The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.

V. The Rossettis, William Morris, Swinburne, and Others

§ 4. The Earthly Paradise

No more conclusive testimony to the magnetic attraction of Rossetti’s personality could be found than his influence over the impetuous and restless temperament of William Morris. Morris, born at Walthamstow on 24 March, 1834, had developed his love of medieval antiquity while at school at Marlborough, and had gone up to Exeter College, Oxford, in January, 1853, a disciple of tractarianism and with the intention of taking holy orders. Here he formed his life-long friendship with Edward Burne-Jones, the two becoming the most prominent members of a circle, chiefly composed of schoolfellows of Burne-Jones from Birmingham and including the poet and historian Richard Watson Dixon. In 1855, this group took the title “the Brotherhood.” Contact with men of common interests but of some variety of taste enlarged Morris’s sympathies. Under the guidance of Burne-Jones, he learned to appreciate Chaucer and Malory and was first introudced to northern mythology and epic. The contrast between the world of imaginative beauty in which he now found footing and the conventional hideousness of ordinary life gave definite shape to his imperfectly understood emotions. In the summer of 1855, Burne-Jones and Morris, returning from a tour in northern France and walking by night on the quay at Havre, decided to abandon their intention of taking orders and to devote themselves to art. At first, Morris studied architecture under Street. Under the influence of Rossetti’s conviction that painting was the only art with a future in England, he changed his profession and pursued painting with characteristic ardour in the rooms at 17 Red Lion square, which were the birthplace of his ultimate career as decorative artist and furnisher. During his participation in the too hastily considered scheme for frescoing the walls of the Oxford Union, he met Jane Burden, whom he married in 1859. After his marriage with this lady, whose type of beauty, like that of Rossetti’s wife, has become a permanent possession of English art, his substantial income enabled him to choose and build his home upon Bexley heath. The Red house, designed by his friend Philip Webb, was the forerunner of a revolution in domestic architecture, and its furniture and household appliances were designed in a spirit of revolt against the ugliness which contemporary taste approved. Out of this satisfaction of personal needs arose, in 1861, the formation of the firm of decorative artists, guided by the influence of Rossetti and known, at first, as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Co., which, in process of time, was entirely controlled by Morris himself and continued to be the chief practical business of his life. It is not too much to say that, by thirty-five years of ceaseless activity, from 1861 to his death in 1896, he effected an entire revolution in public taste. His love of medieval art and literature and his instinct for all that was beautiful in them were carried into practice in his workshops, and the contrast between the conditions under which the masterpieces of medieval art were produced and the commercialism of the nineteenth century impelled him to his renunciation of distinctions of class and his fervent advocacy of the socialist cause as a master-workman. His voluminous poetry and prose, resorting for its inspiration to an elder day remote from the life around him, is, superficially, the work of a dreamer who seeks refuge from materialism in a world of visions. But, to Morris, his visions were capable of realisation and formed the inspiration of an eminently practical life. The Earthly Paradise was written during a period when the business affairs of his rising firm called for his unwearied attention. The active and the contemplative life were, in him, not mutually opposed but complementary. His periods of retirement to the beautiful manor-house at Kelmscott in the meadows by the infant Thames, which became his country home from 1871 onwards, recruited the energy of his London life in Hammersmith mall beside the busier and broader reaches of the same river, and, as we read his romances in verse and prose, we see in their imaginings the material which he worked into visible beauty in his textile fabrics and stained glass.

Morris’s earliest attempts at poetry, unpremeditated lyrics in a highly original style, won the admiration of his friends at Oxford, who hailed him, rather prematurely, as a great poet. Some of his poems, with a series of remarkable prose tales, were printed, in 1856, in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, the organ of the Brotherhood, to which Rossetti also contributed. In this periodical, the eranestness of purpose which had been fatal to The Germ was even more marked. Financed largely by Morris, it ran its course of twelve monthly numbers with a decreasing circulation. Its contributors were animated by a noble sincerity. Among contemporary influences, the poetry of Tennyson and Browning, the critical philosophy of Ruskin and the chivalrous ideals of The Newcomes and The Heir of Redclyffe fostered their passion for truth in life and art. Their performances, however, are, for the most part, heavy reading, and there can be no doubt that, apart from Rossetti’s imported contributions, the principal literary result of the Brotherhood’s endeavour was Morris’s first experiments in fiction. His rapid and heady style, similar to that of his early correspondence, is crowded with vividly imagined detail and flashes out again and again in phrases of picturesque colour. In The Story of the Unknown Church, he showed his kinship with medieval life and thought, of which he always wrote with a contemporary insight and accuracy seldom acquired by scholars and antiquaries. The Hollow Land is the first example of his use of an atmosphere for romance which, though medieval in its general features, can be referred to no special age or century and became the characteristic setting of his later prose tales. In the somewhat repellent story entitled Lindenborg Pool, with a theme and setting which recall the type of narrative associated with Edgar Allan Poe, he paid his paid earliest tribute to the attractions of northern mythology.

Four of the five poems written by Morris for The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine appeared in 1858, in the volume called The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems. The contents of this book are, from one point of view, hasty and unequal. The metre of Morris’s romantic lyrics suffers from overfluency and want of restraint and is occasionally both weak and harsh. They lack certainty of touch and completeness of finish; many of them are broken off suddenly with an effect of weakness which sinks to bathos. Full of highly-coloured imagination, they express it inarticulately and imperfectly in forms which waver between the lyric and dramatic, in broken phrases and involved sentences. Their virtue is their spontaneity, a natural, unlaboured gift of poetry, asserting itself without any definite effort and producing its treasures without consciousness of the mixture of precious metal with alloy. They are the experimental work of a poet who has found no absolutely suitable medium of expression out of many which appeal to his taste. In the terza rima of The Defence of Guenevere, the rugged elegiac stanzas of King Arthur’s Tomb, the dramatic blank verse of Sir Peter Harpdon’s End, the varied lyric measures of Rapunzel, the ballad metre of Welland River and the recurrent refrains of Two Red Roses across the Moon, The Song of the Gillyflower and The Sailing of the Sword, a spirit intoxicated with the romance of the past is striving after a perfect utterance of its sense of beauty. Morris’s admiration of Browning is, probably, responsible for the frequent intricacy of his style: this influence had entire control of Sir Peter Harpdon’s End, where Browning’s alternations of roughness and abruptness with smoothly flowing passages are closely imitated. Yet, although in these early pieces Morris was swayed by varying influences, there is none in which his sensitiveness to the charm of colour and sound and scenery, to all the beauty of the visible world, fails to find expression. He is frequently spoken of as though he were a member of the pre-Raphaelite school. His connection with it was indirect, and his art had little in common with the accurate genre-painting which it had been the immediate object of that school to promote. But his truth of detail was pre-Raphaelite in the wider sense of the word and his realism was more thorough than the realism which became more and more a mere incident in Rossetti’s verse and departed from his painting. Morris was more closely attached than Rossetti to the world around him; the most vivid landscapes of his poems belong to the English country to whose quiet moods he was perpetually alive. His love of romance has been attributed to his Celtic ancestry; but the sights and sounds amid which his gifts were developed were characteristically English, and, even in the lands of fantasy in which his later prose tales were laid, his best power of description was exercised upon the meadows and villages, the winding streams and chalk downs, the marshes and seaward flats of the parts of England that he knew best. More than Rossetti, too, he was awake to the sense of struggle in life, which is the animating power of the highest form of narrative. If it is wrong to count Rossetti merely as a languid aeshete, catching at the pleasurable moments of life and allowing its seriousness to escape unmarked, a similar estimate, which might easily be formed by a casual survey of Morris’s preference for a bygone age, taken together with the archaisms of his style and his charactersation of himself as “the idle singer of an empty day,” would be even more superficial. The echoes of the pain and suffering of the outside world are never silent in his enchanted world of fable; they are the disturbing force of that tender and resigned melancholy in which his personages, acutely conscious of the shortness of life and the transitoriness of beauty, move to their appointed end.

This sense of the intimate connection between poetry and life, in which one becomes the best interpreter of the other, grew with advancign years. The practical and visionary elements in Morris’s character drew more closely together, and, as the union progressed, his poetry grew in strenth and purpose. Nine years after The Defence of Guenevere, he appeared, in The Life and Death of Jason, as master of romantic narrative. His treatment of his classical subject was founded upon medieval practice. His master in narrative poetry was Chaucer: he employed the couplet, Chaucer’s most perfect medium for story-telling, and, as in The Knightes Tale, he translated a tale whose nominal scene was the antique world into the terms of the age of chivalry. Nevertheless, while the form which he adopted was Chaucerian, the spirit of his story was different. Just as the couplet-form which he used, although derived from Chaucer, had passed since Chaucer’s day under the influence of Dryden and Keats and had been moulded by into the shape in which Morris received it, so no modern writer, however closely in sympathy with a past age, could wholly reproduce an attitude towards love and chivalry which the conditions of modern life have changed profoundly. The love of Palamon and Arcite for Emelye, devouring in its passion and tragic in its consequences, was the unavoidable duty of a medieval knight, a necessary part of the science of his profession. Morris’s Jason and Medea submit to the dominion of a natural instinct apart from any code of manners, their delight in the present being tempered by foreboding of the future. Medea is not the queen of a court of love, who takes Jason’s devotion as a conventional homage: she is a modern woman, surrendering all to her love and putting her fortunes in her lover’s hands, with her eyes fully open to the risks which she willingly runs. In this respect, Morris comes nearer to classical antiquity than to his medieval model. His love-story is free from those constant touches of humour which link Chaucer to the modern world: on the other hand, his sense of the pathos of life is deeper than Chaucer’s. The tale of Jason and Medea is informed by the spirit which fills Vergil’s tale of Dido and Aeneas.

  • With their love they fill the earth alone,
  • Careless of shame, and not remembering death.
  • While that love is a temporary forgetfulness of the “fury and distress” of life, its future is darkened by the haunting sense of satiety and decay, the Vergilian consciousness of Lacrymae rerum, “sorrow that bides and joy that fleets away.”

    The same contrast between the setting of the poem and its inner spirit is obvious in The Earthly Paradise, a series of twentyfour tales in verse, two for each month of the year, published in three volumes between 1868 and 1870. They are bound together, in imitation of Chaucer, by a connecting link which forms the subject of the prologue. A company of wanderers, driven from their Scandinavian home by the great pestilence which overspread Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, after long journeyings in search of the fabled earthly paradise, come, “shrivelled, bent, and grey,” to “a nameless city in a distant sea,” where Hellenic civilization and culture have been preserved. Here, they find rest and hospitality, and twice a month they and their hosts meet at a solemn feast, at which a story is related. An ingenious medley of romance is thus provided. Twelve of the stories, told by the elders of the city, come from classical sources; the other twelve, told by the wanderers, are derived chiefly from medieval Latin, French and Icelandic originals, with gleanings from Mandeville and The Arabian Nights. The metrical forms employed throughout are Chaucerian, with those inevitable modifications which the progress of literary form had brought to pass. The prologue, the narrative links between tale and tale and eight of the stories themselves are written in the ten-syllabled couplet. Seven stories, six of which are told by the wanderers, are in the short couplet of The Book of the Duchesse and The Hous of Fame. The rest, with the short lyrics in which each month is introduced, are in the seven-lined stanza of Troilus and Criseyde. That all the stories should be equal in interest is not to be expected, and a few are written in a somewhat perfunctory spirit. Where, however, a tale, familiar and often told though it might be, really arrested Morris, he used all his power to adorn it with novel detail, and the success of The Life and Death of Jason is well maintained in The Doom of King Acrisius and The Story of Cupid and Psyche. The wanderers’ narratives, to the tellers of which the noble prologue gives a more dramatic interest than to the placid elders of the undisturbed city, are naturally less familiar and have less to fear from competition than the classical stories. In one of these, The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon, Morris taxed his narrative power to its utmost capacity by giving his romance the shape of a dream told within capacity by giving his romance the shape of a dream told within a dream at broken intervals. In all the stories alike, his command over his metre and rhythm is unfailing. He achieves no striking effects such as were promised by the irregular and faulty measures of The Defence of Guenevere. In The Life and Death of Jason he had settled down to a smooth and steady pace of reserved energy. To a sensitive ear his prosody lacks variety: in his disregard of the elision of vowels and his fondness for riming weak syllables there is a want of robustness, which, however, is thoroughly is keeping with the character of the old and worn narrators and their autumnal view of life. The interest which his stories excite, however, precludes monotony, while their consistent tunefulness, if it provides few individual passages which can be remembered for their own sake and involves a considerable amount of repetition of the same minor air, creates a harmonious atmosphere entirely appropriate to the waking dream in which they are set. From the purely poetic point of view, the most memorable passages of the poem are the interpolated lyrics in which, at the beginning of each month, Morris records his own delight in the changing English landscape, the verses in which he bids adieu to his accomplished task, and the occasional snatches of song introduced into the stories. To these last, as to the Christmas carol of The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon, he gave a freshness and charm already heralded by the shorter lyrics in The Defence of Guenevere and “I know a little garden close” in The Life and Death of Jason.