Supplementary Materials for Sigurd the Volsung

Later Criticism/Bibliography


Morris, May, ed. and intro. The Collected Works of William Morris. Vol. 12: Sigurd the Volsung. London: Longmans, 1911, xxii-xxx.

I have before me a little note-book which, after some pages of diary of work on the Aeneid . . . begins a page unconcernedly:

There was a dwelling of Kings
Ere the world was waxen old,
Dukes were the door-wards there
And the roof was thatched with gold.

Students are fortunate that the British Museum has in safe keeping some important manuscripts of this epic. 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.

It was a remarkable achievement, this weaving of the Volsung fragments into a harmonious whole, and it is no small thing for the English-speaking race to have the wild poetry of the North sung to them with such understanding of its nobility. The first book, with the terrible figures of Sigmund, Signy and Sinfiotli, is no mere preliminary account of the Volsung stock: it introduces the very motive of the epic, the Wrath and Sorrow of Odin. It enforces the sense of Doom that hangs over the story: the God himself who moves the puppets, sets going machinery that he cannot stop—the Fate beyond himself, the Fate that as in mockery of humanity puts on the semblance of human will and human action. Even as attenuated and polished by Wagner, these Titans of the Volsung stock horrify and repel while they attract and impress, and in the original form nothing softens the rugged outline of the heroes. The first impression made on my father on reading the earlier portion of the Saga is shown by his Ems letter; a story of “the monstrous order” he calls it. The poet has so dealt with his material that the all-pervading sense of the inevitable, as in any true epic, transports the savage elements into a broad and simple atmosphere of primeval tragedy, making the violent things at least endurable.

I have made a few notes of the existing manuscripts of Sigurd. The British Museum has a complete foolscap manuscript with prettily written red headings, being the “fair copy” that was sent to the printers, and two quarto note-books. A complete set of the first draft exists; the first six volumes are in the possession of Lady Burne-Jones, and the two last are those just referred to. The latter are specially interesting and important, as besides the conclusion of the poem they contain recastings of different portions of the great moments of the tragedy.

Let us skim through one of these note-books. Add. MS. 37498 continues the volume inscribed No. 6 of the set, in the middle of the scene* between Brynhild and Sigurd after her discovery of the betrayal. A good deal of this was written out in the “fair copy” but cancelled. There are in the rejected matter some beautiful snatches of the woman’s long-drawn agony, an agony we are allowed but to guess as in the concentrated presentment of this supreme moment as we now read it. The rest of the poem goes on smoothly until the book is filled up’ then it is used upside down, where the same tragic meeting is finally written. That difficult passage arranged to the author’s satisfaction (we remember his mention of it in the letter to Mrs. Coronio), he takes

up Book IV where he left it, and writes nervously and swiftly to the beginning of the fight in Atli’s hall. The other note-book, Add. MS. 37497, is even more eloquent. It continues the story down nearly to the end, without headings or break (as indeed in all the drafts). When we come to Gunnar’s Death-Song there is a good deal of searching and over-writing. It is found at last and written down—in another place, i.e. the verso of the first pages of the note-book. Then come several broken trials of the concluding lines of the poem, and he has reached his appointed end.

I really think it was at this moment that he turned his second note-book (not filled) upside down and began his revision of certain passages. He returned to the Birth of Sigurd, and then took up and worked on Sigurd’s second meeting with Gripir, headed “Gripir again.” He then went on with the fight with Fafnir, who is here a blind force of Hatred, dying without speech. This form of the episode is copied into the big manuscript, pruned from the tangled growth of the thought as it came to life. Then “Grimhild’s Cup” (so headed) is re-written mostly as printed, though a few paragraphs are transposed in the published text.

The “fair copy” presents the poem in this stage, but it seems as if the poet now felt that there was some danger that the reader might lose sight of the Wrath and Sorrow of Odin and attribute the Slaying of Fafnir to small human things, as the hatred of Regin. So he turned again to his note-book, and in the blank pages after the end of the poem we find two episodes worked on to emphasize the central idea. In the first of them, the visit of the Gods to Reidmar and his sons, there is introduced Odin’s great speech before departing, with its echo of the mysterious snatches in the Eddaic poem. In the second, the Slaying of Fafnir, the intervention of Odin is shown by his appearance on the Heath. Fafnir is given a voice, and the wonderful death-dialogue is written. These episodes are fair-copied and the poem sent to press.

I have felt that while it is undesirable to give the whole cancelled passage of the Brynhild scene referred to above in the Museum manuscript, a few selections showing its general character would be welcome. In his final revision the poet has entirely eliminated the note of human tenderness and suffering, but (I hope it is not a fantastic remark to intrude here) I cannot help thinking that it very much relieved his feelings to have written down all this long passage, rightly sacrificed to the dramatic intensity of the moment. We, the readers, have but the story of the meeting before our eyes in all its epic simplicity, its terse bitterness – left with the unsatisfied feeling of things unsaid. So be it: the poet designed it so; the things unsaid were no doubt unsayable for want of the Titanic language meet for them. Still, ruth for his heroic personages fulfilling their destiny against their will must have moved him to set down in passing the tragic human side of their encounter. The lines that tell of their woe have a certain elegiac quality, with an insistence as in a dream of returning phrases, like the beat and stress of the “ninth wave” – the recurrent lamenting outbursts of the wronged woman. Out of scale with the epic plan as it is, the whole dialogue is eminently interesting for its subjective presentation of the feminine point of view.

The keynote of the scene between Sigurd entering the chamber and Brynhild gazing at him from her golden bed as originally conceived, is struck by the following two lines, wherein the bitter sting of her first words in the published version is absent:

She said: “Thou art come O Sigurd, and I looked that this should be

O short is the time meseemeth for the speech twixt me and thee…”

Each in turn recalls their first meeting:

She said: “E’en yet I behold thee: I remember of thy road

To the height of the Glittering Heath from the peaceful Kings’ abode,

And the end of the Worm I remember – O might I forget and be dead

And forget how thou ridedst the fire on the topmost Hindfell’s head—

Ah had I been dead I had hearkened to the deeds thou broughtest to pass.

O sorrow, sorrow, and sorrow for the life that in me was!”

He said: “On the head of Hindfell we stood and below us lay

The kingdoms of earth’s promise and the hope of the deedful day.

Far fore-seeing we were and wise of many things,

Of the deeds we twain should accomplish and the death of Odin’s Kings;

But we saw not the sundering hour and edge of the Niblung sword;

So we lived and the life hath rent us and the deeds cast back our word.”

And again a new wave of feeling follows the recurrent phrase:

She said: “E’en yet I behold thee: I remember the Lymdale land

I remember the waiting and labour and the joyous toil of my hand

As I bode thy certain coming and the fruitful day of thy fame.

O might I be dead and forget the day that Sigurd came!

—O yet were I dead should I hearken the lovely Sigurd’s voice.

O sorrow, sorrow, and sorrow that I woke and lived to rejoice!…”

Again we hear the surging of grief, as she tells of the Semblance of Gunnar riding the fire, in the persisting

“O might I be dead and forget it, the night when the fire sank down,

And betwixt the moon and the morning I lay with a king of renown,

With the dwarf-wrought sword between us…”

The first tumult somewhat calmed, they search out the heart of the tangle, but at times Brynhild’s cry wells up again unconsciously:

“…and my life was the longing for death,

Yet thy tale was all about me and thy name was on every breath,

And thy deeds that I might not share in I beheld and I might not die.

O sorrow, sorrow, and sorrow that the world lives after the lie!”

 

He said: “For a little it liveth and the season of Spring is fair,

Loved summer and heavy autumn and the restful winter bare;

But the Gods’ love wasteth it all and Baldur’s strong desire,

And we two shall remember the world mid the last of the quickening fire.”

He looked in her eyes as he spoke and so glorious was he grown

That her soul in his soul was quickened till all the world was Sigurd alone,

And the heart arose in Brynhild and her voice was the song of the swan

In the cliffs of the lonely mountains o’er the shipless waters wan.

As their sorrowful speech goes on, the underlying idea of the scene, the slaying of Sigurd by Brynhild, gradually takes possession of them. He says:

“I have done and I may not undo, I have given and take not again,

And all deeds in today are swallowed and this the deed for us twain.”

 

She said: “It was life that we looked for and we fashioned our love for the life,

And still we beheld it before us through the gate of the ending of strife;

But indeed for the death were we fashioned, we meet in the death alone,

We the Son and the Daughter of Odin and the flower of his longing grown.”

 

He said: “The measureless life, nearby and afar it lay,

And the death was a hap unthought of mid the glory of the way.”

At last the word is spoken between them:

“O great is the deed,” said the Volsung, “and for this cause hither I came,

To uplift thine heart for the slaying, for fulfilment of our fame.”

 

She says: “But what tongue shall name the sorrow when I rend the world atwain?”

 

“Great tidings,” said the Volsung, “when they tell of Sigurd slain…”

 

“O Sigurd,” she said, “O mighty, O fair in speech and thought

As thou wet in the days past over: may the high Gods hide it yet

The day and the deed of thy slaying lest I falter and forget

And we twain grow vile together…”

 

She said: “I lay upon Hindfell ere the doom of the Gods was fulfilled…

And this was the wakening of life that all should desire and praise;

It is fair if thou tellest it over and countest the hours and the days:

O where are the days and the hours and the deeds they brought to the birth!

Are they dead, are they dreams forgotten, are they solacing dreams of the earth,

Are they stones in the House of Heaven, are they carven work of the shrine

Where the days and the deeds earth failed of in heaven’s fulfilment shine?

Ah once I was far-foreseeing, but the vision fades and fails;

They have set down a sword beside me, they have cumbered the even with tales

And I grow weary of waking, for gone is the splendour of day;

In my hand are the gifts of Sigurd, but Sigurd is vanished away.

But the windy East shall brighten and the empty house of night

And the Gods shall arise in the dawrning and the world shall long for the light.”

And this is the last words between them.

Here are a few lines telling of Lymdale, quite in my father’s earlier manner. The sentiment of it is not in keeping with the episode of Sigurd’s betrayal by Grimhild, but it bears quotation, as a picture of a quiet homestead seen from the edge of the forest.

Back then through the forest he rideth, and about the noontide comes

To the land by the swirling waters and the lea by the Lymdale homes;

And he comes by the burg of Brynhild, and the merry wind is astir,

And the doves on the roof-ridge flutter and the rooks wheel wide in the air,

And the reek pours forth from the chimneys, and glisters the glass in the sun,

And maids by the well are standing, and children prattle and run,

And all is alive and joyous as in the days before;

Yea the gold of the very hangings gleams through the great hall door;

But nought of it all knows Sigurd, nor of whom therein abides,

Nor why in the autumn noonday by Brynhild’s Burg he rides.

I had some thought of adding a few passages from the earlier Slaying of Fafnir, but on the whole these extracts will sufficiently indicate the character of the work as it was first written.