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 dragon-slayer 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 loves 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,
er hon sat sorgfull yfir Sigurði;
gerðit hon hjúfra né höndum slá,
né kveina um sem konur aðrar.

Gengu jarlar alsnotrir fram,
þeir er harðs hugar hana löttu;
þeygi Guðrún gráta mátti,
svá var hon móðug, mundi hon springa.

It was long ago, when Guðrún wished to die,
when she sat sorrowful over Sigurðr;
she did not weep or strike her hands together
or lament like other women.

The most wise men came forward;
intending to ease her heavy sorrow;
but even so Guðrún could not weep,
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,
svá var hon móðug at mög dauðan
ok harðhuguð of hrör fylkis.

Even so Guðrún could not weep,
she was so móðug at the young man's death
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,
haddr losnaði, hlýr roðnaði,
en regns dropi rann niðr of kné.

Then Guðrún knelt, leaning against the bolster,
she loosened her hair, her face grew red,
and drops like rain ran down her knee.

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
manna allra fyr mold ofan;
unðir þá hvárki úti né inni,
systir mín nema hjá Sigurði."

Yours [plural], I know, was the greatest love
of all men across the world;
you were never happy, inside or outside,
my sister, except with Sigurðr.

And Guðrún speaks a lament for Sigurðr:

Svá var minn Sigurðr hjá sonum Gjúka
sem væri geirlaukr ór grasi vaxinn,
eða væri bjartr steinn á band dreginn,
jarknasteinn yfir öðlingum.

Ek þótta ok þjóðans rekkum hverri hæri Herjans dísi;
nú em ek svá lítil sem lauf séi
oft í jölstrum at jöfur dauðan.

Sakna ek í sessi ok í sæingu
míns málvinar, valda megir Gjúka;
valda megir Gjúka mínu bölvi
ok systur sinnar sárum gráti.

So was my Sigurðr, compared to the sons of Giuki, [her brothers]
like a leek growing up out of the grass;
or a bright stone threaded on a string,
a precious stone among the princes.

And I thought myself, among the prince's warriors,
to be higher than any of Odin's ladies;
now I am as little as a leaf
among the bay-willows, because of the death of the prince.

I miss, in seat and in bed,
my talking-friend; the kin of Gjúki caused this.
The kin of Gjúki caused my sorrow,
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'm quite fond of Tennyson, but it has to be admitted that what he did 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 legend - 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.

William Morris did a lot better in his Sigurd the Volsung, in a section entitled 'Of the mighty Grief of Gudrun over Sigurd dead':

Of old in the days past over was Gudrun blent with the dead,
As she sat in measureless sorrow o'er Sigurd's wasted bed,
But no sigh came from her bosom, nor smote she hand in hand,
Nor wailed with the other women, and the daughters of the land.

Then the wise of the Earls beheld her, smit cold with her dread intent,
And they rose one after other, and before the Queen they went;
Men ancient, men mighty in battle, men sweet of speech were there,
And they loved her, and entreated, and spake good words to hear:
But no tears and no lamenting in Gudrun's heart would strive
With the deadly chill of sorrow that none may bear and live.

Now there were the King-folk's daughters, and wives of the Earls of war,
The fair, and the noble-hearted, the wise in ancient lore;
And they rose one after other, and stood before the Queen
To tell of their woes past over, and the worst their eyes had seen:
There was Giaflaug, Giuki's sister, she was old and stark to see,
And she said: "O heavyhearted, they slew my King from me:
Look up, O child of the Niblungs, and hearken mournful things
Of the woes of living man-folk and the daughters of the Kings!
Dead now is the last of my brethren; to the dead my sister went;
My son and my little daughter in the earliest days were spent:
On the earth am I living loveless, long past are the happy days,
They lie with things departed and vain and foolish praise,
And the hopes of hapless people: yet I sit with the people's lords
When men are hushed to hearken the least of all my words.
What else is the wont of the Niblungs? why else by the Gods were they wrought,
Save to wear down lamentation, and make all sorrow nought?"

No word of woe gat Gudrun, nor had she will to weep,
Such weight of woe was on her for the golden Sigurd's sleep:
Her heart was cold and dreadful; nor good from ill she knew
For the love they had taken from her, and the day with naught to do.

Then troth-plight maids forsaken, and never-wedded ones,
And they that mourned dead husbands and the hope of unborn sons,
These told of their bitterest trouble and the worst their eyes had seen;
"Yet all we live to love thee, and the glory of the Queen.
Look up, look up, O Gudrun! what rest for them that wail
If the Queens of men shall tremble, and the God-kin faint and fail?"

No voice gat Gudrun's sorrow, no care she had to weep;
For the deeds of the day she knew not, nor the dreams of Sigurd's sleep:
Her heart was cold and dreadful; nor good from ill she knew,
Because of her love departed, and the day with naught to do.

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:
Alone I sang above them, alone I dight their gear
For the uttermost journey of all men, in the harvest of the year:
Nor wakened spring from winter ere I left those early dead;
With bound hands and shameful body I went as the sea-thieves led:
Now I sit by the hearth of a stranger; nor have I weal nor woe,
Save the hope of the Niblung masters and the sorrow of a foe."

No wailing word gat Gudrun, no thought she had to weep
O'er the sundering tide of Sigurd, and the loved lord's lonely sleep:
Her heart was cold and dreadful; nor good from ill she knew,
Since her love was taken from her and the day of deeds to do.

Then arose a maid of the Niblungs, and Gullrond was her name,
And betwixt that Queen of Welshland and Gudrun's grief she came:
And she said: "O foster-mother, O wise in the wisdom of old,
Hast thou spoken a word to the dead, and known them hear and behold?
E'en so is this word thou speakest, and the counsel of thy face."

All heed gave the maids and the warriors, and hushed was the spear-thronged place,
As she stretched out her hand to Sigurd, and swept the linen away
From the lips that had holpen the people, and the eyes that had gladdened the day;
She set her hand unto Sigurd, and turned the face of the dead
To the moveless knees of Gudrun, and again she spake and said:
"O Gudrun, look on thy loved-one; yea, as if he were living yet
Let his face by thy face be cherished, and thy lips on his lips be set!"

Then Gudrun's eyes fell on it, and she saw the bright-one's hair
All wet with the deadly dew-fall, and she saw the great eyes stare
At that cloudy roof of the Niblungs without a smile or frown;
And she saw the breast of the mighty and the heart's wall rent adown:
She gazed and the woe gathered on her, so exceeding far away
Seemed all she once had cherished from that which near her lay;
She gazed, and it craved no pity, and therein was nothing sad,
Therein was clean forgotten the hope that Sigurd had:
Then she looked around and about her, as though her friend to find,
And met those woeful faces but as grey reeds in the wind,
And she turned to the King beneath her and raised her hands on high,
And fell on the body of Sigurd with a great and bitter cry;
All else in the house kept silence, and she as one alone
Spared not in that kingly dwelling to wail aloud and moan;
And the sound of her lamentation the peace of the Niblungs rent,
While the restless birds in the wall-nook their song to the green leaves sent;
And the geese in the home-mead wandering clanged out beneath the sun;
For now was the day's best hour, and its loveliest tide begun.

Long Gudrun lay on Sigurd, and her tears fell fast on the floor
As the rain in midmost April when the winter-tide is o'er,
Till she heard a wail anigh her and how Gullrond wept beside,
Then she knew the voice of her pity, and rose upright and cried:
"O ye, e'en such was my Sigurd among these Giuki's sons,
As the hart with the horns day-brightened mid the forest-creeping ones;
As the spear-leek fraught with wisdom mid the lowly garden grass;
As the gem on the gold band's midmost when the council cometh to pass,
And the King is lit with its glory, and the people wonder and praise.
— O people, Ah thy craving for the least of my Sigurd's days!
O wisdom of my Sigurd! how oft I sat with thee
Thou striver, thou deliverer, thou hope of things to be!
O might of my love, my Sigurd! how oft I sat by thy side,
And was praised for the loftiest woman and the best of Odin's pride!
But now am I as little as the leaf on the lone tree left,
When the winter wood is shaken and the sky by the North is cleft."
Then her speech grew wordless wailing, and no man her meaning knew.

Morris wonderfully conveys the incredible power of Guðrún's grief, which is such a memorable part of the Norse legend. It is a 'mighty grief', in Morris' phrase; it is overpowering, unmanageable, and beyond speech. That's what so moving about the story - that her grief has completely immobilised and silenced her. Pitched past pitch of grief, she can't grieve - she can't speak or give words to her sorrow. And for Guðrún, as for women generally in Germanic legend, silence is stasis, speech is action; speech does things. Silent, she is helpless; speaking, she begins to control her grief. All the women who recount their stories of sorrow, attempting to spark a cathartic response in catatonic Gudrun, depict (as Morris' poem reflects, and Tennyson's really doesn't) a collective experiencing of grief, which mirrors the cathartic effect of listening to a fictional story like Gudrun's. That's part of the power of it - that your own sorrow, whatever it is which has most wounded you, the reader, could be one of the stories the women tell.

1 comment:

J.-F. Perrot said...

Dear Clerk of Oxford,
Thank you for this marvelous post.
Tennyson's "Home they brought…" is one of my treasures of English verse. I just found a footnote to Vǫluspá stanza #4
[ þá var grund gróin / grœnum lauki. ]
mentioning Guðrún's lament, which thanks to Google led me to your blog.
Hope that Old Norse will be taught in departments of English for a long future.