Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. V. Browning to Rupert Brooke
Critical Introduction by John William Mackail
William Morris (18341896)
[William Morris was born at Elm House, Walthamstow, in 1834, went to school at Marlborough, and proceeded from it to Exeter College, Oxford. On taking his degree he became an articled pupil of G. E. Street, the architect, but quitted his office before long in order to devote himself to painting, designing, and decoration, as well as to poetry. His first published poems appeared in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, founded and carried on by him and a group of his friends, in 1856; and, his first published volume, The Defence of Guenevere, and other Poems, in 1858. For some years afterwards he was chiefly occupied with the work which developed round the firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (afterwards Morris & Co.), manufacturers and decorators. In 1865 he returned to London from the house he had built and furnished for himself in Kent, and resumed the writing of poetry. The Life and Death of Jason appeared in 1867, and The Earthly Paradise in 18681870. During these years he had learned Icelandic, and translated a number of the Sagas. In 1871 he became tenant of Kelmscott Manor House, Lechlade, which remained his country home for the rest of his life, though he chiefly lived and worked in London. Love is Enough was published in 1872 and Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs in 1876. In 1877 he declined to accept nomination for the Professorship of Poetry at Oxford; about this time his political activity began, at first as an advanced Radical, gradually developing into the active Socialism of his later years. On January 13, 1883, he was elected an Honorary Fellow of Exeter and enrolled himself as a member of the Social Democratic Federation. From that time forward the chief among his multifarious occupations were, designing for and carrying on the business of his firm, organizing and working on behalf of the Socialist movement, lecturing and writing on art and social questions, writing prose romances, and carrying on the work of the famous Kelmscott Press, started by him in 1891. In this last year he brought out, as the second volume printed at that press, a selection of his own unpublished poems under the title of Poems by the Way. Among his poetical works should also be mentioned his verse translations of Virgils Aeneid (1875) and Homers Odyssey (1887). He died at Kelmscott House, Hammersmith, in October, 1896.]
OF all the great English poets, William Morris is the one whom it is least possible to consider or to appreciate as a poet alone. To him, poetry was not an isolated art. It was the application to the material of rhythmical language of the constructive and decorative principles common to all arts. And art itselfof which all the particular arts were the applications to one or another materialwas not an isolated thing. It was simply the visible or audible recorded expression of the joy of life, production, as Aristotle had defined it long before, with pleasure and for the sake of pleasure. His well-known sayings that talk of inspiration is sheer nonsense, it is a mere matter of craftsmanship, and that, in terms still more concrete and vivid, if a chap cant compose an epic while he s weaving tapestry, he had better shut up, express his considered doctrine, and also his consistent practice. He handled the art of poetry as he handled the arts of weaving or dyeing or printing, the production of household furniture or wall-decoration; all were pleasurable production meant for pleasurable use. Hence while it remains true that his poetry, like that of others, has to be estimated simply as poetry, it will convey its full meaning only to those who realize what he meant it to be, what place he meant it to occupy in a scheme of human life. It would be beside the point here to enlarge on the manifold scope of his activities, or on the influence which in many ways they exercised, and still exercise, on civilization. But neither must this be forgotten; for otherwise we should, by treating his poetry as a detached thing, miss its structural import and part of its individual quality. That he came to be known as the author of The Earthly Paradise is more than a happy accident. For the creation of an earthly paradise in a perfectly literal sense of the words, of an actual world in which beauty and joy should be incorporated with daily life and be of the essence of all productive activity, was the object which he pursued throughout; and his own divergent activities were all threaded from that one centre.
This way of regarding and handling poetry began in him as an instinct, and gradually wrought itself out into a settled doctrine. In his earlier poetry it is only latent. His first volume represents the last outcome of the Romantic movement, and its linking up with the mediæval tradition through a new imaginative insight into history. It had been foreshadowed by Keats in poems like the Eve of St. Mark and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and was intimately connected with the Pre-Raphaelite movement and the potent influence, alike in poetry and painting, of Rossetti. The Defence of Guenevere, like the Lyrical Ballads of sixty years before, attracted little immediate attention, but, like them, was a germinal force of incalculable vitality. Technically the poems in this volume are uncertain in handling, immature, full of the crude sap of youth. But they were the symbol of the new era and the manifestation of a new poet. Where, in Swinburnes just words, among other and older poets of his time and country, is one comparable for perception and experience of tragic truth, of subtle and noble, terrible and piteous things? where a touch of passion at once so broad and so sure? The chord of imaginative beauty sounded by three typical pieces, King Arthurs Tomb, The Haystack in the Floods, Summer Dawn, is something which stands by itself and alone. Arthurian romance and the early Middle Ages, Chaucer and Froissart and the full expansion of the fourteenth century, are recaptured and brought into vital connexion with the beauty and wonder of the actual world as these took shape in a fresh and wholly original and underivative imagination. Perhaps now, after sixty more years have passed, these poems appeal to new minds with even enhanced poignancy. They have never been widely popular; the fashion they set, the school they formed, are negligible. Their effect has been over poetry itself, in a way at once more intimate and more profound.
To this early germinal period of romantic exploration succeeded, after an interval of nearly ten years, the middle period of trained and deliberate craftsmanship. This is represented by the Life and Death of Jason and The Earthly Paradise. English poetry in the early sixties had come to a point of uncertainty and partial stagnation. Swinburnes Atalanta in Calydon (1864), Morriss Jason (1867), and Rossettis Poems (1870) mark the emergence of fresh forces which poured new life into it and gave it a fresh orientation. All three won immediate and wide recognition.
In Jason, the Chaucerian element in the mixed impulse of Morriss earlier volume becomes predominant. Here he developed his full gift as a story-teller, a gift rare among poets, and absent or inconspicuous in many of the greatest. Constructional power, sense of design, and the application to design of rich continuous ornament had now all been mastered. The long narrative-poema form in which English poetry had but little of the first rank to show, and which had succumbed to the idyllic treatment of episodeswas reinstated. But in Jason Morris also re-established that connexion with the Middle Ages which had been broken by the Elizabethans and since then, in the main, lost. Its whole atmosphere is mediaeval, in the sense of its resuming the mediaeval structure and colour, and applying them to a classical story.
Rede haue I
Of Gawen and Sir Guy,
And tell can a great pece
Of the Golden Flece,
How Jason it wan
Lyke a valyaunt man.
Yet it is essentially new and modern; the synthesis of the classical and the romantic past is vitalized by an original genius, in advance of rather than behind its own age. It likewise reinstated the ten-syllabled rhyming coupletto all intents and purposes Chaucers inventionin its old flexibility and fluency. Keats in Lamia, Shelley in Epipsychidionto some degree, in an odd way of his own, Browning also in Sordellohad made tentative approaches to this; but its accomplishment was effected by Morris alone; nor, though he has had many imitators, did he transmit the secret to any successor.
In The Earthly Paradise this vital synthesis was carried farther. Few, perhaps, of its readers go beyond reading it as a mere series of stories; and in these they find a certain sameness, some languor of movement, even a cloying repetition of ornament. But the twenty-five stories were designed, and should be thought of, as large decorative panels in a single design, to which the setting gives at once the clue and the justification. That whole design is so huge in scalesome 42,000 lines in alland so intricate as well as skilful in its construction, that it does not arrest notice when one is in close contact with it. Like one of those French Gothic cathedrals which Morris ranked among the highest products of human genius, the whole is partly ignored, partly taken for granted, by those who fix their attention on successive details. The subordination of the parts to the whole, the calculated repetitions as of arch and column and window, are only appreciated when we realize that they are exactly what the artist meant. The principle of sheer craftsmanship in poetry is here carried to its full stretch. The stories unroll themselves fluently and equably over large spaces in which the poetry is deliberately diffused and not concentrated. The pattern is large, and consists largely of background, in which the detail is treated accordingly. It even passes sometimes into what corresponds to a diapered pattern. The rose-garden or apple-orchard, the brown bird which recurs in The Earthly Paradise almost to satiety, are a considered convention for narrative ornament. For this reason, extracts or specimens give little idea of the whole structure. It is a sort of work that does not lend itself to detached quotation; it has few purple patches, few memorable single lines. Such there are, but they are mostly to be found in the more highly-wrought interludes of the setting, or in the interposed lyrics through which the large equable flow of the narrative is gathered up, as it were, to a greater tension. One result is a certain sense of superflux, even of monotony; another is that Morris never, as very good poets often do, preaches over his liquor.
In The Earthly Paradise the reconquest of Chaucers ten-syllabled couplet already effected in Jason is accompanied by a similar reconquest of the other two Chaucerian narrative-metres, the eight-syllabled couplet and the rhyme-royal. All three are handled on a large scale, and with complete success. In these forms, Morris felt that he had now done what he could do; and he set himself to fresh explorations farther afield. The morality of Love is Enough, which was the first important result of these new experiments, is probably the least popular of his larger works, as it is the most difficult; and it must be added that the labour shows in it, as well as the result of the labour. He was here trying to revive and readapt not only an obsolete dramatic form, but a rhythmical structure to which Chaucer himself had given the death-blow. The native English verse based on stress and alliteration had been decisively displaced by the rhyming syllabic metres of France. But it has always subsisted under the surface, and in the hands of an experimenter of native English genius is almost bound to reappear. To this experiment Morris applied great skill and patience. But it suffers from being too obviously experimental, and too elaborate in its constructional artifice. This, as in some of his latest and possibly finest designs in decorated fabrics (the chintzes which for many years drew, from critics as superficial as they were supercilious, sneers at a poet-upholsterer), is carried a little farther than can make effective appeal to any one but an expert craftsman. For such, Love is Enough will always be a work of extreme interest and suggestiveness. But that is not, according to Morriss own doctrine, or indeed according to any tenable conception, the real function of poetry.
In Sigurd the Volsung, not long afterwards, he broke fresh ground alike in subject and in treatment. It is his last large work in poetry, and though it was not, and is not, the most popular, it is probably, and certainly was in his own judgment, the greatest. In it he passed from romance, to which, with one notable exception, his previous work belongs, to the amplitude, height, and tension of epic. The effect on him of the Icelandic Sagas, as soon as he came to know them, was immense and in some sense revolutionary. It transformed the romantic dream-world, a decoration hung, as it were, for joy and solace on the background of life, into an actual world more wonderful in its vastness and tragic issues than any world of imaginary beauty. The earthly paradise has taken a new meaning. The song of the Hesperides in Jason had incarnated the romantic spirit in the lines:
Let earth and heaven go on their way
While still we watch from day to day,
In this green place left all alone,
A remnant of the days long gone.
And in the introductory verses to The Earthly Paradise he speaks of himself as striving to build a shadowy isle of bliss with idle verses. The world of the epic is neither shadowy nor idle.
This transforming influence first shows itself in the Earthly Paradise itself. The Lovers of Gudrun is in a wholly different key from the rest of the stories. A close rendering, in its substance, of the prose Laxdæla-saga, it has a new poetic vitality and nobility: it is the central point of Morriss poetry. The expansion of this movement in Sigurd took the form of a fresh epic rendering of the Völsunga-saga, the story of the North which stands alongside of the story of Troy as one of the two great epic subjects of the world. For the reshaping of this story Morris adopted a metrical form which until then had only been used in English on a small scale, the six-beat rhymed couplet, in long lines with free syncopation, and a marked caesura or break of rhythm in the middle of each line. It corresponds, in his handling, more nearly than any other English measure to the effective value of the Homeric hexameter; and makes Sigurd, in this respect as well as in others, the most Homeric poem since Homer. The opening line, There was a dwelling of kings ere the world was waxen old, strikes the new note at once with complete certainty. Very often, in lines like
And so when the deed is ready, nowise the man shall lack,
But the wary foot is the surest, and the hasty oft turns back,
How then in the gates of Valhall shall the door of the gleaming ring
Clash to on the heel of Sigurd, as I follow on my king?
it rises with effortless ease, and without any sense of imitation, into the authentic and unsurpassable Homeric tone.
The constructional quality of Morriss genius, in so far as it was not hampered by loyalty to the exact scope and lines of a Saga which had not wholly purged itself from barbarism, here reaches its climax. After Sigurd, his poetry shows, amid many fresh experiments and with a continued refinement of beauty, a reversion towards romance, and a renewal, in a new manner and on a different class of subject, of the lyrical impulse. This had always been one strand in the complex fabric of his main production. The lyrics in Jason and The Earthly Paradise, beyond their effect in accentuation of the narrative, are, like the intercalated lyrics in Tennysons Princess, substantive poems. Love is Enough is a lyrical fabric wrought by extreme artifice into a dramatic framework. In Sigurd the two elements wholly coalesce, and the lyrical quality tells throughout, not by any sharp division, but by the varying scale of emotional tension. In subsequent work he resumes the pure lyric, often incorporated with the ballad structure. Some of the later pieces collected in Poems by the Way are Morriss last, and in one view even his supreme poetical achievement. For here, as in Shakespeares romances, we reach a final simplicity, not the innocent simplicity of youth, but that of an accomplished art which, after its labours, relaxes itself in work which, to it, is play, and in which the decoration and the substance which it decorates become one and the same thing.
Comparisons between one poet and another are generally futile. In Morriss poetry we may be content to mark its actual notes of simplicity and sincerity, melodiousness and copiousness, and, after he had found himself, a growing and fundamental sanity. His own straightforward simplicity reflects itself in the clarity of verse in which the expression is never involved, the meaning never in doubt. What are called his mannerisms were his natural and instinctive way of expressing himself. His melodiousness, as distinct from more complex harmonies, is unfailing and perhaps unsurpassed. His copiousness, perhaps excessive, came of the joy of a craftsman in pouring out the products of his craft. The quality of his poetry varies, not as in Wordsworth according to the degree of inspiration that vitalizes patterns of language in which the craftsmans touch is fumbling, but rather according to the substantive value of the thought or incident or emotion upon which, whatever it be, he expends the same gift of capable workmanship. As it advances, his poetry passes from broken gleams and a bewildered questioning into a serious interpretation of life. In the earlier work, the obsession of death is a constant background; gradually this is swallowed up in a mastering sense of the wonderfulness of life. The turning-point is vividly indicated in that stanza of apology which ends with the single line that beyond all others of his has passed into universal currency.
Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day.
It is an estimate, a criticism, of all his own poetry up till then. The whole message (if such a word can be used) of his poetry thereafter, as of his work in other fields than poetry, was the exact converse: to show how this world is heaven or hell; to ease its burden by teaching men not to fear shadows; to make death merge in the splendour of life; to bring back pleasure to an age that had lost or forgotten it; and to give the world the courage of a new hope.
This was his work, whether it took shape in lyric or romance or epic, in refashioning of old tales or re-embodying of primary emotions, in a ballad of the greenwood or a vignette of landscape or a chant for Socialists: this was what he would have claimed as his title to remembrance, rather than that he had given to the English world a body of poetry which combines the pellucidity of Chaucer with the fluent richness of Ariosto.