This essay, has been adapted from the Project Gutenberg [EBook #37424] of Views and Reviews, which the Ball Publishing Company published in 1908. Chuck Greif and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team produced the electronic version. — George P. Landow.
I. A review of The Life and Death of Jason: A poem. By William Morris, Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1867. Originally published in North American Review, October, 1867.
II. A review of The Earthly Paradise: A poem. By William Morris, Boston: Roberts Bros. 1868. Originally published in The Nation, July 9, 1868.
The Earthly Paradise; Parts I and II as originally published in London by F. S. Ellis in 1868, is in one volume, and was issued the same year in Boston by Roberts Brothers. Parts III and IV were issued as volumes II and III under the same title, in London in 1870, and in Boston in 1870-71.
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 adroitness.
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.
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 into immortality.
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 that note?
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