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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by William Morton Payne (1858–1919)

By William Morris (1834–1896)

WILLIAM MORRIS was a man of such varied activities and exuberant vitality, that an account of his career as a man of letters can give but an inadequate impression of his personality. The present sketch, however, must be restricted to the single aspect of his life by virtue of which he won a place among the greatest English writers of the nineteenth century; and may mention, thereafter only to ignore them, his epoch-making work as a decorative designer, his revival of the well-nigh lost art of printing beautiful books, and the socialist propaganda which he carried on for so many years, and with so much of fiery energy. All of these things belong to the character of the man rather than of the poet; and it is with the poet alone that we are now concerned.

With a volume entitled ‘The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems,’ published in 1858, Morris made his first appearance in literature. At this time the fame of Tennyson as the greatest of Victorian poets was fully established; the fame of Browning, with fifteen volumes already to his credit, was rapidly growing; and the chief poetical work of Matthew Arnold had already been produced. The affinities of the new poet were, however, with none of these masters, but rather with two men whose voices were yet to be heard. It was not until 1861 that Swinburne published ‘The Queen Mother’ and ‘Rosamund,’ to be followed in 1864 by ‘Atalanta in Calydon,’ in 1865 by ‘Chastelard,’ and in 1866 by the famous first series of ‘Poems and Ballads.’ As for Rossetti, while it is true that some of the most characteristic of his youthful pieces had appeared in the Germ as early as 1850, yet it was not until 1870 that the manuscript collection of his ‘Poems’ was exhumed from the grave of his wife, and given to the world.

Thus we see that Morris must be considered the pioneer of the poetical movement with which these three men are chiefly identified. Whether we give them the vague title of Pre-Raphaelites, or of apostles of mediævalism, or of representatives of the stained-glass school of poetry, it is evident that they were united, at least in their earlier years, by the possession of common ideals and a common inspiration. The fact is also worth noting that ‘The Defence of Guenevere,’ a considerable section of which deals with material taken from the cycle of Arthurian legend, was published in the year that gave birth to the first group of Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King.’ A comparison of these two volumes is instructive; for it shows how divergent were the aims of Tennyson’s exquisite but sophisticated art and the simpler and bolder art of the new poet. In diction, in emotional color, and in envisagement of the period with which both are concerned, the two works are very sharply contrasted: that of Tennyson embodies the last and most subtle refinement of a continuous literary tradition, while that of Morris harks back to earlier modes of thought and expression, and sacrifices the conventional trappings of modern song in order to reproduce with more of vital truthfulness the spirit of a vanished past. This point must be insisted upon, because it differentiates, not merely the two singers that have been named, but the two groups to which they respectively belong; and because it offers what justification there may be for the epithet “Pre-Raphaelite” so frequently applied to one of the groups. As the genius of Morris developed, his art became far finer; but it retained to the last those qualities of simplicity and sincerity that had informed it in its beginnings.

The distinctive achievement of Morris in English poetry is that of a story-teller by right divine—such a story-teller as Chaucer alone had been before him. But although the poet himself pays tribute to

  • “—that mastery
  • That from the rose-hung lanes of woody Kent
  • Through these five hundred years such songs have sent
  • To us, who, meshed within this smoky net
  • Of unrejoicing labor, love them yet,”
  • yet the parallel may not be carried very far. Morris lacks the wit, the shrewdness, the practical good sense, and the dramatic faculty of Chaucer: he has instead the sentiment of romance in a heightened degree, the sense of pure beauty in nature and in life, the melancholic strain of a “dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,” and taking refuge in an idealized golden age of the past from a vain effort “to set the crooked straight” in this modern workaday world. As a story-teller in verse, Morris conquered the public with ‘The Life and Death of Jason’ (1867), and ‘The Earthly Paradise’ (1868–70). ‘The Earthly Paradise’ is a cycle of twenty-four narrative poems with a prologue. “Certain gentlemen and mariners of Norway,” so runs the argument, “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 honored of the strange people.” The land in which these “mariners of Norway” found their final haven was inhabited by a people descended from the ancient Greeks, and inheriting the poetical traditions of their race. After their guests had tarried with them for a while, they were thus addressed by the chief priest of the land:—
  • “Dear guests, the year begins to-day;
  • And fain are we, before it pass away,
  • To hear some tales of that now altered world,
  • Wherefrom our fathers in old time were hurled
  • By the hard hands of fate and destiny.
  • Nor would ye hear perchance unwillingly
  • How we have dealt with stories of the land
  • Wherein the tombs of our forefathers stand;
  • Wherefore henceforth two solemn feasts shall be
  • In every month, at which some history
  • Shall crown our joyance.”
  • The scheme is thus provided for the story-telling; and for a whole year the elders of the land alternate with the wanderers in recounting legendary tales. The former choose for their themes such stories as those of Atalanta, Alcestis, Cupid and Psyche, and Pygmalion and Galatea; the latter explore the rich fields of mediæval romance, and tell of Ogier the Dane, Gudrun and her lovers, the search for “the land east of the sun and west of the moon,” and the fateful history of Tannhäuser. The twenty-four tales thus linked together are given in a variety of poetical forms, and differ greatly in length. They are “full of soft music and familiar olden charm,” to use Mr. Stedman’s felicitous phrase; they blend clearness of poetic vision with the sense of wonder; they are fresh, pathetic, vividly picturesque, and the loveliness of their best passages is beyond all praise. Of the earlier ‘Life and Death of Jason’ it should be said that the poem was originally planned to fill a place in ‘The Earthly Paradise,’ but so outgrew the author’s purpose as to make a volume of itself.

    The poetical work subsequently produced by Morris comprises the following volumes: ‘Love is Enough, a Morality’ (1872), ‘The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs’ (1876), and ‘Poems by the Way’ (1892). In the opinion of Morris himself, as well as in that of most of his critics, the epic of ‘Sigurd’ is the greatest of his works. Mr. William Sharp has written of this poem in the following terms:—

  • “In this great work we come upon William Morris as the typical sagaman of modern literature. The breath of the North blows across these billowy lines as the polar wind across the green waves of the North Sea. The noise of waters, the splashing of oars, the whirling of swords, the conflict of battle, cries and heroic summons to death, re-echo in the ears. All the romance which gives so wonderful an atmosphere to his earlier poems, all the dreamy sweetness of ‘The Earthly Paradise’ and creations such as ‘Love is Enough,’ are here also; but with them are a force, a vigor and intensity, of which, save in his translation of the ‘Odyssey,’ there are few prior indications.”
  • The eight or ten volumes of imperishably beautiful verse thus far described, constitute one of the chief glories of the Victorian era; but they still represent only a part of the prodigious literary achievement of William Morris. Another phase of his genius, second in importance only to the one just under discussion, is illustrated by the series of romances in prose and verse that were produced during the last seven years of his life. Having lived so long in the world of mediæval romancers and sagamen, he began in 1889 to write sagas and mediæval romances of his own; and may almost be said to have enriched English literature with a new form of composition. The more important of these works are—‘The House of the Wolfings’ (1889), ‘The Roots of the Mountains’ (1890), ‘The Story of the Glittering Plain’ (1891), ‘The Wood Beyond the World’ (1894), and ‘The Well at the World’s End’ (1896). Two others—‘The Water of the Wondrous Isles’ and ‘The Sundering Flood’—were left for posthumous publication. These romances show, even better than his poetry, how deeply Morris penetrated into the essential spirit of mediævalism. As far as material goes, they are pure inventions; and the reader marvels at the imaginative wealth which they display. Sometimes, as in ‘The House of the Wolfings,’ they afford an insight into that early life of our Teutonic ancestors of which Tacitus gives us a few glimpses; but their scenes for the most part are laid in some land “east of the sun and west of the moon,” to which the poet alone has access. They take us back to the springtime of the world, as the sagamen and the romancers conceived of it; and unfold to us vistas of sheer delight. They tell us of noble men and lovely women, of perilous guests and heroic deeds; they are tinged with the melancholy that must ever be a residuum in the contemplative modern mind, however objective its grasp; but the subtle perplexities of modern life are left far behind. In form, they mingle actual verse with a sort of poetic prose that is not marred by cassuric effects; having, as Mr. Watts-Dunton says, “the concrete figures and impassioned diction that are the poet’s vehicle,” but entering into no competition with works of acknowledged metrical structure.

    If Morris were not a great original poet and romancer, his fame would still be secure as one of the greatest of English translators. He gave us the ‘Æneid’ in 1876, the ‘Odyssey’ in 1887, ‘Béowulf’ in 1895, and a long series of Icelandic sagas during the last quarter-century of his life. He held with Pope that “the fire of a poem is what a translator should principally regard”; and in dealing with a foreign masterpiece, he felt that his first duty was to convert it into an English poem. Hence his Virgil has little value as a “crib,” and his Homer is almost as free as Chapman’s version. But he was more completely in his element when dealing with Teutonic materials, and his ‘Béowulf’ and Icelandic sagas must be reckoned among the classics of English translation. His Icelandic work includes the ‘Grettis Saga’ (1869), the ‘Völsunga Saga’ (1870), ‘Three Northern Love Stories and Other Tales’ (1875), and the volumes of ‘The Saga Library,’ prepared in collaboration with Professor Eirikr Magnusson. This ‘Library’ was begun in 1891, and projected upon a liberal scale. Five volumes were published; the first of which includes three of the shorter sagas, the second gives us ‘The Story of the Ere-Dwellers’ (Eyrbyggja Saga) and ‘The Story of the Heath-Slayings,’ while the remaining three contain a nearly complete translation of the ‘Heimskringla’ of Snorri Sturluson,—‘The Stories of the Kings of Norway Called the Round World.’ In these translations we have a fortunate union of Professor Magnusson’s exact scholarship with the literary instinct of Morris—an instinct trained by long association with Icelandic themes, and long practice in the semi-archaic diction which is so happily made use of in these remarkable versions. Besides these translations, mention must be made, among the poet’s miscellaneous writings, of ‘Hopes and Fears for Art’ (1881), ‘A Dream of John Ball’ (1888), ‘News from Nowhere’ (1892), and the work called ‘Socialism, its Growth and Outcome,’ which was written in conjunction with Mr. Belfort Bax.

    In the creative work which constitutes, after all, the great bulk of the literary output of William Morris, one is most impressed by the insistence with which the note of pure beauty is sounded. The poet was not insensible of “problems,” as his socialistic writing amply shows; but literature took him clean away from them, and into a world which he might shape “nearer to the heart’s desire” than this modern world of restless striving after more or less ignoble ends. When we get into the region of ‘The Earthly Paradise’ or of the prose romances, it is, to use Whitman’s fine phrase, “as if no artifice of business, fashion, politics, had ever been.” It is a world in which we may find the beguilement of all weariness, and refresh our faith in the simpler virtues and the unsophisticated life. It is good for the spirit to take refuge at times in such a world; and those who have once breathed its healing airs will not fail in gratitude to the magician who led them to its confines, and bade them enter into its delights.