“The Tale of Tristram and Iseult”

“The Tale of Tristram and Iseult.” The National Review 2 (February 1884): 826-37.

[NOTE: Blind had been interested in the Tristram and Iseult tale for more than a decade before publishing this essay. Both she and Algernon Charles Swinburne viewed it in antitheistic terms, as a tale in which love and fate displace God as the ultimate arbiters of human value and meaning. This is apparent both in Swinburne’s nine-part poem, published in 1882, and in Blind’s 1884 essay, which considers its possible roots in Egyptian mythology, its medieval manifestations (from the earliest Celtic versions to Gottfried von Strassburg’s unfinished courtly romance-epic Tristan und Isolde), and ends with a discussion of contemporary treatments by Arnold, Tennyson, Swinburne and Wagner. Blind’s essay also provides a detailed summary of Strassburg’s version, along with her English translations of several passages from his poem. While researching other versions of the tale in 1872, Swinburne had asked Blind about Strassburg’s 19,000 line poem, which had been edited and published by Karl Simrock in 1855. Swinburne was especially interested in Strassburg’s treatment of the two Iseult characters—Iseult of Ireland and the Brittanic Iseult who becomes Tristram’s demonic adversary. Blind provided Swinburne with a translation of Simrock’s abstract of the closing scenes of the tale, noting that  “Unluckily Gottfried’s work comes to an end at a most unsatisfactory part and before Tristram’s marriage to Iseult of Brittany.”]

* * * * *

No one knows where this celebrated story precisely came from, nor who the poet was that first cast it in a metrical form. To judge from the oldest fragments extant, this tale, so familiar to mediæval Europe, was of Celtic origin: but learned German commentators trace some of the leading characters and incidents as far back as the Egyptian god Ptah and the goddess Isis. Be that as it may, the tale of Tristram and Iseult seems rather the spontaneous growth of popular imagination than the conscious work of particular poets, and to have freely assimilated half-forgotten memories of extinct mythologies. Vestiges of the unavoidable solar-myth are probably also discernible in it. The hero’s skill on the harp, gifts of the minstrelsy, and fight with the dragon certainly recall the leading attributes of the Sun-god. But what matter how it originated, since it is now one of the best love-stories in the world, thanks above all to Gottfried von Strassburg, the mediæval German poet, whose epic deserves to be far better known than it is, being the most complete and masterly treatment of a subject which seems to have found its final interpretation in the harmonies of Wagner. That great composer could not well have selected a fitter subject for musical treatment. For the broad epic character of this tale, the symbolic nature of its chief incidents, the sublimity of its passion, satisfy the requirements of an art which necessarily deals with what is most elemental in human life. In this respect Wagner’s musical drama possesses undoubted grandeur, but this grandeur is attained by the sacrifice of a multiplicity of details imparting life and movement to the original story. To understand the modifications of the latter, let us pass in review some of the numerous poems founded on this romantic topic, among which Gotffried’s Tristan takes the foremost place.

     This poet, of whom nothing is personally known, although he produced one of the chief works of mediæval Europe, lived about the end of the twelfth and the beginning of the thirteenth century. It has been inferred, from certain indications, such as the absence of armorial bearing in the portrait extant in the Paris MS., that Master Gottfried, as he is called, was not of gentle birth, but a notary to the town of Strassburg, or of its bishop. The latter [827] seems unlikely, however, to judge from the strong anti-hierarchical bias which occasionally pierces through his poem. Equally scanty is our knowledge of the sources whence the poet drew his materials. It is true he frequently refers to one Thomas, sometimes calling him Thomas of Britannia, as the only authentic writer on this subject; but it has never been clearly ascertained who is meant by this. As the Trouveres or minstrels of the North of France are supposed to have first snug the loves of Tristan and Isolde, it seems likely that the French poet named Thomas, a tie of Brittany, who wrote on this subject, might have been Gottfried’s model. The number of French words, phrases, even whole verses, with which he has interspersed his poem, seems to corroborate this supposition. Walter Scott, on the other hand, in his learned edition of Sir Tristrem by Thomas of Ercildoune or the Rhymer, believes that the latter is meant by Thomas of Britannia. The date seems to render this supposition impossible, Walter Scott assigning 1219 as the approximate year of the Rhymer’s birth, while German editors name 1210 as the likeliest date of the composition of Gottfried’s Tristan. The coincidence between the two narratives is so singular, however, that, unless one copied it from the other, they must have adhered to an older authority equally well known to both. But from whatever sources Gottfried von Strassburg may have collected his materials, to him belongs the glory of having welded the whole into a beautiful poem; though he died, unfortunately, before he could bring his work to a close. His successors, Ulrich von Türheim and Heinrich von Friberg, wrote each a separate ending, a third one having been supplied in modern times by the poet Hermann Kurz.

. . . it is truly wonderful how free is this mediæval poem from all traces of the ascetic mysticism of the times.

When one considers that Gottfried wrote at the beginning of the thirteenth century, a time of unparalleled religious enthusiasm, when Europe poured half its population to the Holy Land; when men and women flying from the temptations of the world immured themselves in convents and monasteries; when pilgrims of all ages swarmed to Rome to seek absolution for their sins, while in gloomy forest and desolate waste the hermit built his cell, remote from human fellowship;—when one considers all this, it is truly wonderful how free is this mediæval poem from all traces of the ascetic mysticism of the times. Though it has caught the glamour of Christian chivalry, it abounds in survivals of pre-historic myths. Learned German commentators even perceive affinities to Osiris and Isis in Tristan and Isolde, trace remnants of Druidism in their little dog Petitcriu, and discover nothing more or less than a cromlech or fairy-grotto in Gottfried’s enchanting minnegrotte!

[828]

Limpid expression, musical versification, an instinctive felicity in the choice of words and imagery distinguish the Strassburg poet’s work.

    This blending of mythical elements with German sentiment, and a love of intrigue worthy of Balzac or Daudet, imparts great variety and charm to Gottfried’s work. The harmonious impact of a great genius on an age pre-eminently addicted to chivalry and the glorification of a feminine ideal, an age age which had transmuted love into worship, and which recognized no law higher than the sensibility of tender hearts, alone could have produced such a romance. Limpid expression, musical versification, an instinctive felicity in the choice of words and imagery distinguish the Strassburg poet’s work. He shows a rare sweetness in the descriptions of nature, but of nature in her blandest moods: the singing of birds in summer woods, the sprouting of little flowers on the vernal grass, the bubbling of springs and scent of lime-trees; but rarer still than all this amiable pourtrayal of landscape is the art with which he sounds the whole diapason of the master-passion.

The poem is in rhymed octo-syllables full of liquid double endings and rhythmical irregularities, as with the old English ballads and border minstrelsy; irregularities of feet, and even occasionally of accent, far more musical than the most learned rules can enforce. However inadequate any translation must necessarily be, the following lines will give an idea of Gottfried’s verse:–

Whate’er betide, O let me not
Out of your heart! For well I wot
From mine you ne’er shall sever;
For Isolde now and ever
Abides with Tristan to the end.
Remember, mistress, sweetest friend,
How grief will waste me when afar
I darkling roam without any star.
Whate’er betide in weal or woo
Ne’er from your heart let Tristan go
Then back she stepped a little way:
Sweet Lord, she answered sighing, Yea,
We twain, e’en like one heart and will,
Have overlong been wont to thrill,
And beat in time to the same tune,
That now we ever, late or soon,
Should learn oblivion, or, I wis,
What strangeness or forgetting is.
Near or afar with me you stay,
And in my heart there shall for aye
No joy of living thing be rife
But Tristan very breath of life.

     Gottfried’s epic begins with the history of Riwalin, who, repairing to the court of Mark, King of Cornwall, wins the heart of his sister Blancheflur. She flies with him across the sea to Parmenia, which has been invaded by Duke Morgan, and after a hasty marriage Riwalin proceeds to the defence of his territory. Having [829] performed prodigies of valour he is defeated and slain, and on hearing the news Blancheflur shed not a single tear–for, as the poet says, her heart was turned to stone–nor ever spoke again, but died after giving birth to a son who was christened Tristan, that is to say, the sorrowful. Adopted by Rual, his father’s faithful steward, the child was carefully trained in every knightly accomplishment; at the age of fourteen he was kidnapped by Norwegian sea-rovers, who, terrified by an awful storm, landed him on the Cornish coast. Falling in accidentally with a party of hunters, he won their good graces by showing them the scientific mode of breaking up a stag, and in consequence of this performance he was brought before Mark at Tintagel. The king, delighted with the young huntsman, who excelled equally in singing, harp playing and a knowledge of foreign tongues, made him his favourite companion, and eventually learned from Rual, who had searched far and wide for his foster son, what was the secret of his birth. Soon after, when Mark was much distressed by the arrival of Morold, who in the name of Gurmun, King of Ireland, claimed a tribute of gold, silver, and 300 young children, Tristan found an opportunity of showing his gratitude by offering, upon his being knighted, to oppose the claim and defend the freedom of Cornwall. The two champions sailed to an island to decide the combat, and although King Mark’s nephew was dangerously wounded, he, with his sword, clove Morold’s skull, in which a piece of the blade remained. But Tristan’s wound, having been inflicted by an envenomed weapon, became so bad that his only chance of cure lay in setting sail for Ireland to seek the assistance of its queen, renowned for her skill in leechcraft. To avoid recognition as the slayer of her brother Morold, he gave out that he was a merchant named Tantris; and the queen having healed him, he repaid her services by instructing her beautiful daughter Isolde in minstrelsy, poetry, and the noble game of chess. On his return Mark, hearing his praises of the young princess, sent him back to Ireland to demand her in marriage. But King Gurmun had just offered his daughter’s hand to any man who should kill a fiery dragon which was ravaging the country. The valorous Sir Tristan went on shore immediately to attach this monster, broke his spear on its impenetrable hide, lost his horse, but finally smote off the dragon’s jaw. After cutting out its tongue he fainted from the stench. The king’s steward, who had been treacherously lying in wait all this while, now secured the reptile’s head, went to court, and claimed the princess. The queen and her daughter, distrusting his account, repaired at midnight to the scene of action, and in the moonlight Isolde spied the glint of a helmet in a tarn, which the hero, on the point of swooning, had plunged into for coolness. He was [830] rescued, restored to consciousness, and, the dragon’s tongue proving him the victor, he now offered to meet the steward in combat. While he was taking a medicated bath, the princess, who had been examining his weapons, accidentally discovered the gap in his sword and found that the piece in her uncle’s brain-pan fitted it exactly. Full of indignation, seeing that Tantris was Tristan, Morold’s slayer, she seized the sword and rushed upon the helpless knight with seeming intent to kill him (but, as Gottfried says, never would have done so). Her mother stays her hand, and for her child’s sake is willing to forgive the death of her brother. Seeing the queen so mercifully inclined, Tristan makes his peace with her by disclosing that the gentle, great and powerful King of Cornwall has sent him to seek her daughter for his bride. Thereupon, though the princess protests a little, they kiss in sign of reconciliation; and the next day there is a great festival at court, when the steward, amid much laughter, withdraws his claim on being shown the dragon’s tongue. At this festival the radiant young princess, accompanying her mother, wore “a cloak and gown of brown velvet in the latest French fashion, the last, tightly laced down the sides and seeming to have grown to her, fell in many folds to her feet. With the thumb of her left hand she held the pearl-cord fastening her ermine-lined cloak. And the delicate gold circlet round her head, contending with the gold of her hair, would not have been distinguishable from it but for the shining of the gems. Her eyes, resembling those of a falcon on his perch, glanced sedately round the hall, to the loss of many a knight’s heart.”

     Soon after this the Princess, accompanied by Tristan, Brangane, and a large retinue, went on board the vessel that was to convey her to King Mark. The Queen, to ensure her daughter’s happiness, had entrusted Brangane with a love potion, with directions that Mark and his bride should partake of it on the evening of their marriage. After being at sea some time, “owing to the unwonted misery of the delicate ladies of the retinue,” Tristan bade the ship be anchored in a bay, so that its passengers might refresh themselves by going on shore. But the Princess remaining on board—

Sir Tristan now went forth to hold
Speech with his lady, sweet Isold,
And by her side he sat him there,
With courtly looks and greetings fair,
And talked with her of many a thing;
And then Sir Tristan bade them bring
A drink; but near the Queen withal,
There were but sundry maidens small;
And one made answer, “In that glass
There’s wine.” This was no wine, alas
[831]
Though such forsooth it seemed, within
Lurked heavy sorrow, heavier sin,
The heart-break and the endless pain
By which in the end they both were slain.
The maiden, who knew nought of this,
Straightway arose, and not remiss,
Went to the place where, in the glass,
That badly hidden potion was.
And to her master gave it there,
Who gave it to his lady fair.
Full loth she drank, oppressed with woe,
Then gave it him, who drank also;
That it was wine they both did ween.
Meanwhile Brangane rejoined the Queen,
And straightway recognized the glass,
And knew whereof the question was.
Then such great fear her heart did sway,
That it took all her strength away,
And like a corpse she was to see,
And with a broken heart went she
And took the hapless, unblest cup,
And went wildly, held it up
And cast it in the roaring sea:
Oh woe! She cried, oh woe is me,
Oh would that I had ne’er been born!
Poor wretch, who now must ever mourn
Lost honour and fidelity,
For which remorse will never die.
Alas Isolde, and alas Tristan,
That fatal drink will be your ban!
Now that the maiden and the man,
Isold la bele and Sir Tristan
Had drank together, what came to pass?
There straight the world-disturber was,
Dame Venus, who men’s hearts doth chase,
And stole into their hearts apace.
And ere yet either was aware,
She waved her flag above the pair,
And drew them unresistingly
Within her rule and sovereignty;
Then invisible they grew,
Whose lives were separate hitherto;
And Isold’s hate was clean forgot,
The twain had but one heart I wot,
Her sorrow came to be his woe,
His sorrow became hers also;
And yet both strove to hide the same,
Being sadly vexed with doubt and shame,
And ever they shrank in fear and dread
From words that might not be unsaid.

      The unhappy pair, though they would wish never to reach land, arrive at last in Cornwall, and though Isolde is now wedded to King Mark, her heart remains Tristan’s. With the assistance of Brangane, who considers herself as the sole cause of their guilt, the lovers often meet in secret, but their meetings being discovered by Meriadok, brother in arms of Sir Tristan, who informs the King of his suspicions, the cunning dwarf Melot is set as a spy [832] upon them. The King now ostensibly goes on a hunting match, and Tristan, who carries on a communication with the Queen by means of light twigs thrown into the stream which runs through the garden close by her bower, invites her to an interview. This is discovered by the dwarf, and on the next night he and the King conceal themselves in a tree; but Tristan, coming to the tryst just as the moon rises above the mountains, sees the shadow of two crouching figures cast on the grass, and, suspecting the truth, he manages to put the Queen on her guard. Tristan now most respectfully entreats the Queen to intercede for him with his uncle, but she, alleging that the King is already sufficiently incensed with her on his account, refuses his request. The suspicions of the King of Cornwall being thus set at rest, he receives his nephew back into favour, creating him his high constable.

Several years elapse, during which the King, having fresh cause for jealousy, banishes Sir Tristan, but on hearing of his mighty deeds, becomes again reconciled to him. At last, however, finding further proof of the love between the Queen and his nephew, he grows so incensed as to banish them from his dominions. They then take refuge in the cavern of a deep forest, only accompanied by the faithful Kurwenal and the dog Hodain. Not far from the cavern is a valley with a fountain set in its midst, sheltered by three tall lime-trees. To this delicious spot the fond pair would resort at dawn, and while away the time with tales of true love; and, sings the poet,—

Many I daresay now will think,
And wonder on what food and drink
Tristan and his Isolde did fare
While in the wilderness they were.
These doubts I’ll answer in this wise,
They looked each in the other’s eyes,
And sumptuously the twain thus fed
On love and noble hardihead.

     After a twelvemonth’s residence in the forest, the King, happening to hunt there, discovers the retreat of Tristan and Isolde, and, from what he sees, comes to the conclusion that the reports about them have been vile slanders. They are therefore honourably reinstated at court, but not for long. The dwarf again betraying a meeting between them, Sir Tristan is finally banished from Cornwall, and tried to forget his troubles by going to Brittany, and there assisting the Duke of Arundel, whose town is besieged and whose islands are harried by his enemies. By the hero’s valour the contest is soon ended, and he is introduced to the daughter of the Duke. She has the same name as the Cornish Queen, but is called Isolde Aux Blanches Mains. Whenever the unhappy knight hears his lady’s name, his eyes betray the grief which preys on [833] him. But the Duke and his son and daughter mistake the cause of his emotion; for she of the white hands having fallen in love with her father’s defender, and hearing him constantly singing songs with the burden

Isolt man drue, Isolt m’amie,
En vus ma mort, en vus ma vie,

believes that her passion is reciprocated, and makes no secret of her own. The Duke, under the same impression, offers Sir Tristan his daughter’s hand, and the chivalrous knight, hopeless of ever meeting his own Isolde again, and too courtly to hurt the feelings of a lady, makes up his mind, though in much tribulation, to wed with Isolde aux Blanches Mains.

     Gottfried von Strassburg’s Tristan ends abruptly at this point: but the conclusion may be given as told by his German successors. Isolde of Brittany is only a wife in name, Tristan having married her for courtesy. In trying to save the life of her brother, he is mortally wounded, and sends Kurwenal to the Queen of Cornwall to inform her of his plight. The faithful follower is told to hoist a white sail if he brings the Queen back with him, a black sail if he does not. And ever Sir Tristan asked what manner of sails hove in sight on the sea. But she of the white hands seeing the gleam of a white sail drawing landwards, made answer in the bitterness of her heart that it was black. Then fell Sir Tristan back on his pillow, stricken to death. When Queen Isolde, stepping on shore, heard the bells tolling and the lamentation of troubled crowds, she felt her blood congeal, while her heart cried out, “He is dead, he is dead!” White and tall she entered the chamber, and at her gestures the other woman fled, but she, sinking down by her dead, sat gazing in his face till she died too.

II.

And why, if Mallory must needs marry the hero in Brittany, did he, in that case, omit the appropriate legendary ending of the black and white sails which is the natural outcome of the situation.

     The partly mythical story of Tristan is apparently a late addition to the Arthurian Cycle, and but superficially connected with it by Sir Thomas Mallory in his Morte D’Arthur. But the great fame of this knight made it highly desirable to include him in the order of the Round Table. Mallory, however, introduces him as a foil to his own hero, Sir Lancelot du Lake, who is the flower of all knighthood, and who on hearing of the “great love between Sir Tristram and Isolt les Blanches Mains,” justly exclaims, “Fie upon him, untrue knight to his lady. For of all knights in the world, I loved him most, and had most joy of him, and all was for his noble deeds; but let him wit the love between him and me is done forever.” This faithfulness of Sir Tristan’s, though only a momentary episode in Mallory, quite spoils the unity of the story. The “drink of might” either forged an indissoluble bond between the [834] pair who partook of it, or becomes a superfluous incident. And why, if Mallory must needs marry the hero in Brittany, did he, in that case, omit the appropriate legendary ending of the black and white sails which is the natural outcome of the situation. His Sir Tristram, stung by Sir Launcelot’s reproach, leaves the white-handed Isolt as lightly as he took her, and is shamed into returning to Cornwall, where at last “that false traitor King Mark slew the noble knight Sir Tristram as he sat harping before his lady, La Beale Isolt, with a trenchant glaive; and La Beale Isolt died fawning upon the corpse of Sir Tristram.”

With the omission of the love-potion and the simultaneous death of the lovers, the tragic elements of this romance seem to resolve themselves into a case for the divorce court.

     In The Last Tournament, Lord Tennyson has followed pretty faithfully Mallory’s account of the closing scenes of Sir Tristram’s story. As this poem must be well known to most readers, a few remarks in its general drift will suffice. From the heroic mould in which legend had cast these victims of a fate-implanted love, the poet has reduced them to the plaster of Paris proportions of ordinary criminality. With the omission of the love-potion and the simultaneous death of the lovers, the tragic elements of this romance seem to resolve themselves into a case for the divorce court. We must, however, remember that this is but one a cycle of Idylls. The Laureate no doubt had his own reasons for painting illicit love in its most unattractive colours, especially as in Lancelot and Guinevere he had already written more loftily of romantic love.

     Mr. Mathew Arnold’s lovely episode on the same subject might properly be called variations on an old theme. The beginning of this poem shows Tristram, the lately wedded lord of Iseult les Blanche Mains, dying of his wounds at his castle in Brittany. In the ravings of his fever his mind reverts to Iseult of Ireland, and the poet artistically introduces the love-philter among other visions of his disordered brain. The legendary termination is preserved, but after the terrible conclusion, the portraiture of the gentle but too modern young widow rambling in the woods with her pretty children, and telling them fairy-tales, cannot help striking one as an anti-climax.

     Mr. Swinburne’s Tristram of Lyoness, being rather a series of high-wrought and impassioned lyrical episodes than a narrative poem, properly speaking, can hardly come under discussion in an article necessarily restricted to the tale of Tristram and Iseult. If we may have seemed somewhat severe on our native poets, what shall we say to Karl Immermann’s romantic poem? This eminent German poet, a contemporary of Heine, was born at Magdeburg in 1796. Of Catholic tastes and wide culture, he did not limit himself to one walk in literature, but went in for either “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical- [835] pastoral, tragical-historical,” &c. &c. Difficult to say what category his Tristan and Isolde belongs! Immermann seems to have aimed at a combination of the romantic and the playfully humorous, much in the style of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. But “quips, and cranks, and wanton wiles” sit rather heavily on his muse, whose fantastic antics lack the Italian’s bewitching graces. As the world of myth and legend lies outside the limits of time, the poet naturally enjoys much greater latitude in handling his subject than if it were matter of history. Nevertheless even Fairlyland has laws of its own, which cannot be safely violated. When for purposes of local colour Miss Kitt, Miss Betty, and Miss Ellinor are introduced as companions of Isolde of Ireland on her voyage to Cornwall; or when in tower-crowned Tintagel such incongruous personages as Lord Triamour, Lord Stonycraft, and Baron Drywater sit down to a dinner of fricassees, entrees, and jellies, all our mythic illusions vanish at a touch. Still, the poem, with all its faults, has much beauty in parts, being distinguished by charming descriptive passages and a rich and delicate vein of fancy. The quaint incident of the swallows will give an idea of this quality in Immermann. Mark and his nephew are looking out of window in the king’s castle, and the frolicsome youth is teasing his uncle to enliven the court and gladden his old age by taking a young wife unto himself. At this moment they perceived two swallows flying from the west, and round the foot of one something shimmered like gold, which the other bird was trying to catch hold of with his beak, and having done so he dropped it upon the lattice close by the king, who took it up gently and found it to be the long, silky, golden hair of a woman. He knew that in all Cornwall there lived not the woman who could have claimed it. So, wishing once for all to stop the young knight’s importunities, he told him that if he could bring the maid whose golden head should match the hair he held he would espouse her, but none other. With what result we know already. Like his great predecessor, Gottfried von Strassburg, Immermann died before he could bring his poem to a conclusion.

     In order to adapt the Tristan legend to the stage, Wagner had largely to curtail it. He has not only omitted the story of Tristan’s parents, but that of his own adventurous youth, and the opera opens with the famous scene on board ship. Isolde of Ireland chafing bitterly that during the whole of the voyage Sir Tristan has studiously avoided her, and, still nursing wrath at his unavenged slaughter of Morold, calls on the winds to shake the sea from its slumber and shatter the vessel, which is fast nearing the Cornish coast. In this mood she bids Brangane bring her a certain potion which the knight must drink, before landing, to be reconciled to [835] her. What is the attendant’s horror to see her pointing to a flask containing poison, seemingly intent on killing both herself and him! To avert this calamity Brangane, half distractedly, substitutes the love-drink at the last moment, and the two have no sooner emptied the cup than, calling out “Tristan! Idolde!” they fall into each other’s arms. Lost to all around, they do not heed that they are close on shore, that King Mark and his people are waiting to receive them; and it is only when Brangane rushes between them with the royal crown and cloak that the princess, recalled to her situation, sinks fainting into her attendant’s arms.

     The rapidity of the action here does away with that subtle conflict between love and duty which Master. Gottfried has so admirably pourtrayed. But for dramatic purposes this abruptness may be desirable. The love-making in Romeo and Juliet is almost equally rapid; though, according to the old Italian story, the wooing of Romeo had continued for months, and it was only when the snow was on the ground that his piteous complaints induced Juliet to propose and immediate marriage.

     Wagner’s second Act resembles the moonlight garden scene in the elder German poem, with this difference, that while the lovers yield themselves to transports of delight, King Mark bursts upon them accompanied by Melot, who, himself enamoured of the Queen, has betrayed his friend. Melot, though bearing the dwarf’s name, really corresponds to the knight Meriadok. He and Tristan fight together, and the latter, being mortally wounded, is conveyed by Kurwenal to his castle in Brittany. It will be a shock to connoisseurs in Romance that the famous knight should receive a hurt from so obscure an opponent, for the whole merit of these men lay in their invincibility.

     In the opening of the third Act the half-delirious Tristan babbles of nothing but the Queen, who has had a message sent her. The sick knight keeps impatiently asking Kurwenal whether the expected sail is yet in sight, seeing it in imagination long before the reality becomes visible to his companion. But the latter, hearing the joyous air of the shepherd, a musical signal arranged between them, hurries down to receive the Queen. Left alone, the dying man, forgetful of his wounds, rushes forward, and with the cry “Isolde” on his lips, falls into her arms and expires, gazing at her. As the Queen swoons, Mark, Melot, and Brangane appear before the castle walls, and Kurwenal, rushing furiously upon them, kills Melot, but is himself mortally wounded. After Isolde had left the court, Brangane had at last confessed to the King the secret of the love-potion, and he, recognizing the fatality which had ruled their lives, was to renounce all claim to the woman who should never [837] have been his. But it is too late. Deaf to all around, Isolde only recovers to sigh her soul out on the corpse of Tristan.

     The conclusion affixed to Gottfried’s poem is much in the same character. Mark, bitterly lamenting that he had not from the first obeyed the voice in his heart, which told him that Tristan and Isolde were destined for each other, bears their bodies back with him to Cornwall, and has them buried in the garden where once they had been wont to meet. A vine and a rose-tree having been planted above his grave, the two plants interlace so inextricably that their branches cannot be parted.

   As we said in the beginning, Wagner has resolved the complete mediæval romance into its simplest elements. With him external events are the product of spiritual conditions.

     As we said in the beginning, Wagner has resolved the complete mediæval romance into its simplest elements. With him external events are the product of spiritual conditions. The love of Tristan and Isolde is a transcendental passion, reaching beyond time and space–ever tending towards death as the goal of absolute passion where their severed lives, no longer conscious of limitation, shall be “lost, engulfed, to mingle with the living breath of the universal soul.”

     In the aspiration towards death which pervades Wagner’s whole composition–death, that is, as the sole redemption from the evils of life, as the haven and crowning fulfilment of perfect love–the influence which Arthur Schopenhauer’s philosophy has exercised on the German composer will doubtless be recognised.

MATHILDE BLIND.