The Life and Death of Jason
In this poetical history of the fortunate—the unfortunate—Jason, Mr.
Morris has written a book of real value. It is some time since we have
met with a work of imagination of so thoroughly satisfactory a
character,—a work read with an enjoyment so unalloyed and so untempered
by the desire to protest and to criticise. The poetical firmament within
these recent years has been all alive with unprophesied comets and
meteors, many of them of extraordinary brilliancy, but most of them very
rapid in their passage. Mr. Morris gives us the comfort of feeling that
he is a fixed star, and that his radiance is not likely to be
extinguished in a draught of wind,—after the fashion of Mr. Alexander
Smith, Mr. Swinburne and Miss Ingelow.
Mr. Morris's poem is ushered into the world with a very florid birthday
speech from the pen of the author of the too famous Poems and Ballads,—a circumstance, we apprehend, in no small degree prejudicial
to its success. But we hasten to assure all persons whom the knowledge
of Mr. Swinburne's enthusiasm may have led to mistrust the character of
the work, that it has to our perception nothing in common with this
gentleman's own productions, and that his article proves very little
more than that his sympathies are wiser than his performance. If Mr.
Morris's poem may be said to remind us of the manner of any other
writer, it is simply of that of Chaucer; and to resemble Chaucer is a
great safeguard against resembling Swinburne.
The Life and Death of Jason, then, is a narrative poem on a Greek
subject, written in a genuine English style. With the subject all
reading people are familiar, and we have no need to retrace its details.
But it is perhaps not amiss to transcribe the few pregnant lines of
prose into which, at the outset, Mr. Morris has condensed the argument
of his poem:—
"Jason the son of Æson, king of Iolchos, having come to man's estate,
demanded of Pelias his father's kingdom, which he held wrongfully. But
Pelias answered, that if he would bring from Colchis the golden fleece
of the ram that had carried Phryxus thither, he would yield him his
right. Whereon Jason sailed to Colchis in the ship Argo, with other
heroes, and by means of Medea, the king's daughter, won the fleece; and
carried off also Medea; and so, after many troubles, came back to
Iolchos again. There, by Medea's wiles, was Pelias slain; but Jason went
to Corinth, and lived with Medea happily, till he was taken with the
love of Glauce, the king's daughter of Corinth, and must needs wed her;
whom also Medea destroyed, and fled to Ægeus at Athens; and not long
after Jason died strangely."
The style of this little fragment of prose is not an unapt measure of
the author's poetical style,—quaint, but not too quaint, more
Anglo-Saxon than Latin, and decidedly laconic. For in spite of the great
length of his work, his manner is by no means diffuse. His story is a
long one, and he wishes to do it justice; but the movement is rapid and
business-like, and the poet is quite guiltless of any wanton lingering
along the margin of the subject matter,—after the manner, for instance,
of Keats,—to whom, individually, however, we make this tendency no
reproach. Mr. Morris's subject is immensely rich,—heavy with its
richness,—and in the highest degree romantic and poetical. For the most
part, of course, he found not only the great contours, but the various
incidents and episodes, ready drawn to his hand; but still there was
enough wanting to make a most exhaustive drain upon his ingenuity and
his imagination. And not only these faculties have been brought into
severe exercise, but the strictest good taste and good sense were called
into play, together with a certain final gift which we hardly know how
to name, and which is by no means common, even among very clever
poets,—a comprehensive sense of form, of proportion, and of real
completeness, without which the most brilliant efforts of the
imagination are a mere agglomeration of ill-reconciled beauties. The
legend of Jason is full of strangely constructed marvels and elaborate
prodigies and horrors, calculated to task heavily an author's
We have so pampered and petted our sense of the ludicrous of late years,
that it is quite the spoiled child of the house, and without its leave
no guest can be honourably entertained. It is very true that the
atmosphere of Grecian mythology is so entirely an artificial one, that
we are seldom tempted to refer its weird anomalous denizens to our
standard of truth and beauty. Truth, indeed, is at once put out of the
question; but one would say beforehand, that many of the creations of
Greek fancy were wanting even in beauty, or at least in that ease and
simplicity which has been acquired in modern times by force of culture.
But habit and tradition have reconciled us to these things in their
native forms, and Mr. Morris's skill reconciles us to them in his modern
and composite English.
The idea, for instance, of a flying ram, seems, to an undisciplined
fancy, a not especially happy creation, nor a very promising theme for
poetry; but Mr. Morris, without diminishing its native oddity, has given
it an ample romantic dignity. So, again, the sowing of the dragon's
teeth at Colchis, and the springing up of mutually opposed armed men,
seems too complex and recondite a scene to be vividly and gracefully
realized; but as it stands, it is one of the finest passages in Mr.
Morris's poem. His great stumbling-block, however, we take it, was the
necessity of maintaining throughout the dignity and prominence of his
hero. From the moment that Medea comes into the poem, Jason falls into
the second place, and keeps it to the end. She is the all-wise and
all-brave helper and counsellor at Colchis, and the guardian angel of
the returning journey. She saves her companions from the Circean
enchantments, and she withholds them from the embraces of the Sirens.
She effects the death of Pelias, and assures the successful return of
the Argonauts. And finally—as a last claim upon her interest—she is
slighted and abandoned by the man of her love. Without question, then,
she is the central figure of the poem,—a powerful and enchanting
figure,—a creature of barbarous arts, and of exquisite human passions.
Jason accordingly possesses only that indirect hold upon our attention
which belongs to the Virgilian Æneas; although Mr. Morris has avoided
Virgil's error of now and then allowing his hero to be contemptible.
A large number, however, of far greater drawbacks than any we are able
to mention could not materially diminish the powerful beauty of this
fantastic legend. It is as rich in adventure as the Odyssey, and very
much simpler. Its prime elements are of the most poetical and delightful
kind. What can be more thrilling than the idea of a great boatful of
warriors embarking upon dreadful seas, not for pleasure, nor for
conquest, nor for any material advantage, but for the simple discovery
of a jealously watched, magically guarded relic? There is in the
character of the object of their quest something heroically
unmarketable, or at least unavailable.
But of course the story owes a vast deal to its episodes, and these have
lost nothing in Mr. Morris's hands. One of the most beautiful—the well
known adventure of Hylas—occurs at the very outset. The beautiful young
man, during a halt of the ship, wanders inland through the forest, and,
passing beside a sylvan stream, is espied and incontinently loved by the
water nymphs, who forthwith "detach" one of their number to work his
seduction. This young lady assumes the disguise and speech of a Northern
princess, clad in furs, and in this character sings to her victim "a
sweet song, sung not yet to any man." Very sweet and truly lyrical it is
like all the songs scattered through Mr. Morris's narrative. We are,
indeed, almost in doubt whether the most beautiful passages in the poem
do not occur in the series of songs in the fourteenth book.
The ship has already touched at the island of Circe, and the sailors,
thanks to the earnest warnings of Medea, have abstained from setting
foot on the fatal shore; while Medea has, in turn, been warned by the
enchantress against the allurements of the Sirens. As soon as the ship
draws nigh, these fair beings begin to utter their irresistible notes.
All eyes are turned lovingly on the shore, the rowers' charmed muscles
relax, and the ship drifts landward. But Medea exhorts and entreats her
companions to preserve their course. Jason himself is not untouched, as
Mr. Morris delicately tells us,—"a moment Jason gazed." But Orpheus
smites his lyre before it is too late, and stirs the languid blood of
his comrades. The Sirens strike their harps amain, and a conflict of
song arises. The Sirens sing of the cold, the glittering, the idle
delights of their submarine homes; while Orpheus tells of the warm and
pastoral landscapes of Greece. We have no space for quotation; of course
Orpheus carries the day. But the finest and most delicate practical
sense is shown in the alternation of the two lyrical arguments,—the
soulless sweetness of the one, and the deep human richness of the other.
There is throughout Mr. Morris's poem a great unity and evenness of
excellence, which make selection and quotation difficult; but of
impressive touches in our reading we noticed a very great number. We
content ourselves with mentioning a single one. When Jason has sown his
bag of dragon's teeth at Colchis, and the armed fighters have sprung up
along the furrows, and under the spell contrived by Medea have torn each
other to death:—
"One man was left alive, but wounded sore,
Who, staring round about and seeing no more
His brothers' spears against him, fixed his eyes
Upon the queller of those mysteries.
Then dreadfully they gleamed, and with no word,
He tottered towards him with uplifted sword.
But scarce he made three paces down the field,
Ere chill death seized his heart, and on his shield
Clattering he fell."
We have not spoken of Mr. Morris's versification nor of his vocabulary.
We have only room to say that, to our perception, the first in its
facility and harmony, and the second in its abundance and studied
simplicity, leave nothing to be desired. There are of course faults and
errors in his poem, but there are none that are not trivial and easily
pardoned in the light of the fact that he has given us a work of
consummate art and of genuine beauty. He has foraged in a
treasure-house; he has visited the ancient world, and come back with a
massive cup of living Greek wine. His project was no light task, but he
has honourably fulfilled it. He has enriched the language with a
narrative poem which we are sure that the public will not suffer to fall
into the ranks of honoured but uncherished works,—objects of vague and
sapient reference,—but will continue to read and to enjoy. In spite of
its length, the interest of the story never flags, and as a work of art
it never ceases to be pure. To the jaded intellects of the present
moment, distracted with the strife of creeds and the conflict of
theories, it opens a glimpse into a world where they will be called upon
neither to choose, to criticise, nor to believe, but simply to feel, to
look, and to listen.
II. The Earthly Paradise
This new volume of Mr. Morris is, we think, a book for all time; but it
is especially a book for these ripening summer days. To sit in the open
shade, inhaling the heated air, and, while you read these perfect fairy
tales, these rich and pathetic human traditions to glance up from your
page at the clouds and the trees, is to do as pleasant a thing as the
heart of man can desire. Mr. Morris's book abounds in all the sounds and
sights and sensations of nature, in the warmth of the sunshine, the
murmur of forests, and the breath of ocean-scented breezes. The fullness
of physical existence which belongs to climates where life is spent in
the open air, is largely diffused through its pages:
... "Hot July was drawing to an end,
And August came the fainting year to mend
With fruit and grain; so 'neath the trellises,
Nigh blossomless, did they lie well at ease,
And watched the poppies burn across the grass,
And o'er the bindweed's bells the brown bee pass,
Still murmuring of his gains: windless and bright
The morn had been, to help their dear delight.
... Then a light wind arose
That shook the light stems of that flowery close,
And made men sigh for pleasure."
This is a random specimen. As you read, the fictitious universe of the
poem seems to expand and advance out of its remoteness, to surge
musically about your senses, and merge itself utterly in the universe
which surrounds you. The summer brightness of the real world goes
halfway to meet it; and the beautiful figures which throb with life in
Mr. Morris's stories pass lightly to and fro between the realm of poetry
and the mild atmosphere of fact. This quality was half the charm of the
author's former poem, The Life and Death of Jason, published last
summer. We seemed really to follow, beneath the changing sky, the
fantastic boatload of wanderers in their circuit of the ancient world.
For people compelled to stay at home, the perusal of the book in a
couple of mornings was very nearly as good as a fortnight's holiday. The
poem appeared to reflect so clearly and forcibly the poet's natural
sympathies with the external world, and his joy in personal contact with
it, that the reader obtained something very like a sense of physical
transposition, without either physical or intellectual weariness.
This ample and direct presentment of the joys of action and locomotion
seems to us to impart to these two works a truly national and English
tone. They taste not perhaps of the English soil, but of those strong
English sensibilities which the great insular race carry with them
through their wanderings, which they preserve and apply with such energy
in every terrestrial clime, and which make them such incomparable
travellers. We heartily recommend such persons as have a desire to
accommodate their reading to the season—as are vexed with a delicate
longing to place themselves intellectually in relation with the genius
of the summer—to take this Earthly Paradise with them to the country.
The book is a collection of tales in verse—found, without exception, we
take it, rather than imagined, and linked together, somewhat loosely, by
a narrative prologue. The following is the "argument" of the
prologue—already often enough quoted, but pretty enough, in its
ingenious prose, to quote again:—
"Certain gentlemen and mariners of Norway, having considered all that
they had heard of the Earthly Paradise, set sail to find it, and, after
many troubles and the lapse of many years, came old men to some western
land, of which they had never before heard: there they died, when they
had dwelt there certain years, much honoured of the strange people."
The adventures of these wanderers, told by one of their number, Rolf the
Norseman, born at Byzantium—a happy origin for the teller of a heroic
tale, as the author doubtless felt—make, to begin with, a poem of
considerable length, and of a beauty superior perhaps to that of the
succeeding tales. An admirable romance of adventure has Mr. Morris
unfolded in the melodious energy of this half-hurrying, half-lingering
narrative—a romance to make old hearts beat again with the boyish
longing for transmarine mysteries, and to plunge boys themselves into a
delicious agony of unrest.
The story is a tragedy, or very near it—as what story of the search for
an Earthly Paradise could fail to be? Fate reserves for the poor
storm-tossed adventurers a sort of fantastic compromise between their
actual misery and their ideal bliss, whereby a kindly warmth is infused
into the autumn of their days, and to the reader, at least, a very
tolerable Earthly Paradise is laid open. The elders and civic worthies
of the western land which finally sheltered them summon them every month
to a feast, where, when all grosser desires have been duly pacified,
the company sit at their ease and listen to the recital of stories. Mr.
Morris gives in this volume the stories of the six midmonths of the
year, two tales being allotted to each month—one from the Greek
Mythology, and one, to express it broadly, of a Gothic quality. He
announces a second series in which, we infer, he will in the same manner
give us the stories rehearsed at the winter fireside.
The Greek stories are the various histories of Atalanta, of Perseus, of
Cupid and Psyche, of Alcestis, of Atys, the hapless son of Crœsus,
and of Pygmalion. The companion pieces, which always serve excellently
well to place in relief the perfect pagan character of their elder
mates, deal of course with elements less generally known.
"Atalanta's Race," the first of Mr. Morris's Greek legends, is to our
mind almost the best. There is something wonderfully simple and
childlike in the story, and the author has given it ample dignity, at
the same time that he has preserved this quality.
Most vividly does he present the mild invincibility of his fleet-footed
heroine and the half-boyish simplicity of her demeanour—a perfect model
of a belle inhumaine. But the most beautiful passage in the poem is
the description of the vigil of the love-sick Milanion in the lonely
sea-side temple of Venus. The author has conveyed with exquisite art
the sense of devout stillness and of pagan sanctity which invests this
remote and prayerful spot. The yellow torch-light,
"Wherein with fluttering gown and half-bared limb
The temple damsels sung their evening hymn;"
the sound of the shallow flowing sea without, the young man's restless
sleep on the pavement, besprinkled with the ocean spray, the apparition
of the goddess with the early dawn, bearing the golden apple—all these
delicate points are presented in the light of true poetry.
The narrative of the adventures of Danaë and of Perseus and Andromeda
is, with the exception of the tale of Cupid and Psyche which follows it,
the longest piece in the volume. Of the two, we think we prefer the
latter. Unutterably touching is the career of the tender and helpless
Psyche, and most impressive the terrible hostility of Venus. The author,
we think, throughout manages this lady extremely well. She appears to us
in a sort of rosy dimness, through which she looms as formidable as she
is beautiful, and gazing with "gentle eyes and unmoved smiles,"
"Such as in Cyprus, the fair blossomed isle,
When on the altar in the summer night
They pile the roses up for her delight,
Men see within their hearts."
"The Love of Alcestis" is the beautiful story of the excellent wife who,
when her husband was ill, gave up her life, so that he might recover and
live for ever. Half the interest here, however, lies in the servitude of
Apollo in disguise, and in the touching picture of the radiant god doing
in perfection the homely work of his office, and yet from time to time
emitting flashes, as it were, of genius and deity, while the good
Admetus observes him half in kindness and half in awe.
The story of the "Son of Crœsus," the poor young man who is slain by
his best friend because the gods had foredoomed it, is simple, pathetic,
and brief. The finest and sweetest poem in the volume, to our taste, is
the tale of "Pygmalion and the Image." The merit of execution is perhaps
not appreciably greater here than in the other pieces, but the legend is
so unutterably charming that it claims precedence of its companions. As
beautiful as anything in all our later poetry, we think, is the
description of the growth and dominance in the poor sculptor's heart of
his marvellous passion for the stony daughter of his hands. Borne along
on the steady, changing flow of his large and limpid verse, the author
glides into the situation with an ease and grace and fullness of
sympathy worthy of a great master. Here, as elsewhere, there is no sign
of effort or of strain. In spite of the studied and recherché
character of his diction, there is not a symptom of affectation in
thought or speech. We seem in this tale of "Pygmalion" truly to inhabit
the bright and silent workroom of a great Greek artist, and, standing
among shapes and forms of perfect beauty, to breathe the incense-tainted
air in which lovely statues were conceived and shining stones chiselled
Mr. Morris is indubitably a sensuous poet, to his credit be it said; his
senses are constantly proffering their testimony and crying out their
delight. But while they take their freedom, they employ it in no degree
to their own debasement. Just as there is modesty of temperament we
conceive there is modesty of imagination, and Mr. Morris possesses the
latter distinction. The total absence of it is, doubtless, the long and
short of Mr. Swinburne's various troubles. We may imagine Mr. Swinburne
making a very clever poem of this story of "Pygmalion," but we cannot
fancy him making it anything less than utterly disagreeable. The
thoroughly agreeable way in which Mr. Morris tells it is what especially
strikes us. We feel that his imagination is equally fearless and
irreproachable, and that while he tells us what we may call a sensuous
story in all its breadth, he likewise tells it in all its purity. It
has, doubtless, an impure side; but of the two he prefers the other.
While Pygmalion is all aglow with his unanswered passion, he one day
sits down before his image:
"And at the last drew forth a book of rhymes,
Wherein were writ the tales of many climes,
And read aloud the sweetness hid therein
Of lovers' sorrows and their tangled sin."
He reads aloud to his marble torment: would Mr. Swinburne have touched
We have left ourselves no space to describe in detail the other series
of tales—"The Man born to be King," "The Proud King," "The Writing on
the Image," "The Lady of the Land," "The Watching of the Falcon," and
"Ogier the Dane."
The author in his Jason identified himself with the successful
treatment of Greek subjects to such a degree as to make it easy to
suppose that these matters were the specialty of his genius. But in
these romantic modern stories the same easy power is revealed, the same
admirable union of natural gifts and cultivated perceptions. Mr. Morris
is evidently a poet in the broad sense of the word—a singer of human
joys and sorrows, whenever and wherever found. His somewhat artificial
diction, which would seem to militate against our claim that his genius
is of the general and comprehensive order, is, we imagine, simply an
achievement of his own. It is not imposed from without, but developed
from within. Whatever may be said of it, it certainly will not be
accused of being unpoetical; and except this charge, what serious one
can be made?
The author's style—according to our impression—is neither Chaucerian,
Spenserian, nor imitative; it is literary, indeed, but it has a freedom
and irregularity, an adaptability to the movements of the author's mind,
which make it an ample vehicle of poetical utterance. He says in this
language of his own the most various and the most truthful things; he
moves, melts, and delights. Such at least, is our own experience. Other
persons, we know, find it difficult to take him entirely au sérieux.
But we, taking him—and our critical duties too—in the most serious
manner our mind permits of, feel strongly impelled, both by gratitude
and by reflection, to pronounce him a noble and delightful poet. To call
a man healthy nowadays is almost an insult—invalids learn so many
secrets. But the health of the intellect is often promoted by physical
disability. We say therefore, finally, that however the faculty may have
been promoted—with the minimum of suffering, we certainly hope—Mr.
Morris is a supremely healthy writer. This poem is marked by all that is
broad and deep in nature, and all that is elevating, profitable, and
curious in art.
James, Henry. Views and Reviews. Ed. Le Roy Phillips. Boston: Ball Publishing Company, 1908. Pp. 62-82.
Last modified 4 December 2012