The Life of William Morris/Chapter 6
THE EARTHLY PARADISE
Queen Square, in which Morris himself and the firm of Morris & Company took up house together in the autumn of 1865, is a backwater of older Bloomsbury, which then retained some traces of its original dignity as a suburb of the London of Queen Anne. Put out of fashion half a century before by the more modern splendours of Russell Square, it had lingered on as a residential neighbourhood; and the famous girls' school established in it about the middie of last century, and commonly known as "the ladies' Eton," had only been finally closed during the Crimean War. The residential was now becoming mingled with an industrial element. The house on the east side, No. 26, taken by Morris, and the headquarters of his work for the next seventeen years, has disappeared to make room for an extension of the National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic. The ground floor was turned into an office and showroom. A large ball-room which had been built at the end of the yard, and connected with the dwelling-house by a wooden gallery, was turned into a principal workshop. There was room for other workshops in the small court at the back, and further accommodation was found when needed in Ormond Yard close by.
With Morris now continuously on the spot, the company became little more than a name as far as regarded the direction and management of the business. Rossetti had never taken much concern in the work. After his wife's death he had been for a long time almost a recluse: now he was living in Chelsea, at the other end of London, and was wholly absorbed in his painting. Faulkner, who had no productive gift, and whose great mathematical ability was somewhat thrown away on keeping the books of the firm, had returned to work in Oxford the year before; but in his vacations he stayed much with his mother and sisters, who had a house in Queen Square a few doors off, and at these times his intercourse with Morris was constant and his share in the conduct of the business not inconsiderable. Marshall had resumed his own line of work. Burne-Jones and Madox Brown continued to supply designs for stained glass, and Webb for furniture. But the whole of the production, and, except in glass and furniture, practically the whole of the design was now in Morris's sole hands. All the kinds of work begun at Red Lion Square went on here: and gradually there began to be added other industries which afterwards became the staple production of the firm—weaving, dyeing, and printing on cloth. No long time after Red House was given up, it became possible to have supplied it from the works at Queen Square with almost everything necessary to complete its decoration and furnishing. Such is the irony of human affairs.
But the management of the rapidly extending business had been just at this time put into capable and energetic hands. To Mr. George Warrington Taylor, business manager of Morris & Company from 1865 until his illness and death at the beginning of 1870, it was mainly due that the business became organized and prosperous. Mr. Taylor was a Catholic, of good family, who had been educated at Eton and was afterwards for some time in the Army; but he had been unfortunate in his affairs and was then almost penniless. He was full of enthusiasms in art, more especially in music; he was an ardent admirer of Wagner, whose name then was little known in England, and was also an enthusiastic follower of Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelites in painting. He had introduced himself to Morris at Red House, and common tastes, to which Taylor added really great knowledge, confirmed the acquaintance. In 1865 he was earning a scanty livelihood as a check-taker at the Opera House in the Haymarket, and gladly accepted a post under the firm. He was a man of great ability and sweetness of character, incapable of taking care of his own affairs, but shrewd and careful in his management of other people's business. The intermittent supervision which was all that Faulkner had been able to give to the accounts of the firm since the Easter of 1864 was now replaced by the continuous care of a man who was not only a master of figures, but an expert in business methods. Morris was able to give to designing and manual work the greater part of the time that had been occupied before by employment less congenial to him. But no part of the business came amiss to him. There is a record of visits made to Queen Square in its first days by purchasers who had accidently seen some of his wall-papers; one in 1865, when Morris himself, in a dark blue linen blouse, showed the patterns and made out the bill, and a second in the following year, when he was found at work on the design for the Pomegranate paper. In 1867 the firm obtained what was their first really important commission in non- ecclesiastical decorative work, the decoration of the Green Dining Room at the South Kensington Museum. This piece of work, seen as it is yearly by many thousands of persons, was of great value at the time in making known the name of the firm and the specific character of their work. It remains intact now. The original cost was heavy, and the heads of the Department had some scruples about passing the estimate. But their decision was, even on grounds of economy, fully justified. The excellence of the work, apart from its singular decorative merit, has more than repaid its cost. In the long run it has proved (so I am allowed to state on the authority of the Directors of the Museum) the cheapest piece of work in the buildings; for, except that the ceiling had to be repainted where it was blackened by the smoke from the gaslights, the work has never required any repair in any portion.
While the business thus went on increasing, his leisure also grew on his hands. The saving of time caused by his return to London was, of course, immense. From three to four hours were added to his working day; in spite of all depressions caused by his loss of the country, and by the crowded squalor of the district immediately adjoining this end of Bloomsbury, he felt "as if he could kiss the London pavement" when he got quit of the daily journey. It was in this increased leisure that he resumed, in new forms, the writing of poetry.
The instinct for story-telling, in its simpler forms an almost universal faculty, in its full meaning one of the rarest and most valuable of literary qualities, was strong in Morris from the first. It appears in the schoolboy tales of romantic adventure for which he was noted at Marlborough, and in the prose romances of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine; but now he recognized that it was his special and unique gift, and that it might be combined with lyrical qualities into a form of poetry where he could put out all his strength. Strangely enough, English poetry, so rich in nearly every form, has seldom reached its highest perfection in this one. After Chaucer, its first and greatest master, narrative poetry remained, with the great exceptions of Dryden and Keats, mostly in the hands of poets of the second rank. The rhetorical and dramatic turn of the Elizabethans stood in the way of their telling a story simply and lucidly. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were entangled in the traditions of a conventional epic. Of more modern poets, Shelley (who "had no eyes," Morris used to say) always flounders in narration; Byron, with all his admirable directness and vividness in detached passages, has not the art of carrying on a continuous story; and Scott, whose narrative instinct, whether in prose or verse, is unsurpassed, did not claim to be a master in the distinguishing qualities of poetry, and cheerfully abandoned verse for prose. It was to Chaucer, therefore, that, even apart from his delight in and kinship with the age of Chaucer, Morris might naturally turn for his model: and the plan of a cycle of romantic stories connected by some common purpose or occasion was directly suggested by the Canterbury Tales.
Some such design had already been talked over at Red House, but no beginning was made till after the removal to London. For the stories, all sources, classical and romantic alike, were to be drawn from; the world's stock of stories, in fact, which was still much the same as it had been in Chaucer's time, was to be reviewed and selected from anew The earliest poems written were from the mythology and heroic legends of Greece: and to these were gradually added others from Eastern, Western, and Northern sources. The next idea which occurred was to make half of the stories be taken from the Greek, and half from non-Greek, or what might be broadly described as romantic literature. To create a possible or plausible common setting for both groups, he fell back on his favourite fancy of a continued thread of living Greek tradition coming down almost to the end of the Middle Ages among Greek-speaking people, and overlapping the full development of romanticism in Western Europe. It was but a fancy, yet one which had real analogies in history. The Greek epic, it is true, ends in the fifth century; but Greek poetry went on being written certainly till the eleventh; and the collection of minor poetry known as the Anthology owes its final form to a Byzantine scholar who was ambassador to Venice at the time of Edward III.'s accession to the crown of England, and was probably still alive when Chaucer was born. Byzantine Greeks of the fourteenth century inherited a continuous literary tradition regarding the incidents and characters of the ancient Greek epic, which can be traced upwards to compilers of the second and third centuries, and again through these to mythographers who may have been the contemporaries of Herodotus. Given, then, this living tradition of early Greece, inherited by some outlying fragment of the Greek speech and blood such as actually existed for some hundreds of years in Central Asia, for some hundreds more in Southern Russia, and might conceivably have existed in some remote ocean fastness much longer: given a sufficient reason for the inheritors of this tradition being joined, in their forgotten island, by a group of mixed Western blood, Germanic, Norse, and Celtic, bearing with them the mass of stories current in their own time throughout Western Europe; and a setting is provided in which may be rationally included any story in the world. Make this reason a combination of the Norse explorations of the Atlantic and the earliest discoveries of America with the flight out of a land stricken with the Black Death, and there results the whole idea and structure of "The Earthly Paradise."
It is worth while calling attention to this simple yet elaborate artifice of structure on more than one ground; partly because of the care with which Morris worked it out in detail, as a piece, one might say, of architectural construction; partly because, unless it be kept in mind, much of the meaning of "The Earthly Paradise," and of the special fitness of the stories in it as regards both substance and manner, is of necessity lost. It is, for instance, one of the commonest criticisms made on the Greek stories in "The Earthly Paradise," that the atmosphere and treatment are not Greek but mediæval; that the feelings, incidents, and decoration are neither those of classical poetry, nor yet of the stories of ancient Greece as interpreted and modernized by the taste of the present day. This is precisely true, and precisely what Morris meant. Ancient Greek poetry he admired for its own qualities, and appreciated more than is generally known—a criticism which he once made on Pindar showed insight much greater than that of the average classical scholar—but its way was not his way; and still less his way was the sort of modernization, beautiful and touching as that is, which other poets of this age have applied to the Greek legends—the method of Tennyson in "Oenone" or "Tiresias," the method of Matthew Arnold in "Empedocles," the method of Mr. Swinburne in "Atalanta in Calydon." To Morris the mediæval method—using the term to cover the whole period of four or five centuries from the age of the chansons de geste and the Icelandic epic to the close of the Middle Ages in Chaucer—was beyond all question or comparison the best; was so much the best that it was practically the only one. To adopt this method, however naturally it came to him, without warning, and, as it were, in the air, would put a needless strain on the intelligence of his public. It was prepared for, nay more, it was rendered both natural and appropriate, by this device of laying the scene of the stories themselves at the end of the fourteenth century, and telling them as they would have been told then: as they were in fact told then in Western Europe, but with the greater sweetness of tone and purity of line, the less mystic or fantastic turn, which might be expected from a purely Greek tradition; and with something also of that stately Greek melancholy which seems inherent in the Hellenic blood, and clings, the shadow of its brightness, to the whole of ancient Greek poetry from Homer to Theocritus.
Nor was this the only advantage gained by placing the scene of the poems in the age of Chaucer. Any earlier time would have cut him off from some of the great tales of the world; from that, for instance, of "The Hill of Venus," which is of late mediæval origin, and cannot be traced further back than the fourteenth century: and any later time would have made the Chaucerian manner inappropriate and unhistorical. The next step that poetry took in Europe, after the close of the Middle Ages, was to entangle itself in rhetoric on the one hand, in classicalism on the other; and classicalism and rhetoric, admirable as are some of the results they have produced, were just the two things that Morris could not bear. In the scheme of "The Earthly Paradise" as it stands, the two corner stones are the Greek and the northern epic cycles, the two greatest bodies of imaginative narration which the world has produced. The stories which he chose out of both are told by Greeks and by Norsemen of the later Middle Ages, in the form in which they would then have been imagined and in the manner which, to his mind, was the best of all manners. But alongside of these great fountainheads were other sources, European and Oriental; and for these also, subject to the same conditions, a place is found by simple and probable devices. Among the adventurers who had started on the search for eternal youth are Laurence the Swabian, who knows the mediæval chronicles, and Nicholas the Breton, who is familiar with the French epics. Rolf himself, the Norseman who heads the expedition, had spent his youth at Byzantium, where his father was an officer of the Varangian Guard, and in that meeting-place of East and West has heard the stories which became familiar to Europe later through the Arabian Nights. The field of story thus laid open was in fact almost too large, was at all events too large to be fully utilized. Oriental sources were but little drawn upon. The Persian heroic cycle, which Morris placed next in interest after the epics of Greece and Scandinavia, is left wholly untouched; and a single story, that of "The Man who never Laughed again," was taken with much hesitation from the Arabic. Even in dealing with purely European sources much was set aside, including the whole immense mass of the Arthurian cycle. The Breton who sails in search of the Earthly Paradise dies on the voyage; and the story of "Ogier the Dane," coming from him at second hand, is the only one in the whole work which is derived from Celtic sources. The mythology of Ireland (with which Morris was less in sympathy) never appears at all.
This architectural design of a great body of poetry, an immense variety of subject brought by certain dominating conceptions within a single method and common scope, grew up gradually in his mind: but meanwhile the poems themselves were being produced with extraordinary speed. Among the earliest written were three from Greek sources, which had strangely different fortunes, but were alike in this, that none of them finally appeared in "The Earthly Paradise."
The subjects were Orpheus and Eurydice, the Quest of the Golden Fleece, and the life of the half mythical Dorian chief, Aristomenes of Messene. These were written in 1866. For the first, which was completed, but still remains unpublished, Burne-Jones made an elaborate series of designs. The "Aristomenes" was never finished. Morris had been attracted to the story by the obviously and indeed startlingly romantic features which it bears as briefly told by Pausanias. Greece proper had had its own period of an early romanticism. For the most part it was crushed out, partly by the literary supremacy of Athens, and partly by the contempt for literature of all kinds which was natural to Greeks of the pure Dorian blood: and this is one of a few instances in which it has survived through, and reappeared after, the classical period. But in spite of this, and of the further pleasure that it gave him to think of the Spartans being outfought and outwitted, the story was too unsubstantial for history, and at the same time too historical to allow free play for invention. He felt that it did not accommodate itself to vaguely romantic treatment, and that to deal with it properly he should first have to visit Greece. It was dropped at the time; was afterwards taken up again more than once some eight or ten years later, but was finally abandoned. The only part of it which has ever been printed is a fragment of about a hundred and fifty lines which he published, or allowed to be published, in the Athenæum for the 13th of May, 1876.
The fortunes of the Quest of the Golden Fleece were very different. The story, in itself one of the richest and most splendid out of the whole Greek mythology, and capable of almost indefinite expansion in detail, grew on his hands till it became obvious that it had outgrown its destined place. Its length, which is between that of the Æneid and the Odyssey, reached the scale of the regular epic. It was separately published in June, 1867, under the title of "The Life and Death of Jason."
The success of "Jason" was immediate and great. In those years Tennyson reigned almost without a rival; but people had grown weary of his imitators, and his own inspiration no longer, in the opinion of many admirers, kept pace with the elaborate beauty of his execution. It was time for new poetry. The appearance, two years before, of "Atalanta in Calydon" had roused a tempest of excitement and applause. It was felt that a new generation had arisen. This new poem of "The Life and Death of Jason," in which the refinement and charm of mature art were combined with the reawakened sense of romanticism, with extraordinary fertility of movement and incident, end with a largeness, straightforwardness, and to interest critics without rousing their ridicule. When the Pall Mall Gazette, then the great arbiter of cultured opinion, could find little in "Jason" to condemn beyond an "indifference to manners" shown in the passage where "Medea obtains her first interview with Jason by knocking unexpectedly at his chamber door" (instead, we must infer, of sending him a note by the footman), its fortunes with the critics were secured. Morris's name began to be mentioned with respect. People were even Jed to assume a knowledge of his earlier work of which they were wholly innocent. "No one," observed one of the leading daily newspapers in a eulogistic notice of "The Life and Death of Jason," "acquainted with Mr. Morris's previous volume will be surprised to find that he has again chosen a classical subject." No testimony could be more eloquent than this to the feebleness of the impression made on the public by "The Defence of Guenevere." It may be true that, as another review of "Jason" states, the earlier volume had gradually gained for itself an increasing audience; but that audience even now might be counted by scores or dozens, and the first edition was still not nearly exhausted. With "The Life and Death of Jason" Morris reached real popularity. A second edition (in which numerous corrections were made) was called for almost immediately; and thereafter a steady sale led to successive reprints. The poem received a final revision from the author in the eighth edition, published fifteen years after its original appearance.that were all its own, found an audience ready for it. It had just enough of archaism or mannerism
Indifferent as Morris habitually was to criticism, the reception which "The Life and Death of Jason" met with was a source of no little encouragement and pleasure, as that of "The Defence of Guenevere" had undoubtedly been chilling, and had even joined with other reasons to make him for a time lay aside poetry. The fortunes of the "Jason" were an index to the public reception of the longer work, with which he had already made large progress, and in the course of which, as in the course of all long labours, there were periods when he grew discouraged.
"Naturally I am in good spirits after the puffs," he writes on the 20th of June, "but I reserve any huge delight till I see what the 'Pall Mall' and 'Saturday' say, one of which is pretty sure to act Advocatus Diaboli. However I fancy I shall do pretty well now; last week I had made up my mind that I shouldn't be able to publish 'The Earthly Paradise' and was very low: I am as anxious as you are to get on with that work, and am going to set to work hard now. I hope you won't let any rubbish pass without collaring it. I am too old now for that kind of game."
The seriousness of mind which had been so remarkable in him from the first comes out here again. No great artist was ever less self-conscious about his own work, more absolutely free from either vanity or fatuity. But it was matter of simple duty with him, in a poem as in a design for decoration, to do everything he did as wall as he could. It was not with him a matter of inspiration—he never used either the word or the idea — but of sheer honesty and seriousness of workmanship. "That's jolly!" he would say of a piece of his own work, with the same simplicity as if it were anything else that he admired: yet on the other hand he never spoke, or apparently thought, of poetry as involving more than the craftsman's qualities: singleness of eye, trained aptitude of hand, and such integrity of mind as would not consciously produce "rubbish," or slip it in unnoticed among really honest work.
"That talk of inspiration is sheer nonsense, I may tell you that flat," he once said in later years when poetry, not his own, was being discussed: "there is no such thing: it is a mere matter of craftsmanship."
The idea that poetry could, or should, be cultivated as an isolated and specific artistic product, or that towards its production it was desirable to isolate one's self from common interests and occupations, and stand a little apart from all the turmoils or trivialities of common life, was one which he found not so much untrue as unintelligible. "If a chap can't compose an epic poem while he's weaving tapestry," he once said, "he had better shut up, he'll never do any good at all."
In the fresh satisfaction of seeing "The Life and Death of Jason" in print, and finding that it had given him a recognized position among the English poets, he resumed work on "The Earthly Paradise" with renewed heart, and the speed and sustained excellence of his production for the rest of the year were even for him phenomenal. The verse flowed off his pen. Seven hundred lines were once composed in a single day. During part of the Long Vacation Mr. and Mrs. Burne-Jones and their children were living at Oxford, where Faulkner stayed up and had his mother and sister with him. The Morrises were also there, in lodgings in Beaumont Street, he going up to London now and then for the day to look after the business. Every evening he would read aloud what he had written that day. There were excursions on the river in golden summer weather, long remembered as the happiest in more lives than one. Two of them are recorded in the lovely introductory verses to June and August in "The Earthly Paradise." The first of these recalls a day on the lonely and beautiful upper river, where issuing from the sad marshland, it takes the steel-blue Windrush by the Gothic arches of New Bridge, passes all in loops and links to Eynsham, and curves round the Wytham hills through the meadows of the Evenlode. His later home by these upper waters was then unknown ; it was with a strange premonition of it that he wrote now—
What better place than this then could we find
By this sweet stream that knows not of the sea,
That guesses not the city's misery,
This little stream whose hamlets scarce have names,
This far-off, lonely mother of the Thames?
The other excursion was down the river to Dorchester, on a day of burning splendour in late August. The long Abbey Church, the weir by Day's Lock, and the huge prehistoric fortifications on Sinodun Hill and across the meadow-land girt by the arc of the river, are there now unchanged, though havoc has been made among the willow beds, and the kingfisher is seldom seen by the weir.
Across the gap made by our English hinds,
Amidst the Roman's handiwork, behold
Far off the long-roofed church; the shepherd binds
The withy round the hurdles of his fold,
Down in the foss the river fed of old,
That through long lapse of time has grown to be
The little grassy valley that you see.
Rest here awhile, not yet the eve is still,
The bees are wandering yet, and you may hear
The barley mowers on the trenched hill,
The sheep-bells, and the restless changing weir,
All little sounds made musical and clear
Beneath the sky that burning August gives,
While yet the thought of glorious summer lives.
Even when Morris had to go up to his business at Queen Square he always returned with sheet on sheet of fresh manuscript : and it was for this river party that he brought down with him, and read aloud by the riverside, "The Story of the Wanderers," the prologue of "The Earthly Paradise" In its second or published form. There could be no more striking instance of his seriousness of workmanship, and his determination not to "let any rubbish pass," than his resolution to rewrite this story wholly and its completely successful result. The earlier and unpublished version is still extant. It had been composed nearly two years before, and still laboured under the defects of his earlier poetry; unevenness in transitions, a lumbering structure, awkward and often needlessly violent rhythm and diction. What pains Morris took to form a style, as people would say—to get his work right, as he would himself have rather termed it—can be judged from comparison of the two: this crude and laboured poem, and the later version with its quiet refinement, its grace of diction, the melodious music of its verse.
Summer ended; and still the flow of rhyme continued as powerful and as sweet. By the spring of 1868 at least seventeen of the twenty-four tales which were proposed for the complete design had been written: The Son of Crœsus, Cupid and Psyche, Pygmalion and the Image, The Man Born to be King, Atalanta's Race, The Story of Perseus, The Watching of the Falcon, The Lady of the Land, The Writing on the Image, The Proud King, The Love of Alcestis, Ogier the Dane, The King's Treasure House, Orpheus and Eurydice, The Fortunes of Gyges, The Dolphins and the Lovers, and The Story of St. Dorothea. The method of publication had been much discussed. The first idea was to produce the complete work in one folio volume, with woodcuts from designs by Burne-Jones. Of these there were to be no less than five hundred. The greatest achievements of the Kelmscott Press were more than anticipated in this project; but it was a generation too soon. The art of producing books had sunk to a deplorable condition, and it became evident that the proposed work was impossible without the organized labour of years. The poet and the designer were prepared with their part; but the type-founder, the compositor, the printer, the wood-engraver, had all to be educated. Upwards of a hundred designs for pictures, including a complete set for the story of Cupid and Psyche, were made by Burne-Jones; and many of them were cut by Morris himself and the professional or amateur workers for the firm, who were still employed, with the old simple audacity, to do their best without any regular training. Morris himself worked hard at wood-cutting, and, according to the opinion of experts, improved rapidly, and at last did it very well. One of these woodcuts, representing the scene of Psyche borne off by Zephyrus, has recently been published as a frontispiece to Mr. S.C. Cockerell's history of the Kelmscott Press. As to the wood-cutting, Mr. George Wardle writes to me:
"Mr. Morris asked me soon after this to put on wood some drawings Burne-Jones was then making for illustration of the Cupid and Psyche. I was very glad to do so; and here began an experience often repeated when I came to know more of the ways of the firm. It was practically impossible to get the drawings properly cut. Perhaps if Mr. Morris could have given the price which a first-rate cutter would have charged for doing the work with his own hand, they might have come out as they were drawn, but in the ordinary course of the trade it was impossible: I think also that same 'course' would have prevented the arrangement, had there been no other difficulty.
"Mr. Morris asked me then it I would try to cut these blocks. This I did, and after a few experiments, he was well enough pleased to give me one and then another; but after that I got no more, and wondered for a while why, as I thought the second was certainly better than the first. The reason was, Mr. Morris became possessed by the idea of cutting the blocks himself: and he took them all in hand and carried them through, not without some lively scenes in Queen Square. He cut with great ardour and with much knowledge, but the work did not always go to his mind. It was necessarily slow and he was constitutionally quick: there were then quarrels between them."
But when two trial sheets of the folio "Earthly Paradise" were set up at the Chiswick Press, the effect was very discouraging. The page, while not without a certain quality of distinction, suffers from technical defects, in both typography and woodcuts, which are all the more emphasized by the high mark aimed at. Two etchings made by Burne-Jones for the story of "The Ring given to Venus" were not considered more satisfactory in their result as decoration for a page. Gradually, with labour and patience, these difficulties might have been remedied; but only at immense cost and after years of delay. The scheme was therefore laid aside, though not abandoned.
"The Earthly Paradise" appeared in the ordinary form: but the great edition of it was on the verge of being realized at the author's death. "To the very last," Sir Edward Burne-Jones writes, "we held to our first idea, and hoped yet to see the book published in the Kelmscott Press in all the fulness of its first design."
Notwithstanding the high pressure of his poetry, the records of the firm show that his work as a decorator was pursued with unremitting diligence. The following letter is addressed to Mr. Guy with reference to the projected decoration of the Chapel in the Forest School at Walthamstow.
"26, Queen Square,
"Nov. 25th, 1867.
"My dear Guy,
'The plan I think perfectly applicable to mosaic, but of course the designs want making out — avoid anything spiky in mosaic, it is too easy, and looks so. I don't think it is worth while using the material unless the work is very elaborate; and there ought to be a great deal of gold in it; the part between the bands ought also to be at least of marble or alabaster. I don't want to discourage any reasonable plan, but I should think panelling the proper thing for your east end, picked out with colour and gold if you please; the next best I should think would be hangings. I scarcely fancy mosaics on such a small scale, and they are the proper decorations of curved surfaces, domes, and are the concomitants of a roundarched style and great magnificence of decoration in general. But on the whole panelling is the thing; couldn't your friend paint some figures and things on the panels? Anyhow, I will help if you wish it, with the designs, whatever you settle on.
"I have to thank you very much for your friendliness with reference to Jason—it makes me laugh to be in the position of nuisance to schoolboys.
"Yours very truly,
This same November Burne-Jones had left Kensington for the house in which he lived for the rest of his life, The Grange, in North End Lane, Fulham, then a pleasant quiet place with great elms in the road and surrounded by fields and market-gardens. "As this removed us further from him," he writes, "I wrote and proposed that he and Webb should come every Sunday to bind us together. A letter he wrote in answer was more full of warm response than he often permitted himself. This was the beginning of our Sundays. There were times of discontinuance, at first, for one reason or another. But for all the later years it was his weekly custom that he should come to breakfast and spend the morning: then we planned our work and talked of our schemes; and so it continued till the end. The last three Sundays of his life I went to him."
At the beginning of 1868, the plan of a single-volume "Earthly Paradise" in a costly form having been given up, arrangements were made for printing the first half of the work and issuing it separately. It was then meant that the whole work should be in two volumes. But the second half turned out to be so much longer than the first that it had to be broken up and separately issued in two portions, as Part III. and Part IV.: the volume of 1868 comprising Parts I. and II. The reissue in four volumes, each containing one of the four seasons, was only made some years later. The agreement for publication, which is dated the 6th of February, 1868, specifies the whole work as extending to about 34,000 lines. It actually exceeded 42,000.
"To-day," writes Morris on the 3rd of February, "I took first piece of copy to printer. Yesterday I wrote 33 stanzas of Pygmalion. If you want my company (usually considered of no use to anybody but the owner) please say so. I believe I shall get on so fast with my work that I shall be able to idle." The book went through the press without delay, and was published at the end of April. The only decoration was the well-known woodcut on the title-page of the three women playing on instruments. It was cut by Morris himself from Burne-Jones's drawing; it does not, however, represent the best of what he could do in wood-cutting.
"The Earthly Paradise" was published by Mr. F.S. Ellis, whose recent acquaintance with Morris had already become a warm friendship. Their relations as author and publisher were ended in 1885 by Mr. Ellis's retirement from business, but they remained attached friends through the rest of Morris's life; Mr. Ellis was much with him in his last illness and was one of his executors. The acquaintance had begun about the year 1864. Mr. Ellis was then in business in King Street, Covent Garden, principally as a dealer in manuscripts and rare printed books. Morris was first brought there by Swinburne, and afterwards often looked in on his way from Red Lion Square to London Bridge Station when he was going down to Upton in the evening. When he came to live in London his visits grew more frequent and less hurried. His knowledge of and admiration for fifteenth-century printing, generally thought of as a new development of his later years, was then already fully grown.
"The first dealing of any importance," Mr. Ellis writes, "that we had, was over a very fine copy of the 1473 Ulm edition of Boccaccio's 'De Claris Mulieribus' with the famous woodcuts. I had bought it at a sale in Paris for £23—considered in those days to be quite an extravagant price." (The volume would now fetch at least three times as much.) "It was a very fine clean crisp copy bound in sixteenth-century vellum stained yellow. This took his fancy hugely but, the price which I asked, ₤26 or thereabouts, was a matter for consideration, and he asked me to keep the book till he could bring a friend to advise with him. In a day or two he called in company with his friend, a pale and fragile-looking young man. This was Burne-Jones. 'Buy the book by all means,' was the advice of the counsellor; 'how much better worth it is than any number of books of less value.' Years afterwards this volume was sacrificed at the altar of Socialism, and passed into the hands of a wealthy collector, who stripped off its yellow cover and put it into a gorgeous modern binding."
When the first edition of "Jason" was published in 1867, Morris gave a copy to Ellis, remarking that it was hard luck to have to publish a poem at one's own expense. Bell and Daldy, the publishers of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine and of "The Defence of Guenevere," had brought "Jason" out, and in view of their experiences with the earlier volume it was not surprising that they should decline to undertake any risk. But when the first edition was exhausted, as it was within a few months, Mr. Ellis had become his adviser, and the publishers paid a substantial sum for the right to print a second. After this second edition, "Jason" was transferred to Ellis, who had already entered into an agreement to publish "The Earthly Paradise." It may be added, that the sale of the first volume of "The Earthly Paradise" proved so satisfactory that this first agreement was cancelled, and replaced by another which gave to the author a larger share in the profits.
"How much," Mr. Ellis writes to me, "I owe of the bright side of life to him I cannot reckon. He was the very soul of honour, truthfulness, and justice. Not only would he never deviate from the truth, but in thinking carefully over the matter I do not remember him ever to have made plausible excuses for doing or not doing a thing—he would always say straightforwardly exactly what he meant." The relation of author and publisher, so often one of jealousy and discontent, was in this case without a shadow. Mr. Ellis is even willing to generalize from his own experience: "any publisher," he adds, "unless he be dishonest, can get on with an author, whose books sell, with perfect ease. Difficulties and heartburnings usually arise with authors whose books will not sell."
Publishers, as a body, have a bad name with the general vague opinion of the public. That this is so, seems mainly due to a fault for which they are indeed responsible, but responsible only in the second degree—their readiness, for the sake of small but secure gains, to abet incompetent authors in forcing essentially unsaleable books upon the market.
At the end of the first volume of "The Earthly Paradise" was an announcement of the contents of the second, or concluding, volume. The twelve new tales there promised were as follows: six from Greek sources; The Story of Theseus, Orpheus and Eurydice, The Story of Rhodope, The Dolphins and the Lovers, The Fortunes of Gyges, and The Story of Bellerophon: other six from mediæval sources, Eastern or Western; The Hill of Venus, The Man who never Laughed again, The Palace East of the Sun, Dorothea, The Ring given to Venus, and Amis and Amillion. But after the publication of the first volume the scheme underwent large changes, partly from his replacing a number of the stories already written or planned by others, and partly from the introduction into his life, where it soon took a place second to no other interest, of the heroic literature of Iceland. The first-fruits of this new field appeared in the next portion of "The Earthly Paradise" published. Of the six stories it contained, only three belonged to the original scheme: The Story of Rhodope; The Palace East of the Sun, with its title altered to "The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon"; and the single story drawn from Oriental sources, The Man who never Laughed again. To fill the remaining three places, two short Greek stories, "Acontius and Cydippe," and "The Death of Paris," were brought up from his reserve stores, and replaced the long and elaborate tales of Orpheus and Theseus, for which there was not room; and ending the volume, on a scale more than double that of any of the tales hitherto printed, came the noble version of the Laxdaela Saga, entitled "The Lovers of Gudrun."
In the eighteen months which passed between the appearance of this and of the earlier volume a silent revolution had been effected in the poet. It was not at once realized, even by himself. Yet here and there a critic observed that the Chaucerian manner which had been so unqualified in "Jason" and so powerful in the earlier stories of "The Earthly Paradise" was wearing off, and a new manner replacing it. Some deepening of the poetry they felt there was. What it really meant was a development of capital importance, the transformation of romance into epic. There will be occasion to mark the further progress of this change in the final volume of "The Earthly Paradise" and in "Sigurd the Volsung." But "The Lovers of Gudrun," his first essay in epic poetry, is in its way as complete and as satisfying as any of his later achievements. Between this poem and the story of "The Man Born to be King," a perfect example of the pure romance, there is in truth no comparison possible. They cannot be weighed in the same scales.
Criticism may reasonably point out this distinction, than which none in literature is really more fundamental. But Morris himself, who was an artist and not a critic, never took pains to emphasize the difference of the two methods. What he cared for was the work done; and with all his intolerance for bad work, or work that he conceived to be bad, he had the largest catholicity of admiration for work that he conceived to be good; for the Chanson de Roland or the Roman de la Rose, for the Heimskringla or the Arabian Nights, for Beowulf, or Froissart, or the Shah Nameh. This catholicity, and this carelessness to distinguish among forms of art which from his central and unentangled outlook he perceived to be threaded from one centre though they might lie on widelysevered arcs, are alike well shown in a letter which he wrote many years later. A German student had written to him from Marburg asking whether it were true, as the text-books said, that Chaucer had been his model, and expressing his own doubt on the matter.
"I quite agree," Morris answered, "as to the resemblance of my work to Chaucer; it only comes of our both using the narrative method: and even then my turn is decidedly more to Romance than was Chaucer's. I admit that I have been a great admirer of Chaucer, and that his work has had, especially in early years, much influence on me; but I think not much on my style. In fact I cannot think that I ever consciously aimed at any particular style. I by nature turn to Romance rather than classicalism, and naturally, without effort, shrink from rhetoric. I may say that I am fairly steeped in mediævalism generally; but the Icelandic Sagas, our own Border Ballads, and Froissart (through Berners' translation of about 1520) have had as much influence over me as (or more than) anything else. I have translated a great deal from the Icelandic, a little from old French; and of late have translated Beowulf, for which I have a very great admiration."
It is obvious that the term "mediævalism" is used here in a very largely extended meaning. It includes Beowulf and the Elder Edda on the one hand, and Chaucer and the Border Ballads on the other. As regards Morris's special relation to Chaucer, nothing need be added to his own published utterances. They are three in number. One is the famous apostrophe to Chaucer in the seventeenth book of "The Life and Death of Jason":
———Would that I
Had but some portion of 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 labour, love them yet.
And thou, O Master! Yea, my Master still,
Whatever feet have scaled Parnassus' hill,
Since like thy measures, clear and sweet and strong,
Thames' stream scarce fettered drave the dace along
Unto the bastioned bridge, his only chain—
O Master, pardon me if yet in vain
Thou art my Master, and I fail to bring
Before men's eyes the image of the thing
My heart is filled with: thou whose dreamy eyes
Beheld the flush to Cressid's cheeks arise,
When Troilus rode up the praising street,
As clearly as they saw thy townsmen meet
Those who in vineyards of Poictou withstood
The glittering horror of the steel-topped wood.
The second is in the less known, but more intimately beautiful Envoi to "The Earthly Paradise":
That land's name, say'st thou? and the road thereto?
Nay, Book, thou mockest, saying thou know'st it not;
Surely no book of verse I ever knew
But ever was the heart within him hot
To gain the Land of Matters Unforgot—
There, now we both laugh—as the whole world may,
At us poor singers of an empty day.
Nay, let it pass, and hearken! Hast thou heard
That therein I believe I have a friend,
Of whom for love I may not be afeard?
It is to him indeed I bid thee wend;
Yea, he perchance may meet thee ere thou end,
Dying so far off from the hedge of bay,
Thou idle singer of an empty day!
Well, think of him, I bid thee, on the road,
And if it hap that midst of thy defeat,
Fainting beneath thy follies' heavy load,
My Master, Geoffry Chaucer, thou do meet,
Then shalt thou win a space of rest full sweet;
Then be thou bold, and speak the words I say,
The idle singer of an empty day!
"O Master, O thou great of heart and tongue,
Thou well mayst ask me why I wander here,
In raiment rent of stories oft besung!
But of thy gentleness draw thou anear,
And then the heart of one who held thee dear
Mayst thou behold! So near as that I lay
Unto the singer of an empty day.
"O Master, if thine heart could love us yet,
Spite of things left undone, and wrongly done,
Some place in loving hearts then should we get,
For thou, sweet-souled, didst never stand alone,
But knew'st the joy and woe of many an one—
By lovers dead, who live through thee, we pray,
Help thou us singers of an empty day!"
The last and the most emphatic of the three tributes of devotion paid by Morris to his master is the Kelmscott edition of Chaucer's works, the occupation and delight of his latest years, and the final masterpiece of his multiform production.
Soon after the publication of the first part of "The Earthly Paradise," Charles Cowden Clarke wrote to him a letter of warm and sympathetic praise. "Your intimacy with Chaucer especially," he said, "riveted me the moment I felt your appeal; and I am sure that you would not have had a more devoted admirer, and Brother in the faith of Love and Beauty, than in my beloved friend and schoolfellow, John Keats, whom I all but taught his letters." In his reply, Morris speaks of "Keats, for whom I have such boundless admiration, and whom I venture to call one of my masters."
It will be easily recognized that while the world which he elected to make his own was largely that of Chaucer, his poetical affinities were with Keats more than with any other poet.
The beginning of Morris's Icelandic studies can be definitely fixed in this year. It coincides with what might be called the final extinction of Rossetti's influence over him as an artist, and the gradual loosening which followed of the closer intimacy between them, though for several years more they still saw much of each other, and for three years, from 1871 to 1874, had a country house in common. The autumn holiday of 1868 was spent by the Morrises at Southwold—a memory of it is in the lovely introductory stanzas for October in "The Earthly Paradise"—and on his return to London he plunged into the study of Icelandic under the guidance of Mr. Magniisson. Till then he had known little of the subject at first hand; Dasent's "Burnt Njal" and "Gisli" were familiar to him, and of the other Sagas he had some general knowledge. Now he began their systematic study. The first Icelandic book he read with Magnússon was the Eyrbyggja Saga. Within a few months he had gone through the bulk of the heroic literature. In the introduction to the translation of the Grettis Saga, published in April, 1869, there is a brief critical analysis of the literature, showing that it had been essentially mastered. So early as January, 1869, Morris and Magnússon's translation of the Saga of Gunnlaug Worm-tongue had been published in the Fortnightly Review. And all the while the output of new poems for the remaining part of "The Earthly Paradise" was going on almost unchecked. "Bellerophon" was written in March: "Gudrun's Lovers," begun immediately after the publication of the "Grettis Saga," was finished by June. The treatment of the Bellerophon legend clearly shows the epic manner rising beside and partially overmastering the romantic.
In the autumn, Mrs. Morris's delicate health led to their spending nearly two months at Bad-Ems. From there he wrote to Ellis on the 11th of August:
"Many thanks for your kind letter which was very welcome. If you are not joking I hope indeed you will come to Ems; I think you might even fish there; at any rate I have seen with my own eyes Germans catching small bream in the Lahn, and as they never strike when they have a bite, it is probable that the fish are very hungry. We have had pike and perch to eat withal, so I suppose those monsters inhabit the Father muddy waters of the Lahn: just at Ems it is all widened out into a kind of pond with nearly no stream, but from Ems to Nassau, about six miles (English), there is no lock, and the water runs in rapids. I am sorry for your disappointment at Lechlade, but at all events it is a jolly place. The country about here is very beautiful, there is no doubt of that, and the place itself I shall consider bearable if it does my wife any good, as I hope it will. I have been pretty hard at work, have finished one tale, and begun another since I left, so the book goes on."
"Many thanks for your letter again," he writes a week later, "and the Temple Bar, which did not excoriate my thin hide in spite of a tender contempt with which Mr. Austin seemed to regard me. Commercially I suppose I ought to be grateful to him and am so; from the critical point of view I think there is so much truth as this in his article, as that we poets of to-day have been a good deal made by those of the Byron and Shelley time—however, in another sixty years or so, when it won't matter three skips of a louse to us (as it don't matter much more now), I suppose we shall quietly fall into our places. I get about three hours' walk (with a pocket-book, Mr. Publisher) every morning, and am in roaring and offensive health, keeping country hours, woke by the band (with a hymn-tune) at seven every morning and going to bed at ten every night. I shall want about a fortnight after I come home before I begin to feed the free burgher of Berwick-upon-Tweed with my immortal MS., and after that I hope there will be no hitch. Believe me, the longest and heaviest of sticks is buzzing about my ears, as you would find out if you had passed a week at this skin-'em-alive place; I'm not quite sure now if I shan't have to be sold to the Prussian government to sweep up horse-dung in Ems streets (they are very particular about it)—my God, what a bad bargain I should be!
"I have not got any good wine at Ems, and perhaps they don't charge for such as they sell you! but the Grunhauser at Cologne and Coblentz was jolly that hot weather. Did you ever speculate as to what they fed German sheep on? deep thought at breakfast time has led me to suppose india-rubber to be their pabulum—this is not very encouraging to your journey to Ems, but you see my wife is not strong enough to get to the restaurants here; I daresay we could get a tolerable dinner there.
"Fishing I have not tried yet; I am too lazy to look up proper baits. The inside of a roll would be about as far as I should care to go. They don't seem to understand gentles at Ems; nor have I seen anybody trying either worms or minnow, though there must be perch here somewhere; I have seen some big chubs about."
The Ems landscape a little later in his stay is described by him in the introductory lines to "The Death of Paris" in "The Earthly Paradise":
The level ground along the river-side
Was merry through the day with sounds of those
Who gathered apples; o'er the stream arose
The northward-looking slopes where the swine ranged
Over the fields that hook and scythe had changed
Since the last month; but 'twixt the tree boles grey
Above them did they see the terraced way,
And over that the vine-stocks, row on row,
Whose dusty leaves, well thinned and yellowing now,
But little hid the bright-bloomed vine-bunches.
During this visit Rossetti made a facetious drawing of Morris reading aloud to his wife, entitling it "The Ms at Ems": the drawing and the title both gave great satisfaction to the circle.
After his return in September, Part III. of "The Earthly Paradise" began to go to press, and was published in December. By that time the whole cycle was practically complete, and for Part IV., though it was not issued till a year later, little remained to be done beyond revision and selection of poems already written. As it finally appeared, that volume contained the "Bellerophon," written early in 1869, and now divided on the ground of its great length into two parts, "Bellerophon in Argos" and "Bellerophon in Lycia"; "The Golden Apples," a brief and rather vague rendering of the story of the eleventh labour of Hercules: two mediæval subjects of the earlier semimystical manner, "The Ring given to Venus" and "The Hill of Venus": and another northern poem, "The Fostering of Aslaug," in which the old and new manners are combined with exceptional skill and unique fascination.
Thus "The Earthly Paradise" stood complete. It may not be inappropriate to add a brief account of the sources from which the stories are derived. For the Greek stories little use was made by Morris of recondite authors; and indeed the whole body of GraecoRoman mythology has long been so fully explored, and so systematically set forth in dictionaries, that it is accessible to all the world alike. The only one of the twelve tales which is not generally familiar is "The Story of Rhodope." It is founded on a romantic story related by Strabo and Ælian of the beautiful Thracian slave, Rhodôpis of Naucratis, who received imperishable fame from the sisterly jealousy of Sappho, and who became strangely identified in legend with Queen Netaqerti of Egypt, the traditional builder of the Third Pyramid nearly three thousand years before. Morris turned the name Rhodopis into Rhodope by pure inadvertence, and was a good deal vexed when he found out the mistake. But the poem was then published, and there was no help for it.
For the non-classical stories the originals are at once more various and less matter of common knowledge. "The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon" was suggested to Morris by Thorpe's "Yuletide Stories," a book already mentioned as having been one of his particular favourites at Oxford. It occurs there under the title of "The Beautiful Palace East of the Sun," with references given to original sources (principally the Volunda Saga), and to variant versions. The latter part of the story in "The Earthly Paradise," however, diverges entirely from the story in Thorpe, and is founded partly on a French romance and partly on the Arabian Nights; and the remarkable framework of the story, an involution of dream within dream through shadowy transmigrations of personality, is wholly the poet's own. The two stories of "The Lady of the Land" and "The Watching of the Falcon" are both from Mandeville's "Voiage and Travell," chapters iv. and xiii. The name of the former story Morris took without change; the latter comes in Mandeville under the title of "The Castle of the Sperhauk." "The Proud King" is from the "Gesta Romanorum," c. 57 of the French, and c. 23 of the English version: and "The Man Born to be King" mainly from the same (c. 20 of the French, and c. 48 of the English), supplemented from the more elaborate version of the same story in the thirteenthcentury French romance of the Emperor Coustans (Nouvelles Francoises en prose du XII Ime Siecle, 1856), and with some further details from the story of St. Pelagius in Caxton's "Golden Legend." The edition of the French version of the "Gesta" used by Morris was Brunet's of 1858, and that of the English Madden's of 1838. The stories of "The Writing on the Image" and "The Ring given to Venus" are both from William of Malmesbury, in the second book of the "De Gestis Regum Anglorum": the former is there related of the celebrated scholar, theologian, and mathematician, Gerbert of Aurillac. afterwards Pope Silvester II., known to the mediaeval imagination as a great magician like Michael Scott. The story of "Ogier the Dane" follows pretty closely the fourteenthcentury French romance of "Ogier le Danois." "The Hill of Venus" was suggested by the version of this very widely diffused legend given in Tieck's "Romances." The story of "The Man who never Laughed again" is substantially that of the fifth Wezeer in the story of "The King and his Son and the Damsel and the Seven Wezeers," as given in the twenty-first chapter of Lane's Arabian Nights. "The Fostering of Aslaug" follows closely the story as epitomized from the older sources in Thorpe's "Northern Mythology." "The Lovers of Gudrun" was taken directly from the original Icelandic of the Laxdaela Saga.
It must be understood that the stories as they reshaped themselves in Morris's mind often became quite different from the form in which they are given in the older sources, and that, except in the case of the great legends where no material change is possible, he gave his imagination free play in re-shaping and combining them. It might happen that, as in the stories of Aslaug and of Cupid and Psyche, the traditional form and detail of the story was quite satisfying to him; in these the original sources are followed with great fidelity. But in telling the story of "The Writing on the Image," he makes the magician shut up in the death-trap from which he escapes in the mediæval story; and in "The Land East of the Sun" the story takes an entirely new course after the first waking, and goes wandering through new and strange realms. This last poem represents the culmination of the romantic-mediæval method in the strongest antithesis to the epic treatment of a given story. The mediæval mysticism in matters of religion is a familiar and accepted fact. Yet the modern divorce between religion and life is so profound that this religious mysticism is oddly regarded as something apart and by itself, not as the application by men to religion of their ordinary way of thinking about anything which moved them at all deeply. "Mr. Morris," said a brilliant critic of this very story, "dreams of certain old mariners of Norway who dream of Gregory, who dreams of some one else, whom he also dreams to be himself: and this two-faced Janus of a dreamer dreams of another dreamer still, who lives on the edge of two worlds, and like the old monk who sat before the Cenacolo, can hardly discriminate between the shadow and the substance." This description is admirably exact; and the attitude of mind so described is the essence of that romantic mysticism from which Morris was recalled by the great imperious voice of the Icelandic epic, yet to which he kept perpetually reverting. It reappears in unqualified dominance in the prose romances of his latest years. In this larger view the influence on him of the epic, were it the Odyssey or the Æneid, the Laxdaela Saga or the Volsunga Saga, was in its nature a perturbing influence, that drew him for a time out of the obit into which finally he swung back.
Besides the abandoned "Aristomenes," several other stories were written for "The Earthly Paradise" which remain unpublished. Three at least of these are complete: two of them, "Orpheus and Eurydice" and "St. Dorothea," belonging to the plan of contents at first drawn out. The third, "The Wooing of Swanhild," though written on the whole in the earlier or romantic manner, may be inferred from its subject, which is one taken from the last chapters of the Volsunga Saga, to belong to the later period of distinct Icelandic influence. A number of others were destroyed by their author. Of "The Fortunes of Gyges" only two pages have been preserved by some accident. The tales of "The King's Treasure House" (the famous Herodotean story of Rhampsinitus) and of "The Dolphins and the Lovers," a strangely romantic story given in bare outline by Plutarch in the work entitled "The Banquet of the Seven Sages," have wholly disappeared; nor can any trace be discovered of the poem founded on the beautiful thirteenth-century French romance of "Amis and Amile." It is a rather curious fact that Morris was dissatisfied with "The Death of Paris," and meant to rewrite it. Tennyson's "Oenone" was a poem for which he had a boundless admiration; and in "The Death of Paris" he seems to have had an uneasy feeling that the subject was one on which the last word had been already said.
Meanwhile his unresting activity was striking into fresh channels. The "Grettis Saga" of 1869 was followed by the "Volsunga Saga" of 1870. This translation also was executed in collaboration with Mr. Magnússon, and was published in May. In the previous month he had been sitting to Watts for the well-known portrait which represents him in the full prime of his life and vigour. But even before then he had found that "The Earthly Paradise" was practically off his hands, and had turned to the relaxation of changed employment. He thought of taking up painting again, and drew from the model for a while in Mr. C.F. Murray's studio. From painting he soon diverged to illumination. In February the beautiful illuminated book of his own poems, given by him to Mrs. Burne-Jones, had been begun. It was the first of a series of illuminated manuscripts on which he was much occupied for several years.
"I have been hard at work," he writes to Mrs. Morris on the 14th of March, "but have not done much except the translations, as they are rather pressing now, and I want to get all my Volsung work done this week: then I shall set to work about Gabriel's review, which I must say rather terrifies me. Ned came to see me on Sunday; I read him my stanzas for the Volsunga and he thought them good. I did hope to be able to give you the news of my hair being cut this morning, but I had to stay in fair-copying for Strangeways."
The article on Rossetti's "Poems," here alluded to appeared in the Academy, a journal then just founded, on the 14th of May. Rossetti's strange fancy of a literary conspiracy against him, and his elaborate attempts to inspire favourable notices of the volume, are matter of common knowledge. Morris, with other friends, had been dragged into the business; and his article bears all the traces of a task, for once, executed against his will. It is stiff and laboured, and as nearly colourless as anything of his writing well could be.
His translation and illumination were not enough to fill his thoughts; and he wavered for a while between an instinct to break new ground in poetry and a reaction from the immense production of the last three years. The Arthurian legend once more attracted him, not now filling his mind, but making in it something of a counterpoise to the Northern Sagas. But on its mystical and religious side the cycle of the Sangreal was a subject from which, like Tennyson, though for different reasons, he instinctively shrank: and the long narrative poem on the story of Tristram, and the other on that of Balin and Balan, which were much in his mind this summer, never came to birth. In this year, too, the suggestion was made to him that he should translate the Odyssey; but neither had the time come for that.
Before the end of 1870, the last sheets of "The Earthly Paradise" had left his hands. "I feel rather lost at having done my book," he writes on the 25th of November; "I find now I liked working at it better than I thought. I must try to get something serious to do as soon as may be." And again a few days later: "I confess I am dull now my book is done; one doesn't know sometimes how much service a thing has done us till it is gone: however one has time yet; and perhaps something else of importance will turn up soon."
The pity with which he clung to it, and the forlornness in which it left him when the two had to sever company, he has written down with absolute truth and sweetness in the words of the Epilogue. Shy and reserved in life, as to many matters that lay near his heart, he had all the instinct of the born man of letters for laying himself open in his books, and having no concealments from the widest circle of all. In the verses that frame the stories of "The Earthly Paradise" there is an autobiography so delicate and so outspoken that it must needs be left to speak for itself: and the final words which he puts in the mouth of his book, when he sends it forth to seek a place with Chaucer, are the plain truth about his own life so far as he understood it, as well as his deepest thought on the mystery of things.
For this he ever said, who sent me forth
To seek a place amid thy company;
That howsoever little was my worth,
Yet was he worth e'en just so much as I;
He said that rhyme hath little skill to lie;
Nor feigned to cast his worser part away
In idle singing for an empty day.
1 have beheld him tremble oft enough
At things he could not choose but trust to me,
Although he knew the world was wise and rough;
And never did he fail to let me see
His love,—his folly and faithlessness, maybe;
And still in turn I gave him voice to pray
Such prayers as cling about an empty day.
Thou, keen-eyed, reading me, mayst read him through,
For surely little is there left behind;
No power great deeds unnameable to do;
No knowledge for which words he may not find,
No love of things as vague as autumn wind—
Earth of the earth lies hidden by my clay,
The idle singer of an empty day!
Children we twain are, saith he, late made wise,
In love, but in all else most childish still,
And seeking still the pleasure of our eyes,
And what our ears with sweetest sounds may fill;
Not fearing Love, lest these things he should kill;
Howe'er his pain by pleasure doth he lay,
Making a strange tale of an empty day.
Death have we hated, knowing not what it meant;
Life have we loved, through green leaf and through sere,
Though still the less we knew of its intent:
The Earth and Heaven through countless year on year,
Slow changing, were to us but curtains fair,
Hung round about a little room, where play
Weeping and laughter of man's empty day.
"I don't think," he writes within a few days of the date of these verses, "people really want to die because of mental pain, that is, if they are imaginative people; they want to live to see the play played out fairly." Such at all events was his own feeling. People who have not this imaginative instinct often wonder how a poet can bear to lay open his inmost feelings, and uncover the weaknesses of which man is made: still oftener the self-revelation passes clean over the heads of his audience, and so far are they from wondering that they do not even notice. It is the knowledge, no doubt, that all of his innermost heart, his love and hope and sorrow, which he pours into his verses is to the unsympathetic reader simply meaningless, which allows a poet to write fearlessly what, being a poet, he must write in any case. Sorge nie dass ich verrathe! so true still are Heine's bitter words: sorge nie! diese Welt glaubt nicht an Flammen, and sie nimmt's für Poesie.