The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 45. Lewis Morris
There was, however, never so much difference in his case between the public and, at first, a few, but, latterly, nearly all, critics as occurred in the case of Lewis Morris, who, also, was later knighted. Lewis Morris has been called “the Tupper of the later nineteenth century”; but the comparison is unfair in both ways, except so far as it concerns the just mentioned difference between public and critics, and the extraordinary vogue of more or less worthless verse. The historic circumstances of the two are curiously and distinguishingly different. Tupper, as has been said above, obtained his popularity in a dead season of poetry with matter of, at least, unusual form. Lewis Morris, on the other hand, began when poetry, especially through Tennyson’s work, had again been popularised, and even when new movements in advance had stimulated the appetite but, in some cases, had shocked or puzzled the taste of the average age reader. The French, if one remembers rightly, long ago manufactured out of Defoe’s masterpiece a Robinson des enfants. Lewis Morris set himself to be a Tennyson des enfants, and was justified of a considerable number of the grown-up children whom he addressed. Songs of Two Worlds, which first appeared in three series, and the more ambitious Epic of Hades which followed, deserved the title of perfect works of art in one sense only perhaps; but they certainly deserved it in that. They hit the object at which they were immediately aimed; though, beyond all doubt, their success helped to provoke in others a reaction of taste which has dominated the last thirty years and more and which has most curiously and uncritically affected the popular estimate of Tennyson himself. Often, when one reads uncomplimentary remarks on Idylls of the King, one thinks that the critic, by some mistake, has come upon a copy of The Epic of Hades with a wrong lettering on the back.
The means by which Lewis Morris hit the vulgar and some, at first, of those who should not have come under that designation, were the strictest “propriety” of subject and expression, a modern and liberal tone towards questions of politics, religion and philosophy; an entire avoidance of all obscurity, preciousness or eccentricity of language; and the observance, respectable till it became distressing, of an absolute smoothness of versification. He was great at truisms in morality, and, indeed, in everything. He could draw fairly pretty pictures, though, when you examined them, you found that there was scarcely ever a touch of real nature or original wit in them, that the colours were those of the tenpenny-halfpenny box and the outlines stencilled. He had, sometimes, a faculty—which, in a satirist, would have been admirable—of writing things which looked like poetry till one began to think of them a little.
A pleasant and popular person, with a great many friends both in Oxford and in London, Lewis Morris secured fairly favourable views at first. But unbiassed censors, especially of a slightly younger generation, began to revolt before many years had passed; and, not content with a rough reception of his later works Gwen, The Ode of Life, Gycia, Songs Unsung (a dangerously suggestive title), went back to the earlier Songs and The Epic and did their best to demonstrate the poetical nullity of the whole work. That work, for a good many years, has been available in a single volume, and everybody can form his own opinion on it. It may be warranted to do nobody any harm; if, by some curious chance, a little savage on a desert island read it knowing no other poetry and liked it, this would be a rather good sign in him.