Sigurd the Volsung

The Story of Sigurd the Volsungand the Fall of the Niblungs, Book I, Kelmscott Edition

BOOK I. SIGMUND

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

I.  Of the dwelling of King Volsung, and the wedding of Signy his daughter.

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,
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And the masters of its song-craft were the mightiest men that cast  
The sails of the storm of battle adown the bickering blast.
There dwelt men merry-hearted, and in hope exceeding great
Met the good days and the evil as they went the way of fate:
There the Gods were unforgotten, yea whiles they walked with men,
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Though e'en in that world's beginning rose a murmur now and again
Of the midward time and the fading and the last of the latter days,
And the entering in of the terror, and the death of the People's Praise.
THUS was the dwelling of Volsung, the King of the Midworld's Mark,
As a rose in the winter season, a candle in the dark;
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And as in all other matters 'twas all earthly houses' crown,
And the least of its wall-hung shields was a battle-world's renown,
So therein withal was a marvel and a glorious thing to see,
For amidst of its midmost hall-floor sprang up a mighty tree,
That reared its blessings roofward, and wreathed the roof-tree dear
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With the glory of the summer and the garland of the year.
I know not how they called it ere Volsung changed his life,
But his dawning of fair promise, and his noontide of the strife,
His eve of the battle-reaping and the garnering of his fame,
Have bred us many a story and named us many a name;
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And when men tell of Volsung, they call that war-duke's tree,
That crownèd stem, the Branstock; and so was it told unto me.
SO there was the throne of Volsung beneath its blossoming bower,
But high o'er the roof-crest red it rose 'twixt tower and tower,
And therein were the wild hawks dwelling, abiding the dole of their lord;
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And they wailed high over the wine, and laughed to the waking sword.     
STILL were its boughs but for them, when lo on an even of May
Comes a man from Siggeir the King with a word for his mouth to say:
"All hail to thee King Volsung, from the King of the Goths I come:
He hath heard of thy sword victorious and thine abundant home;
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He hath heard of thy sons in the battle, the fillers of Odin's Hall;
And a word hath the west-wind blown him (full fruitful be its fall!),

A word of thy daughter Signy the crown of womanhood:
Now he deems thy friendship goodly, and thine help in the battle good,
And for these will he give his friendship and his battle-aid again:
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But if thou wouldst grant his asking, and make his heart full fain,
Then shalt thou give him a matter, saith he, without a price,
Signy the fairer than fair, Signy the wiser than wise."
SUCH words in the hall of the Volsungs spake the Earl of Siggeir the Goth,
Bearing the gifts and the gold, the ring, and the tokens of troth,
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But the King's heart laughed within him and the King's sons deemed it good;
For they dreamed how they fared with the Goths o'er ocean and acre and wood,
Till all the north was theirs, and the utmost southern lands.
BUT nought said the snow-white Signy as she sat with folded hands
And gazed at the Goth-king's Earl till his heart grew heavy and cold,
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As one that half remembers a tale that the elders have told,
A story of weird and of woe: then spake King Volsung and said:
"A great king woos thee, daughter; wilt thou lie in a great king's bed,
And bear earth's kings on thy bosom, that our name may never die?"
A FIRE lit up her face, and her voice was e'en as a cry:
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"I will sleep in a great king's bed, I will bear the lords of the earth,
And the wrack and the grief of my youth-days shall be held for nothing worth."
THEN would he question her kindly, as one who loved her sore,
But she put forth her hand and smiled, and her face was flushed no more:
"Would God it might otherwise be! but wert thou to will it not,
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Yet should I will it and wed him, and rue my life and my lot."
LOWLY and soft she said it; but spake out louder now:
"Be of good cheer, King Volsung! for such a man art thou,
That what thou dost well-counselled, goodly and fair it is,
And what thou dost unwitting, the Gods have bidden thee this:
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So work all things together for the fame of thee and thine. 65 
And now meseems at my wedding shall be a hallowed sign,
That shall give thine heart a joyance, whate'er shall follow after."
She spake, and the feast sped on, and the speech and the song and the laughter
Went over the words of boding as the tide of the norland main
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Sweeps over the hidden skerry, the home of the shipman's bane.
SO wendeth his way on the morrow that Earl of the Gothland King,
Bearing the gifts and the gold, and King Volsung's tokening,
And a word in his mouth moreover, a word of blessing and hail,
And a bidding to King Siggeir to come ere the June-tide fail
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And wed him to white-hand Signy and bear away his bride,
While sleepeth the field of the fishes amidst the summer-tide.
SO on Mid-Summer Even ere the undark night began
Siggeir the King of the Goth-folk went up from the bath of the swan
Unto the Volsung dwelling with many an Earl about;
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There through the glimmering thicket the linkèd mail rang out,
And sang as mid the woodways sings the summer-hidden ford:
There were gold-rings God-fashioned, and many a Dwarf-wrought sword,
And many a Queen-wrought kirtle and many a written spear;
So came they to the acres, and drew the threshold near,

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And amidst of the garden blossoms, on the grassy, fruit-grown land,
Was Volsung the King of the Wood-world with his sons on either hand;
Therewith down lighted Siggeir the lord of a mighty folk,
Yet showed he by King Volsung as the bramble by the oak,
Nor reached his helm to the shoulder of the least of Volsung’s sons.
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And so into the hall they wended, the Kings and their mighty ones;
And they dight the feast full glorious, and drank through the death of the day,
Till the shadowless moon rose upward, till it wended white away;
Then they went to the gold-hung beds, and at last for an hour or twain
Were all things still and silent, save a flaw of the summer rain.
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BUT on the morrow noontide when the sun was high and bare,
More glorious was the banquet, and now was Signy there,
And she sat beside King Siggeir, a glorious bride forsooth;
Ruddy and white was she wrought as the fair-stained sea-beast's tooth,
But she neither laughed nor spake, and her eyes were hard and cold,
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And with wandering side-long looks her lord would she behold.
That saw Sigmund her brother, the eldest Volsung son,
And oft he looked upon her, and their eyes met now and anon,
And ruth arose in his heart, and hate of Siggeir the Goth,
And there had he broken the wedding, but for plighted promise and troth. 
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But those twain were beheld of Siggeir, and he deemed of the Volsung kin,
That amid their might and their malice small honour should he win;
Yet thereof made he no semblance, but abided times to be
And laughed out with the loudest, amid the hope and the glee.
And nought of all saw Volsung, as he dreamed of the coming glory,
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And how the Kings of his kindred should fashion the round world's story.
SO round about the Branstock they feast in the gleam of the gold;
And though the deeds of man-folk were not yet waxen old,
Yet had they tales for songcraft, and the blossomed garth of rhyme;
Tales of the framing of all things and the entering in of time
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From the halls of the outer heaven; so near they knew the door.
Wherefore uprose a sea-king, and his hands that loved the oar
Now dealt with the rippling harp-gold, and he sang of the shaping of earth,
And how the stars were lighted, and where the winds had birth,
And the gleam of the first of summers on the yet–untrodden grass.
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But e'en as men's hearts were hearkening some heard the thunder pass 
O'er the cloudless noontide heaven; and some men turned about
And deemed that in the doorway they heard a man laugh out.
Then into the Volsung dwelling a mighty man there strode,
One-eyed and seeming ancient, yet bright his visage glowed:
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Cloud-blue was the hood upon him, and his kirtle gleaming-grey
As the latter morning sundog when the storm is on the way:
A bill he bore on his shoulder, whose mighty ashen beam
Burnt bright with the flame of the sea and the blended silver's gleam.
And such was the guise of his raiment as the Volsung elders had told
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Was borne by their fathers' fathers, and the first that warred in the wold.

SO strode he to the Branstock nor greeted any lord,
But forth from his cloudy raiment he drew a gleaming sword,
And smote it deep in the tree-bole, and the wild hawks overhead
Laughed 'neath the naked heaven as at last he spake and said:
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"Earls of the Goths, and Volsungs, abiders on the earth,
Lo there amid the Branstock a blade of plenteous worth!
The folk of the war-wand's forgers wrought never better steel
Since first the burg of heaven uprose for man-folk's weal.
Now let the man among you whose heart and hand may shift
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To pluck it from the oakwood e'en take it for my gift.
Then ne'er, but his own heart falter, its point and edge shall fail
Until the night's beginning and the ending of the tale.
Be merry Earls of the Goth-folk, O Volsung Sons be wise,
And reap the battle-acre that ripening for you lies:
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For they told me in the wild-wood, I heard on the mountain side,
That the shining house of heaven is wrought exceeding wide,
And that there the Early-comers shall have abundant rest
While Earth grows scant of great ones, and fadeth from its best,
And fadeth from its midward and groweth poor and vile:
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All hail to thee King Volsung! farewell for a little while!"  
SO sweet his speaking sounded, so wise his words did seem,
That moveless all men sat there, as in a happy dream
We stir not lest we waken; but there his speech had end,
And slowly down the hall-floor, and outward did he wend;
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And none would cast him a question or follow on his ways,
For they knew that the gift was Odin's, a sword for the world to praise.
BUT now spake Volsung the King: "Why sit ye silent and still?
Is the Battle-Father's visage a token of terror and ill?
Arise O Volsung Children, Earls of the Goths arise,
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And set your hands to the hilts as mighty man and wise!
Yet deem it not too easy; for belike a fateful blade
Lies there in the heart of the Branstock for a fated warrior made."
NOW therewith spake King Siggeir: "King Volsung, give me a grace
To try it the first of all men, lest another win my place,
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And mere chance-hap steal my glory and the gain that I might win."
THEN somewhat laughed King Volsung, and he said: "O Guest, begin;
Though herein is the first as the last, for the Gods have long to live,
Nor hath Odin yet forgotten unto whom the gift he would give."
THEN forth to the tree went Siggeir, the Goth-folk's mighty lord,
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And laid his hand on the gemstones, and strained at the glorious sword 
Till his heart grew black with anger; and never a word he said
As he wended back to the high-seat: but Signy waxed blood-red
When he sat him adown beside her; and her heart was nigh to break
For the shame and the fateful boding: and therewith King Volsung spake:
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"THUS comes back empty-handed the mightiest King of Earth,
And how shall the feeble venture? yet each man knows his worth;
And to-day may a great beginning from a little seed upspring
To o'erpass many a great one that hath the name of King:

So stand forth free and unfree; stand forth both most and least:
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But first ye Earls of the Goth-folk, ye lovely lords we feast."
UPSTOOD the Earls of Siggeir, and each man drew anigh
And deemed his time was coming for a glorious gain and high;
But for all their mighty shaping and their deeds in the battle-wood,
No looser in the Branstock that gift of Odin stood.
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Then uprose Volsung's homemen, and the fell-abiding folk;
And the yellow-headed shepherds came gathering round the Oak,
And the searchers of the thicket and the dealers with the oar:
And the least and the worst of them all was a mighty man of war.
But for all their mighty shaping, and the struggle and the strain
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Of their hands, the deft in labour, they tugged thereat in vain;
And still as the shouting and jeers, and the names of men and the laughter
Beat backward from gable to gable, and rattled o’er roof-tree and rafter,
Moody and still sat Siggeir; for he said: "They have trained me here
As a mock for their woodland bondsmen; and yet shall they buy it dear."
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NOW the tumult sank a little, and men cried on Volsung the King
And his sons, the hedge of battle, to try the fateful thing.
So Volsung laughed, and answered: "I will set me to the toil,
Lest these my guests of the Goth-folk should deem I fear the foil.
Yet nought am I ill-sworded, and the oldest friend is best;
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And this, my hand's first fellow, will I bear to the grave-mound's rest,
Nor wield meanwhile another: Yea this shall I have in hand
When mid the host of Odin in the Day of Doom I stand."
THEREWITH from his belt of battle he raised the golden sheath,
And showed the peace-strings glittering about the hidden death:
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Then he laid his hand on the Branstock, and cried: "O tree beloved,
I thank thee of thy good-heart that so little thou art moved:
Abide thou thus, green bower, when I am dead and gone
And the best of all my kindred a better day hath won!"
THEN as a young man laughed he, and on the hilts of gold
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His hand, the battle-breaker, took fast and certain hold,
And long he drew and strained him, but mended not the tale,
Yet none the more thereover his mirth of heart did fail;
But he wended to the high-seat and thence began to cry:
"SONS I have gotten and cherished, now stand ye forth to try;
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Lest Odin tell in God-home how from the way he strayed,
And how to the man he would not he gave away his blade."
So therewithal rose Rerir, and wasted might and main;
Then Gunthiof, and then Hunthiof, they wearied them in vain;
Nought was the might of Agnar; nought Helgi could avail;
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Sigi the tall and Solar no further brought the tale,
Nor Geirmund the priest of the temple, nor Gylfi of the wood.
AT last by the side of the Branstock Sigmund the Volsung stood,
And with right hand wise in battle the precious sword-hilt caught,
Yet in a careless fashion, as he deemed it all for nought:
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When lo, from floor to rafter went up a shattering shout,
For aloft in the hand of Sigmund the naked blade shone out

As high o'er his head he shook it: for the sword had come away
From the grip of the heart of the Branstock, as though all loose it lay.
A little while he stood there mid the glory of the hall,
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Like the best of the trees of the garden, when the April sunbeams fall
On its blossomed boughs in the morning, and tell of the days to be;
Then back unto the high-seat he wended soberly;
For this was the thought within him: Belike the day shall come
When I shall bide here lonely amid the Volsung home,
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Its glory and sole avenger, its after-summer seed.
Yea, I am the hired of Odin, his workday will to speed,
And the harvest-tide shall be heavy.  What then, were it come and past
And I laid by the last of the sheaves with my wages earned at the last?
HE lifted his eyes as he thought it, for now was he come to his place,
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And there he stood by his father and met Siggeir face to face,
And he saw him blithe and smiling, and heard him how he spake:
"O best of the sons of Volsung, I am merry for thy sake
And the glory that thou hast gained us; but whereas thine hand and heart
Are e'en now the lords of the battle, how lack'st thou for thy part
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A matter to better the best? Wilt thou overgild fine gold
Or dye the red rose redder? So I prithee let me hold
This sword that comes to thine hand on the day I wed thy kin.
For at home have I a store-house; there is mountain-gold therein,
The weight of a war-king's harness; there is silver plenteous store;
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There is iron, and huge-wrought amber, that the southern men love sore,
When they sell me the woven wonder, the purple born of the sea;

And it hangeth up in that bower; and all this is a gift for thee:
But the sword that came to my wedding, methinketh it meet and right,
That it lie on my knees in the council and stead me in the fight."
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BUT Sigmund laughed and answered, and he spake a scornful word:
"And if I take twice that treasure, will it buy me Odin's sword,
And the gift that the Gods have given? will it buy me again to stand
Betwixt two mightiest world-kings with a longed-for thing in mine hand
That all their might hath missed of? when the purple-selling men
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Come buying thine iron and amber, dost thou sell thine honour then?
Do they wrap it in bast of the linden, or run it in moulds of earth?
And shall thou account mine honour as a matter of lesser worth?
Came the sword to thy wedding, Goth-king, to thine hand it never came,
And whence is thine envy whetted to deal me this word of shame."
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BLACK then was the heart of Siggeir, but his face grew pale and red,
Till he drew a smile thereover, and spake the word and said:
"Nay, pardon me, Signy's kinsman! when the heart desires o'ermuch
It teacheth the tongue ill-speaking, and my word belike was such.
But the honour of thee and thy kindred, I hold it even as mine,
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And I love you as my heart-blood, and take ye this for a sign.
I bid thee now King Volsung, and these thy glorious sons,
And thine earls and thy dukes of battle and all thy mighty ones,
To come to the house of the Goth-kings as honoured guests and dear
And abide the winter over; that the dusky days and drear

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May be glorious with thy presence, that all folk may praise my life,
And the friends that my fame hath gotten; and that this my new-wed wife
Thine eyes may make the merrier till she bear my eldest born."
Then speedily answered Volsung: "No king of the earth might scorn
Such noble bidding, Siggeir; and surely will I come
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To look upon thy glory and the Goths' abundant home.
"But let two months wear over, for I have many a thing
To shape and shear in the Woodland, as befits a people's king:
And thou meanwhile here abiding of all my goods shall befree,
And then shall we twain together roof over the glass-green sea
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With the sides of our golden dragons; and our war-hosts' blended shields
Shall fright the sea-abiders and the folk of the fishy fields."
ANSWERED the smooth-speeched Siggeir: "I thank thee well for this,
And thy bidding is most kingly; yet take it not amiss     
That I wend my ways in the morning; for we Goth-folk know indeed
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That the sea is a foe full deadly, and a friend that fails at need,
And that Ran who dwells thereunder will many a man beguile:
And I bear a woman with me; nor would I for a while
Behold that sea-queen's dwelling; for glad at heart am I
Of the realm of the Goths and the Volsungs, and I look for long to lie
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In the arms of the fairest woman that ever a king may kiss.
So I go mine house to order for the increase of thy bliss,
That there in nought but joyance all we may wear the days
And that men of the time hereafter the more our lives may praise."
AND for all the words of Volsung e'en so must the matter be,
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And Siggeir the Goth and Signy on the morn shall sail the sea.
But the feast sped on the fairer, and the more they waxed in disport
And the glee that all men love, as they knew that the hours were short.
Yet a boding heart bare Sigmund amid his singing and laughter;
And somewhat Signy wotted of the deeds that were coming after;
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For the wisest of women she was, and many a thing she knew;
She would hearken the voice of the midnight till she heard what the Gods would do,
And her feet fared oft on the wild, and deep was her communing
With the heart of the glimmering woodland, where never a fowl may sing.
So fair sped on the feasting amid the gleam of the gold,
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Amid the wine and the joyance; and many a tale was told
To the harp-strings of that wedding, whereof the latter days
Yet hold a little glimmer to wonder at and praise.
Then the undark night drew over, and faint the high stars shone,
And there on the beds blue-woven the slumber-tide they won;
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Yea while on the brightening mountain the herd-boy watched his sheep,
Yet soft on the breast of Signy King Siggeir lay asleep.

 

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