Friday, 8 July 2011

Home they brought her warrior dead

Tennyson's poem 'Home they brought her warrior dead', which he published as one of the many short verses in The Princess, was loosely based on (a translation of) an Old Norse poem known as Guðrúnarkviða I. I've posted about this poem before, but here's some more of it; I'd forgotten how wonderful it is.

This is one of the poems of the Poetic Edda, part of the Volsung cycle of legends. It tells of the grief of Guðrún after her husband, the hero Sigurðr, has been murdered by her brothers (they were incited to do it by Sigurðr's former lover Brynhildr; for the whole long complicated story, go here). Guðrún loved Sigurðr deeply and after his death, overcome with grief, she is unable to weep for him, trapped in numb passionate sorrow. Her companions try to break through her silence, afraid that she will be ill if she is unable to express her grief. The poem begins like this:

Ár var, þats Guðrún gerðisk at deyja,
It was long ago: when Guðrún meant to die,
er hon sat sorgfull yfir Sigurði;
when she sat sorrowful over Sigurðr;
gerðit hon hjúfra né höndum slá,
she did not weep or strike her hands together
né kveina um sem konur aðrar.
or lament like other women.

Gengu jarlar alsnotrir fram,
The most wise men came forward;
þeir er harðs hugar hana löttu;
intending to ease her heavy sorrow;
þeygi Guðrún gráta mátti,
but even so Guðrún could not weep,
svá var hon móðug, mundi hon springa.
she was so fierce in her grief, she could have burst apart.

[I can't translate 'móðug' very well, but perhaps this will help: imagine for yourself the semantic change which brought this word from signifying the very highest pitch of fierce, proud, passionate emotion down to today's Modern English 'moody'.]

Since the wisdom of the wise men has not comforted her, the women come forward and tell stories of their own heaviest griefs - the sons and husbands they have lost - to persuade her to weep. But Guðrún doesn't respond, and after each story this is repeated:

Þeygi Guðrún gráta mátti,
Even so Guðrún could not weep,
svá var hon móðug at mög dauðan
she was so móðug at the young man's death
ok harðhuguð of hrör fylkis.
and so heavy in heart for the fall of the prince.

At last her sister, seeing more keenly how to pierce Guðrún's impassive grief, pulls the covering away from Sigurðr's body, and shows Guðrún his hair streaming with blood, his eyes grown dim, the wound in his breast - and at last she can weep.

Þá hné Guðrún höll við bolstri,
Then Guðrún knelt, leaning against the bolster,
haddr losnaði, hlýr roðnaði,
she loosened her hair, her face grew red,
en regns dropi rann niðr of kné.
and drops like rain ran down her knee.

[this is a phrase you often get in ballads like this one - "Can you not see my own heart's blood/Come trickling down my knee?" I didn't realise how old it was!]

Guðrún cries so loudly that her geese cackle in response from the meadow [why is she associated with geese? I don't know. Perhaps St Werburh could explain.] Her sister says:

"Ykkrar vissa ek ástir mestar
Yours [plural], I know, was the greatest love
manna allra fyr mold ofan;
of all men across the world;
unðir þá hvárki úti né inni,
you were never happy, inside or outside,
systir mín nema hjá Sigurði."
my sister, except with Sigurðr.

And Guðrún speaks a lament for Sigurðr:

"Svá var minn Sigurðr hjá sonum Gjúka
So was my Sigurðr, compared to the sons of Giuki [her brothers],
sem væri geirlaukr ór grasi vaxinn
like a green leek growing up out of the grass;
ða væri bjartr steinn á band dreginn,
like a bright stone threaded on a string,
jarknasteinn yfir öðlingum.
a precious stone among the princes.

[On the superior qualities of leeks, see this post.]

Ek þótta ok þjóðans rekkum
And I thought myself, among the prince's warriors,
hverri hæri Herjans dísi;
to be higher than any of Odin's ladies;
nú em ek svá lítil sem lauf séi
now I am as little as a leaf
oft í jölstrum at jöfur dauðan.
among the bay-willows, because of the death of the prince.

Sakna ek í sessi ok í sæingu
I miss, in seat and in bed,
míns málvinar, valda megir Gjúka;
my talking-friend; the kin of Gjúki caused this.
valda megir Gjúka mínu bölvi
The kin of Gjúki caused my sorrow,
ok systur sinnar sárum gráti.
the sore weeping of their sister.

[málvinr is a lovely word - my 'friend for talking to']

She goes on to curse her brothers to misery and is upbraided by Brynhildr, who then kills herself because she can't bear to live without Sigurðr.

And now for Tennyson's version. Now, I love all Victorians, Tennyson included, but it has to be admitted that the change he made to this poem is like every cliche about Victorian sentimentality rolled into one. Take a guess: what do you think he uses to break the widow's tearless grief? Is it the sight of bloody wounds? Is it the look in her husband's lifeless eyes? Is it the gore streaming through his beautiful hair? No...

If you said, "the sight of her innocent child", you would be correct. Guðrún is perhaps the least sentimental mother of all Germanic mythology - she killed her own infant children to get revenge on their father, her second husband (after Sigurðr), and sent her adult sons to their deaths to avenge the death of her daughter. She wasn't really one to be comforted by the idea of living for her sweet child. However, here's Tennyson:

Home they brought her warrior dead

Home they brought her warrior dead:
She nor swooned, nor uttered cry:
All her maidens, watching, said,
'She must weep or she will die.'

Then they praised him, soft and low,
Called him worthy to be loved,
Truest friend and noblest foe;
Yet she neither spoke nor moved.

Stole a maiden from her place,
Lightly to the warrior stepped,
Took the face-cloth from the face;
Yet she neither moved nor wept.

Rose a nurse of ninety years,
Set his child upon her knee--
Like summer tempest came her tears--
'Sweet my child, I live for thee.'


I confess to a fondness for verse two. But really, you would think that the author of In Memoriam, the Victorian poet of grief par excellence, could have come up with something a little more heartfelt, a little more true. In this one, the Old Norse poet beats the Poet Laureate hollow.

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