William Morris Archive

Anderson, Karl. "Scandinavian Elements in the Work of William Morris." Diss. Harvard University, 1940. Icelandic trip, 196-202ff.

During the period of Morris’s life which we are now considering, when Morris was devoting himself almost entirely to Scandinavian studies, he became so intensely interested in Iceland and its literature that he determined to make a tour of the country even though he realized that such a trip would be accompanied by severe hardships and real dangers. Early in July, 1871, Morris left England for Iceland in the company of Eiríkr Magnússon, C.J. Faulkner, and W.H. Evans.1 The party first sighted land at Berufjőrðr in the southeast, and then sailed along the southern coast to Reykjavík. After spending a few days in the capital city, they set out to the southeast for the purpose of visiting Bergthorsknoll and Lithend; then they headed north, proceeded through wild, rugged territory up to the northern coast; at Hnausar they turned south, riding back to Reykjavík along the western shore of Iceland, through the district richest in saga-associations2 . Morris and his friends returned to England early in September.

Even this extended trip, however, did not completely satisfy Morris’s longing for the land which was the main scene of the sagas he loved so well, and he soon began planning for a second visit. Two years later, in February, 1873, he wrote to a friend, “Iceland gapes for me still this summer: I grudge very much being away from the two or three people I care for so long as I must be, but if I The hero and “landnáms-man” of the vale is Ingimund the Old and most of the steads Thorstein shows us have reference to him; at the first we come to Ás [where] lived Hrolleifr, the rascal he protected, and who slew him; … Thorstein points out a sandy spit running into the river which is the traditional place of the deadly wounding of Ingimund….3 

As Miss Morris points out in a footnote, these incidents are described in the Vatnsda͜ela saga.4 It is still more surprising to discover a few pages later that he is familiar with the Finnboga saga ramma: he describes Borg as “the place of the Saga of Finnbogi the Strong; in its present condition rather a poor characterless story; but with one touching part in it where the wife of Finnbogi dies of grief for the slaying of her favourite son by a scoundrel.”5 

Undoubtedly the two tours increased Morris’s knowledge of the can only get away in some sort of hope and heart I know it will be the making of me….”6 In July of that year he set sail again for Iceland, accompanied this time only by C.J. Faulkner. Morris and his friend landed at Reykjavík, made a brief visit again to Njál district, and then set off in a northeasterly direction through the heart of Iceland; at Dettifoss, far up in the northeastern corner of the island, they turned west, and when they reached the Blandá they began travelling south, passing between Longjőkull and Arnarfellsjőkull on their way back to Reykjavík. On this second journey they visited very few saga-steads, most of their time being spent in wild, uninhabited country. They returned to England early in September.

During both his trips Morris kept a diary. The first one he rewrote when he came home, turning it into a finished, literary account of his experiences and impressions; the second diary he never revised. Neither the journal of the first journey nor the diary of the second was published during Morris’s lifetime, but they were both printed by Miss May Morris in 1911 in Volume VIII of the Collected Works.7  Both accounts--but particularly the first one--are very well written and are extremely interesting; they have a special importance for the present study because of the light they throw on the extent of Morris’s acquaintance with saga-traditions at this time.

Thus, very frequently in his description of the places that he and his friends visited, Morris shows in a striking manner that he knew the sagas very thoroughly and that he clearly remembered incidents and even details mentioned in these narratives. For example, when he is writing of their journey in the northeastern part of Iceland near Midfirth and is telling of their approach to Midfirth Neck, he notes, “Just as we turn out of the valley on to the neck, we come on a knoll, the site of Swala-stead, where Vali of the Bandamanna Saga was murdered….”8 A few pages later, when he is describing the district around Ramfirth, he refers to Thorodd-stead as “the dwelling-place and death-place of Thorbiorn Oxmain, who slew Atli Grettir’s brother and was slain by Grettir in his turn.”9 In his account of their ride past the head of Swanfirth, he says, “ …we rode down the other side of the firth till we came to Vadil’s-head where Arnkel the Priest, the good man of Erybyggia, is buried; … down here also Thorolf Lamefoot, Arnkel’s father was burned and so partly got rid of.”10 Of Swordfirth he writes,

Then we all rode away together passing by a little creek that Thorlacius pointed out to us as Sword-firth (Vigrafiőrðr) the scene of that ueer fight in Erybyggia where Freystein Rascal is killed, and often mentioned in that Saga: I remembered what a much bigger place I had always thought of for that place, where the very skerry in the middle is named after the fight, and called Fight-skerry.11 

He even remembers the family relationship of various characters: he refers in one passage to Áseirgsá as “the home of Ásgeir Madpate, father of Hrefna and uncle of Grettir’s father,”12 and in his account of Burgfirth he reminds his readers that “Egil lived at Borg, and his son Thorstein, father of Helga the Fair….”13 

Moreover, he not only reveals an intimate familiarity with the more famous sagas, which we already know that he had read, but he also shows that he was acquainted with some of the less important tales, which we should hardly expect him to have studied. Thus, when he and his friends are traveling in the northwestern part of Iceland, on their way from Grímstunga to Hnausar, Morris writes, saga-traditions considerably. On several occasions, we are told that the guides supplemented the stories in the sagas by local traditions. For example, in describing Swala-stead, to which I have already referred, Morris says, “Víðalin told us of it that many stories were current of it and of Swala’s witchcraft, and repeated a rhyme that says how the day will come when the big house of Swala-stead shall be lower than the cot of Víðidalstongue.”14 A few pages later he says that when they were riding at the head of Hvammfirth, an old parson at whose home they had made a brief stop pointed out the places of interest in that locality:

Then we went out and he showed us above the house Auð’s thing-stead and doom-ring, and close by the temple of those days; though Auð herself was a Christian, and would have herself buried on the foreshore between high and low watermark, that she might not lie wholly in a heathen land: they show you a big stone on the beach that they call her gravestone: but ‘tis covered now by the tide.15 

Moreover, in many cases Morris’s visits to the scenes of the sagas seem to have changed his conception of tales he already knew and to have helped him to understand the characters and their actions more fully. Thus, when he is describing the horrible aspect of the mountains as they are passing Skialdbreið on their outward journey in 1871, he writes that “…just over this gap is the site of the fabulous or doubtful Thorisdale of the Grettis-Saga; and certainly the sight of it threw a new light on the way in which the story-teller meant his tale to be looked on.”16 Much later in the Journal he says of Fagraskógarfiall, one of the haunts of Grettir, in the Mires, “It is as such a savage dreadful place, that it gave quite a new turn in my mind to the whole story, and transfigured Grettir into an awful and monstrous being, like one of the early giants of the world.”17 

    It is clear from remarks that Morris made in the accounts of both trips that he was deeply moved by his visits to the scenes of the sagas. As he describes the approach to Thingvellis he writes, “My heart beats, so please you, as we near the brow of the pass, and all the infinite wonder, which came upon me when I came up on the Neck of the Diana to see Iceland for the first time, comes on me again now, for this is the heart of Iceland that we are going to see nor was the reality of the sight unworthy….”18 A few lines later, as he draws closer to the place, he remarks, “Once again that thin thread of insight and imagination, which comes so seldom to us, and is such a joy when it comes, did not fail me at this first sight of the greatest marvel and most storied place of Iceland.”19 When he is writing of the his second visit to Lithend in 1873, he states,

    It was the same melancholy sort of day as yesterday and all looked somewhat drearier than before, two years ago on a brign evening, and it was not till I got back from the howe and wandered by myself about the said site of Gunnar’s hall and looked out thence over the great grey plain that I could answer to the echoes of the beautiful story – but then at all events I did not fail.20 

    A short time after he had returned to England, at the close of his second tour, he wrote to a friend,

    The journey has deepened the impression I had of Iceland and increased my love for it. The glorious simplicity of the terrible and tragic, but beautiful land, with its well-remembered stories of brave men, killed all querulous feeling in me, and has made all the dear faces of wife and children and love and friends dearer than ever to me…! surely I have gained a great deal, and it was no idle whim that drew me there, but a true instinct for what I needed.21 

    Morris’s intense interest in everything Scandinavian during the years 1870 to 1876 – an interest which, as we have seen, led him to translate a number of Icelandic sagas and several Northern ballads and induced him to make two trips to Iceland- is reflected also in several original poems which he wrote at this time. All but one of these, Sigurd the Volsung, are minor works or fragments; I shall discuss these shorter poems first, for all of them seem to have been composed at an earlier date than the Sigurd.

    Three of these short pieces – “Iceland First Seen,” “Gunnar’s Howe above the House at Lithend,” and an unnamed fragment dealing with Gunnar and Njál- were directly inspired by his visits to Iceland. All three are undated, but although two of them were not published until 1891, when they appeared in Poems by the Way,22 and the third was first printed by Miss May Morris in 1936 in her William Morris: Artist Writer Socialist,23 the subject matter of these poems makes it almost certain that they were written in the early 1870’s.24 

    In “Iceland First Seen,”25 a short piece consisting of six seven-line stanzas in anapestic hexameters rhyming ababacc, Morris represents himself as asking, as he catches his first glimpse of the bleak, mountainous country, what it is he has come to see in this desolate land, and he answers that it is Iceland’s glorious past which has drawn him thither; he goes on to say that even when Balder returns to the earth and all sorrow and pain come to an end, it will be pleasant to dream of the days of old, when men lived nobly and courageously, although faced with inevitable defeat and ruin. According to his Journal of his first visit to Iceland, he obtained his first glimpse of the country when the “Diana” sailed into Berufjőrðr in the Journal, so that this must have been the spot which inspired him to write these lines.26 

    The second poem occasioned directly by his visit to Iceland, “Gunnar’s Howe above the House at Lithend,” is rather brief, consisting of only twenty hexameter lines.27 Here Morris describes his feelings as he stands at dusk one day, while the moon is shining feebly in the Northern summer sky, before the mound in which lies the famous Gunnar of the Njáls saga; he laments that noble deeds of the past can be so quickly forgotten that a man can now stand in this spot with unbated breath,

    As I name him that Gunnar of old, who erst in the haymaking tide

    Felt all the land fragrant and fresh, as amidst of the edges he died.

    Too swiftly fame fadeth away, if ye tremble not lest once again

    The grey mound should open and show him glad-eyed without grudging or pain.

    Little labour methinks to behold him but the tale-teller labored in vain.

    Little labour for ears that may hearken to her his death-conquering song,

    Till the heart swells to think of the gladness undying that overcame wrong.28 

    In these lines Morris is obviously referring to the account given in Chapter LXXVII of the Njáls saga of how one night shortly after his death Gunnar’s mound opened and Skarphedinn and Hőgni, Gunnar’s son, saw and heard Gunnar singing within.29 Morris records in the Journal of his first trip to Iceland in 1871 that he visited Lithend on July 21st, and says that he saw Gunnar’s mound first in the early evening and again, the same day, just before midnight.30 It was almost certainly this second visit that provided the setting for this poem; in his Journal he writes of it as follows: “… it must have been about eleven at night as we passed the howe again: the moon was in the western sky, a little thin crescent, not shining at all as yet, though the days are visibly drawing in, and the little valley was in a sort of twilight not: so to camp and into our tents away from the heavy dew: the wind north-west and sky quite cloudless.”31 According to his account of his second journey to Iceland, he saw Lithend again in the summer of 1873 on his way from Reykjavík to Steppafil. On the outgoing trip the party passed by without stopping, but when Morris and his friends returned, they halted for a rest at that farm and Morris revisited Gunnar’s howe; he says, however, that the day was dreary and that he did not at all feel moved by the associations of the spot as he had been two years before.32 Undoubtedly it was the visit in July, 1871, that inspired the poem under consideration, and very likely Morris wrote the piece at this time or shortly thereafter.

    The third poem on Iceland, as I have already stated, is only a fragment.33 After expressing his longing for the days of old when men lived bravely and nobly and even in defeat gained fair fame, Morris says he will try to sin of these past days while waiting for their return, and he then abruptly begins to describe the site of Gunnar’s home at Lithend, with Fleetlithe to the north and Eyiafell to the east, pointing out to his imaginary companion the path of green on the hill where Gunnar lived and died and telling his friend that it is impossible from this spot to see Bergthorsknoll, where Njál and Sharphedinn34 lie at rest. At this point the poem ends.

    The fragment that we have gives little indication of what Morris originally intended to do in this piece; it is possible that he had planned to retell briefly the story of Gunnar and Njál, using the actions of these men to exemplify the way of life that he had praised at the opening of the poem. Both this piece and the one discussed just before it reveal the deep impression that the Njáls saga, which he first read in Dasent’s translation, had made on Morris; undoubtedly his visits to the scenes of the tale had made the story even more vivid. For the metrical form of the poem Morris chose seven-line stanzas rhyming ababacc, each line containing seven accents; in this use of fourteen-syllable lines, as Miss Morris points out, Morris foreshadows the choice of metre he was to make for his Sigurd the Volsung.

    1. Collected Works, VIII, 96.

    2. Ibid., VIII, 154.

    3. Ibid., VIII, 90-91.

    4. Ibid., VIII, 90, note 1

    5. Ibid., VIII, 94.

    6. Mackail, William Morris, I, 291.

    7. Morris gave the copy which he made of the first diary to Lady Burne-Jones; in 1922 her son and daughter, Sir Philip Burne-Jones and Mrs. Mackail, presented the book to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, where it is now deposited.

    8. Collected Works, VIII, 97.

    9. Ibid., VIII, 102.

    10. Ibid., VIII, 118.

    11. Ibid., VIII, 124-125. For further passages revealing Morris’s intimate knowledge of the sagas see ibid., VIII, 62, 11.17-21; 85, 11.29-31; 135, 11.23-24; 194, 11.1-2; and 196, 11.24-25.

    12. Collected Works, VIII, 97.

    13. Ibid., VIII, 111. See also ibid., VIII, 141, 11.2-5.

    14. Collected Works, VIII, 97.

    15. Ibid., VIII, 111. See also ibid., VIII, 141, 11.2-5. The corresponding passages in the other text and in The Saga Library: X, 3, 1.1; 4, 1.10; 4, 1.19; 4, 11.21-22; 5, 1.24; 6, 1.5; 6, 1.7; and 6, 1.14.

    16. Collected Works, VIII, 77.

    17. Ibid., VIII, 149.

    18. Ibid., VIII, 166.

    19. Ibid., VIII, 168.

    20. Collected Works, VIII, 207.

    21. Mackail, William Morris, I, 295. For further references to Iceland in letters of Morris, see Collected Works, XI, xvii, 11.30-31; XII, vii, 11.27-29, xi, 11.5-8, and xvi, 1.14; XVIII, xxxv, 11.20-21; and XXIII, xvii, 11.5-14.

    22. See Collected Works, IX, 125-126 and 179.

    23. I, 462-464.

    24. In the case of the third poem Miss Morris notes that the handwriting likewise places it in this period; she says it is “written in the fine script of the seventies….” (in her William Morris, I, 462).

    25. Collected Works, IX, 125-126.

    26. Ibid., VIII, 19-20.

    27. Ibid., IX, 179.

    28. Collected Works, IX, 179.

    29. Tr. Dasent, I, 248-251.

    30. Collected Works, VIII, 46-49.

    31. Collected Works, VIII, 49.

    32. See ibid., VIII, 198 and 207.

    33. May Morris, William Morris, I, 462-464.

    34. The printed text has “Skarfhedinn” for “Skarphedinn”; this mistake is evidently due to a misreading of the manuscript, for it is difficult to believe that Morris himself could have made such an error.