Sources and Critical Remarks:
In a letter to Oscar Fay Adams, Morris remarked that the congeries of "fruited vines" derives from a passage in Marlowe's Doctor Faustus: "Many years ago I read in some Elizabethan book I fancy Dr. Faustus, the story of the wizard, which, I remember, finished quaintly enough in this manner: that he gave the king and each of his lords a bunch of grapes and a knife, but bade them not to cut till he said the word; and of a sudden each man found that he was holding his own nose! I had no book before me when I wrote the lines in question. I may tell you that the other day, in reading the translation of the Turkish Forty Viziers, I came across a passage where a wizard shows a king various scenes strange or terrifying out of the various windows of a pavilion; so that the incident is probably one of the regular traditional ones."1
The closest approximation to the imaginary palace whose casements reveal the four seasons appears in chapter 39 of The History of the Damnable Life and Deserved Death of Doctor John Faustus (1592), in which Faustus opens a casement in January and picks fruit for the duchess of Anholt, then disserts on geography to her husband the Duke.2 Morris replaced this rather trivial marvel with a four-gated vision of the full cycle of the seasons: beheld in one synoptic moment, outside of time, the vision also parallels the movement of the entire poem itself. Transitions from defeat to hope often characterized Morris's plots; like the pictures seen through opened windows at the winter solstice, the final, winter Earthly Paradise tales will be the most lyrical and affirmative.
The wizard's visionary habitat "midmost the beating of the steely sea" may also reflect medieval views of the "earthly paradise" as an idyllic garden upon a hill. The most famous of these is Dante's view from Mount Purgatory of the celestial paradise which shimmers above him in the distance.
Other aspects of the final two stanzas also mirror The Earthly Paradise as a whole. Throughout the work, Morris takes care to record in some detail his imaginary audience's perceptions. He admits that art alone will not change the world, and looks beyond the wizard's pleasure-palace to a more enduring world of recurring heroism. Perhaps his "shadowy isle" is the only structure he can offer which will withstand the beating of the steely sea.
The "poor singer," then, indeed slays no monsters. But he offers his bitterly needed "shadowy isle of bliss" to the "mighty men," and he has also struggled to build worthy shrines on his isle to some of these monster-slayers--Milanion, Perseus, Alcestis, Ogier. The singer's "Apology" thus balances regret for art's limitations with quiet confidence in its large subject: the variety and dignity of human resistance to death.
The "Apology"'s opening lines express a characteristic blend of stubbornness and self-effacement; the poem's "singer" is both "idle" and the wizard of a northern shore. This self-effacement has often been misread as an explicit acknowledgement of the poem's fundamentally escapist intent; it is nothing of the kind, but rather an ironic and understated reflection on art's limited capacity directly to assuage the problems it represents. The singer is "idle" only in the self-consciously elegiac sense in which the speaker of Ecc1esiastes speaks of vanitas ("emptiness"). The singer truly would allay our fears, and tell us where the past years are--but of course he cannot, and a residual sense of guilt and responsibility prompts his ironic disclaimer.
The disavowal in the first line--"Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing"--also localizes the poem's search for an "earthly paradise." This disclaimer detaches Morris's epic from the supernatural cosmology of Homer, Virgil, Spenser and Milton ("Sing, heavenly Muse"), and aligns it with an alternate, secular tradition of narrative and romance.