fabric which is the richer for its foreign workmanship.
Notice that duke and battle and master are the only words not thoroughly Teutonic. This overwhelming predominance of the Anglo-Saxon element over the French is in keeping with the original of the story. Of course it is an accident that so small a proportion of Latin derivatives is found in these six lines, but the fact remains that Morris set himself to tell a Teutonic story in Teutonic idiom. That idiom is not very strange to present-day readers, indeed we may say it has but a fillip of strangeness. Archaisms are characteristic of poetic diction, and those found in this poem that are not common to other poetry are used to gain an Old Norse flavor. The following words taken from Book I of the poem are the only unfamiliar ones: benight, meaning "at night"; "so win the long years over"; eel-grig; sackless; bursten, a participle. The compounds door-ward and song-craft are representative of others that are sprinkled in fair number through the poem. They are the best that our language can do to reproduce the fine combinations that the Icelandic language formed so readily. English lends itself well to this device, as the many compounds show that Morris took from common usage. Such words as roof-tree, song-craft, empty-handed, grave-mound, store-house, taken at random from the pages of this poem, show that the genius of our language permits such formations. When Morris carries the practice a little further, and makes for his poem such words as door-ward, chance-hap, slumber-tide, troth-word, God-home, and a thousand others, he is not taking liberties with the language, and he is using a powerful aid in translating the Old Norse spirit.
One more peculiar characteristic of Icelandic is admirably exhibited in this poem. We have seen that Warton recognized in the "Runic poets" a warmth of fancy which expressed itself in "circumlocution and comparisons, not as a matter of necessity, but of choice and skill." Certainly Morris in using these circumlocutions in Sigurd the Volsung, has exercised remarkable skill in weaving them into his story. Like the alliterations, they are part of an harmonious design. Examples abound, like:
Adown unto the swan-bath the Volsung Children ride;
and this other for the same thing, the sea:
While sleepeth the fields of the fishes amidst the summer-tide.
Still others for the water are swan-mead, and "bed-gear of the swan."
"The serpent of death" and war-flame, for sword; earth-bone, for rock; fight-sheaves, for armed hosts; seaburg, for boats, are other striking examples.
So much for the mechanical details of this poem. Its literary features are so exceptional that we must examine them at length.
Book I is entitled "Sigmund" and the description is set at the head of it. "In this book is told of the earlier days of the Volsungs, and of Sigmund the father of Sigurd, and of his deeds, and of how he died while Sigurd was yet unborn in his mother's womb."
There are many departures from the Voelsunga Saga in this poetic version, and all seem to be accounted for by a desire to impress present-day readers with this story. The poem begins with Volsung, omitting, therefore, the marvelous birth of that king and the oath of the unborn child to "flee in fear from neither fire nor the sword." The saga makes the wolf kill one of Volsung's sons every night; the poem changes the number to two. A magnificent scene is invented by Morris in the midnight visit of Signy to the wood where her brothers had been slain. She speaks to the brother that is left, desiring to know what he is doing:
O yea, I am living indeed, and this labor of mine hand Is to bury the bones of the Volsungs; and lo, it is well nigh done. So draw near, Volsung's daughter, and pile we many a stone Where lie the gray wolf s gleanings of what was once so good.
The dialogue of brother and sister is a mighty conception, and surely the old Icelanders would have called Morris a rare singer. Sigmund tells the story of the deaths of his brothers, adding:
But now was I wroth with the Gods, that had made the Volsungs for nought; And I said: in the Day of their Doom a man's help shall they miss.
But Signy is reconciled to the workings of Fate:
I am nothing so wroth as thou art with the ways of death and hell, For thereof had I a deeming when all things were seeming well.
The day to come shall set their woes right:
There as thou drawest thy sword, thou shall think of the days that were And the foul shall still seem foul, and the fair shall still seem fair; But thy wit shall then be awakened, and thou shalt know indeed Why the brave man's spear is broken, and his war shield fails at need; Why the loving is unbeloved; why the just man falls from his state; Why the liar gains in a day what the soothfast strives for late. Yea, and thy deeds shalt thou know, and great shall thy gladness be; As a picture all of gold thy life-days shalt thou see, And know that thou wert a God to abide through the hurry and haste; A God in the golden hall, a God in the rain-swept waste, A God in the battle triumphant, a God on the heap of the slain: And thine hope shall arise and blossom, and thy love shall be quickened again: And then shalt thou see before thee the face of all earthly ill; Thou shalt drink of the cup of awakening that thine hand hath holpen to fill; By the side of the sons of Odin shalt thou fashion a tale to be told In the hall of the happy Baldur.
In this wise one Christian might hearten another to accept the dealings of Providence to-day. While we do not think that a worshipper of Odin would have spoken all these words, they are not an undue exaggeration of the noblest traits of the old Icelandic religion.
The poem does not record the death of Siggeir's and Signy's son, though the saga does. Morris adds a touch when he makes the imprisoned men exult over the sword that Signy drops into their grave, and he also puts into the mouth of Siggeir in the burning hall words that the saga does not contain. The poem says that the women of the Gothfolk were permitted to retire from the burning hall, but the saga has no such statement. The war of foul words between Granmar and Sinfjoetli is left in the saga, and the cause of Gudrod's death is changed from rivalry over a woman to anger over a division of war booty. In Sigmund's lament over his childlessness we have another of the poet's additions, and certainly we find no fault with the liberty:
The tree was stalwart, but its boughs are old and worn. Where now are the children departed, that amidst my life were born? I know not the men about me, and they know not of my ways: I am nought but a picture of battle, and a song for the people to praise. I must strive with the deeds of my kingship, and yet when mine hour is come It shall meet me as glad as the goodman when he bringeth the last load home.
When the great hero dies, Morris puts into his mouth another of the magnificent speeches that are the glory of this poem. Four lines from it must suffice:
When the gods for one deed asked me I ever gave them twain; Spendthrift of glory I was, and great was my life-day's gain.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Our wisdom and valour have kissed, and thine eyes shall see the fruit, And the joy for his days that shall be hath pierced my heart to the root.
It appears from this study of Book I that Sigurd the Volsung has adapted the saga story to our civilization and our art, holding to the best of the old and supplementing it by new that is ever in keeping with the old. Other instances of this eclectic habit may be seen in the other three books, but we shall quote from these for other purposes.
Book II is entitled "Regin." "Now this is the first book of the life and death of Sigurd the Volsung, and therein is told of the birth of him, and of his dealings with Regin the Master of Masters, and of his deeds in the waste places of the earth."
Morris was deeply read in Old Norse literature, and out of his stores of knowledge he brought vivifying details for this poem. Such, for instance, is the description of Sigurd's eyes, not found just here in the saga:
In the bed there lieth a man-child, and his eyes look straight on the sun.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Yet they shrank in their rejoicing before the eyes of the child.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
In the naming of the child by an ancient name, the meaning of that name is indicated:
O Sigurd, Son of the Volsungs, O Victory yet to be!
The festivities over the birth of the child are wonderfully described in the brief lines, and they are a picture out of another book than the saga:
Earls think of marvellous stories, and along the golden strings Flit words of banded brethren and names of war-fain Kings.
Over and over again in this poem Morris records the Icelanders' desire "to leave a tale to tell," and here are Sigurd's words to Regin who has been egging him on to deeds:
Yet I know that the world is wide, and filled with deeds unwrought; And for e'en such work was I fashioned, lest the songcraft come to nought, When the harps of God-home tinkle, and the Gods are at stretch to hearken: Lest the hosts of the Gods be scanty when their day hath begun to darken.
In Book II we have other great speeches that the poet has put into the mouth of his characters with little or no justification in the original saga. Chap. XIV of the saga contains Regin's tale of his brothers, and of the gold called "Andvari's Hoard," and that tale is severely brief and plain. The account in the poem is expanded greatly, and the conception of Regin materially altered. In the saga he was not the discontented youngest son of his father, prone to talk of his woes and to lament his lot. In the poem he does this in so eloquent a fashion that almost we are persuaded to sympathize with him. Certainly his lines were hard, to have outlived his great deeds, and to hear his many inventions ascribed to the gods. The speech of the released Odin to Reidmar is modeled on Job's conception of omnipotence, and it is one of the memorable parts of this book. Gripir's prophecy, too, is a majestic work, and its original was three sentences in the saga and the poem Gripisspa in the heroic songs of the Edda. Here Morris rises to the heights of Sigurd's greatness:
Sigurd, Sigurd! O great, O early born! O hope of the Kings first fashioned! O blossom of the morn! Short day and long remembrance, fair summer of the North! One day shall the worn world wonder how first thou wentest forth!
Those who have read William Morris know that he is a master of nature description. The "Glittering Heath" offered a fine opportunity for this sort of work, and in this piece we have another departure from the saga, Morris made hundreds of pictures in this poem, but the pages describing the journey to the "Glittering Heath" are packed with them to an extraordinary degree. Here is Iceland in very fact, all dust and ashes to the eye:
More changeless than mid-ocean, as fruitless as its floor.
We confess that there is something in the scene that holds us, all shorn of beauty though it is. We do not want to go the length of Thomas Hardy, however, who, in that wonderful first chapter of The Return of the Native has a similar heath to describe. "The new vale of Tempe," says he, "may be a gaunt waste in Thule: human souls may find themselves in closer and closer harmony with external things wearing a sombreness distasteful to our race when it was young.... The time seems near, if it has not actually arrived, when the mournful sublimity of a moor, a sea, or a mountain, will be all of nature that is absolutely consonant with the moods of the more thinking among mankind. And ultimately, to the commonest tourist, spots like Iceland may become what the vineyards and myrtlegardens of South Europe are to him now." Is it not a suggestive thought that England and the nineteenth century evolved a pessimism which poor Iceland on its ash-heap never could conceive? William Morris was an Icelander, not an Englishman, in his philosophy.
In this same scene, a notable deviation from the saga is the conversation between Regin and Sigurd concerning the relations that shall be between them after the slaying of Fafnir. Here Morris impresses the lesson of Regin's greed, taking the un-Icelandic device of preaching to serve his purpose:
Let it lead thee up to heaven, let it lead thee down to hell, The deed shall be done tomorrow: thou shalt have that measureless Gold, And devour the garnered wisdom that blessed thy realm of old, That hath lain unspent and begrudged in the, very heart of hate: With the blood and the might of thy brother thine hunger shalt thou sate: And this deed shall be mine and thine; but take heed for what followeth then!
In still another place has Morris departed far from the saga story. According to the poem, Sigurd meets each warning of Fafnir that the gold will be the curse of its possessor with the assurance that he will cast the gold abroad, and let none of it cling to his fingers. The saga, however, has this very frank confession: "Home would I ride and lose all that wealth, if I deemed that by the losing thereof I should never die; but every brave and true man will fain have his hand on wealth till that last day." Here, again, we see an adaptation of the story of the poem to modern conceptions of nobility. It remains to be said that the ernes move Sigurd to take the gold for the gladdening of the world, and they assure him that a son of the Volsung had nought to fear from the Curse. The seven-times-repeated "Bind the red rings, O Sigurd," is an admirable poem, but it does not contain information concerning Brynhild, as do the strophes of Reginsmal which are the model for this lay.
Let us look at the art of Morris as it is shown in telling "How Sigurd awoke Brynhild upon Hindfell." As in the saga, so in the English poem, this incident has a setting most favorable to the display of its remarkable beauties. It is a picture as pure and sweet as it has ever entered into the mind of man to conceive. The conception belongs to the poetic lore of many nations, and children are early introduced to the story of "Sleeping Beauty." There are some features of the Old Norse version that are especially charming, and first among them is the address of the awakened Brynhild to the sun and the earth. We are told that this maiden loved the radiant hero that here awoke her from her age-long sleep, but not for him is her first greeting. A finer thrill moves her than love for a man, and in Morris's poem, this feeling finds singularly beautiful expression:
All hail O Day and thy Sons, and thy kin of the coloured things! Hail, following Night, and thy Daughter that leadeth thy wavering wings! Look down with unangry eyes on us today alive, And give us the hearts victorious, and the gain for which we strive! All hail, ye Lords of God-home, and ye Queens of the House of Gold! Hail thou dear Earth that bearest, and thou Wealth of field and fold! Give us, your noble children, the glory of wisdom and speech, And the hearts and the hands of healing, and the mouths and hands that teach!
In order to see just what the art of Morris has done for this poem, let us compare this address with the rendering of the Sigrdrifumal, which tell the same story and which Morris and Magnusson have incorporated into their translation of the Voelsunga Saga. The verses are not in the original saga:
Hail to the day come back! Hail, sons of the daylight! Hail to thee, dark night, and thy daughter! Look with kind eyes a-down, On us sitting here lonely, And give unto us the gain that we long for. Hail to the AEsir, And the sweet Asyniur! Hail to the fair earth fulfilled of plenty! Fair words, wise hearts, Would we win from you, And healing hands while life we hold.
To get the full benefit of the comparison of the old and the new, let us set in conjunction with these versions a severely literal translation of the Edda strophes themselves:
Hail, O Day, Hail, O Sons of the Day, Hail Night and kinswoman! With unwroth eyes look on us here and give to us sitting ones victory. Hail, O Gods, Hail, O Goddesses, Hail, O bounteous Earth! Speech and wisdom give to us, the excellent twain, and healing hands during life.
These stages in the progress of the gold from mine to mint furnish their own commentary. The finished product will pass current with the most exacting of assayers, as well as gladden the hearts of the poor one whose hand seldom touches gold.
If the skill of the poet in this case have merited resemblance to that of the refiner of gold, what name less than alchemy can characterize his achievement in the rest of this scene? From the first words of Brynhild's life-story:
I am she that loveth; I was born of the earthly folk;
to the tender words that tell of the coming of another day:
And fresh and all abundant abode the deeds of Day,
there is a succession of beautiful scenes and glorious speeches such as only a master of magic could have gotten out of the original story. The Eddaic account of the Valkyr's disobedience to All-Father, pictures a saucy and self-willed maiden. Sentence has been pronounced upon her, and thus the story continues: "But I said I would vow a vow against it, and marry no man that knew fear." The Voelsunga Saga gives exactly the same account, but the poetic version of Morris saves the maiden for our respect and admiration. It is not effrontery, but repentance that speaks in the voice of Brynhild here:
The thoughts of my heart overcame me, and the pride of my wisdom and speech, And I scorned the earth-folk's Framer, and the Lord of the world I must teach.
In the Icelandic version, Odin makes no speech at the dooming, but Morris puts into his mouth this magnificent address:
And he cried: "Thou hast thought in thy folly that the Gods have friends and foes, That they wake, and the world wends onward, that they sleep, and the world slips back, That they laugh, and the world's weal waxeth, that they frown and fashion the wrack: Thou hast cast up the curse against me; it shall aback on thine head; Go back to the sons of repentance, with the children of sorrow wed! For the Gods are great unholpen, and their grief is seldom seen, And the wrong that they will and must be is soon as it hath not been."
Morris has here again exercised the poet's privilege of adding to the story that was the pride of an entire age, in order to serve his own the better. If he was wise in these additions, he was no less wise in subtractions and in preservations. The saga has a long address by Brynhild, opening with mystical advice concerning the power of runes, and closing grandly with wise words that sound like a page from the Old Testament. The former find no place in Sigurd the Volsung, but the latter are turned into mighty phrases that wonderfully preserve the spirit of the original.
One passage more from Book II:
So they climb the burg of Hindfell, and hand in hand they fare, Till all about and above them is nought but the sunlit air, And there close they cling together rejoicing in their mirth; For far away beneath them lie the kingdoms of the earth, And the garths of men-folk's dwellings and the streams that water them, And the rich and plenteous acres, and the silver ocean's hem, And the woodland wastes and the mountains, and all that holdeth all; The house and the ship and the island, the loom and the mine and the stall, The beds of bane and healing, the crafts that slay and save, The temple of God and the Doom-ring, the cradle and the grave.
These ten lines serve to illustrate very well one of the most remarkable powers of Morris. Just consider for a moment the number of details that are crowded into this picture, and then notice how few are the strokes required to put them there. For this rapid painting of a crowded canvas Morris is second to none among English poets. This power to put a whole landscape or a complex personality into a few lines is the direct outcome of his study of Old Norse literature. Icelandic poetry is characterized by this quality. One has but to compare the account of the end of the world as it is found in the last strophes of Voeluspa, or in the Prose Edda, with the similar account in Revelations to see how much two languages may differ in this respect. It would seem as if the short verses characteristic of Icelandic poetry forbade lengthy descriptions. The effect must be produced by a number of quick strokes: there is never time to go over a line once made. A simile is never elaborated, a new one is made when the poet wishes to insist on the figure. Take the second strophe of the "Ancient Lay of Gudrun" as an example, in the translation by Morris and Magnusson:
Such was my Sigurd Among the Sons of Giuki As is the green leek O'er the low grass waxen, Or a hart high-limbed Over hurrying deer, Or gleed-red gold Over grey silver.
That is the Icelandic fashion; William Morris has caught it in the Story of Sigurd. Matthew Arnold has not seen fit to use it in his "Balder Dead," as these lines show:
Him the blind Hoder met, as he came up From the sea cityward, and knew his step; Nor yet could Hermod see his brother's face, For it grew dark; but Hermod touched his arm. And as a spray of honeysuckle flowers Brushes across a tired traveller's face Who shuffles thro the deep-moistened dust, On a May-evening, in the darkened lanes, And starts him that he thinks a ghost went by— So Hoder brushed by Hermod's side.
These are noble lines, but altogether foreign to Icelandic.
Book III opens with the dream of Gudrun and Brynhild's interpretation of it. This matter is managed in accordance with our own standards of art, and thus differs materially from the saga story. In the latter a most naive procedure is adopted, for Brynhild prophesies that Sigurd shall leave her for Gudrun, through Grimhild's guile, that strife shall come between them, and that Sigurd shall die and Gudrun wed Atli. The whole later story is thus revealed. This is not a story-teller's art, but it sets clear the Old Norse acceptance of fate's dealings. Of course Morris' poetic action explains the dream perfectly, but the details are not so frankly given.
"Thou shalt live and love and lose, and mingle in murder and war," is the gist of Brynhild's message, and the whole future history is there.
This poem has often been called an epic, and certainly there are many epical characteristics in it. One of them is the recurrence of certain formulas, and in Books III and IV these are rather more abundant than in the first two books. Thus the sword of Sigurd is praised in the same words, again and again:
It hath not its like in the heavens nor has earth of its fellow told.
Then, there is the "cloudy hall-roof" of the Niblungs. Gudrun is "the white-armed"; Grimhild is "the wisest of women"; Hogni is the "wise-heart"; the Niblungs are "the Cloudy People"; their beds are "blue-covered"; "the Godson the hangings" is an expression that recurs very often, and it recalls the fact that Morris was an artisan as well as an artist.
In the preceding books we have noted that Morris lengthened the saga story in his poem by the introduction of speeches that find no place in the original. In this book we see another lengthening process, which, with that already noted, goes far to account for the difference in bulk between the saga and the poem. Chap. XXVI of the saga, tells in less than a thousands words how Sigurd comes to the Giukings and is wedded to Gudrun. His reception is told in one hundred words; his abode with the Giukings is set forth in even fewer words; Grimhild's plotting and administering of the drugged drink are told in two hundred words; his acceptance of Gudrun's hand and her brother's allegiance are as tersely pictured; kingdoms are conquered, a son is born to Sigurd, and Grimhild plots to have Sigurd get Brynhild for her son Gunnar, yet the record of it all is compressed within one hundred and fifty words. Of course, the modern poet can hem himself within no such narrow bounds as this. The artistic value of these various incidents is priceless, and Morris has lingered upon them lovingly and long. He spreads the story over forty pages, or a thousand lines, and I avow, after a third reading of these three sections of the poem, that I would spare no line of them. How we love this Sigurd of the poet's painting! And what a noble gospel he proclaims to the Giukings:
For peace I bear unto thee, and to all the kings of the earth, Who bear the sword aright, and are crowned with the crown of worth; But unpeace to the lords of evil, and the battle and the death; And the edge of the sword to the traitor, and the flame to the slanderous breath: And I would that the loving were loved, and I would that the weary should sleep, And that man should hearken to man, and that he that soweth should reap.
Here, by the way, is the burden of Morris's preaching in the cause of a better society. It recurs a few pages further on in the poem, where the Niblungs bestow praise on this new hero:
And they say, when the sun of summer shall come aback to the land, It shall shine on the fields of the tiller that fears no heavy hand; That the sleep shall be for the plougher, and the loaf for him that sowed, Through every furrowed acre where the Son of Sigmund rode.
It need hardly be remarked that this Sigurd is not the sagaman's ideal. The Icelanders never evolved such high conceptions of man's obligations to man, but in their ignorance they were no worse off than their continental brethren, for these forgot their greatest Teacher's teaching, and modern social science must point them back to it.
This Sigurd that we love becomes the Sigurd that we pity in the drinking of a draught. Sorrow takes the place of joy in his life, and "the soul is changed in him," so that men may say that on this day they saw him die the first time, who was to die a second time by Guttorm's sword. Gloom spreads over all the earth with the quenching of Sigurd's joy:
In the deedless dark he rideth, and all things he remembers save one, And nought else hath he care to remember of all the deeds he hath done.
Here is illustrated the essential difference between the sagaman's art and the modern story-teller's. The Icelander must tell his story in haste; the deeds of men are his care, not their divagations nor their psychologizings. The modern writer must linger on every step in the story until the motive and the meaning are laid bare. In the present-day version Sigurd's mental sufferings are described at length, and our hearts are wrung at his unmerited woes. The saga knows no such woes, and to all appearance Sigurd's life is not unhappy to its very end. Indeed, it appears in more than one place in Morris's poem that Sigurd has become godlike through the hard experiences of his life. Take this passage as an illustration:
So is Sigurd yet with the Niblungs, and he loveth Gudrun his wife, And wendeth afield with the brethren to the days of the dooming of life; And nought his glory waneth, nor falleth the flood of praise: To every man he hearkeneth, nor gainsayeth any grace, And, glad is the poor in the Doom-ring when he seeth his face mid the Kings, For the tangle straighteneth before him, and the maze of crooked things. But the smile is departed from him, and the laugh of Sigurd the young, And of few words now is he waxen, and his songs are seldom sung. Howbeit of all the sad-faced was Sigurd loved the best; And men say: Is the king's heart mighty beyond all hope of rest? Lo, how he beareth the people! how heavy their woes are grown! So oft were a God mid the Goth-folk, if he dwelt in the world alone.
Set this by the side of the saga: "This is truer," says Sigurd, "that I loved thee better than myself, though I fell into the wiles from whence our lives may not escape; for whenso my own heart and mind availed me, then I sorrowed sore that thou wert not my wife; but as I might I put my trouble from me, for in a king's dwelling was I; and withal and in spite of all I was well content that we were all together. Well may it be, that that shall come to pass which is foretold; neither shall I fear the fulfilment thereof." (Voelunga Saga, Chap. XXIX.) These words are spoken to Brynhild after she has discovered what she regards as Sigurd's treachery. His words are dictated by a noble resignation to fate, but his very next remark shows a moral meanness not at all in keeping with Morris's conception. Sigurd said: "This my heart would, that thou and I should go into one bed together; even so wouldst thou be my wife."
There have been many griefs depicted in this poem, but surely here are set forth the most pitiless of them all. The guile-won Brynhild travels in state to the Cloudy Hall of the Niblungs, and the whole people come out to meet her. They are astonished at her beauty, and give her cordial greeting and welcome to her husband's house. Proud and majestic, the marvelous woman steps from her golden wain, and gives friendly but passionless greeting to Gunnar as she places her hand in his. For each of Gunnar's brothers she has a kindly word, as she has for Grimhild, too. She asks to see the foster-brother of whom such wondrous tales are told, and whose name she heard from Gunnar's lips with never a tremor—"Sigurd, the Volsung, the best man ever born." Grimhild stands between them for a time, but the meeting has to come. Then Brynhild remembers, and Sigurd sees the unveiled past:
Her heart ran back through the years, and yet her lips did move With the words she spake on Hindfell, when they plighted troth of love.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
His face is exceeding glorious and awful to behold; For of all his sorrow he knoweth and his hope smit dead and cold:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
For the will of the Norns is accomplished, and outworn is Grimhild's spell And nought now shall blind or help him, and the tale shall be to tell.
There's the note of the whole history—the will of the Norns and the note of a whole Northern literature, as it is of a whole Southern literature. Man, the puppet, in the hands of Fate; however man may think and reason and assure himself that the dispensation of Fate is just, the supreme moment of realization will always be a tragedy:
He hath seen the face of Brynhild, and he knows why she hath come, And that his is the hand that hath drawn her to the Cloudy People's home: He knows of the net of the days, and the deeds that the Gods have bid, And no whit of the sorrow that shall be from his wakened soul is hid.
In such an hour, what are conquests of a glorious past, what are honors, crowns, loves, hates? The mind can think of little matters only:
His heart speeds back to Hindfell, and the dawn of the wakening day; And the hours betwixt are as nothing, and their deeds are fallen away.
Is aught to be said to one in such a crisis, the words are weak and commonplace. There is Brynhild's greeting to Sigurd:
If aught thy soul shall desire while yet thou livest on earth, I pray that thou mayst win it, nor forget its might and worth.
The shattered mind of Sigurd tries to grasp the meaning of the harmless words, and like common sounds that are so fearful in the night, the phrases assume a terrible import:
All grief, sharp scorn, sore longing, stark death in her voice he knew.
Then again conies the dominant note of this story:
Gone forth is the doom of the Norns, and what shall be answer thereto, While the death that amendeth lingers?
Here is a hint of the end of all—"the death that amendeth," and from this point to the end of the story there is no gleam of happiness for anyone.
Book IV brings to a majestic close this mighty history. We have dwelt so long on the wonderful poetry of the other books that we must refrain from further comment in this strain. As we read these eloquent imaginings, we regret that the English reading public have left this work through fear of its great length or the ignorance of its existence, in the dust of half-forgotten shelves. Gold disused is true gold none the less, and the ages to come may be more appreciative than the present.
For the sake of rounding out this story, be it noted concerning this Book IV, that the poet has taken liberties with the saga story here, as elsewhere. Motives more easily understood in our day are assigned for the deeds of dread that throng these closing scenes. Gudrun weds King Atli at her mother's bidding, and under the influence of a wicked potion, but neither mother nor magic drives the memory of Sigurd from her mind. She lives to bring destruction upon her husband's murderers, and those murderers are her own flesh and blood. Through her appeals to Atli's greed, and through Knefrud's lies in the Niblung court, the visit of her proud brothers to her pliant husband is brought about. The saga makes Atli the arch-plotter, and the motive his desire to possess the gold. This sentence exculpates Gudrun from any wrong intention towards her brothers: "Now the queen wots of their conspiring, and misdoubts her that this would mean some beguiling of her brethren." (Chap. XXXIV.) In Chap. XXXVIII, we are told that Gudrun fights on the side of her brothers. We see at once the superiority of the poet's motive for a modern tragedy.
It is impressed upon the reader of an epic that the plan of its maker does not call for fine analysis of character. The epic poet is concerned necessarily with large considerations, and his personages do not split hairs from the south to the southeast side. One sign of this is seen in the epic formulae employed to characterize the personages of the story. Such formulas are in Sigurd the Volsung in abundance, as we have noted on another page. But there are also many departures from the epic model in this poem. Some of these we have referred to in the remarks on Book III, where we noted Sigurd's mental sufferings. In Book IV we have a discrimination of character that is not epic, but dramatic in its minuteness. In the speech and the deeds of the Niblungs their pride and selfishness is clearly set forth, but the individual members of that race are distinguished by traits very minutely drawn. Thus Hogni is the wary Niblung, and is averse to accepting Atli's invitation:
"I know not, I know not," said Hogni, "but an unsure bridge is the sea, And such would I oft were builded betwixt my foeman and me. I know a sorrow that sleepeth, and a wakened grief I know, And the torment of the mighty is a strong and fearful foe."
Gunnar is here distinguished as a hypocrite by word and deed; Gudrun remembers Sigurd in her exile and schemes and plots to make her husband Atli work her vengeance on the Niblungs; Atli is greedy for gold and Gudrun's task is not hard; Knefrud is a liar whose words are winning, and overcome the scruples of the Niblungs. In these careful discriminations of character we see a non-epical trait, and of necessity therefore, a non-Icelandic trait. The sagaman was epic in his tone.
As a last appreciation of the art of William Morris as it is displayed in this poem, we would call attention to the tremendous battle-piece entitled "Of the Battle in Atli's Hall." It is the climax of this marvelous poem, and in no detail is it inadequate to its place in the work. The poet's constructive power is here demonstrated to be of the highest order, and in the majestic sweep of events that is here depicted, we see the poet in his original role of maker. The sagaman's skill had not the power to conceive this titanic drama, and the memory of his battle-piece is quite effaced by the modern invention. In blood and fire the story comes to an end with Gudrun,
The white and silent woman above the slaughter set.
As we turn from the scene and the book, that figure fades not away. And it is fitting that the last memory of this poem should be a picture of love and hate, inextricably bound together, for that is the irony of Fate, and Fate was mistress of the Old Norseman's world.
Between the great works dealt with in the last two sections, which belong together and were therefore so considered, came the book of 1875, bearing the title Three Northern Love Stories and Other Tales. It is as good a representation as Iceland can make in the love-story class.
These tales are charmingly told in the translation of Morris and Magnusson, the second one, "Frithiof the Bold," being a master-piece in its kind. Men will dare much for the love of a woman, and that is why the sagaman records love episodes at all. Frithiof's voyage to the Orkneys in Chap. VI is a stormpiece that vies with anything of its kind in modern literature. It is Norse to the core, and we love the peerless young hero who forgets not his manhood in his chagrin of defeat at love. Surely there is fitness in these outbursts of song in moments of extreme exultation or despair! "And he sang withal:
"Helgi it is that helpeth The white-head billows' waxing; Cold time unlike the kissing In the close of Baldur's Meadow! So is the hate of Helgi To that heart's love she giveth. O would that here I held her, Gift high above all giving!"
Modern literature has lost this conventionality of the older writings, found in Hebrew as well as in Icelandic, and we think it has lost something valuable. Morris thought so, too, for he restored the interpolated song-snatches in his Romances. We are tempted to dwell on these three love-stories, they are so fine; but we must leave them with the remark that they show the poet's appreciation of the worth of a foreign literature, and his great desire to have his countrymen share in his admiration for them. "The Story of Gunnlaug the Worm-Tongue and Raven the Skald," and "The Story of Viglund the Fair," are the other two stories that give the title to the volume, representing the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries, as "Frithiof" represented the fourteenth.
With Sigurd the Volsung ended the first great Icelandic period of Morris's work. More than a dozen years passed before he returned to the field, and from 1889 until his death, in 1896, everything he wrote bore proofs of his abiding interest in and affection for the ancient literature. The remarkable series of romances, The House of the Wolfings (1889), The Roots of the Mountains (1890), The Story of the Glittering Plain (1891), The Wood Beyond the World (1895), The Well at the World's End (1896) and The Sundering Flood (posthumous), are none of them distinctively Old Norse in geography or in story, but they all have the flavor of the saga-translations, and are all the better for it. They are as original and as beautiful as the poet's tapestries and furniture, and if they did not provoke imitation as did the tapestries and furniture, it was not because they were not worth imitating: more than likely there were no imitators equal to the task. In these romances we have men and women with the characteristics of an olden time that are most worthy of conservation in the present time. The ideals of womanfolk and manfolk in The House of the Wolfings and The Roots of the Mountains, for instance, are such as an Englishman might well be proud to have in his remote ancestry. Hall-Sun, Wood-Sun, Sunbeam, and Bowmay are wholesome women to meet in a story, and Thiodolf, Gold-mane, Iron-face and Hallward are every inch men for book-use or to commune with every day. Weaklings, too, abide in these stories, and Penny-thumb and Rusty and Fiddle and Wood-grey lend humanity to the company.
The two romances last mentioned are so steeped in the atmosphere of the sagas, that what with folk-motes and shut-beds, and byres, and man-quellers, and handsels and speech-friends, we seem to lose ourselves in yet another version of a northern tale. Morris retains the old idiom that he invented for his translations, and keeps the tyro thumbing his dictionary, but the charm is increased by the archaisms. As one seeks the words in the dictionary, one learns that Chaucer, Spenser and the Ballads were the wells from which he drew these rare words, and that his employment of them is only another phase of his love for the old far-off things. It is true that the language of Morris is not of any one stadium of English, but it is a poet's privilege to draw upon all history for his words as well as for his allusions, and the revivals in question are of worthy words pushed aside by the press of newer, but not necessarily better forms.
These works are the kind that show the influence of Old Norse literature as spiritual rather than substantial. The stories are not drawn from the older literature, nor are the settings patterned after it; but the impulses that swayed men and women in the sagaman's tale, and the motives that uplifted them, are found here. We cannot think that the English people will always be unmindful of the great debt that they owe to the Muse of the North.
In 1891, Morris engaged in a literary enterprise that set the fashion for similar enterprises in succeeding years. With Eirikr Magnusson he undertook the making of The Saga Library, "addressed to the whole reading public, and not only to students of Scandinavian history, folk-lore and language." With Bernard Quaritch's imprint on the title pages, these volumes to the number of five were issued in exceptional type and form. The munificence of the publisher was equalled by the skill of the translators, and in their versions of "Howard, the Halt," "The Banded Men," and "Hen Thorir" (in Vol. I, dated 1891), "The Ere-Dwellers" (in Vol. II, dated 1892) and Heimskringla (in Vols. III, IV and V, dated 1893-4-5), the definitive translations of sterling sagas were given. As was the case with their Grettis Saga, the works rise to the dignity of masterpieces, and had we no other legacy from Morris' wealth of Icelandic scholarship, these translations were precious enough to keep us grateful through many generations.
One more contribution to English literature hailing from the North, and we have done with William Morris's splendid gifts. The volume of 1891, entitled Poems by the Way, contains several pieces that must be reckoned with. The vividest recollections of Icelandic materials here made use of are the poems "Iceland First Seen," and "To the Muses of the North." No reader of the poet's biography can forget the remarkable journey that Morris made through Iceland, nor how he prepared for that journey with all the care and love of a pilgrim bound for a shrine of his deepest devotion. Every foot of ground was visited that had been hallowed by the noble souls and inspiring deeds of the past, and that pilgrimage warmed him to loving literary creation through the remainder of his life. The last two stanzas of the first of the poems just mentioned show what a strong hold the forsaken island had upon his affections, and go far to explain the success of his Icelandic work:
O Queen of the grief without knowledge, of the courage that may not avail, Of the longing that may not attain, of the love that shall never forget, More joy than the gladness of laughter thy voice hath amidst of its wail: More hope than of pleasure fulfilled amidst of thy blindness is set; More glorious than gaining of all thine unfaltering hand that shall fail: For what is the mark on thy brow but the brand that thy Brynhild doth bear? Lone once, and loved and undone by a love that no ages outwear.
Ah! when thy Balder conies back, and bears from the heart of the Sun Peace and the healing of pain, and the wisdom that waiteth no more; And the lilies are laid on thy brow 'mid the crown of the deeds thou hast done; And the roses spring up by thy feet that the rocks of the wilderness wore. Ah! when thy Balder comes back and we gather the gains he hath won, Shall we not linger a little to talk of thy sweetness of old, Yea, turn back awhile to thy travail whence the Gods stood aloof to behold?
In several other poems in this volume he recurs to the practice of his romances, Scandinavianizes where the tendency of other poets would be to mediaevalize. "Of the Wooing of Hallbiorn the Strong," and "The Raven and the King's Daughter" are examples. Here we have ballads like those that Coleridge and Keats conceived on occasion, full of the beauty that lends itself so kindly to painted-glass decoration; clustered spear-shafts, crested helms and curling banners, and everywhere lily hands combing yellow hair or broidering silken standards. But the names strike a strange note in these songs of Morris, and the accompaniments are very different from the mediaeval kind:
Come ye carles of the south country, Now shall we go our kin to see! For the lambs are bleating in the south, And the salmon swims towards Olfus mouth. Girth and graithe and gather your gear! And ho for the other Whitewater!
The introduction of the homely arts of bread-winning distinguishes the romance of Scandinavia from the romance of Southern Europe, and here Morris struck into a new field for poetry. Wherever we turn to note the effects of Icelandic tradition, we find this presence of daily toil, always associated with dignity, never apologized for. The connection between Morris' art and Morris' socialism is not hard to explain.
No commentary can equal Morris' own poem, "To the Muse of the North," in setting forth the charm that drew him to the literature of Iceland:
O Muse that swayest the sad Northern Song, Thy right hand full of smiting and of wrong, Thy left hand holding pity; and thy breast Heaving with hope of that so certain rest: Thou, with the grey eyes kind and unafraid, The soft lips trembling not, though they have said The doom of the World and those that dwell therein. The lips that smile not though thy children win The fated Love that draws the fated Death. O, borne adown the fresh stream of thy breath, Let some word reach my ears and touch my heart, That, if it may be, I may have a part In that great sorrow of thy children dead That vexed the brow, and bowed adown the head, Whitened the hair, made life a wondrous dream, And death the murmur of a restful stream, But left no stain upon those souls of thine Whose greatness through the tangled world doth shine. O Mother, and Love and Sister all in one, Come thou; for sure I am enough alone That thou thine arms about my heart shouldst throw, And wrap me in the grief of long ago.
IN THE LATTER DAYS.
ECHOES OF ICELAND IN LATER POETS.
After William Morris the northern strain that we have been listening for in the English poets seems feeble and not worth noting. Nevertheless, it must be remarked that in the harp of a thousand strings that wakes to music under the bard's hands, there is a sweep which thrills to the ancient traditions of the Northland. Now and then the poet reaches for these strings, and gladdens us with some reminiscence of
old, unhappy, far-off things And battles long ago.
As had already been intimated, the table of contents in a present-day volume of poetry is very apt to show an Old Norse title. Thus Robert Lord Lytton's Poems Historical and Characteristic (London, 1877) reveals among the poems on European, Oriental, classic and mediaeval subjects, "The Death of Earl Hacon," a strong piece inspired by an incident in Heimskringla. In Robert Buchanan's multifarious versifying occurs this title: "Balder the Beautiful, A Song of Divine Death," but only the title is Old Norse; nothing in the poem suggests that origin except a notion or two of the end of all things. "Hakon" is the title of a short virile piece more nearly of the Norse spirit. Sidney Dobell's drama Balder has only the title to suggest the Icelandic, but Gerald Massey has the true ring in a number of lyrics, with themes drawn from the records of Norway's relations with England. In "The Norseman" there is a trumpet strain that recalls the best of the border-ballads; there is also a truthfulness of portraiture that argues a poet's, intuition in Gerald Massey, if not an acquaintance with the sagas:
The Norseman's King must stand up tall, If he would be head over all; Mainmast of Battle! when the plain Is miry-red with bloody rain! And grip his weapon for the fight, Until his knuckles grin tooth-white, The banner-staff he bears is best If double handful for the rest: When "follow me" cries the Norseman.
He knows the gentler side of Old Norse character, too, a side which, as we have seen, was not suspected till Carlyle came:
He hides at heart of his rough life, A world of sweetness for the Wife; From his rude breast a Babe may press Soft milk of human tenderness,— Make his eyes water, his heart dance, And sunrise in his countenance: In merriest mood his ale he quaffs By firelight, and with jolly heart laughs The blithe, great-hearted Norseman.
The poem "Old King Hake," is as strikingly true in characterization as the preceding. In half a dozen strophes Massey has told a whole saga, and has found time, too, to describe "an iron hero of Norse mould." How miserable a personage is the Italian that flits through Browning's pages when contrasted with this hero:
When angry, out the blood would start With old King Hake; Not sneak in dark caves of the heart, Where curls the snake, And secret Murder's hiss is heard Ere the deed be done: He wove no web of wile and word; He bore with none. When sharp within its sheath asleep Lay his good sword, He held it royal work to keep His kingly word. A man of valour, bloody and wild, In Viking need; And yet of firelight feeling mild As honey-mead.
Another poem, "The Banner-Bearer of King Olaf," pictures the strong fighter in a death he rejoiced to die. It is a good poem of the class that nerves men to die for the flag, and it has the Old Norse spirit. These poems are all from Massey's volume My Lyrical Life (London. 1889).
A glance at the other poems in Gerald Massey's volumes shows that like Morris, and like Kingsley, and like Carlyle, the poet was a workman eager to do for the workman. Is it not suggestive that these men found themselves drawn to Old Norse character and life? The Icelandic republic cherished character as the highest quality of citizenship, and put few or no social obstacles in the way of its achievement. The literature inspired by that life reveals a fellowship among the members of that republic that is the envy of social reformers of the present day. Morris makes one of the personages in The Story of the Glittering Plain (Chap. I) say these words: "And as for Lord, I knew not this word, for here dwell we the Sons of the Raven in good fellowship, with our wives that we have wedded, and our mothers who have borne us, and our sisters who serve us." Almost may this description serve for Iceland in its golden age, and so it is no wonder that the socialist, the priest, and the philosopher of our own disjointed times go back to the sagas for ideals to serve their countrymen.
We have no other poets to mention by name in connection with this Old Norse influence, although doubtless a search through the countless volumes that the presses drop into a cold and uncaring world would reveal other poems with Scandinavian themes. We close this section of our investigation with the remark already made, that, in the tables of titles in volumes of contemporary verse, acknowledgment to Old Norse poetry and prose are not the rarity they once were, and in poems of any kind allusions to the same sources are very common.
We have already noted the beginning of serial publications of saga translations, namely, Morris and Magnusson's Saga Library which was stopped by the death of Morris when the fifth volume had been completed. By the last decade of the nineteenth century Icelandic had become one of the languages that an ordinary scholar might boast, and in consequence the list of translations began to lengthen very fast. Several English publishers with scholarly instincts were attracted to this field, and so the reading public may get at the sagas that were so long the exclusive possession of learned professors. The Northern Library, published by David Nutt, of London, already contains four volumes and more are promised: The Saga of King Olaf Tryggwason, by J. Sephton, appeared in 1895; The Tale of Thrond of Gate (Faereyinga Saga), by F. York Powell, in 1896; Hamlet in Iceland (Ambales Saga), by Israel Gollancz, in 1898; The Saga of King Sverri of Norway (Sverris Saga), by J. Sephton, in 1899. If we cannot give to these the praise of being great literature though translations, we can at least foresee that this process of turning all the readable sagas into English will quicken adaptations and increase the stock of allusions in modern writings.
An example of the publishers' feeling that the reading public will find an interest in the saga itself, is the translation of Laxdaela Saga by Muriel A.C. Press (London, 1899, J.M. Dent & Co.). William Morris made this saga known to readers of English poetry by his magnificent "Lovers of Gudrun." Mrs. Press lets us see the story in its original form. Perhaps this translation will appeal as widely as any to those who read, and we may note the differences between this form of writing and that to which the modern times are accustomed.
This saga is a story, but it is not like the work of fiction, nor like the sketch of history which appeals to our interest to-day. It has not the unity of purpose which marks the novel, nor the broad outlook over events which characterizes the history. Plotting is abundant, but plot in the technical sense there is none. Events are recorded in chronological order, but there is no march of those events to a denouement. While it would be wrong to say that there is no one hero in a saga, it would be more correct to say that that hero's name is legion. From generation to generation a saga-history wends its way, each period dominated by a great hero. The annals of a family edited for purposes of oral recitation, or the life of the principal member of that family with an introduction dealing with the great deeds of as many of his ancestors as he would be proud to own—this seems to be what a saga was—Laxdaela, Grettla, Njala.
This form permits many sterling literary qualities. Movement is the most marked characteristic. This was essential to a spoken story, and the sharpest impression left in the mind of an English reader is that of relentless activity. Thus he finds it necessary to keep the bearings of the story by consulting the list of dramatis personae and the map, both indispensable accompaniments of a saga-translation. The chapter headings make this list, and a glance at them for Laxdaela reveals a procession of notable personages—Ketill, Unn, Hoskuld, Olaf the Peacock, Kiartan, Gudrun, Bolli, Thorgills, Thorkell, Thorleik, Bolli Bollison and Snorri. Each of these is, in turn, the center of action, and only Gudrun keeps prominent for any length of time.
Character-portraiture, ever a remarkable achievement in literature, is excellently done in the sagas. There was a necessity for this; so many personages crowded the stage that, if they were not to be mere puppets, they would have to be carefully discriminated. That they were so a perusal of any saga will prove.
In a novel love is almost indispensable; in a saga other forces are the impelling motives. Love-making gets the novelist's tenderest interest and solicitude, but it receives little attention from the sagaman. Wooing under the Arctic Circle was a methodical bargaining, and there was little room for sentiment. When Thorvald asked for Osvif's daughter Gudrun, the father "said that against the match it would tell that he and Gudrun were not of equal standing. Thorvald spoke gently and said he was wooing a wife, not money. After that Gudrun was betrothed to Thorvald.... He should also bring her jewels, so that no woman of equal wealth should have better to show.... Gudrun was not asked about it and took it much to heart, yet things went on quietly." (Chap. XXXIV of Laxdaela.) In Iceland, as elsewhere, love was a source of discord, and for that reason love is always present in the saga. It is not the tender passion there, silvered with moonlight and attended by song. The saga is a man's tale.
The translation just referred to is in The Temple Classics, published by J.M. Dent & Co., London, 1899, and edited by Israel Gollancz. The editor promises (p. 273) other sagas in this form, if Mrs. Press's work prove successful. He speaks of Njala and Volsunga as imminent. It is to be hoped that the intention is to give the Dasent and the Morris versions, for they cannot be excelled.
[Footnote 1: Quoted in Gray, by E.W. Gosse, English Men of Letters, p. 163.]
[Footnote 2: B. Hoff. Hovedpunkter af den Oldislandske litteratur-historie. Kobenhavn. 1873.]
[Footnote 3: Pp. xli-l in Selections from the Poetry and Prose of Thomas Gray, edited by W.L. Phelps. Ginn & Co., Boston. 1894.]
[Footnote 4: Life of Gray, pp. 160 ff.]
[Footnote 5: Wm. Sharp in Lyra Celtica, p. xx. Patrick Geddes and Colleagues. Edinburgh. 1896.]
[Footnote 6: Of Heroic Virtue, p. 355, Vol. III of Sir William Temple's Works. London. 1770.]
[Footnote 7: Of Heroic Virtue, p. 356.]
[Footnote 8: Of Poetry, p. 416.]
[Footnote 9: Spelling and punctuation are as in the original.]
[Footnote 10: Stopford Brooke, English Literature. D. Appleton & Co., New York. 1884. p. 150.]
[Footnote 11: Vol. 3, pp. 146-311.]
[Footnote 12: Quoted in Introduction, p. vii.]
[Footnote 13: Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, Bart., Vol. I, p. 231. Boston, Houghton, Osgood & Co. 1879.]
[Footnote 14: Edinburgh Review, Oct., 1806.]
[Footnote 15: Quoted in Lockhart's Life, Vol. III, p. 241.]
[Footnote 16: In G.W. Dasent's Life of Cleasby, prefixed to the Icelandic-English Dictionary. Based on the MS. collection of the late Richard Cleasby, enlarged and completed by Gudbrand Vigfusson. Oxford. 1874.]
[Footnote 17: In another work by Carlyle, The Early Kings of Norway (1875) he takes special delight in revealing to Englishmen name etymologies that hark back to Norse times. Of this sort are Osborn from Osbjorn; Tooley St. (London) from St. Olave, St. Oley, Stooley, Tooley, (Chap. X).]
[Footnote 18: The Early Kings of Norway bears a later date—1875—than the works we are considering just now, and it is dealt with here only because Carlyle's Heroes and Hero-Worship belongs in the decade we are considering.]
[Footnote 19: Chap. V of Preliminary Dissertation.]
[Footnote 20: Letters, Vol. I, p. 55, dated Dec. 12, 1855.]
[Footnote 21: Home of the Eddic Poems, p. xxxix. London, 1899. David Nutt.]
[Footnote 22: Introduction to the Cleasby Dictionary.]
[Footnote 23: Oxford Essays, 1858, p. 214.]
[Footnote 24: Lectures delivered in America in 1874, by Charles Kingsley. London. 1875. p. 71.]
[Footnote 25: P. 78.]
[Footnote 26: P. 89.]
[Footnote 27: P. 90.]
[Footnote 28: P. 91.]
[Footnote 29: P. 96.]
[Footnote 30: The Life of William Morris, by J.W. Mackail. London, New York, Bombay. Vol. I, p. 200.]
[Footnote 31: Edmond Scherer. Essays on English Literature, p. 309.]
[Footnote 32: Citations are from the 3d edition. Boston. 1881.]
[Footnote 33: Preface to Vol. I, p. v.]
[Footnote 34: The Wooing of Hallbiorn.]