Supplementary Materials for Sigurd the Volsung: Later Criticism/Bibliography

Anderson, Karl. "Scandinavian Elements in the Works of William Morris." Diss. Harvard, 1940. [portal page to pdfs]; also see headnote, "Manuscripts and Revisions."

"Sigurd the Volsung," 233-67.

The period 1871 to 1876, when Morris reached the peak of his interest in early Scandinavia, closes fittingly with the publication in 1876 of The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs,1 which not only ranks first among Morris’s Scandinavian works but is also, in the opinion of most critics, the greatest of all his poetical undertakings. In fact, Morris himself considered this poem his best, and it was on this production that he wished the final estimate of his literary ability to be based. Miss May Morris says of it,

It is the central work of my father’s life, his last long and important poem, and in it sustained poetic inspiration culminates – and closes. It is the work that, first and last – putting aside the eagerness of the moment which sometimes gives all precedence to the work in hand – he held most highly and wished to be remembered by. All his Icelandic study and travel, all his feeling for the North, led up to this, and his satisfaction with it did not waver or change to the last.2

The history of this poem carries us back to the years 1869 and 1870, when Morris was translating the Vőlsunga saga and the heroic lays of the Edda. As I have already pointed out, Morris was repelled by the story of Sigurd when he first came into contact with it, but became more and more impressed with the dignity and grandeur of the tale as he proceeded to turn it into English;3 and in his preface to the published translation of the Vőlsunga saga he speaks of it as “the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what

  1. Collected Works, XII.
  2. Ibid., XII, xxiii.
  3. See above, pages 62-64.

the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks.”1 Morris revealed his deep admiration for the saga in an unrestrained manner in a letter he wrote to Professor Charles Eliot Norton of Harvard on December 21, 1869; commenting upon his work, he stated,

I have also another Icelandic translation in hand, the Volsunga Saga viz. which is the Ice: version of the Nibalungen, older I suppose, and, to my mind, without measure nobler and grander: I daresay you have read abstracts of the story, but however fine it seemed to you thus, it would give you little idea of the depth and intensity of the complete work: here and there indeed it is somewhat disjointed, I suppose from its having been put together from varying versions of the same song; it seems as though the author-collector felt the subject too much to trouble himself about the niceties of art…; the scene of the last interview between Sigurd and the despairing and terrible Brynhild touches me more than anything I have ever met with in literature; there is nothing wanting in it, nothing forgotten, nothing repeated, nothing overstrained; all tenderness is shown without the use of a tender word, all misery and despair without a word of raving, complete beauty without an ornament, and all this in two pages of moderate print. In short it is to the full meaning of the word inspired; touching too though hardly wonderful to think of the probable author; some 12 century Icelander, living the hardest and rudest of lives, seeing few people and pretty much the same day after day, with his old religion taken from him and his new one hardly gained – It doesn’t look promising for the future of art I fear. Perhaps you think my praise of the work somewhat stilted, but I has moved us one and all in the same way, and for my part I should be sorry to attempt reading aloud the scene I have told you of before strangers. I am not getting on well with my work, for in fact I believe the Vőlsunga has rather swallowed me up for some time past, I mean thinking about it, for it hasn’t taken me long to do. I had it in my head to write an epic of it, but though I still hanker after it, I see clearly it would be foolish, for no verse could render the best parts of it, and it would only be a flatter and tamer version of a thing already existing….2

In the Preface to Volume VI of The Saga Library, in a passage which I have already quoted in another connection, Magnússon tells us that it was he who suggested to Morris that he should retell the story of the Vőlsunga saga in a narrative poem of his own; he states

  1. Collected Works, VII, 286.
  2. May Morris, William Morris, I, 472-473.

that at first Morris definitely rejected the idea, even going “so far as to say that these matters were too scared, too venerable, to be touched by a modern hand…,” but a month of two later he found Morris one day “in a state of fervid enthusiasm,” determined to make an epic poem out of the story of Sigurd.1 However, although the tale of Sigurd was very much in Morris’s thoughts all through the early seventies,2 he did not actually begin writing the poem until October 15, 1875.3 By March of the following year, according to a letter quoted by Miss May Morris, he had reached the end of Part II, having finished his account of the death of Sigurd and Brynhild;4 in November, 1876, he had completed the whole work, and presented it to the public.5

The relation between Morris’s poem and his sources is very fully and competently discussed by Heinrich Bartels in his William Morris, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs, Eine Studie über das Verhältnis des Epos zu den Quellen, published in Műnster in 1906. Bartels points out that in the main Morris followed the Vőlsunga saga, but that he used his original very freely, making numerous changes, additions, and omissions. Thus, for example, in order to give the work greater unity, Morris omitted several episodes

  1. See Saga Library, VI, xv.
  2. Mackail, William Morris, I, 299.
  3. The opening of the first manuscript of the poem bears this date; see Collected Works, XII, xxiii.
  4. See ibid., XII, vii.
  5. Forman, Books of Morris, p. 87.

[236] in the Vőlsunga saga, such as the opening account of Odin, Sigi, and Rerir, Sigurd’s avenging of his father, and the story of Swanhild in the last three chapters; he tried to make the tale more acceptable to nineteenth century readers by omitting or altering the details of particularly savage episodes, such as the killing of Sigurd’s nine brothers in the woods by the she-wolf and Sigurd’s murder of the first two children of Siggeir and Signy; in several cases, for reasons difficult to ascertain, he failed to include references given in the saga to early Germanic customs, such as the burning of Brynhild on a pyre together with four men, two hawks, and ten slaves; in order to give his story a vague and mystical background, he substituted colorful but indefinite names for the more or less specific place-names mentioned in the original, as, for example, “Midworld’s Mark” for “Húnaland”; on several occasions he seems to have endeavored to render the tale less bewildering to modern readers by refraining from mentioning minor characters by name; greatest in number, as is to be expected, are the alterations that he made in the characters themselves, degrading some and elevating others for the purpose of improving the motivation and plot structure of the story from the modern point of view.1 Bartels also points out that in several cases Morris departed from the version of the tale given in the Vőlsunga saga and introduced instead material from the Sigurd lays in the Poetic Edda. Thus, he shows clearly

  1. Bartels, op. cit., pp.14-28.

that for many details and even incidents Morris drew upon “Reginsmál,” “Fáfnismál,” “Sigdrdrífomál,” “Guðrúnarkviða I,” “Sigurðarkviða in skamma,” “Atlakviða in gro͜enlenzka,” “Atlamál in gro͜enlenzko,” and “Frá dauða Sinfiǫtla.”1 He also finds that for some of his material Morris was indebted to the non-Sigurd poems in the Edda, such as “Vǫlospá,” “Hávamál,” Grímnismál,” “Alvíssmál,” and “Helgakviða Hiǫrvarzsonar”;2 these examples are especially interesting, because they are not the only clear proof we have that Morris read not only the heroic lays which he printed at the end of his translation of the Vőlsunga saga in 1870 but also the non-Sigurd poems at the beginning of the Edda. In a few cases, Bartels also notes, Morris seems to have followed the brief account of the Volsungs given in the “Skáldskaparmál” in the Prose Edda.3 Finally, he proves clearly that contrary to the statements generally made by critics and reviewers, the poem was considerably influenced by the Nibelungenlied, especially in the account of Gudrun after the murder of Sigurd by her brothers and in the whole description of the fight in Atli’s hall.4
In the foregoing synopsis I have pointed out that Bartels calls attention in his study to a few cases in which, in developing

  1. Pages 28-50.
  2. Pages 50-54.
  3. Pages 56-62.
  4. Pages 62-72.

the background of his tale, Morris departed from the stories of Sigurd that he was following and inserted details drawn from other Norse works that he had read. In addition to the material of this nature to which I have already referred, Bartels notes at the beginning of his study1 that the account in the poem of the swearing of oaths over the “Boar of Sôn” at the wedding feast of Sigurd and the description of the ritual connected with the swearing of the oath of brotherhood were inserted by Morris, but he does not indicate the source of Morris’s information regarding these matters. Both these episodes demand further consideration than Bartels has given them.
In the Vőlsunga saga there is no detailed account of the wedding-feast of Sigurd and Gudrun; the Old Norse tale merely states that “a noble feast was holden, and endured many days, and Sigurd drank at the wedding of him and Gudrun….”2 Morris, however, tells us that in the midst of the feast the “Cup of daring Promise” and the “hallowed Boar of Sôn” were borne into the hall by servants,3 that Sigurd drew his sword, placed it on the “hallowed Wood’beast,” swore that he would live bravely and nobly, and then drank the “Cup of Promise,” and that afterwards Gudrun’s brothers, Gunnar and Hogni,

  1. Page 13.
  2. Collected Works, VII, 351.
  3. In the Old Norse accounts we are told that a live boar was led into the hall for this purpose, and that afterwards the boar was sacrificed to Frey; see references given below on page 239 in notes 2 and 3.          
did likewise.1 This custom – which, by the way, was usually restricted to the Yule-feast among the early Scandinavians – is mentioned in a number of works that Morris is known to have mead – namely, in one of the prose passages in “Helgakviða Hiǫrvarsonar,”2 in Thorpe’s Northern Mythology,3 and in De la Motte Fouqué’s Sintram.4 It is only in the first of these accounts, however, that the term “Sonargőltr,” which Morris renders in his poem as the “Boar of Sôn,” is used. The description in the poem of the procedure followed in the swearing of brotherhood is likewise almost entirely an addition by Morris. In the Vőlsunga saga, when Sigurd marries Gudrun, we are simply told that he and Gudrun’s brothers swore oaths of brotherhood;5 later in the story there is a brief allusion to the blending of blood on this occasion,6 but there is no reference in the original tale to the so-called “turf-yoke.” Morris, however, presents a detailed account of the procedure,7 very likely drawing upon the description in the Gísla saga8 for his information. He states that Sigurd, Gunnar, and Hogni went to the “Doom-ring,” loosened a strip of turf, raised it on two spears, crawled under it, cut open a vein in their
  1. Collected Works, XII, 177-179.
  2. Edda Sa͜emoundar, tr. Thorpe, II, 14.
  3. I, 208-209.
  4. Undine, and Sintram and his Companions, pp. 115 and 118-119.
  5. Collected Works, VII, 350-351.
  6. Ibid., VII, 373.
  7. Ibid., XII, 181-182. For other references to this ritual, see ibid., XII, 187, 1.26; 188, 1.4; 202, 1.22; 226, 1.30; and 227, 1.1.
  8. Tr. Dasent, pp. 23-24.

arms, let their blood drip and mix on the soil beneath the cut turf, and then swore oaths of eternal loyalty and friendship.

The additions that Bartels shows were made by Morris are by no means the only steps Morris took to develop in greater detail the early Scandinavian background of his story. Especially numerous are the allusions he seems to have added for this purpose to the mythology of the early Norsemen. Throughout the poem we find references, not in his immediate originals, to Balder,1 Thor or Vingi-Thor,2 Mimir,3 the Allfather, the Father of the Slain,4 Fenris-

  1. See Collected Works, XII, 23, 1.1; 97, 1.11; 100, 1.20; 141, 1.26; 244, 1.19; and 278, 1.26; Thorpe’s Northern Mythology, I, 12 and 15; and Northern Antiquities, p. 411.
  2. See Collected Works, XII, 87, 1.11; 89, 1.1; and 131, 1.21; Northern Mythology, I, 21-22, 39, 52, 54-68, 71, 77, 79, and 81; and Northern Antiquities, pp. 374-375, 377, 417, and 444.
  3. See Collected Works, XII, 134, 1.28; Northern Mythology, I, 12 and 15; and Northern Antiquities, p. 411.
  4. For occurrences of the names “Allfather” and “Father of the Slain” for “Odin,” see Collected Works, XII, 15, 1.28; 77, 1.1; 79, 1.2; 84, 1.19; 85, 1.20; 116, 1.28; 125, 11.10, 17, and 29; 128, 1.30; 2320, 1.30; 243, 1.13; and 299, 1.13; Northern Mythology, I, 15-18; and Northern Antiquities, p. 416.


Wolf,1 the Midworld’s Serpent,2 Odin’s Choosers,3 the Uttermost Horn,4 God-home,5 the House of Gold,6 the Midworld,7 and the Day of Doom or Ragnarők.8 With all this material Morris had undoubtedly become acquainted through Thorpe’s Northern Mythology and Mallet’s


 1.     See Collected Works, XII, 21, 1.21; 73, 1.16; and 144, 1.3; Northern Mythology, I, 49-52, 80, 81, and 82; and Northern Antiquities, pp. 96, 102, 103, 423, and 452.

2.     See Collected Works, XII, 134, 1.28; Northern Mythology, I, 31, 49, 50, 62, 66, 68, 79, and 81; and Northern Antiquities, pp. 96, 423, 445, and 453.

3.     For the use of the term “Odin’s Choosers” for “Valkyries,” see Collected Works, XII, 134, 1.27 and 172, 1.16; for a description of the “Valkyries” and of their duties as messengers sent by Odin to choose the slain, see Northern Mythology, I, 14, and Northern Antiquities, pp. 96, 427, and 568.

4.     Morris evidently used the term “Uttermost Horn” for the horn of Heimdall; see Collected Works, XII, 231, 1.23; Northern Mythology, I, 28-29, 79, and 81; and Northern Antiquities, p. 95, 102-103, 421, and 452-453.

5.     See Collected Works, XII, 7, 1.26; 21, 1.31; 47, 1.23; 64, 1.1; 73, 1.14; 75, 1.2; 77, 1.34; 78, 11.8 and 16; 82, 1.17; 99, 1.9; 117, 1.11; 124, 1.25; 169, 1.8; and 203, 1.25; Northern Mythology, I, 152; and Northern Antiquities, p. 505.

6.     In referring to the “House of Gold” Morris evidently had in mind either “Gladsheim” or “Valhalla”; see Collected Works, XII, 124, 1.25; Northern Mythology, I, 19-20; and Northern Antiquities, pp. 399-409. Once (in Collected Works, XII, 72, 1.4) he represents Odin as telling Sigurd that he has seen Sigurd’s fathers living in “a shining house”; here he is clearly referring to Valhalla.

7.     For occurrences of the terms “Midworld” or “Mid-earth,” see Collected Works, XII, 1, 1.23; 297, 1.14; and 298, 1.19; Northern Mythology, I, 5 and 10-11; and Northern Antiquities, pp. 405.

8.     For references to the “Day of Doom” or “Ragnarők,” see Collected Works, XII, 7, 1.13; 21, 1.7; 32, 1.22; and 105, 1.25; Northern Mythology, I, 78-83; and Northern Antiquities, pp. 102-104 and 451-456.


Northern Antiquities. Moreover, the references found in the poem to the use of “peace-strings” on swords,1 to the fighting of duels on “the hazelled field,”2 and the passing of judgment in the hallowed “Doom-rings”3 are not in the original versions of the Vőlsung story, but were added by Morris. With the “peace-strings” or “friðbőnd” found on Norse swords and with the custom of fighting “holmgangs” we have already seen that he was acquainted.4 With the term “doom-ring” and the plan of the Old Norse courts which gave rise to this name he had very likely become familiar through the account of the early Scandinavian “doom-rings” given in Mallet’s Northern Antiquities5 and through the allusions to “doom-rings” in some of the sagas he had read with Magnússon.6 Finally, I should like to point out that Morris introduced into his poem two proverbs which are not in his originals but which he had

  1.  See Collected Works, XII, 7, 1.15; 14, 1.33; 52, 1.25; 96, 1.29; 150, 1.2; 177, 1.27; and 226. 11.8 and 17.
  2. See ibid., XII, 44, 1.32; 45, 1.1; and 132, 1.22.
  3. See ibid., XII, 114, 1.10; 129, 1.23; 181, 1.24; 182, 11.1 and 32; 215, 1.2; 217, 1.19; and 63, 1.32.
  4. See above, pages 141 and 226.
  5. Pages 107-108.
  6. See, for example, Saga Library, I, 91, 1.9 and II, 18, 1.7. He had also seen the remains of a “doom-ring” on one of his trips to Iceland; see Collected Works, VIII, 171-172.



met with in the Grettis Saga – namely, “Best unto babe is mother”1 and “Old friends are last to sever.”2 It should also be noted that the descriptions of mountain scenery found throughout the poem were almost certainly influenced by Morris’s travels in Iceland.3

Bartel’s work is not the only study that has appeared of the relation of Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung to the Old Norse prose and poetical versions of the tale of Sigurd. In February, 1923, Geroge T. McDowell published an article on the same topic in Scandinavian Studies and Notes, 4 which, though it is accurate5 and well-written, adds little or nothing to the subject. He compares Morris’s poem with the Vőlsunga saga, and finds, as Bartels did, that Morris made numerous omissions, additions, and changes. The most important difference between Morris’s tale and the original is, he feels, the manner in which Morris sentimentalized and romanticizes his characters, and throws a “golden haze” over many of his scenes; on the basis of this consideration he concludes that “William Morris can

  1. See Collected Works, XII, 38, 1.15 and ibid., VII, 34.
  2. See ibid., XII, 204, 1.21 and ibid., VII, 200.
  3. See, for example, ibid., XII, 103, 1.32 – 104, 1.6; 106, 11.7-9; 107, 11.6-8 and 14-33; and 151, 11.1-11 and 15-18.
  4. VII (1921-1923), 151-168.
  5. McDowell makes one slight error, He says that unessential “and weakening details are omitted in such instances as that of the weasel which suggested to Sigmund a remedy for Sinfjotli when the two were werewolves” (page 154), but Morris does keep this detail in his poem (see Collected Works, XII, 33-34).



hardly be termed a just or wholly trustworthy interpreter of the spirit of the Icelandic sagas of the Volsungs.”1

In the British Museum, London, are deposited three manuscripts of Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung: two of them, Add 27497 and Add 27498, are quarto notebooks, presenting approximately the last third of the first version of the poem, together with numerous revisions at the close of the last volume; the third, Eg 866, is a folio volume, containing the final draft of the complete work, with several revised passages at the end.2 The greater part of the poem appears in these

  1. Page 168.
  2. The two quarto manuscripts are bound in three-quarter dark-brown leather. On the back of the first one is pasted a slip of paper bearing the words “Sigurd. MS. of First Essay,” and below this paper are imprinted in gilt the words “Brit. Mus. Add. 37, 497.” On the inside of the front cover, at the top, we find the note “From the Library of Ch: Fairfax Murray” on a slip or paper which has been pasted in, and below this tag the number “37,497” is stamped. In the lower left-hand corner of the inside of the front cover there is pasted a slip of paper with the statement “From the Library of Laurence W. Hodson, Compton Hall, Near Wolverhampton”; just above this tag is written in pencil the number “449.b.” On the opposite page, the recto of the first flyleaf, the words “Presented by C. Fairfax Murray Esq 11 May, 1907” have been written in ink. Below this note is the stamp of the British Museum.

In this manuscript each sheet, instead of each page, is numbered. The writing begins on the verso of the first flyleaf in the middle of the final scene between Sigurd and Brynhild, continues on the second flyleaf, and runs on to the top of page 62. At this point Morris turned the book around, and beginning on what was originally the last flyleaf, numbered 91, he wrote backwards to page 62, ending with what is line 25 on page 279 of Volume XII of the Collected Works. On the recto of the second flyleaf at the end is written in pencil, “11+91.ff. May. 1907. C. B. Examined by C. J. C.”

Morris seems to have written out the material in this book very hurriedly. He wrote in pencil, using sometimes only the right-hand page, at other times both sides of each sheet. The pages are ruled, with 23 lines on a page, but he very seldom wrote on the lines, getting on the average 14 or 15 long lines of poetry on each page. There is scarcely any punctuation in the manuscript; he did, however, usually begin each line with a capital.

The other quarto manuscript, Add. 37, 498, is similar in form to the one just discussed. On the inside of the front cover and on the recto of the first flyleaf are some notes in prose pertaining to the final meeting between Sigurd and Brynhild. On the verso of the first flyleaf are pasted two slips of paper, one statin that the book is “From the Library of Ch: Fairfax Murray,” the other that it is “From


manuscripts in the same form as in the printed text, except of course for occasional minor, verbal changes; there are seven passages, however, each one dealing with one of the crucial moments of the story, which have been extensively revised and in pars even completely rewritten in the manuscript. In her Preface to Volume

 (Continuation of note 2 on page 244)  As in the other, manuscript, the pages in the body of the book are ruled, with 23 lines on a page, and each sheet, instead of each page, is numbered. The writing begins on the first paper with ruled lines, which is numbered “1,” and runs on to the last page of this type, which bears the number “87.” On the recto of the second flyleaf at the end is written in pencil “v + 88 ff May 1907. A. J. W. Examined by P. W. B.” At the top of the verso of this flyleaf the number “37, 498” is stamped. On the inside of the back cover Morris has written “William Morris 26 Queen Sq: Bloomsbury W. C. Whoever finds this book and brings it to the owner at the above address will receive a reward of 1₺ (one pound).” In the main he wrote only on the right-hand pages in this manuscript, and so when he had come to the end of the book, he turned it around and began writing from what originally the back toward the front; he continued to write in this way until he had reached page 43b. The section of the poem written out in this manuscript extends from what is line 26 on page 279 of Volume XII of the Collected Works to the end of the whole poem.

The folio manuscript of Sigurd is bound in half-leather, light brown in color; the covers are of wood. On the back are the words “Sigurd the Volsun By William Morris MS. Brit. Mus. Eg. 2866(F).” On the inside of the front cover, in the lower left-hand corner, there is pasted a slip of paper bearing the note “From the Library of Laurence W. Hodson, Compton Hall, near Wolverhampton”; above this tag is written the number “526.h.” On the recto of the first flyleaf we find in the upper right-hand corner the number “66A,” and in the middle of the page the words “Brit. Mus. Egerton MS. 2866 (F.) Purchased of L. B. Hodson Esq. 17 Jan. 1907.” There are three more flyleaves; they are all blank.

In the main part of the manuscript the pages are ruled, with 34 lines on a page. Morris has written the poem out in ink, using the right-hand pages only; in the main he succeeded in getting 34 complete lines of poetry on each page, for as a rule he wrote the last two or three words in each verse between the lines instead of on a separate line. The pages have been numbered twice, the original number having become incorrect because of omissions and additions of pages here and there. According to the final numbering, the poem runs from page 1 to page 355. After the conclusion of the poem, we find ten more pages, these pages consisting of cancelled versions of various scenes in the tale; this material comes to and end on page 366. Then follow four flyleaves. On the recto of the first of these is written “1X + 3bb folios Examd by P. W. B. March ’07.”


Twelve of Collected Works,1 and in her William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist,2 Miss Morris refers briefly to some of these revisions and discusses one -  the rewriting of the account of the final meeting between Sigurd and Brynhild – in detail, quoting the greater part of the early version of this scene. The other revisions also, it seems to me, are very interesting and deserve careful consideration, for they all throw light on the steps in the evolution of the poem in Morris’s mind and on the aims he kept before himself in writing the tale.

The first of these revisions, the reworking of the account of the birth of Sigurd, is chiefly interesting because it shows in a very striking manner the extent to which Morris improved the poem, from a literary point of view, in the course of rewriting certain sections.3 One of the loveliest passages in the whole work, as we have it in printed text, is the dialogue between King Elf and the women who come to show him the new-born babe;4 this scene, with its very effective suspense and climax, is entirely missing in the original version. There the child is presented to Kind Elf without any introductory comment, and he arises and delivers a long speech

  1. Pages xxiv-xx.
  2. I, 478-492.
  3. The earlier version is found in Manuscript Eg 2866, pages 73, 74, 72, and 78, 1.1, these cancelled pages being scattered among the sheets containing the rewritten account; the revised passage, which is written out in Manuscript Eg. 2866, pages 70, 71, 75, 76, and 77 and in Manuscript Add 37497, pages 90b-82b, is the same as that in the printed text (see Collected Works, XII, 62, 1.31 – 67, 1.4).
  4. Collected Works, XII, 63, 1.31 – 65, 1.13.



summarizing the early history of the Volsung family; the account given here of Sigi, Rerir, and the birth of King Volsung is found at the very beginning of the Vőlsunga saga,1 but Morris had omitted it at this point in his own version of the tale. When Morris rewrote this scene, he struck out this speech of King Elf; the only mention of the early Volsungs in the revised version occurs in the twelve-line account, at the end of this section, of the songs of the minstrels, in the course of which Sigi and Rerir are merely named.2 Perhaps Morris felt that this long speech with its indirect references to the early Volsungs would not only be unintelligible and therefore tedious to the majority of his readers, who would very likely be unacquainted with the Vőlsunga saga itself, but would also retard the action of the story too much at this significant moment. There can be no doubt that the dialogue which replaced it, with its air of unrestrained joy mingled with wonder and awe at the event which has just taken place, is far more effective.

In Manuscript Eg 2866 there is also found an early version of Sigurd’s fight with Fafnir on the Glittering Heath;3 in revising this description, Morris not only improved the passage as poetry but he also completely altered the details of the story itself. In the

  1. Collected Works, VII, 291-294.
  2. Ibid., XII, 66, 1.23 – 67, 1.2.
  3. The cancelled version is found in Manuscript Eg 2866, pages 123 (last 3 lines), 130, 131, and 132, 11.1-25. The revised account is given in Manuscript Eg 2866 on pages 124-129, and in Manuscript Add 37497, pages 53 – 62; in the printed text it appears in Collected Works, XII, 108, 1.15 – 112, 1.22.



revised account Sigurd meets Odin as soon as he arrives on the glittering Heath, and Odin instructs him to dig a pit in the path of the serpent and to conceal himself therein; Sigurd follows the directions, and when Fafnir glides over the pit, the hero thrusts his sword into the monster’s heart, giving him his death wound; then ensues a dialogue between Sigurd and Fafnir, in which the latter foretells the future. In this version Morris follows substantially the story given in the Vőlsunga saga.1 In the earlier account, however, there is no mention of Odin; Sigurd does not construct a pit, but fights with Fafnir entirely on the surface of the ground; and the serpent dies without speaking. It is difficult to perceive what reason Morris could have had for originally presenting the story in this form. It seems almost impossible that he could have forgotten the method in which Sigurd killed the dragon and the conversation which he had with Fafnir that morning, for both these features are unusual and they are found not only in the Vőlsunga saga but also in “Fáfnismál”2; on the other hand, it seems very unlikely that Morris

  1. See Collected Works, VII, 3328-331. The account given in the Vőlsunga saga differs slightly from Morris’s revised passage, for according to the Vőlsunga saga it is Regin who advises Sigurd to dig a pit in which to lie in wait or Fafnir, and Odin, when he appears later, instructs the young hero to prepare several pits, into which Fafnir’s blood may run.
  2. For the reference to the account of this episode in the Vőlsunga saga, see above, note 1; for the account in “Fáfnismál,” see Sa͜emundar Edda, ed. Grundtvig, pp. 110-112. In “Fáfnismál,” as in the Vőlsunga saga, we are told that Sigurd killed Fafnir by attacking him from a pit and that as Fafnir died, he conversed with Sigurd, but in “Fáfnismál” it is not related that Sigurd met Odin, as in the Vőlsunga saga.



could have remembered these details, and that he could have omitted them deliberately. Miss May Morris, speaking of this passage, says that in the early form Fafnir is “a blind force of Hatred, dying without speech”; that Morris seems to have been afraid that if he left the scene in this form his readers might misunderstand the significance of this episode and might “attribute the slaying of Fafnir to small human things, as the hatred of Regin”; and that he therefore rewrote this section, introducing Odin and “the wonderful death-dialogue.”1 That the version in the printed text is superior is obvious; Morris’s motives for presenting the episode in the first form are, however, by no means clear.

The account of Sigurd’s drinking of Grimhild’s magic potion, as a result of which he forgets Brynhild and marries Gudrun, also appears in a different form in one of the manuscripts.2 The early version of this episode differs considerably from the revised account, but in rewriting this scene Morris in the main simply expanded his original description without changing the actual facts of the story. In only two cases, in fact, do the two passages disagree in the details

  1. These comments are found in the Collected Works, XII, xxv-xxvi.
  2. The original passage is given in Manuscript Eg 2866 on pages 191 (last 3 lines), 192, 193, and 198, 11.1-8. The revised account, with the exception of 11.1-8 on p. 168 of Collected Works, XII, is written out in Manuscript Eg 2866 on pages 194-197, and, in a somewhat different form, in Manuscript Add 37497 on pages 68b-62b; the printed version of this passage is to be found in Collected Works, XII, 166, 1.11 – 170, 1.2.



of the action itself, and neither one of these two changes is significant: in the original version, Sigurd, after drinking Grimhild’s cup, broods in silence for a moment, and then strides out of the hall while the feasters sit bewildered, but in the printed account Sigurd remains in the hall throughout the evening, his silence throwing a hush on the rest of the company, and he does not set out on his ride until the others are departing from the feast and going to bed; moreover, at first Morris represented Sigurd as visiting Brynhild’s home twice during his ride, once during the night and again the following morning, but in the rewritten account he mention only one visit to the burg of Brynhild. Both these changes, as I have already stated, are without importance. Moreover, the question whether the first or the revised description follows the original account more closely in these respects does not arise, for both versions are entirely Morris’s own; the Vőlsunga saga, the only one of his sources that mentions Grimhild’s potion of forgetfulness, merely states that Sigurd drank the cup Grimhild offered him and then forgot Brynhild.1 As I stated above, the main difference between the original and the revised account of this scene lies in the length of the two, but


1.  Collected Works, VII, 350.


this difference in length is important, for in the additional material found in the later version Morris seems definitely to be striving to impress upon his readers the significance of the event he is describing. He first presents a long Homeric simile, in fourteen lines, comparing the silence that came over the Niblungs after Sigurd had drunk Grimhild’s cup and his face had become stern and moody to the hush that might fall on a group of feasters on a beautiful summer day when the eastern sky suddenly becomes murky with an approaching thunder-storm. He then relates that a short time after Sigurd drained the cup, marvelous flames leaped up around the hall where Bryynhild sat dreaming of the Volsung hero. Finally he describes how Grimhild called for music to drive away the melancholy and gloom that had settled on the Niblung warriors, and how the music of the harp went unheeded by the men who could do nothing but gaze upon the face of Sigurd and long for the sunny morning. Very likely Morris rewrote the scene, keeping Sigurd in the hall throughout the feast and introducing this additional material illustrating the intensity of his gloom because he felt that if he left the scene in its original form his readers might fail to realize the tremendous influence Grimhild’s magic potion was destined to have upon the remaining days of Sigurd and the Niblungs.

The fourth important revision, that of the scene between Brynhild and Sigurd after the quarreling of Brynhild and Gudrun, has been fully discussed by Miss May Morris in the Preface to Volume


Twelve of the Collected Works.1 She there points out that the most striking difference between the first and the revised version is the elimination in the latter of “the note of human tenderness and suffering” that Morris had originally introduced into the scene; she thinks that her father rejected the first version of this episode because it was out “of scale with the epic place” of the whole poem.2

In my summary of Bartel’s study of the sources of Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung, I have already pointed out that the last part of the poem shows the influence of the Nibelungenlied to a marked degree.3 In the Vőlsunga saga Atli, soon after his marriage to Gudrun, begins to long to possess the treasure of the Niblungs, and he invites Gunnar and Hogni to a feast in his hall in order that he may have an opportunity to fall upon them with a superior force and overcome them and so gain the gold; Gudrun, suspecting her husband’s designs, ties to warn her brothers against accepting the invitation.4 In Morris’s poem, however, the destruction of the Niblung kings by Atli is the deliberate work of Gudrun; even after she has been married to Atli, she does not forget her brothers’ murder of Sigurd, and in order to obtain revenge, she stirs up her second husband’s desire for the Niblung gold and induces him to bid Gunnar and Hogni come and


 1.     Pages xxiv-xxix.

2.     Page xxvi.

3.     See above, page 237.

4.     Collected Works, VII, 379-381.


visit him, so that he may bring them into his power.1 Morris’s Gudrun, therefore, shows a closer resemblance to Kriemhild of the Nibelungenlied than to Gudrun of the Vőlsunga saga.2 That Morris is to depart from the Norse story in his portrayal of Gudrun is first revealed to us in the scene in which Grimhild, Gunnar, and Hogni come to the home of Queen Thora for the purpose of inducing Gudrun to accept Atli’s suit for her hand in marriage.3 In the Vőlsunga saga and in “Guðrúnarkviða II” we are told that when Gudrun drank the magic cup of forgetfulness she lost all memory of Sigurd’s murder;4 but in Morris’s Sigurd the Volsung we read that

many a thing she forgat
But never the day of her sorrow, and of how o’er Sigurd she sat.5

In one of the manuscripts, Add 37498,6 is found an early version of this scene which is very interesting, for in this account Morris places much greater stress on Gudrun’s recollection of the slaying of her husband, and he seems to hint that it was simply because of the possibility that she might receive aid from Atli in obtaining

  1. Collected Works, XII, 255-257.
  2. For the corresponding passage in the Nibelungenlied, see Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Karl Bartsch (9th ed. ; Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1931), pp. 236-241.
  3. Collected Works, XII, 250, 1.13 – 253, 1.2.
  4. See ibid., VII, 377 and Sa͜emundar Edda, ed. Grundtvig, p. 140.
  5. Collected Works, XII, 252. Morris’s use of the clause “how o’er Sigurd she sat” at the end of this quotation, it should be noted, was almost certainly influenced by the first sentence of the prose passage at the beginning of “Guðrúnarkviða I”: “Guðrún sat yfir Sigur ði dauðom.” See also ibid. , stanza 1, 1.2.
  6. The rejected passage is found in Manuscript Add 37498, pages 61, 62, 63, 63b, 64, 64b, and 65, 11.1-3; these 63 lines are replaced by 10 lines in the revised version (in Collected Works, XII, 252, 1.33-….) (Please note the rest is cut off from the bottom of the page)



revenge that Gudrun finally accepted his suit. In writing this first account Morris may have definitely had in mind the corresponding scene in the Nibelungenlied; there Kriemhild is at first utterly opposed to Etzel’s offer, but consents when Rűedegêr swears that he and his men will do their utmost to help her obtain revenge for the loss of Siegfried if she marries Ezel.1 It is also interesting to note that in this early version Gudrun does not make her decision on the first day, as she does in the Vőlsunga saga, but thinks about it during the night and decides on her answer the next morning, just as in the Nibelungenlied.

Perhaps the early version of this scene, with its resemblances to the Nibelungenlied, may be taken as an indication that Morris originally intended to make the whole ending of his poem much more like the German epic than it actually is. He may at first have planned to make Gudrun more like Kriemhild, - a cruel, heartless woman who would stop at nothing in her craving for revenge; as he proceeded with his story, this portrayal of Gudrun may have become distasteful to him, and he may also have come to realize that it was not necessary to make Gudrun such an inhuman woman as Kriemhild in order to bind the conclusion of the tale into closer unity with the preceding episode, than was the case in the Vőlsunga saga, by making the death of Gunnar and Hogni in the land of Atli the result

  1. 1.  Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Bartsch, pp. 209-216.


of Gudrun’s desire for revenge for Sigurd’s death. In the description of the fight in Atli’s hall, Morris’s Gudrun of course shows a closer resemblance to Kriemhild than to the Norse Gudrun, but she is far from being the fiendlike creature that Kriemhild is; in Morris’s poem Gudrun watches the capture of her brothers but remains a passive spectator throughout the scene;1 in the corresponding passage in the Nibelungenlied, however, Kriemhild passionately urges her men to attack her brothers again and again, and when Hagen and Gunther are finally captured and brought before her, she slays Hagen with her own hand.2 Perhaps it was in order to make the scene in Queen Thora’s home more consistent with this later softening of Gudrun’s character that Morris rewrote his first version of the fetching of Gudrun, removing the emphasis on her undying hatred for her brothers and omitting any hint that, like Kriemhild, she consented to marry Atli merely because of her hope of thereby securing her revenge.

Very interesting also is the early version of Gunnar’s song in the snake-pit, found in manuscript Eg 2566.3 Both the original and revised accounts are entirely Morris’s invention, for his Norse

  1. Collected Works, XII, 76-286.
  2. Das Nibelungenlied, ed. Bartsch, pp. 297-399.
  3. The original version is given in Manuscript Eg 2866, pages 343. 11.24-34. 345. And 347, 11.1-16. The revised version is found in Manuscript Eg 2866, pages 344, 345, 11.15-24, and 346, and, with minor differences, in Manuscript Add 37497, pages 26 -32; in the printed text it occurs in Collected Works, XII, 297, 1.3 – 299, 1.15.



sources merely state that Gunnar sang so sweetly in the pit that he lulled to sleep all the adders except one, this one stinging him to death.1 Nevertheless, Morris’s two descriptions of the scene differ radically. In the early version, the first part of Gunnar’s song consists of rather vague and colorless allusions to his past life; in the second half the Niblung hero sings of his approach to Valhalla as he dies. In the second version, however, when Gunnar is thrown into the snake-pit, he breaks the silence of this last night that he is alive by raising his voice and singing of the glory of the creation of earth and of man. As he feels his end approaching, he sings in a more subdued tone of his own life on this earth, not, however, referring to past events, as in the first version, but dwelling upon the joy he has always felt in this glorious world, and solacing himself, as he dies, with the thought that he has always lived nobly and bravely, without complaining and without questioning the plans of the gods. In the original version Gunnar is clearly much more human than in the second: having come face to face with death, he lingers lovingly on the happy scenes of his past. In the revised account, the personal element is minimized: Gunnar’s thoughts turn away from himself and go back to the dawn of the world, and he deals with the vast conceptions of the origin of the universe; when he speaks of himself, it is the god-like, not the human, side of his character that he shows. Certainly this second account harmonizes

  1. 1.  See Collected Works, VII, 388 and Edda, ed. Finnur Jónnson (2nd ed.; Copenhagen, 1926), p. 106.


much more fully than the first with the nobility, dignity, and sustained grandeur of the poem as a whole; it is not at all unlikely that Morris cancelled the first version and substituted in its place the passage in the printed text for the very purpose of making this scene contribute to the heroic tone he was trying to impart to his whole tale.

Less interesting but demanding a few words of comment is the last revision, which comes at the very close of the whole poem. The original conclusion, found in manuscript Add 37497, is somewhat longer, more diffuse in its effect, and considerably weaker than the ending given in the printed text;1 in this first account, after Gudrun has thrust a sword into Atli and fled, the poem runs on for forty-nine lines, but in the revised version there are only twenty-six lines from that point to the end. The additional material in the earlier description consists mainly of an account of the glorious time that is to come when Balder returns to the earth; then it will be known, says the poet, what happened after Gudrun leaped into the waves, and then men will tenderly recall the whole tragic story of the Volsungs and Niblungs as well as the tragedy of other men who fought nobly and bravely though doomed to defeat. The whole passage seems particularly lacking inspiration; it was apparently composed very hurriedly, for some of the lines are metrically faulty, and

  1.  1.     The rejected passage is given in Manuscript Add 37497, pages 43 (last 2 lines), 43b, 44, 45, 46, and 47, 11.1-4; the corresponding passage in the printed text is found in Collected Works, XII, 306, 11.5-35.



others, because of omissions and other mistakes Morris made in writing out his thoughts, are unintelligible as they stand. Much more effective is the terse account given in the revised version: here the poet merely states that Gudrun leaped into the sea, and he professes ignorance of what happened thereafter; he concludes the whole work with a brief summary, in eight lines, of the theme of his tale, emphasizing the divine origin of his hero, Sigurd the Volsung.

An examination of the major revisions that Morris made in writing out Sigurd the Volsung throws much light then, as I have indicated in the foregoing discussion, on the principles that he had in mind in composing the poem. In the first place, his alterations make it clear that he was very eager to impart to the tale, as far as possible, a tone of dignity, grandeur, and majesty, - in short, to give it true epic proportions. Sometimes, in the course of writing out the story, he was so deeply moved by the suffering and tragic fate of his characters that he momentarily forgot the heroic atmosphere for which he was seeking, and introduced into the poem a sympathetic and tender portrayal of their sorrow; two of the major revisions which I have discussed, one treating the final meeting of Brynhild and Sigurd and the other dealing with the death of Gunnar in King Atli’s snake-pit, are devoted to the cancellation of such infusions of sentiment and to the substitution, in their place of more objective treatments. In the case of the first of these two revisions, we find that Morris was willing to sacrifice a passage of infinite tenderness and beauty for the sake of preserving the heroic tone of


the whole. Moreover, it was evidently for the same reason that he rejected the original ending of the whole poem. In the first draft, as I have already pointed out, the conclusion is rather weak because it is unduly lengthy and lacks unity of effect; furthermore, in that version Morris introduces a personal note, for he dwells on the happy time to come, when a new world will be created and Balder will return to life, and says that then it will be pleasant to recall this and other tales of tragedy and woe. In the revised form of the poem he has completely cancelled this original ending, and has inserted in its place a passage which is characterized by terseness and conciseness and which is entirely objective in point of view. Furthermore, the revisions Morris made indicate that he realized that the Old Norse story he was retelling had a rather complicated and involved plot, which his modern English readers would perhaps find hard to follow, for in several of the revisions which he made in the original draft of the poem he seems to striving to render the story more readily intelligible by bringing into clear relief the main incidents in the tale and by emphasizing the unity of the whole. Thus, in the first version of Sigurd’s fight with Fafnir, Morris for some unaccountable reason neglected to mention Sigurd’s conversation with the dying Fafnir, but in the rewritten form he presents a full account of this dialogue; the inclusion of this part of the scene is very important if we are to understand the later development of the story, for in this passage we are told of the curse resting on Fafnir’s gold and this curse, with its effect on all possessors of the gold, is the central theme of the whole story. Similarly, as I have already


pointed out, the account of Sigurd’s drinking of Grimhild’s cup of forgetfulness was originally much shorter than it is in the printed text; probably Morris developed this scene more fully in the rewritten version so that his readers would not overlook the importance of this episode. It is also possible that in the scene describing the birth of Sigurd, Morris omitted in the final draft the original speech of King Elf, in which he summarized the early history of the Volsungs, for the reason that he was afraid that these brief and indirect references to events in the lives of Sigurd’s ancestors, all of whom are of distinctly minor importance for the story as a whole, would be confusing to his readers. Finally, several of the revisions show that Morris was endeavoring to add spontaneity and vigor to his account in order to prevent the dignified and exalted style of the poem from becoming dull; two of the most effective passages in the whole poem, one containing the dialogue between King Elf and the nurses of the baby Sigurd and the other presenting the conversation between Sigurd and Fafnir, were added by Morris in revising the first draft, as I have already indicated.

As I have stated above, Morris considered the Icelandic story of the Volsungs and Niblungs one of the greatest tales in the world, and felt that it had inspired him to produce his best poem; but long before his Sigurd the Volsung was finished, he began to fear that the reading public world would not understand and appreciate his retelling of this Northern saga. In a letter written to his wife in the summer of 1876, he said, in referring to the publication of Athena͜eum of a portion of the unfinished “Tale of Aristomenes,”


By the way the Athenaeum has been very civil to me about that scrap of poem I published in it the other day, though it was not worth publishing either, and sent me L20; it seems, such is the world’s injustice and stupidity that it was a success – never mind; I shall pay for it when my new poem comes out….1

As a matter of fact, his prophecy came true; when Sigurd the Volsung was published in November, 1876, it was received with much less enthusiasm than his preceding works, both by his friends and by the public as a whole, and the sale of the book lagged.2 Contrary to his usual attitude toward the public reception of his literary productions, Morris at first expressed impatience with the people for their failure to appreciate this poem into which he felt he had put his best work; but two months after its publication he had become reconciled to the coldness with which it had been met, and he wrote in a letter to a friend, “My ill temper about the public was only a London mood and is quite passed now: and I think I have even forgotten what I myself have written about that most glorious of stories, and think about it all (and very often) as I did before I began my poem.”3

If we examine the reviews of the work that appeared in the contemporary periodicals, we find that the critics took widely divergent views of the poem; some saw only defects in the work, others were extremely lavish in their praises, while a few of the more sober critics presented a more balanced criticism of the poem. Henry G. Hewlett, writing in Fraser’s Magazine, was especially harsh; in support of his opinion that the poem would in all probability never be very popular, he said,

  1. Collected Works, XII, xi.
  2. Mackail, William Morris, I, 330.
  3. Ibid., I, 335.



Its inordinate length alone will deter some readers even on the threshold; and the diffuseness of style which has now, we fear, become habitual with Mr. Morris, will probably weary others before they reach the end. The diction, however appropriate, is almost pedantically close in imitation to its model, the identical similes and metaphors employed by the Sagaman being often reproduced with some rhetorical amplification. Passages of novel and pictorial description are frequent, but the prevailing tenor of the narrative seldom rises above mediocrity; and beyond an occasionally nervous or graceful phrase, and a line or two exceptionally musical, the memory finds little to carry away, and the ear still less to haunt it…. The verbal archaisms are not, perhaps, in excess, considering the poet’s proclivities and the special character of his subject, but, to our thinking, are distinctly tiresome.1

The writer of the article on Sigurd the Volsung in the North American Review was somewhat less severe, but the general tone of his criticism also was adverse. The chief fault that he found with the poem was that it failed to reproduce faithfully the spirit of its source. The original tale, he said, was too savage and barbarous for modern English readers, and therefore Morris “recast it …  in the forms of modern sentiment”; in dealing with his material in this way, Morris was following the fashion of his time, for to “reproduce the antique, not as the ancients felt it, but as we feel it,- to transfuse it with modern thought and emotion,- that is the method now ‘in the air,’ as the French say, among Mr. Morris’s fellow artists….” Because of this treatment of the original material, the reviewer feels that the poem “is too much the outcome of a transient vogue in sentiment to insure a very long rememberance.”2 This criticism is of course to a great extent justified; but it is also true that Morris resisted to a surprising degree the temptation to introduce a modern tone into his retelling of this ancient tale, and as a result his Sigurd the Volsung is far freer from modern sentiment than his earlier "Lovers of Gudrun" or

  1. Fraser’s Magazine, XVI (1877), 110-111.
  2.  North American Review, CXXIV (1877), 323-325.



Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Furthermore, the Old Norse material which Morris elaborated in his poem is far from being so primitive, rude, and barbarous as the writer of this review asserts, and Morris was not compelled to make such extenwsive alterations in remodelling it as this critic implies. The rest of the article in the North American Review was concerned with minor defects: the writer said that the “imitation of the archaic style is, indeed, carried to excess, as if to cover the lack of the antique spirit,” that in the narrative itself there was “a deficiency in rapidity and directness,” and that the metre “is flexible and musical, though it does not escape the dangers of monotony.”1

Entirely different in tone are the notices of the poem that appeared in the Saturday Review, the London Quarterly Review, and the Atlantic Monthly. The first of these periodicals stated, “We regard this Story of Sigurd as his [i.e. Morris’s] greatest and most successful effort; of all poetical qualities, strength, subtlety, vividness, mystery, melody, variety – there is hardly one that it does not exhibit in a very high degree.”2 The critic in the London Quarterly Review began his article with the assertion that “The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs is probably the single book published within the last twelve months which it would be safe to set aside as the most certain of a place in the regards of the poetic readers of the next generation,”3 and he concluded his discussion in the same tone with the statement,

  1.  CXXIV (1877), 325.
  2. Saturday Review, XLIII (1877), 81.
  3. XLVIII (1877), 211.



Be it recorded…that the style and metrical qualities are surprisingly fine – that beside the clear panoramic evolution of the story we have to praise a most pure and vigorous poetic diction; and mysteries of subtle effect in rhyme and metre such as are not to be found in any work of this latter day – and of a higher quality than anything later than the best works of the Laureate – higher, that is to say, than anything published in England since 1855.1

The reviewer in the Atlantic Monthly lavished praise on the beauty and nobility of the poetry, the majesty, as well as gracefulness, of the metre, and the archaic diction, which is “so exactly suitable to the character of his [i.e. Morris’s] present work as to blend with its faultless general harmony and be hardly noticeable in it”;2 concerning the description of Sigurd’s first meeting with Brynhild on Hindfell, he exclaimed, “We may live and read long before we meet with poetry more noble in thought, more celestially sweet and satisfying in form, than the pages which describe the meeting and mutual recognition of these lovers.”3

Especially interesting are two reviews that appeared but a few weeks after the publication of the poem – one in the Athena͜eum, the other in the Academy; both these critics presented a somewhat mature attitude toward the work, for they saw both defects and virtues. The author of the article in the Athena͜eum regretted that Morris departed from his Old Norse source at the end of the tale and made the death of Gunnar and Hogni the result of Gudrun’s craving for revenge for Sigurd’s murder, as in the Nibelungenlied, for by making this change he failed to incorporate in his tale one of the chief excellences of the Vőlsunga saga – namely, the sense of unity resulting from “the

  1. London Quarterly Review, XLVIII (1877), 216-217.
  2. XXXIX (1877), 504.
  3. Ibid., 503.



dominance of everything – from first to last – by the curse of the gold….”1 He also feels that the verse is musical, but that in a poem of this length Morris’s hexameters are apt to become monotonous.2 On the other hand he praised Morris’s sympathy with, and understanding of, the Old Norse attitude toward life, as revealed in his poem; Morris is so completely “soaked in Odinism,” he said, “that the spontaneity – real, and not apparent merely – of this reproduction of the temper of a bygone age is as marvelous as the spontaneity of the form in which it is embodied; while, for purity of English, for freedom from euphuism and every kind of ‘poetic diction’ (so called), it is far ahead of anything of equal length that has appeared in this century.”3 A few lines later he added, “On the whole, we cannot but think this poem Mr. Morris’s greatest achievement. It is more masculine than ‘Jason’ – more vigorous and more dramatic than the best of the stories in the ‘Earthly Paradise.’”4 Edmund Gosse, the writer of the review in the Academy, expressed a fear that Morris’s poem would not be popular on account of his extensive use of archaisms and Old Norse kennings.5 Like the author of the article in the Athena͜eum, but for different reasons, Gosse found fault with the conclusion Morris had given his tale. He regretted that Morris did not make clear the fact that Brynhild was the sister of Atli, for by omitting any reference to this relationship, the modern poet “deprived himself of a valuable connecting link in the chain of retribution”:6 according to one Scandinavian tradition, which we find, in the “Drap Niflunga,” Atli’s feeling of

  1. No. 2563 (December 9, 1876), 753.
  2. Ibid., p. 755.
  3. Ibid., pp. 753-754.
  4. Ibid., p.755.
  5.  X (1876), 558.
  6. Loc. cit.



hostility toward Gunnar and Hogni was the result of their share in the death of Brynhild. It is true, of course, that Morris could have given his tale a certain unity by remaining faithful to his Scandinavian sources, either as the reviewer in the Athenaeum or as Gosse suggested; but it seems very probable that Morris preferred to bind the last episode to the body of the story by attributing the slaying of Gunnar and Hogni to Gudrun’s craving for revenge for Sigurd’s death for the reason that in this way he focused the attention of his readers on Sigurd throughout the tale, and it was in presenting Sigurd as a great heroic figure that his chief interest lay. Besides pointing out these defects, Gosse found much to praise. Of the poem as a whole he said, “Suffice it to say that Mr. Morris has treated it in a manner fully worthy of the heroic plan. The style he has adopted is more exalted and less idyllic, more rapturous and less luxurious – in a word, more spirited and more virile than that of any of his earlier works.”1 He praised the elevated tone which Morris maintained throughout the poem, and remarked, “In the presence of so much simplicity, and so much art that conceals its art, it is well to point out how supreme is the triumph of the poet in this respect.”2 Thus, although the reading public as a whole did not receive this poem kindly, we learn from these reviews that many of the leading critics of the time, only a few weeks after its publication, understood and appreciated the excellences of Morris’s work.

Academy, X(1876), 557.

  1.  Loc. cit.


The publication of Sigurd the Volsung in November, 1876, brings to a close, as I have already stated, the period 1871 to 1876 when Morris’s interest in early Scandinavia reached its peak. During these six years, as we have seen, Morris had devoted himself almost exclusively to his Norse studies, only two major works that were definitely non-Scandinavian in conception - Love is Enough and a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid – having been produced and published during this time, but at the end of 1876 Morris’s Norse studies came to an abrupt close. There is absolutely no reason to believe, however, that he suddenly dropped his Scandinavian work at this time because his enthusiasm for the North had become exhausted; it is quite clear that he terminated his Scandinavian studies in 1876 simply because, as I shall show in the next chapter, his attention was now for a time diverted into entirely new channels. It is not at all unlikely that if it had not been for these new interests, he would have gone on working on translations from the Scandinavian and on original treatments of Norse themes for several more years, just as he had done in the period we have been considering in this chapter.