William Morris Archive

Florence S. Boos

History’s Pattern of Myth and Hope

In 1870, Morris and his collaborator and eventual fellow traveler Eiríkur Magnússon published their translation of the Volsungasaga, and in 1877, four years after Love Is Enough, Morris brought out Sigurd the Volsung, a four-book epic poem based loosely on the Volsungasaga. Morris’s extended ‘nordic’ poem of twilit struggle is utterly remote in plot from the delicate allegory of renunciation of Love Is Enough, but even here he managed to project some of the patterns mentioned above into an originary tale of brutal conflict between two aristocratic houses of medieval Northern Europe. In Sigurd, Morris tried to write a sophisticated ‘popular’ epic, which would draw on the Icelandic historical and legendary materials he had learned. As he had already done in ‘The Lovers of Gudrun’, The Earthly Paradise’s dramatic reworking of the Laxdaela Saga, Morris rearranged legendary materials in rather drastic ways. He expanded and interpreted hundreds of incidents in Sigurd to express his personal preoccupations with love and endurance, and transmuted the original epic’s carnage and macabre disruptions into a poetic tragedy of fulfilled prophecy and fate.

Morris chose the grim tale of the Volsungs with a good deal of thought, and it held personal as well as cultural significance for him. His co-published prose rendering of the Volsunga Saga is still considered a model of Victorian translation, and in its preface, Morris expressed hope that the saga’s beauty and power would endure:

For this is the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks – to all our race first, and afterwards, when the change of the world has made our race nothing more than a name of what has been – a story too – then should it be to those that come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us.

Morris also inserted an introspective prefatory poem, which makes its parallel claim in different terms:

Naught vague, naught base our tale, that seems to say, –
‘Be wide-eyed, kind; curse not the hand that smites,
Curse not the kindness of a past good day,
Or hope of love; cast by all earth’s delights,
For very love: through weary days and nights,
Abide thou, striving howsoe’er in vain,
The inmost love of one more heart to gain!’

So draw ye round and hearken, English Folk,
Unto the best tale pity ever wrought!
Of how from dark to dark bright Sigurd broke,
Of Brynhild’s glorious soul with love distraught,
Of Gudrun’s weary wandering unto naught,
Of utter love defeated utterly,
Of grief too strong to give Love time to die!

Morris expressed his admiration for the saga even more directly in a letter to the American critic and translator Charles Eliot Norton: ‘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 … 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’ (Artist, Writer, Socialist I: 472).

In what follows, I will note some features of the poem’s scene-patterning, and emphasize a few plot-elements which I believe have been neglected by earlier critics. These include: proto-feminist roles of women as active agents in the poem’s tragic sequence of events, and the presence of certain female wisdom-figures; motifs of prophesy, foresight, and cyclical unraveling, which permit deeply flawed characters to reform and express incongruously noble social ideals; and ‘All-father’s’ (Odin’s) role as heroic mentor, reminiscent of Homeric divinities and certain facilitating male guardians in Love Is Enough, and of the quasi-angelic Steelhead in Morris’s The Sundering Flood. Finally, I will also remark on the poem’s prosody and contemporary critical responses, and consider the role of rhythms, brocaded patterns, and sense of fate in the poem’s final complex tonalities.

The four ‘books’ of Sigurd the Volsung tell relatively self-contained stories, but their interrelations of scene, plot, and motif reverberate with ironic, iconic, and prophetic significance. As the reader traces through the work’s many superposed and retrospective debates between female protagonists, scenes of courtship and mating, pledges of ‘brotherhood’ undermined by male ambition and Grimhild’s evil and narrow-minded counsel, allusions to the originary tree ‘Branstock’ (‘Fire-trunk’) and the rings of Andvari (‘Vigilance’), these contrapuntal echoes accumulate, and gradually heighten a sense of oppressive subjectivity and implacable fate.

Consider, for example, several scenes of the interrelations between thwarted and/or vaguely transgressive sexuality. In one, Sigurd kneels beside the recumbent Brynhild. In another, Sigurd and Brynhild lie transfixed beside each other like figures on a medieval frieze or tomb. And in a third, Sigurd comes to Brynhild’s bed in the shape of his ‘blood brother’ Gunnar. Each of these unions is interdicted in some way – by a sword, a distortion, a disguise, or death itself, on Sigurd’s funeral pyre. When Sigurd first enters the ring of fire and finds Brynhild asleep in her coat of armor, he uses ‘Wrath’ (his mighty Branstock sword) to free and – symbolically – to enter her.

… the sharp Wrath biteth and rendeth, and before it fall the rings,
And, lo, the gleam of the linen, and the light of golden things:
Then he driveth the blue steel onward, and through the skirt, and out,
Till nought but the rippling linen is wrapping her about;
Then he deems her breath comes quicker and her breast begins to heave,
So he turns about the War-Flame and rends down either sleeve …

(II, ‘How Sigurd awoke Brynhild upon Hindfell’)

Parallel descriptions attend Sigurd’s later visit to Lymdale, when the two exchange antiphonal vows, foresee their ultimate destinies, and fatalistically embrace. All these pledges, vows, and embraces are ironically recapitulated when Sigurd later enters the fiery ring in the guise of Gunnar, to exchange another ‘pledge’ with her on Gunnar’s behalf:

There they went in one bed together; but the foster-brother laid
’Twixt him and the body of Brynhild his bright blue battle-blade,
And she looked and heeded it nothing; but, e’en as the dead folk lie,
With folded hands she lay there, and let the night go by;
And as still lay that Image of Gunnar as the dead of life forlorn,
And hand on hand he folded as he waited for the morn.
So oft in the moonlit minster your father may ye see
By the side of the ancient mothers await the day to be.
Thus they lay as brother by sister – and e’en such had they been to behold,
Had he borne the Volsung’s semblance and the shape she knew of old.
(III: ‘Sigurd rideth with the Niblungs, and wooeth Brynhild for King Gunnar’)

This frieze-frame of recumbent stasis also persists in other scenes. In one, Brynhild sleeps beside Gunnar, and ‘the Lie is laid between them, as the sword lay while agone’ (III, ‘Of the Contention betwixt the Queens’). In another, Gudrun sleeps at Sigurd’s side before his murder by Guttorm’s sword. In a third, Brynhild lies abed and relates a bitter dream: ‘Dead-cold was thy bed, O Gunnar, and thy land was parched with dearth’ (III, ‘Of the passing away of Brynhild’). In the final such scene, Brynhild orders her laying-out on Sigurd’s funeral pyre:

There lay me adown by Sigurd and my head beside his head:
But ere ye leave us sleeping, draw his Wrath from out the sheath,
And lay that Light of the Branstock, and the blade that frighted death
Betwixt my side and Sigurd’s, as it lay that while agone,
When once in one bed together we twain were laid alone … (Ibid.)

Similar associations also accrete around much simpler dramatic images – ring, cup, bed, sword, tree, and sun, as well as fire.

Generative Women, and Generational ‘Grief and Wrack’

As in Morris’s other poems, Sigurd’s women characters also assume much more active roles than in his sources. The epic plot ostensibly celebrates male heroism in a warrior-dominated society, but the poem’s most important women determine much of its action, and all but Grimhild – a stereotypical meddling mother-in-law – are admirable and/or courageous in their culture’s terms. Morris’s rhetorical legerdemain of prophetic visions, frozen tableaux, patterned reversals et alia, permitted him to portray these women as innocent as well as complicitous, providentially wise as well as vengeful, and active initiators in many cases of the events they witness and record.

They are also prophetic, or at least chastened by what they behold. When Brynhild in Sigurd learns that Sigurd has connived in Gunnar’s deception, she predicts the downfall of the Niblungs, and her prophesy prompts Gunnar to conspire in Sigurd’s assassination. Brynhild’s powerful rhetoric thus leads indirectly to Sigurd’s death, but her pronouncements can be interpreted as simple acts of the sort of clairvoyance central to her character. Gudrun, in her turn, is clearly motivated by insecurity about her husband’s affections when she tells Brynhild of the origins of the ring, but she is devastated by her husband’s murder, and lives to preserve as well as avenge Sigurd’s memory.

Sigurd’s aunt, Signy, daughter of the original King Volsung, provides in Book I another roughly parallel exemplar of vengeful courage and doomed clairvoyance. King Volsung, her father, triggers the bloody events of the poem’s entire plot when he arranges Signy’s marriage to Siggeir the Goth, for reasons of ambition:

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.

(I, "Of the dwelling of King Volsung, and the wedding of Signy his daughter")

Like most of the tale’s women, Signy has prophetic gifts. Volsung asks her whether she is willing to submit to this marriage, and she grimly consents, but foretells dire consequences for herself and others:

A fire lit up her face, and her voice was e’en as a cry:
‘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. (Ibid.)

A faint hint of Morris’s later socialist critique of marriage appears in Signy’s apparent self-sacrifice for her father’s gain. Pathetic in her terrible foreknowledge, she goes unillusioned to her marital doom. In the destructive field of her world’s social forces, Signy’s complicity in this marriage she loathes is a mark of forced solidarity, but her subsequent union with her brother Sigmund, Sigurd’s father, helps ensure that this branch of the Volsung line will continue to exist.

Signy and Sigmund have survived Siggeir’s treacherous assault on his in-laws, and she resolutely commits herself to revenge their deaths. She disguises herself and visits Sigmund in his cave hideout, where they conceive a son, Sinfiotli. When Sigmund and his adult son later attack Siggeir in his dwelling, Signy urges Sinfiotli to kill two of Siggeir’s children, his half-siblings, but when Sigurd and Sinfiotli set fire to the king’s house, she immolates herself in the flames.

Sinfiotli is later poisoned by Borghild, Sigmund’s new queen, but Sigmund remarries in old age before he dies in a final battle. His prophetically gifted wife, Hiordis, survives to bear Sigurd, their son, whom she carries away to safety in the distant land of the friendly Helper and his son Elf, where Regin (‘Gods’) nurtures and trains Sigurd, as Sigmund had done with Sinfiotli. The bloody collaboration of Sigmund’s skill with Signy’s and Hiordis’s foresight and ironwilled loyalty thus bring the dynasty through the first book.

Another striking woman appears very briefly in Book III, in an addition by Morris which briefly highlights the victimization of women and children by war. As Gudrun is mourning Sigurd’s murder, a ‘war-chattel’ interrupts with a grimmer tale:

Then spake a Queen of Welshland, and Herborg hight was she:
‘O frozen heart of sorrow, the Norns dealt worse with me:
Of old, in the days departed, were my brave ones under shield,
Seven sons, and the eighth, my husband, and they fell in the Southland field:
Yet lived my father and mother, yet lived my brethren four,
And I bided their returning by the sea-washed bitter shore:
But the winds and death played with them, o’er the wide sea swept the wave,
The billows beat on the bulwarks and took what the battle gave …’ (III, "Of the mighty grief of Gudrun over Sigurd dead")

Gudrun ignores this ‘chattel’s’ eloquent lament, and with it a possible moment of genuinely prophetic insight and solidarity. The Welshland Queen’s account, a medieval ‘ubi sunt’ lament in female voice, recalls the ‘Lay of Gormley’ as well as the plight of Euripides’s Trojan women, and her sorrow overshadows – in some perspectives, at least – the collective griefs of Gudrun, Brynhild, Gunnar, and the rest of the self-lacerating Volsung/Niblung line.

Sigurd the Volsung’s most conspicuously impressive heroine, in any case, remains Brynhild, who is clearly a woman of quick intelligence and resolute will. Brynhild’s utterances in the original Volsunga Saga and Edda are full of flat, sententious Polonian bits, such as the following:

Let not thy mind be overmuch crossed by unwise men at thronged meetings of folk; for oft these speak worse than they wot of; lest thou be called a dastard, and art minded to think that thou art even as is said; slay such an one on another day, and so reward his ugly talk. (Intro., Robert Gutman, 1962, 155)

Morris’s Brynhild, by contrast, speaks in resonant biblical periods. When she first meets Sigurd she interprets the Gods’ motives, and enjoins Sigurd to constancy of purpose in eloquent, Ecclesiastes-like cadences:

‘Be wise, and cherish thine hope in the freshness of the days,
And scatter its seed from thine hand in the field of the people’s praise;
Then fair shall it fall in the furrow, and some the earth shall speed,
And the sons of men shall marvel at the blossom of the deed:
But some the earth shall speed not; nay rather, the wind of the heaven
Shall waft it away from thy longing – and a gift to the Gods hast thou given,
And a tree for the roof and the wall in the house of the hope that shall be,
Though it seemeth our very sorrow, and the grief of thee and me …

‘I have spoken the words, beloved, to thy matchless glory and worth;
But thy heart to my heart hath been speaking, though my tongue hath set it forth:
For I am she that loveth, and I know what thou wouldst teach
From the heart of thine unlearned wisdom, and I need must speak thy speech.’ (II, "How Sigurd awoke Brynhild upon Hindfell)

This iconically vatic Brynhild is Sigurd’s ‘speech-friend’ indeed. She is more articulate than any of Morris’s poetic heroines, with the possible exception of Guenevere, and more fluently eloquent and loving than any other female character in Morris’s work before the advent of Birdalone and Elfhild, in the last prose romances. Sigurd learns his destiny well, and falters only when he is drugged by the devious Grimhild. At their original meeting, the newly-plighted lovers even projected a ‘day of better things’, in language that recalls Christ’s view of kingdoms of the earth, or Aurora and Romney’s vision of the New Jerusalem at the end of Aurora Leigh:

And they saw their crowned children and the kindred of the kings,
And deeds in the world arising and the day of better things.   (III, "How Sigurd met Brynhild in Lymdale")

The poem provides sources for all this vatic wisdom, in the first appearance of yet another motif to which Morris recurs in the late prose romances. Male protagonists are helped by their Allfather, Odin, but Brynhild learns her lore from a female figure – ‘Wisdom’ herself, with possible echoes of the book of Proverbs:

‘I saw the body of Wisdom and of shifting guise was she wrought,
And I stretched out my hands to hold her, and a mote of the dust they caught;
And I prayed her to come for my teaching, and she came in the midnight dream –
And I woke and might not remember, nor betwixt her tangle deem:
She spake, and how might I hearken; I heard, and how might I know;
I knew, and how might I fashion, or her hidden glory show?
All things I have told thee of Wisdom are but fleeting images
Of her hosts that abide in the Heavens, and her light that Allfather sees … (II, "How Sigurd awoke Brynhild upon Hindfell")

Morris later fashioned brief versions of such tutelage for other, comparably mythic heroines – Birdalone, for example, in Water of the Wondrous Isles, who learns nature’s lore from the benign witch Habundia.

Another, less visionary woman is central to Morris’s version of the plot: the bitterly wronged and vengeful Gudrun, whose marriage to Sigurd precipitates much woe. Aware that a bond exists between Sigurd and Brynhild, Gudrun boasts to Brynhild that she has spent the night with ‘the best man in the world’ (Sigurd), which goads the momentarily petty Brynhild to retort that Sigurd is ‘the serving-man of Gunnar … King of the King-folk who rode the Wavering Fire’. Gudrun then shows Brynhild the ring of Andvari that Brynhild had herself given Sigurd, and he in turn to her. Gudrun is later devastated by Sigurd’s murder, ordered by Gunnar, and she flees the royal homestead to live for seven years among the "peaceful folk," an echo, perhaps, of Nebuchadnezzar’s seven years in the fields. In the poem’s final book, Gunnar sends again for Gudrun and asks her to marry his oppressive royal neighbor Atli. She consents, but incites Atli to murder her brothers in revenge for Sigurd’s death. Shamed by the aftermath of all this vengeful carnage, she then torches Atli’s palace, stabs her terrified husband in his bedchamber, and leaps to her death:

– Begin, O day of Atli! O ancient sun, arise,
With the light that I loved aforetime, with the light that blessed mine eyes,
When I woke and looked on Sigurd, and he rose on the world and shone!’ …
She hath spread out her arms as she spake it, and away from the earth she leapt
And cut off her tide of returning; for the sea-waves over her swept,
And their will is her will henceforward; and who knoweth the deeps of the sea,
And the wealth of the bed of Gudrun, and the days that shall yet be? (IV, "Of the battle in Atli's Hall)

The more wholeheartedly evil Sthenoboea in ‘Bellerophon in Argos’, a late Earthly Paradise tale, also leapt to her death from a cliff. Here, Gudrun’s courageous and spectacular leap ‘away from the earth’ finally ends the noble Volsung line, and brings the cycle to its close.

Blood-drenched Antiheroes and Numinous Visions

The poem’s many prophecies and intermittent expressions of introspective remorse and atonement interdict final judgments in complicated ways, and one such example of narrative redemption occurs earlier in Book IV. Gunnar, Sigurd’s ‘blood-brother’, and contractor of his murder, struggles heroically to organize the Niblung’s doomed resistance to Atli’s treacherous attack (itself an analogue of Siggeir’s murders in Book I), in one of the grimmer battle scenes in modern English poetry. He is then overwhelmed, and withstands imprisonment in a snake pit after he refuses under torture to divulge to Atli the secret location of Andvari’s gold, ‘the ransom of Odin’.

In the final scenes of his life, Gunnar even becomes a skald, and chants several truly beautiful songs as he fights and withstands torture. Like Orpheus and the Gunnar of the Njálssaga, the Niblung Gunnar sings most poignantly, as it were, from beyond the grave. His social conscience awakened, he even chants the merits of the ‘brother’ he has killed:

The praise of the world he was, the hope of the biders in wrong,
The help of the lowly people, the hammer of the strong:
Ah, oft in the world henceforward, shall the tale be told of the deed,
And I, e’en I, will tell it in the day of the Niblungs’ Need:
For I sat night-long in my armour, and when light was wide o’er the land,
I slaughtered Sigurd my brother, and looked on the work of mine hand … (IV, "Of the slaying of the Niblung Kings")

This sudden afflatus of physical heroism and prophetic powers adds unexpected power and eloquence to the poem’s final book. Gudrun witnesses all this, and her horror at it is one of the reasons for her final murder of Atli and despairing suicide.

Gunnar’s redemptive fervor and remarkable end help create, in effect, a kind of collective protagonist for the poem, drawn from all of the Volsungs and Niblungs, more specifically from the original incestual unit of Signy, Sigmund, and Sinfiotli, and their tragically mismated descendants – Brynhild, Sigurd, Gudrun, and Gunnar. All but Sigurd and Brynhild are complicit in the poem’s many crimes, and all have epiphanies of courage and self-knowledge.

One recurring quasi-religious motif of the cycle, mentioned earlier, is Odin’s advent at moments of stress. The appearances of ‘All-father’ are too numerous to trace; Old-Testamental echoes abound, but these ‘sendings’ sometimes bring a simple sense of renewed purpose, and sometimes comfort. After Sigurd has fallen prey to Grunhild’s spell, for example, he struggles to regain clarity and falls into a visionary trance:

But frail and alone he fareth, and as one in the sphere-stream’s draft,
By the starless empty places that lie beyond the life:
Then at last is he stayed in his drifting, and he saith, It is blind and dark;
Yet he seeth the earth at his feet, and there cometh a change and a spark …
A man in the raiment of Gods, nor fashioned worser than they: [ed., Gunnar as Sigurd]
Full sad he gazeth on Sigurd from the great wide eyes and grey;
And the Helm that aweth the people is set on the golden hair,
And the Mail of Gold enwraps him, and the Wrath in his hand is bare.
(III, ‘Sigurd rideth with the Niblungs, and wooeth Brynhild for King Gunnar’)

Sigurd’s manifold effects are also heightened by its intricate variations in meter and stanza-form, which follow the narrative with the fidelity of a skillful movie soundtrack. Morris uses one such quasi-musical device, for example – antiphonally-rhymed interlocution, in which two speakers declaim in rhymed alternation – to present lovers’ vows and marital conversations, to report events, and to create a stylized form for hostile confrontations. Consider, for example, Atli’s exchange with Gunnar before he throws him into the pit of adders:

‘Yet words of mine shalt thou hearken,’ said Atli, ‘or ever thou die.’
‘So crieth the fool,’ said Gunnar, ‘on the God that his folly hath slain.’
‘Yet meeter were thy silence;’ said Atli, ‘for thy folk make ready to sing.’
‘O Gunnar, I long for the Gold with the heart and the will of a king.’
‘This were good to tell,’ said Gunnar, ‘to the Gods that fashioned the earth!’
‘Make me glad with the Gold,’ said Atli, ‘live on in honour and worth!’
With a dreadful voice cried Gunnar: ‘O fool, hast thou heard it told
Who won the Treasure aforetime and the ruddy rings of the Gold? (IV, "Of the slaying of the Niblung Kings")

A Lost Art

Exquisitely sensitive to such metrical nuances, classically-trained Victorian reviewers praised Sigurd in excelsis. May Morris cites George Saintsbury’s long analysis of the poem’s varied seven-beat line,12 and a reviewer for the Saturday Review affirmed that: ‘We regard this Story of Sigurd as his 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 … (January 1877). North American reviews were equally favorable:

After all, quotation … is vain, as every worthy reader will acknowledge when he turns the last page of the poem, and feels for a moment as if the whole earth were made void by its ending … [Morris] has now, as it seems to us, fixed forever the most appropriate form of rhymed verse for an English epic. (Atlantic Monthly, April 1877)

[His] is the most satisfying English measure ever yet adopted for the telling of a long story in verse … It is noble, yet changeful; supple and sustained. There is a kind of wistful sweetness, both in its hurrying anapests and its lingering iambics, which makes them cling to the memory; while the frequent use of alliteration marks its kinship with the primeval forms of Scandinavian story. Whatever its immediate reception may be, William Morris’s Sigurd is certain eventually to take its place among the few great epics of the English tongue. (Literary World, February 1877)

[Mr. Morris] has produced a work whose grandeur and beauty will make it for all time to come monumental in the annals of English literature.13 (International Review, September 1877)

Peter Faulkner is surely correct to suggest that critical indifference did not move Morris to abandon the writing of long poems (Critical Heritage, 14-16). After one allows for cliques, fashions and evanescent hyperbole, these remain remarkable reviews. They are also just appreciations, I believe, of the poem’s depth and passion.

The polar tensions of the ‘dialectical conflicts’ between loss, renunciation, and the attainment of ultimate meaning are more apparent in Sigurd than in other works – in the unrepentant vengefulness of many of its major characters, for example, and the horrific, near-masochistic descriptions of the cycle’s extended final battle-scenes, unique in Victorian poetic representation of war. Critics have justly noted that Sigurd’s protagonists sporadically express certain social ideals, but their agonistic lives of unceasing dynastic conflict, in my view, provide few plausible realizations of them. What the poem’s antiphonal patterns do furnish are intricate motives of prophecy, foresight, and cyclical unraveling, which permit deeply flawed characters to ‘reform’ before their death, and express incongruously noble ideals. Viewed in this light, Sigurd’s dramatic embrace of opposites in suspension yields a work of prosodic brilliance, structural originality, and emotional intensity and narrative depth.


Text adapted from "'The Banners of the Spring to Be': The Dialectical Pattern of Morris's Later Poetry," English Studies 2000.