ost of the most intense poems by Morris — "The Haystack in the Floods," "Near Avalon," "Summer Dawn," "Riding Together" — appeared in his "The Defence of Guenevere" (1858), his first volume of poetry (dedicated to Rossetti). The volume was attacked by establishment critics, upon its publication, as being too mediaeval and too much indebted — which in fact it was not — to Rossetti's (and hence to Pre-Raphaelite) influence — the implication being that Morris's obvious preoccupation with morbidity, sexuality, and death went beyond the bounds of Victorian good taste. How do those themes manifest themselves, in fact, in the poems? The same poems which offended the critics, of course, were the ones which Morris's circle thought most highly of.
After ten years during which he was preoccupied with his business, Morris turned again to poetry, perhaps as a means of coming to terms with emotional problems. "A Garden by the Sea" is from the overtly Chaucerian (and very popular) Life and Death of Jason (1867), written in rhymed heroic stanzas and based on the legendary quest for the Golden Fleece, while the "Apology" to the dream-like The Earthly Paradise (1868) (a lengthy and determinedly escapist collection of twenty-four legends set in an elaborate framework, and pervaded with a sense of alienation and despair) is at once a kind of preface to the long poem and a justification of Morris's purpose in writing it. For what class of reader is the "Apology" intended?
Despite the conspicuous absence of any inherently Christian emphasis, The Earthly Paradise became one of the most popular works of the age, for it was perceived (despite the tone of the "Apology") not only as a morally acceptable work (its almost hypnotic smoothness, its remoteness, its detachment, and the pervasive absence of human passion were seen as only enhancing its value) but as one would provide its only-too-busy Victorian readers with a refuge or a temporary respite from the problems with which their complex society continually confronted them. The popular image of Morris as a dreamy mediaevalist and a delightfully romantic and essentially harmless character was formed after the appearance of The Earthly Paradise, and thereafter — even in his most vehemently socialist days — he never entirely lost that image. How do these last two works by Morris differ — in tone, theme, and emphasis — from the earlier ones? What changes — in Morris's life and thought — do those differences reflect?
Last modified 1988