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Source and Meaning
of the Story
of 'Tristan and Isolde'
(German title: Tristan und Isolde)
An Opera by
Richard Wagner

"Tristan" is an old, old tale, not, as some imagine, original with Wagner. There is a poem on the subject dating from about 1150-a fact in itself sufficient to emphasise the early origin of the legend. The romantic story had its beginning as a Celtic conception, running somewhat as follows.

Tristam (this was the earliest form of the name) was the love-child of King Mark of Cornwall’s sister and Roland of Ermonie. As a youth of fifteen, he went Cornwall, where he entranced the Court by his minstrelsy. He slew Moraunt in a duel, but was himself wounded almost to the point of death. For three years he lay ill. Then, carried to Ireland, he was cured by Ysolt (spelt also Iseult) or Ysonde, daughter of the Queen. The Princess, his nurse, captivated him by her grace and beauty, and when he returned to Cornwall it was of her alone her could speak. His uncle’s envy was excited, and Tristram was accordingly despatched to Ireland to solicit the hand of Ysolt for the King.

Tristram escorted the lady on her voyage to England, but both unwittingly drank of a love philter sent by the Queen for Mark, and hence forward no man or woman could come between them. Ysolt became the wife of King Mark; but her heart was ever with her lover, and by the connivance of her clever maid, Brengwain, she had many a clandestine interview with him. Tristram was outlawed from Cornwall, but again brought to his uncle’s Court, and once more the impassioned intrigues of the pair were resumed.

Next, Tristram travelled to Spain, Ermonie, Brittany; and here he married another Ysolt, her with the White Hand, daughter of Duke Florentine. But that old love-draught was still potent. Tristram could never forget his Ysolt of Ireland. Badly wounded in battle, he sent a messenger to summon her to him. "If you bring her with you," he said. "hoist a white sail; if you bring her not, let your sail be black."

There is an interval of time. Then the ship is sighted. "What is the colour of her sail?" asks Tristram eagerly. It was white. But Ysolt of Brittany, madly jealous, as was natural, told Tristam that the sail was black; whereupon the love-sick exile sank back and died. Ysolt of Ireland threw herself upon his corpse in a despair of grief, and died heart-broken beside him. King Mark, having learned the story of the love-potion, forgave the lovers and buried them in one grave; planting over Ysolt a rose-tree, and over Tristram a vine, which grew up so inextricably intertwined that no man could ever separate the branches.

Such was the original legend. Its fundamental idea, summarised, is that of the love-philtre, fatal, irresistible, overpowering, and uniting two human beings; of love vanquishing everything -- honour, family, society, life and death, but which is itself ennobled by its very grandeur and fidelity. For it bears within itself its own punishment as well as its justification; its religion and its world; its hell and its heaven; supreme sorrow and supreme consolation. It should be noted, however, as Mr. Henderson has pointed out, that in Wagner’s drama the philter performs the office of Fate in the ancient Greek tragedy. In the plays of Sophocles and Aeschylus, mortals fulfil their manifest destinies; but Fate is the secret agency which hurries them forward to their ends. So, in this drama of Wagner, Tristan and Isolde are the victims of a fatal love before the action begins, and the philter is only the instrument through which all restraints are removed, and the unhappy pair hurled into the vortex of their own passion, helpless victims of cruel and inexorable Destiny.

Note will have been made, in reading above, of how Wagner has varied and improved upon the old Tristram legend. His direct source was the unfinished poem of nearly twenty thousand words made about 1210 by a certain Gottfried of Strasburg, a German. There are some variations between the original form of the legend as just detailed and Gottfried’s recast. But only one point need be noticed. In Gottfried’s poem, Tristram does not marry the second Ysolt. Here Wagner, with his unerring insight, follows Gottfried. In Wagner’s drama there is no second Ysolt. Matthew Arnold has a version in which there is not only a second Ysolt, but a second Ysolt who tenderly an lovingly nurses her dying husband while waiting the arrival of the first Ysolt. Bayard Taylor simply scorned the idea of such a thing happening as a second marriage. So did Wagner. As is invariably the case, his treatment of the story "draws together all the beauties of the original material land moulds them into a compact, consistent whole, instinct with dramatic force and poetic beauty."

For those who desire to read more fully about the old legend (and no Wagner enthusiast can read enough) it may be added that there have been several versions in English. Thus, there is the "Sir Tristrem" dating from the close of the thirteenth century, which was first edited by Sir Walter Scott in 1804. Scott ascribed the authorship to that half mythical Thomas of Ercildoune -- the familiarly named "Thomas the Rhymer," whose couplets of prophetic import are still quoted. Chaucer, Lydgate, and Gower all make reference to the romantic story. It became associated also with the Arthurian romances of the Round Table; and it has a place in Sir Thomas Malory’s famous composition of these, the exquisite "Morte d’Arthur." Modern English poetry reasserts it through the lines of Tennyson, Swinburne, and (as already indicated) Matthew Arnold. The latter’s "Tristram and Iseult" gives beautiful expression to the pathos and pity of the story from the side of the second Ysolt. It embodies at least one splendid anapaestic couplet which catches the ear and clings to the memory for a lifetime --

What voices are these on the clear night air?
What lights in the Court? what steps on the stair?

The figure of Iseult with the White Hand stands out here with the right Pre-Raphaelite distinctness and charm.

Tennyson’s treatment of the story in "The Last Tournament" in the "Idylls of the King" (closely based on Malory) is too familiar to require more than passing mention. Swinburne’s splendid poetic realisation of the theme in "Tristram of Lyonesse" (1882) is not so well known. In some points the handling of the tale by Wagner and Swinburne is alike, in others it is markedly dissimilar. As one of the poet’s biographers has remarked, the story of Trsitan is dealt with by Wagner much as are the broken fragments of Siegmund’s sword by his son: he made no attempt to weld the pieces together; they had to be molten and reforged before the perfect blade was worthy of the hand of Siegfried. Swinburne, on the other hand, has followed the legend more closely, though he has given a more prominent place than of old to the second Ysolt. The Tristans of Wagner and Swinburne are akin in their nobility and courtesy, but Swinburne’s protagonist is a much saner and less excitable lover than Wagner’s, and has a tendency to tiresome metaphysical musings. Swinburne’s Ysolt, again, is veiled and shadowy beside the Isolde of the music-drama, vehement in all things as a storm-wind, in vengeance, in love, in death. (For a detailed comparison between the version of the legend as treated by Malory, Matthew Arnold, Tennyson, and Swinburne, the interested reader should consult Mr. H. E. Krehbiel’s "Studies in the Wagnerian Drama.")

But indeed no writer of verse has done with the story what Wagner has done. The intense dramatic interest of his music-poem, the absorbing and entrancing beauty and passion of its multitudinous and miraculous harmonies, are, and cannot fail to be, absent from all merely verbal versions. In both directions the poet must be at a disadvantage: in the form of narrative verse, which admits of no great dramatic interest; in the mode of human speech, which is below the capacity of many instruments for the expression of emotion. Yet, looked at through its text alone, Wagner’s is the most wonderful of dramas. The story is told with consummate skill. The stage never lacks interest, and that interest is cumulative from the ominous opening to the inexpressibly tragic ending. Despite its literary quality, it could hardly fail of effect were it played without the music; for there is no stroke in it that is not inevitable, none that does not immensely and immediately tell. Nor must we forget to note its commanding human interest. The characters may be drawn from myth, and placed far away from us in point of chronology, but they are real men and women, of like passions with ourselves. It is this, joined with the art of the play, that exacts from the spectator such rapt attention.

"Tristan and Isolde" has been called the "Romeo and Juliet" of music. And such in fact it is. In it are at once the poetry and the tragedy of love, a stupendous appeal in music to the emotional side of man’s nature. Some purists have pointed to its alleged excess of passion as having an immoral tendency. Honi soit qui mal y pense. This pair were madly in love with each other: that was all, though it was so much. Mere mythological figures they were when Wagner laid his magic touch on them, but he made them intensely human, and gave to their story an element of absorbing interest equal to the real life-story of Dante and Beatrice or Abelard and Heloise. He had married unhappily himself, and he could sympathise very keenly with Isolde’s feelings of repulsion against King Mark, to whom, by the way, it is by no means certain that Isolde was actually married. If she became deeply enamoured of Tristan, and jilted King Mark, what then? Such episodes are being enacted every day somewhere in the great world. Tristan and Isolde are but types of the common ailment, and their story is simply, in Henley’s words. "Of man still Man, and woman -- Woman still."

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