Home  »  Volume XIII: English THE VICTORIAN AGE Part One The Nineteenth Century, II  »  § 6. Morris’s prose narratives

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

§ 6. Morris’s prose narratives

After Sigurd, Morris practically abandoned poetry, save for the Odyssey, and his last original book of verse was the collection of lyrics and ballads, Poems by the Way, issued from the Kelmscott press in 1891. His activities outside his artistic life during the early eighties were devoted to the spread of socialism and to enthusiasms closely connected with his love of beauty and his attempt to realize the past in the Present. His socialist propaganda was marked by two romances, A Dream of John Ball, remarkable for its vivid and beautiful medieval setting amid English village scenery, and the Utopian News from Nowhere, whose doctrinal aspect has earned it a fame out of proportion to its actual merits. In 1889, when his political energy, though not abated, had been somewhat disappointed by the intractability of those with whom he had associated himself, he returned to pure romance with the prose story, interspersed with lyrics, The House of the Wolfings. This was followed, in 1890, by The Roots of the Mountains and, in 1891, by The Story of the Glittering Plain. Morris succeeded in communicating his own pleasure in these narratives to the reader; and the indefiniteness of place and time in which they are set, contrasted with the extreme definiteness of their imaginary topography, gives them the vivid charm of fairy-tale. His mind still ran upon the northern epic, and the scenes and personages of the first three of these romances, so far as they belong to any country at all, belong to the remote north of Europe. In The Roots of the Mountains, the longest of the three, the self-contained life of a pastoral community threatened by the mysterious barbarians of the neighbouring forest tracts, and its victory over them with the aid of a warrior race from a distant valley, are pictured with extraordinary completeness and sustained interest. In 1892, Morris produced a translation of Beowulf in collaboration with A. J. Wyatt, and, in 1891, he began, with Eirikr Magnusson, to produce a Saga library which included a version of the Heimskringla. Amid the crowded interests of the closing years of his life the production of magnificently printed volumes from the Kelmscott press took the chief place, while his love of medieval architecture prompted him to protest with increasing vehemence on behalf of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, which he had founded in 1877, against destructive works of so-called restoration. Meanwhile, his leisure hours were occupied with prose romance of which the atmosphere was chiefly medieval. The brief The Wood beyond the World (1895) was followed, in 1896, by The Well at the World’s End, a somewhat prolix tale, the interest of which, however, is continually revived by scenes and episodes of memorable clearness and beauty. Two more romances were published posthumously, The Water of the Wondrous Isles, the most fairylike of the series, and The Sundering Flood, which he finished less than a month before his death. In these later books, the attraction which he flet for the England of Chaucer’s day is as powerful as it was in The Earthly Paradise; if their passages of adventure amid black mountains and “perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn” belong to a world common to all lovers of the marvellous and romantic, the lowland country in which his heroes have their home, with its meadowlands, its cities of merchants and its abbeys and priories, is the English country to which his imagination restored its fourteenth-century aspect, peopling it with feudal lords and their households, prosperous middle-class traders and the labourers who listened to the preaching of John Ball. Malory, equally beloved with Chaucer, had his influence on Morris’s prose style, but the peculiar archaisms in which it abounds were natural to Morris’s thought and were used with a vigour free from affectation. On 3 October, 1896, the greatest master of romantic story-telling among modern Englishmen died at his London residence, Kelmscott house, Hammersmith, worn out by a life of unceasing work, in which he had endeavoured, with remarkable consistence and success, to realise and translate into practice for his countrymen the beauty of the visionary world of his prose and poetry. His love of the beautiful work of the past, material and imaginative, stood for him in the place of religious fervour, and his whole strength of purpose was dedicated to the reconstitution of modern life upon conditions similar to those under which such work, impossible in an age of mere competition for money, was produced. Read in this light, his writings are no mere pictures of an irrecoverable past painted with a dilettante regretfulness: they are a coherent revelation of his sources of inspiration in his combat with the torpor from which, like Ruskin and Carlyle, he, not the least of the three, strove to deliver the life of his day.