The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

V. The Rossettis, William Morris, Swinburne, and Others

§ 5. Sigurd the Volsung

In the later portion of The Earthly Paradise, the pure romance of his earlier stories began to give place to a higher and stronger form of poetry. The transition to epic, with its prevailing theme of strife and suffering, is marked by Bellerophon at Argos and Bellerophon in Lycia, and still more strikingly, in view of later developments, by The Lovers of Gudrun. His feeling for the classical epic led to his translations of The Aeneids of Virgil, in 1875, and the Odyssey in 1887, the first of which, at any rate, showed an appreciation of the spirit and influence of the poem superior to its actual rendering of Vergil’s individuality of style. His imagination, however, found its true home in the less trodden fields of the northern saga. The Lovers of Gudrun, a version of the Icelandic Laxdaela saga in heroic couplet, is the masterpiece of The Earthly Paradise. The habitual melancholy, with its emphasis upon the shortness of life and the bitterness of love, is apparent here, but without the romantic listlessness which besets it elsewhere. Kiartan, Bodli, Ospak, Gudrun are active living figures engaged in dramatic conflict befitting the stern and barren scene of northern legend. In 1869 and 1870, Morris had collaborated with Eiríkr Magnússon, in the translation of Grettis saga and Volsunga saga, and, in 1871, he reached an epoch in his life with his first visit to Iceland and the actual scenes of the events of the stories of Grettir, Gudrun and Burnt Njal, where “every place and name marks the death of” the “short-lived eagerness and glory” of this home of epic poetry. His literary work during the next few years included the morality Love is Enough, the structure of which, a play presented within a play, resembles the intricate method employed in The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon. For this, he adopted a somewhat monotonous form of unrimed verse, more definitely archaic in form and spirit than any of his other work; but its unattractiveness is redeemed by occasional passages of description in which his love and knowledge of medieval art overcome all obstacles, while the long rimed measures of “the Music,” the series of interludes by which the drama of Pharamond and Azalais is broken into parts and the amoebaean lyric of the emperor and empress with its answering refrains are, perhaps, his highest lyric achievements. Love is Enough was, however, merely a divergence from the channel which his verse had now marked out for itself. In 1875, he published his translation of the Aeneid and a small volume of translations of Icelandic stories which preluded his most ambitious poem, The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs.

This epic in four books, founded upon the prose Volsunga saga, was published in 1876. Its story, in loftiness of theme and the completeness with which it is controlled by an overmastering fate, is at least the equal of the great Greek legends; and, to tell it, Morris employed an anapaestic couplet of his own invention, with six beats to each line. This metre, which he afterwards used in his translation of the Odyssey, suited the natural ease and rapidity of his writing. The swinging cadences might easily become monotonous or slovenly; but the nobility of his story had so thoroughly taken hold of him that he never sacrificed dignity to swiftness of execution. With plentiful variety of movement, a stateliness appropriate to the theme is maintained throughout the whole of the poem. It has been questioned whether Volsunga saga, as a whole, is suitable for epic treatment. Morris himself closed his story with the death of Gudrun, the true consummation of “all the death of kings and kindreds, and the sorrow of Odin the Goth,” without proceeding to the final incidents of the saga, but he introduced, in his first book, the whole grim episode of Sigmund and Signy and the monstrous Sinfiotli, which is purely preliminary to, and, in fact, a separate story from, the epic of Sigurd, son of Sigmund and Hiordis. That the book thus falls into two epics, a short and a long one, cannot be gainsaid, and there is a signal contrast between the inhumanity of the opening story, whose personages excite terror and repulsion but little sympathy, and the gentler aspect of its sequel, in which, superhuman though the actors are in stature and in spirit, their errors and woes are those of mortality. Morris, however, so managed the transition from the overture to the actual drama that the interest is not suspended or noticeably broken, and, before our concentration upon the fate of Sigmund is wholly diverted, we are carried away upon the tide of Sigurd’s heroic youth. The episodes follow one another with unfailing vigour and freshness, and, in the climax of the story, the slaying of the Niblung kings, the slayers of Sigurd, in the hall of Atli, the death-song of Gunnar among the serpents and the vengeance and death of Gudrun, Morris pursued his theme triumphantly to the end. If the chosen form of Sigurd the Volsung did not wholly fulfil its promise when it came to cope with the Homeric hexameter, it was at least thoroughly adequate to an occasion when Morris was free to deal with his story untrammelled by the exigencies of translation.