Dr. Robert Hickson
11 June 2021
Sacred Heart of Jesus
Saint Barnabas (d. 60)
“September 19.—To-day I was on the beach with Tristram and he asked me [Isolde of Brittany] if I saw a ship. I said I did. He asked me if the sail was black, and as the doctor had told me to humour him, I said it was. Upon which he got much worse, and I had to call the doctors. They said he was suffering from hypertrophy of the sensory nerves.
“September 20.—Tristram unconscious. The Queen of Cornwall [i.e., Isolde the Fair] just arrived [in Brittany and she had come on the ship with two colors of sail, after all]. Too busy to write.” (Maurice Baring, Lost Diaries (1913), page 20—my emphasis added—Chapter II—“From the Diary of Iseult of Brittany.”)
“Standing by the wall [listening to the candidly intimate conversation between her husband Tristan and already his close confident and friend, her own brother, Kaherdin], Isolde of the White Hands had overheard everything. How much she had loved Tristan! [She had just recently married Tristan and she was his legal wife.]…At last she learned of his love for another [Isolde the Fair of Cornwall]. She kept every word in mind: if only some day she could, how she would avenge herself on her [i.e., on Isolde the Fair of Cornwall] whom he loved most in the world. But she hid it all; and when the doors were open again she came to Tristan’s bed and served him with food as a lover should….but all day long she thought upon her vengeance.” (The Romance of Tristan and Isolde (1945 and 1950, pages 165-166—the Hilaire Belloc translation.)
“And Tristran trembled [both from his poisoned wound from a hostile spear in battle, together with his yearnings for his beloved soon to arrive from Cornwall, as he still hoped] and said: ‘Beautiful friend, you are sure that the ship is his [brother Kaherdin’s] indeed?’
“’I saw it plain and well. They have shaken it out [the sail] and hoisted it very high, for they have little wind. For its colour, why, it is black.’
“And Tristan turned him [himself] to the wall, and said [to his wife Isolde]: ‘I cannot keep this life of mine any longer.’ He said three times: ‘Isolde, my friend.’ And in saying it the fourth time, he died. ….Near Tristan, Iseult of the White Hands crouched, maddened at the evil she had done [her acts of vengeance], and calling and lamenting over the dead man [her husband]. The other Iseult [the Queen arrived just now from Cornwall] came in and said to her [Tristan’s wife]: ‘Lady, rise and let me come by him; I have more right to mourn him that you have—believe me. I loved him more.‘” (The Romance of Tristan and Isolde (1945, 1960), page 171-172—my emphasis added.)
On the premise that contrast clarifies the mind, this brief essay will attempt to present Maurice Baring’s own ironic parody, entitled “From the Diary of Iseult of Brittany,”1 and thereby help us raise many worthy questions about the substance and tone and emotion and seeming omissions of Joseph Bédier’s larger and elaborate composite French text (a narrative poetic tale of some 170 prose pages)—and as largely translated into English by Hilaire Belloc.2 Maurice Baring’s freshly brief and intentionally incomplete excerpt also gives us an alternate version of the end of the romance and tragedy. The longer and variously important last chapter of this poetic “high tale of love and of death” (pages 162-173) presents to us a shuddering (and yet reflective) one-word title: “Death.” Then what?
By reading closely Maurice Baring’s nuanced (and characteristically magnanimous) ten-page literary parody, an attentive reader of The Romance of Tristan and Isolde will see and understand much more about the famous and unmistakably tragic medieval (largely Celtic) legend. And such a reader will also be better able to raise informed questions about what is not present and to be accounted for! There are loose ends in the longer romance, as well: for example, the virtuous character and conduct of King Mark of Cornwall and the Irish Mother’s consequential Irish Potion which she intended for her daughter and her vowed future husband!
Maurice Baring compactly imagines and depicts the reflections of young Isolde of Brittany as a docile daughter and harp-player who will soon be married to the unexpected visitor, Tristan of Lyoness. Baring presents the whole domestic atmosphere and increasing commentary of Isolde over five months from spring to early autumn:
May 1—Mamma sent me up a message early this morning that I was to put on my best white gown with my coral necklace, as guests were expected. She didn’t say who. Nurse was in a fuss….I can’t think why, as there was no hurry. I came down punctually at noon….I was told to get out my harp, and to sit with my back to the light….I was to play only Breton songs. I said I didn’t know any. She [Mamma] said that didn’t matter; but that I could say anything I knew and call it a Breton song. I said nothing, but I thought, and I still think, this was dishonest. (10-11—italics in the original; my bold emphasis added)
After waiting “a long time” during which “Papa and mamma were fidgety,” (10) the seneschal, Morgan, announced the arrival Sir Tristan with his squire, Kurneval. Isolde’s first perceptive impressions of Tristan were expressed in her diary, as follows—about the man who will very soon now be her husband:
Rather an oldish man walked in, with a reddish beard, and many wrinkles. One of his front teeth was broken and the other was black. He was dressed in a coat of mail which was too tight for him. He had nice eyes and seemed rather embarrassed. (12)
Isolde innocently continues her candid descriptions:
Mamma and papa made a great fuss about him and brought me forward [in my white gown and with my cleansed white hands] and said: “This is our daughter Isolde,” and mamma whispered to me: “Show your hands.” I didn’t want to do this….
Sir Tristan bowed deeply, and seemed more and more embarrassed. After a long poise he said: “It’s a very fine day, isn’t it?”
Before I had time to answer, mamma broke in by saying: “Isolde has been up by six with the falconers.” This wasn’t true and I was surprised that mamma should be so forgetful. I hadn’t been out with the hawkers for weeks.
Then dinner was served. It lasted for hours I thought, and the conversation flagged terribly. Kurneval, Sir Tristan’s Squire, had twice of everything and drank more cider than was good for him. After dinner, mamma told me to fetch my harp. (12-13—italics in original; my bold emphasis added)
After Isolde complied with her mother’s request for her “to sing a Breton song,” Isolde admitted:
I was just going to say I didn’t know one, when she frowned at me so severely that I didn’t dare. So I sang a Provençal orchard song about waking up too early….Sir Tristan said: “Charming, charming, that’s German isn’t it; how well taught she is. I do like good singing.” Then he yawned, although he tried not to, and papa said he was sure Sir Tristan was tired, and he would take him to see the stables. Sir Tristan then became quite lively and said he would be delighted. (13-14—my emphasis added)
Sir Tristan, after then reliably learning her name, said to her papa as to his daughter’s name– “Isolde”–“Oh! What a pretty name!” (14)
Five days after the first entry of 1 May, Isolde of Brittany makes another entry in her diary:
May 6—They’ve [Tristan and his Squire Kurneval] been here a week now and I haven’t seen much of them; because Sir Tristan has been riding with papa nearly all day, and every day. But every day after dinner mamma makes me sing the Provençal song, and every time I sing it, Sir Tristan says: “Charming, charming, that’s German, isn’t it?” although I’ve already told him twice now that it isn’t. I like Sir Tristan, only he’s very silent, and after dinner he becomes sleepy directly, just like papa. (15—my emphasis added)
One day later, on 7 May, Isolde was suddenly told by her parents something unexpected:
Then mamma cried and papa tried to soothe her and said: “It’s all right, it’s all right, and then he blurted out that I was to marry Sir Tristan next Wednesday….Sir Tristan [on 8 May one day later!] has gone away—to stay with friends– he is coming back on Tuesday night [on 11 May, shortly before their marriage [on 12 May]….
May 12—. The wedding went off well….After Mass we had a long feast. (15-16—my emphasis added)
Now we come a little closer to conflict and confusion:
Tristan made a speech [at the marriage feast] and got into a muddle about my name [Isolde], and everyone was silent. Then he said I had beautiful hands [“Isolde of the White Hands”] and everybody cheered. After supper we were looking out on the sea, and just as Tristan was becoming talkative I noticed that he wore another ring, besides his wedding ring, a green one made of jasper. I said, “What a pretty ring! Who gave it you?” He said, “Oh, a friend,” and changed the subject. Then he said he was very tired and went away. (17—my emphasis added)
Tristan thus crudely left his marriage feast. Unasked, he just “went away” (17).
What kind of man, after all, is he now increasingly showing himself to be? (That is to say, especially in Maurice Baring’s ironic parody and subtle depiction here!)
In this context, Baring’s Isolde goes on to say, as follows, in her diary entry of 13 May:
In any case Tristan, who has been very gloomy ever since he’s been here, has got to go and fight in a tournament. He says he won’t be away long and that there’s no danger; not any more than crossing the sea in an open boat [such as the sailing from Cornwall to Brittany?], which I do think is dangerous. He starts tomorrow at dawn [14 May]. (17-18—italics in original; my bold emphasis added)
In her 17 May entry, she says: “Tristan was brought back on a litter in the middle of the night” (18) and she is “very anxious” (18). Moreover;
Papa and mamma arrive to-morrow with the doctor. Tristan insists on sleeping out of doors on the beach. The doctor says this is a patient’s whim and must be humoured. I’m sure it’s bad for him, as the nights are very cold. (18-19—my emphasis added)
Isolde added on 1 July that “The doctors say there is no fear of immediate change” (19), but over a month later—on 10 August—“Mamma says that the Queen of Cornwall (whose name is Isolde the same as mine) is coming for a few days, with her husband [King Mark of Cornwall] and some friends.” (19—my emphasis added)
Furthermore, mamma is reported to have said about this untimely and sudden visit:
I do think it’s very inconsiderate, considering how full the house is already; and Tristan being so ill—and insisting on sleeping on the beach—it makes it very difficult for everyone [as of 10 August]. (19—my emphasis added)
Isolde of Brittany, Tristan’s wife, wrote on 1 September in her diary: “Tristan is no better. He keeps on talking about a ship with a black sail.” (19—emphasis added)
Almost three weeks later (on 19 September), with the other Isolde of Cornwall not yet having arrived with her husband and warmly landed, Isolde of the White Hand wrote the following entry:
To-day I was on the beach with Tristan and he asked me if I saw a ship. I said I did. He asked me if the sail was black, and as the doctor told me to humour him, I said it was. Upon which he got much worse, and I had to call the doctors. They said he was suffering from hypertrophy of the sensory nerves. (20—my emphasis added)
One day later—on 20 September — the ship from Cornwall landed safely in Brittany after many dangerous and delaying storms (as some scholars have said, and have written, such as Joseph Bédier). Isolde of the White Hands has this brief and final entry on 20 September: “Tristan unconscious. The Queen of Cornwall [Isolde the Fair] just arrived. Too busy to write.” (20—my emphasis added)
The reader, it is hoped, will now also fittingly read and contrast and savor the tragic end of the famous tale in the longer poetic version in prose: the Bédier-Belloc version and translation. It would also help us appreciate more adequately the evocative tones and allusions and artfulness of our beloved Maurice Baring.
A Glimpse of the Other Isolde and of Her Husband, King Mark of Cornwall, as quoted from the end of The Romance of Tristan and Isolde (172-173):
And when she [Isolde of Cornwall] had turned to the east and prayed God, she moved the body [of Tristan] a little and lay down by the dead man, beside her friend. She kissed his mouth and his face, and clasped him closely; and so gave up her soul, and died beside him of grief for her lover.
When [the magnanimous and forgiving] King Mark heard of the death of these lovers, he crossed the sea and came into Brittany….And he took their beloved bodies away with him upon his ship to Tintagel, and by a chantry to the left and right of the apse he had their tombs built round….Thrice did the peasants cut it down [the growing, twining “green and leafy” briar], but thrice it grew again as flowered and as strong [“in the scent of its flowers”]. They told the marvel to King Mark, and he forbade them to cut the briar any more.
© 2021 Robert D. Hickson
1Maurice Baring, Lost Diaries (London: Duckworth & CO., 1913), Chapter II: “From the Diary of Iseult of Brittany,” pages 10-20. The Diary covers the five-month interval from May 1 to September 20, but the year is not given nor otherwise specified. All future references will be to this text and placed in parentheses above in the main body of this short essay.
2The longer literary text that will occasionally be referred to or cited is: The Romance of Tristan and Iseult —as retold by Joseph Bédier and as translated from the French by Hilaire Belloc– (New York: The Heritage Press, 1960; and also the earlier published in 1945—with a copyright in 1945 by Pantheon Books, Inc., from whom permission has been obtained here. All further variant spellings of the name of ISEULT will be henceforth standardized, if possible, as ISOLDE. For example: The Romance of Tristan and Isolde—and both Isoldes will be so written, one of them being from Ireland and then Cornwall, and the other one being of Brittany. The Heritage Press format and text of 173 pages will also be placed in parentheses above, if needed for a convenient reference of comparison. Given the varieties of spellings in use, Tristan will also, when feasible, stand as a preferred spelling and replacement for Tristram.