Unsigned notice, Spectator
February 1858, xxxi, 238 pdf
The Poems of Mr. William Morris chiefly relate to the knights and ladies of King Arthur's time, and nearly all the rest of the pieces belong to the vaguely fabulous age of chivalry; though the author has introduced into his poems touches of what modern research or judgment has shown to be its real coarseness and immorality. To our taste, the style is as bad as bad can be. Mr. Morris imitates little save faults. He combines the mawkish simplicity of the Cockney school with the prosaic baldness of the worst passages of Tennyson, and the occasional obscurity and affectation of plainness that characterize Browning and his followers. Some of the smaller poems are less unpleasing in their manner than the bulk of the book, and a poetical spirit runs through the whole, save where it is unskilfully overbid. We do not, however, augur much promise from this power; the faults of affectation and bad taste seem too deeply seated.
Richard Garnett, unsigned review, Literary Gazette
March 1858, xlii, 226-7 pdf
The review was more probably the work of Richard Garnett (1835-1908), who had recently begun his career at the British Museum; it is attributed to him with convincing circumstantial detail in an article in the Dublin University Magazine, November 1878, n.s. ii, 557, entitled 'William Morris, M.A.', and in a later article by O. L, Triggs in Poet-Lore, March 1893, v, 116, entitled 'The Socialistic Thread in the Life and Works of William Morris' (where the date is given as 6 March 1859). May Morris refers to a review by Garnett of The Defence of Guenevere as 'cordial and discriminating' in Collected Works, I, xxi. [Faulkner, WM: The Critical Heritage, 32]
It might not be easy to find a more striking example of the indestructibility of anything truly beautiful, than the literary resurrection of King Arthur and his Knights, after so many centuries' entombment in the Avalon of forgetfulness. The Israfel of this revival was Mr. Tennyson, the first peal of whose awakening trumpet sounded some twenty-six years ago in his marvellous 'Lady of Shalott,' followed by utterances of no inferior beauty, some made public for our delight, others, it is whispered, as yet withheld from us. But the movement thus inaugurated has taken a direction which Mr. Tennyson cannot have anticipated. We are not alluding to Sir E. Bulwer's elegant but affected and artificial 'King Arthur,' nor to Mr. Arnold's lovely 'Tristram and Iseult.' These are remarkable poems, but not startling phenomena. But the pre-Raphaelite poets and painters have made the Arthurian cycles their own, by a treatment no less strange and original than that which has already thrown such novel light on the conceptions of Shakspeare and the scenery of Palestine. Not long since our columns contained a notice of certain fresco illustrations of Arthurian romance attempted at Oxford by painters of this school, who, being for the most part utterly unknown to fame, may be supposed to have been invented on purpose. One of these gentlemen has now enabled us to form some opinion of his qualifications for his task by the publication of the book before us; and we do not hesitate to pronounce, that if he do but wield the brush to half as much purpose as the pen, his must be pictures well worth a long pilgrimage to see.
In advocating the claims of an unknown poet to public attention, it is before all things necessary to establish his originality—a very easy matter in the present instance. It might almost have seemed impossible for any one to write about Arthur without some trace of Tennysonian influences, yet, for Mr. Morris, the Laureate might never have existed at all. Every one knows Tennyson's 'Sir Galahad'—Mr. Morris's exquisite poem on the same subject is unfortunately much too long for quotation, but our meaning will be sufficiently illustrated by a few of the initiatory stanzas:
It is the longest night in all the year,
Near on the day when the Lord Christ was born;
Six hours ago I came and sat down here,
And ponder'd sadly, wearied and forlorn.
The winter wind that pass'd the chapel-door,
Sang out a moody tune, that went right well
With mine own thoughts: I look'd down on the floor,
Between my feet, until I heard a bell
Sound a long way off through the forest deep,
And toll on steadily; a drowsiness
Came on me, so that I fell half asleep,
As I sat there not moving: less and less
I saw the melted snow that hung in beads
Upon my steel-shoes, less and less I saw
Between the tiles the bunches of small weeds:
Heartless and stupid, with no touch of awe
Upon me, half-shut eyes upon the ground,
I thought; O! Galahad, the days go by,
Stop and cast up now that which you have found,
So sorely you have wrought and painfully.
The difference between the two poets obviously is that Tennyson writes of mediaeval things like a modern, and Mr. Morris like a contemporary. Tennyson's 'Sir Galahad' is Tennyson himself in an enthusiastic and devotional mood; Mr. Morris's is the actual champion, just as he lived and moved and had his being some twelve hundred years ago. Tennyson is the orator who makes a speech for another; Mr. Morris the reporter who writes down what another man says. Whatever medievalists may assert, poetry flourishes far more in the nineteenth century than it ever did in the seventh; accordingly the Laureate is as superior in brilliance of phrase, finish of style, and magic of versification, as he is inferior in dramatic propriety and couleur locale. We might continue this parallel for ever, but shall bring the matter to a head by observing that Mr. Morris's poems bear exactly the same relation to Tennyson's as Rossetti's illustrations of the Laureate to the latter's own conceptions. We observed in noticing these designs that they illustrated anything in the world rather than Tennyson, and have certainly seen no reason to change our opinion. The more we view them, the more penetrated we become with their wonderful beauty (always excepting that remarkable angel in the Robinson Crusoe cap), but also the more impressed with their utter incompatibility with their text. Tennyson is the modern par excellence, the man of his age; Rossetti and Morris are the men of the middle age; and while this at once places them in a position of inferiority as regards Tennyson, it increases their interest towards ourselves, as giving us what it would be vain to expect from any one else. Who but Mr. Rossetti or his double could have written anything like this?—
For these vile things that hem me in,
These Pagan beasts who live in sin,
The sickly flowers pale and wan,
The grim blue-bearded castellan,
The stanchions half worn-out with rust,
Whereto their banner vile they trust—
Why, all these things I hold them just
Like dragons in a missal-book,
Wherein, whenever we may look,
We see no horror, yea, delight
We have, the colours are so bright;
Likewise we note the specks of white,
And the great plates of burnish'd gold.
Just so this Pagan castle old,
And everything I can see there,
I note; I will go over now,
Like one who paints with knitted brow,
The flowers and all things one by one,
From the snail on the wall to the setting sun.
Four great walls, and a little one
That leads down to the barbican,
Which walls with many spears they man,
When news comes to the castellan
Of Launcelot being in the land.
And as I sit here, close at hand
Four spikes of sad sick sunflowers stand,
The castellan with a long wand
Cuts down their leaves as he goes by,
Ponderingly, with screw'd up eye,
And fingers twisted in his beard-
Nay, was it a knight's shout I heard?
Other pieces are yet more characteristic; for example, 'Golden Wings,' which seems to conduct us through a long gallery of Mr. Rossetti's works, with all their richness of colouring, depth of pathos, poetical but eccentric conception, and loving elaboration of every minute detail. After all, those who have read the beautiful poems, contributed by the painter to the defunct Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, will probably think this dissertation and Mr. Morris's dedication equally superfluous.
Another influence, however, has done something towards making Mr. Morris what he is. In spite of his having taken every precaution that human foresight can suggest to render himself unintelligible, it is impossible that so fine a poet and deep a thinker as Mr. Browning should remain without influence on a generation so accessible as our own to the fascination of genius. Accordingly his influence widens day by day, and he already counts several disciples of unusual talent, from Mr. Owen Meredith downwards. These, however, are too undisguisedly imitators to earn a higher praise than that of considerable adroitness. In Mr. Morris's volume we for the first time trace the influence of Browning on a writer of real original genius, and the result is very curious. 'Sir Peter Harpdon's End' shows that Mr. Morris possesses considerable dramatic power, and is so far satisfactory, otherwise it appears to us ultra-Browningian, unpleasant and obscure. 'The Judgment of God' reads exactly like Browning's dramatic lyrics, but is, we think, better than any but the very best of them. By far the best of these pieces, however, is 'The Haystack in the Floods,' where Mr. Morris's native romance and pathos unite with his model's passion and intensity to form a whole unsurpassed, we will venture to say, by any man save Tennyson, since the golden age of British poetry expired with Byron at Missolonghi. We regret that it is too long to quote here.
To describe any one as Rossetti plus Browning, is as much as to say that he is not a little affected and obscure. This, perhaps, is Mr. Morris's misfortune; his carelessness and inattention to finish is his fault, and a serious one. It has ruined the first two poems in his volume, which should have been the finest. A little trouble will, perhaps, make 'Queen Guenevere's Defence' what it ought to be, but 'King Arthur's Tomb' will never be fit for anything but the fire. We can only suppose Mr. Morris's frequent indifferent grammar, atrocious rhymes, and lines unscannable on any imaginable metrical system, to be the consequence of an entirely erroneous notion of poetry. Let him be assured that poetry is just as much an art as painting, and that the selfsame principle which forbids his drawing a lady with three feet ought to keep him from penning an iambic verse with six. All arts are but modifications of the one archetypal beauty, and the laws of any one, mutatis mutandis, bind all the rest.
No fleck, happily, mars the pure beauty of 'Sir Galahad' and 'The Chapel in Lyoness,' pieces in which the rough chivalry of the middle ages appears as it were transfigured, and shining with a saintly halo of inexpressible loveliness. Of 'Sir Peter Harpdon' we have already spoken. 'Rapunzel,' the next poem, will be a fearful stumbling-block to prosy people, and we must own that it is, if possible, too romantically ethereal in its wild, weird beauty. Like Shelley, Mr. Morris is often guilty of what we may call luminous indistinctness. We are delighted with his poetry, but cannot very well tell what it is all about; 'we see a light, but no man.' This is particularly the case with those very remarkable pieces, 'Golden wings,' 'The Blue Closet,' 'Spell-bound,' and 'The Wind,' in which it is true that something exciting happens, but, as the courier in Little Dorrit has it, there is no why. We return to 'Rapunzel,' to borrow two passages of perfect beauty:—
[passages from 'A Duel' and 'Guendolen' omitted]
The minor poems may be distributed into three classes, the Arthurian, the Froissartian, and the purely imaginative. Though bewildered with a perfect embarras de richesses, we are fain to content ourselves with a single example of each:—
[passages from 'Riding Together', 'The Eve of Crecy' and 'Summer Dawn' omitted]
The barbarous rhyme, dawn and corn, is but a sample of that carelessness of which the author must get the better if he is ever to rank as a master of his art. Still his volume is of itself a sufficient proof that it is not necessary to be a master in order to delight and astonish. Mr. Morris is an exquisite and original genius, a poet whom poets will love.
H. F. Chorley, unsigned review, Athenaeum
3 April 1858, no. 1588, 427-8 pdf
According to L. A. Marchand, The Athenaeum. A Mirror of Victorian Culture (Chapel Hill, 1941), p. 192, the reviewer was H. F. Chorley (1808-72), of whom we are told 'he mirrored . . . truly the average opinion of the readers of the journal' (p. 193). [Faulkner, 37]
Disposed, as we are, to recognize all who cultivate poetry honestly, whatever be the style;—and admitting that Mr. Morris may be counted among that choir,—we must call attention to his book of Pre-Raphaelite minstrelsy as to a curiosity which shows how far affectation may mislead an earnest man towards the fog-land of Art. Of course, in rejoinder, we may be reminded how Wordsworth was misunderstood, how Keats was misprized, when they set forth on their original paths. We shall once more be invited to accept, wrapped round with some delicate rose-leaf of sophistry, or locked up in some casket of curious device, the fallacy that—
Naught is everything, and everything is naught.
—What matter? Truth is the same, poetry undying, from all time and in all ages,—but masquing is not truth, and the galvanism of old legend is not poetry. The justice of what has been said could be proved from every page of this provoking volume, to the satisfaction of the most enthusiastic lover of our Laureate's 'Lady of Shalott.' That strange dream, which, however beautiful, quaint, and touching it be, quivers on the furthest verge of Dream-land to which sane Fancy can penetrate, has been 'the point of departure' for Mr. Morris. While we were looking, a day or two since, at Mr. Egley's skilful, minute, yet barely intelligible, presentment of that magical ballad—something of sympathy, something of sadness, something of wonder, came over us, in consideration of time wasted and effort ill bestowed. This, however, the Pre-Raphaelite poets, apparently, do not perceive; otherwise, we should never have been bidden to look on so astounding a picture as Mr. Morris's 'Rapunzel.' How to express or make the subject of this clear, is not an easy task. The talc is one of enchantment. There is a Prince who is haunted by some mysterious desire. There is an enchanted damsel, whose 'web' (those familiar with 'The Lady of Shalott' will understand us) is her head of hair. This 'fair one of the golden locks' is under the power of wicked creatures. So much explained, let the Prince speak:—
[passage from 'Rapunzel' omitted, then ends with the Prince's song]
If it would please God to make you sing again,
I think that I might very sweetly die,
My soul somehow reach heaven in joyous pain,
My heavy body on the beech-nuts lie.
Now I remember; what a most strange year,
Most strange and awful, in the beechen wood
I have pass'd now; I still have a faint fear
It is a kind of dream not understood.
I have seen no one in this wood except
The witch and her; have heard no human tones,
But when the witches' revelry has crept
Between the very jointing of my bones.
Ah! I know now; I could not go away,
But needs must stop to hear her sing that song
She always sings at dawning of the day.
I am not happy here, for I am strong,
And every morning I do whet my sword,
Yet Rapunzel still weeps within the tower,
And still God ties me down to the green sward,
Because I cannot see the gold stair floating lower.
The italics are ours—Were we to continue the legend, stranger mixtures of fantasy on stilts and common-place lying flat than even the above could be shown; but such show would become painful, not profitable. Let us only repeat that the 'Lady of Shalott's' loom was not Jacquard machine, into which, by cost and patience, a few more perforated cards could be introduced, and her web, and its patterns and devices be thereby complicated. Mr. Morris gives us a Manchester mystery; not a real vision—stark, staring nonsense; not inspiration.
Has enough been shown concerning this volume—or are we still open to the charge of having made extracts in an ex parte spirit,—of having worried the author on some weak point, the defence of which he would give up when in a lucid interval? To anticipate such objection, let us offer a complete ballad; and one of the best, to our thinking, in the book:—
[passage from 'The Sailing of the Sword' omitted]
Mystical and pathetic the above looks, no doubt, as every picture quaint in detail but possessing no real meaning, may be made to look. But it is virtually as thin and theatrical as the veriest Arcadian or Della-Cruscan1 idyl, in which 'Cynthia wept by the urn which enclosed the ashes of her Adonis'—the Cynthia dressed in the impracticable Greek tunic, the urn well chiselled by sculptor,—neither Cynthia, nor Adonis, nor tunic, nor urn, having one touch of nature. Greek academical platitude is weak—Gothic traditional platitude is stiff:—both untrue —neither strong. The Gothic is now in the ascendant. Shall we shortly arrive at Chinese mysteries?—at the legend of the Willow Pattern?— at the principle of the Pagoda?—at the 'nay,' which shall protest against barbarism, obesity, and cowardice being attributed to Yeh? Such things may be; but the sooner that such possibility is made clear to those who meditate verses, the better will it be for poetry; which belongs neither to Basilica, Cathedral, Mosque, Italian dome, nor Indian wigwam, but to air and sunshine, and hope and grief, shed down alike on the just and the unjust—on Raphael and on the Pre-Raphaelites.
Unsigned review, Tablet
April 1858, xix, 266 pdf
A. C. Swinburne attributed this review to J. H. Pollen (1820-1902), who was Professor of Fine Art in Dublin, and participated in the painting of the Oxford Union ceiling in 1857, but this attribution is not supported by Pollen's biographer, Anne Pollen. [Faulkner, 140]
There are peculiarities both of thought and style in this volume which will not escape hostile criticism, but, in our judgment, it contains ample proof of the author's title to the privileges of a poet.
Now, the poet has this right, that, in consideration of the gift of poetry that he has received, and which he spends for our benefit, we must simply accept him as he essentially is, and forbear from requiring him to be something wholly different. We may reject his claims to the poet's wreath, or, granting that, we may point out faults and blemishes, the absence of which would be desirable. But our objections must not go to the very root and being of his nature and inspiration, for, had such objections prevailed, we should have been without his poem.
The dedication ('to my friend Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter, I dedicate these poems') suggests already the Pre-Rafaelite sympathies of the author, and the book itself fully establishes them.
The 'conscientious rendering of the actual', in its minutest details, is observed not only in the description of gestures, attitudes, features, and garments, so that many passages read like descriptions of a Pre-Rafaelite picture, but the same 'fidelity to nature' is preserved in the language of the interlocutors (almost all the poems are in the first person singular), and we are free to admit that the result is in some few instances unsatisfactory. But The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems (as a statistical fact we may note that the 'Defence' is one poem out of thirty, and 17 pages out of 248), are poetry beyond all question, and we must e'en take them and be glad, for without their faults they would probably not have been in being. There is a grand roll in many of the verses, and a fine swing, which more than redeems a few bald lines and some which halt considerably; and if here and there the close copy of nature degenerates into caricature, in very many more instances the homely diction and quaint simplicity of the style not only satisfy the ear, but stir the heart.
Few volumes have been published of late years containing more passages which haunt the memory and constrain the tongue to unconscious repetition of them after one reading.
The first four poems are legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. We pass over 'Guenevere' and 'Lancelot,' for 'Sir Galahad, a Christmas Mystery.'
[recountal of story with quotations omitted] 'The Chapel in Lyoness' is the legend of Sir Ozana le Cure Hardy—
Ozana of the hardy heart
Knight of the Table Round,
Pray for his soul, Lords, of your part,
A good knight he was found.
It is very beautiful, and not unworthy of the companionship of Tennyson's 'Morte d'Arthur' and 'Sir Galahad'. The longest poem in the book is a drama, 'Sir Peter Harpdon's End'.
[summary of story with quotations omitted]
'Rapunzel' and her golden hair will be a stumbling-block to those who did not know her in their nursery days, or who have not read her authentic history told by the Brothers Grimm.
There are many of the ballads in this book that must be set to music. On the eve of Crecy, Sir Lambert de Bois, a poverty-stricken knight, sings of Marguerite, and of the wealth tomorrow's fight may bring him by the ransom of the knights he means to overthrow:—
Gold on her head, and gold on her feet,
And gold where the hems of her kirtle meet,
And a golden girdle round my sweet
Ah! qu' elle est belle La Marguerite.
[next three stanzas omitted]
'The Judgment of God' is in a very different strain:—
'Swerve to the left, Son Roger', he said,
'When you catch his eyes through the helmet-slit,
'Swerve to the left, then out at his head,
'And the Lord God give yon joy of it'.
Truly a grim ballad!
There is amazing variety in this volume, but there is power everywhere, whether the poet recounts ancient legends or sings of knightly deeds, whether he deals with mystery or magic, love and joy, or sorrow and despair. We have quoted from it too largely, yet some of the best remains unnoticed. 'Golden Wings,' and 'Shameful Death,' and 'The Sailing of the Sword,' are favourites, but we must conclude with 'The Haystack in the Floods.' A terrible story, but Mr. Morris is frightfully in earnest.
[narration of story with quotations omitted]
Unsigned review, Saturday Review
20 November 1858, vi, 506-7 pdf
Did we choose to chronicle them, there would be no lack of materials for illustrating the current poetical literature. The volcano of poetry is not now in a state of eruption as in the good old days of the Pope school, the Lake school, and the Byron school; but there are always little jets and puffs of smoke, if not of flame, that serve to show the existence rather than the activity of the central fire. Annually there are produced, to the great benefit of paper-makers and printers, at least fifty little volumes of English poetry. They are curiously alike. They are all little thin volumes of about 200 pages. Every volume contains from twenty to a hundred little pieces, all about nothing in particular —not remarkably good nor remarkably bad—with just no character at all, like Pope's women. They give us very fair verse and generally correct imagery, not unpleasing nor yet striking, and yet we do not review them, simply because we cannot. When there is nothing to say, with Scriblerus we say 'We can no more.' What is the use either to the poet or to his reader, actual or possible, of saying that Mr. Jones has a correct ear, and has attained to certain smoothnesses in versification, and ripples out in a level current of poetical talk—or that Miss Brown has read Tennyson till she has acquired the same sort of likeness to her original that probably his colour-grinder had to Michael Angelo? If we select Mr. William Morris from the crowd, it is not for his surpassing merits, because we do not think that he has such, but partly because he has some real and substantial poetical merits—much of which, however, may be resolved into conceits and affectation and extravagance—and partly because he represents, we suppose for the first time, in one department of art, what has made a very great substantial revolution in another of its kingdoms—and partly because he writes upon a principle which, true enough in itself, he contrives wilfully and carefully to spoil by overdoing it.
Mr. Morris is the pre-Raffaelite poet. So he is hailed, we believe, by himself and the brotherhood. Now, in point of fact, if we trace the genesis of what is affectedly called pre-Raffaelitism, it is the offspring rather than the progenitor of a certain poetical school and principle. Pre-Raffaelitism is the product of the principle which was first preached by Wordsworth, and has culminated in Tennyson through Keats. The poet, prophet-like, preceded the painter—the plastic, or rather pictorial, development of art followed upon its poetical. Millais and Holman Hunt have but repeated the revolt against false taste which Wordsworth's Poetical Ballads inaugurated. It is odd enough that Wordsworth's personal influence with his friend Sir George Beaumont did not lead him to see—or if he saw, to repent of—the falsity of the conventional brown tree, for Wordsworth's was a life-long protest against the brown tree in poetry. But whether Wordsworth saw or did not see the application of his own principle, it is at the Laker's urn that pre-Raffaelitism first drank inspiration. If, therefore, Mr. Morris really wished to show us what pre-Raffaelitism in poetry was, he should have gone back to its beginnings, not to its recent developments. He has overlooked or neglected this truth; and because pre-Raffaelitism has degenerated in many quarters into cant and affectation, he represents its absurdities and extravagances rather than its original aim and principle. In criticising Mr. Morris, we cannot but glance at the parallel development of art—in the poet we trace the painter. The later school of pre-Raffaelites and Mr. Morris seem to consider that all art is imitation—which Aristotle knew as well as they do— and further, that this imitation must be truthful and conscientious, which Cowper, without perhaps knowing much about it, and Wordsworth upon principle, set themselves to show.
Now, great and true as this principle is, it is not quite so simple as it looks. An exact transcript of nature is impossible, and were it possible, would be false. Photography has shown us this. The light pictures arc not likenesses, and mislead. Nature is made up of evanescent, combined, and shifting elements, and just as a landscape depends upon air, and aerial tint, and local colour, so a portrait depends upon mind, character, distance, and a thousand other nameless things, rather than on a set of features and complexion. The romantic school of poets and painters set themselves to work to get what they thought a general resemblance, with a thorough and insolent contempt for fact and details. But unquestionably they worked upon a knowledge of art and attained their end. No doubt of it, though every mountain of Claude's may be wrong in its 'cleavage,' and not a tree could be identified by Sir William Hooker, he could paint sunlight. So Alexander Pope does not give us Homer; but he has produced, in his Iliad and Odyssey, certain works of art which for general effect arc unsurpassed and unsurpassable. Against the hazy and lazy impertinence which asked us to accept a blue blot for a man, and a scraggled scratch for a tree, or Mr. Mackenzie's Man of Feeling for a sample of human nature, it was a duty to protest: and art has every reason to be grateful to those painters and poets who told us that patient accuracy in details, and a conscientious truthfulness in rendering the facts of the world either of matter or of mind, were the first duties of the artist, whether in letters or on canvas. But when painters think it their duty to work through a microscope, and to try to paint every stain on every leaf, as well as every leaf on every tree, they not only forget what art is, but are ignorant of what artistic imitation is. This extravagance is, we think, what Mr. Morris delights in. He works in the patient spirit of the illuminators, but then he is grotesque as well as minute and patient. All his thoughts and figures are represented on a solid plane; he has no notion of distance, or aerial perspective, or gradation of tints; or (45) rather, of malice prepense, he neglects these things. He has abundance of vivid, positive colour, sharp outline, and great richness of word diaper, with a certain stiff, antique, cumbrous embroidery of diction; but it is all cold, artificial, and angular. It is, in words, just what Sir Isambras on the plum-coloured horse was two years ago.1
Mr. Morris has taken as his general groundwork the Morte d'Arthur, the British subject which Milton resigned in despair to the feebleness of Bulwer, or—may it be hoped?—to the fulness of Tennyson's powers. Of course he goes back to the Morte d'Arthur, for has not pre-Raffaelitism taken it under its special protection? His chief poem is the 'Defence of Guenevere'—a very tedious affair, as, in truth, the whole story of the Knights of the Round Table is; and, as far as we can understand what is hardly worth the understanding, it is a defence of the virtue of King Arthur's queen, a lady whose fair fame, like Helen's, it was reserved for our politeness to vindicate. The subjoined lines are in an ugly, disjointed series of unrhymed triplets, and present a very unfavourable specimen of Mr. Morris's powers, which are, in our judgment, considerable, though altogether spoiled and wasted by his devotion to a false principle of art. False principle, we say, because a poet's work is with the living world of men. Mr. Morris never thinks of depicting man or life later than the Crusades. With him, the function of art was at an end when people began, in decent life, to read and write. So all that he produces are pictures—pictures of queer, quaint knights, very stiff and cumbrous, apparently living all day in chain armour, and crackling about in cloth of gold—women always in miniver, and never in flesh and blood. The trees and flowers are very pronounced in colour, and exceedingly angular and sharp in outline; every building is a prickly castle, and every castle has its moat. Here it is, and the folks about it:—
[seven stanzas from 'Golden Wings' omitted]
All this and the verses that follow are pretty in their way, though labouring under the slight disadvantage of having no story to tell, and of telling the no-story by broken hints and jerks of allusion, and what is meant to be suggestive. The title is 'Golden Wings', though what the wings are, and why golden, passes our wit to conjecture. And so throughout. Each poem is as hard to decipher as though it were written in black letter. It is crabbed, and involved, and stiff, and broken-backed in metre, but bright, sparkling, distinct, and pictorial in effect.
You cannot quite make out what it means, or whether it means anything taken altogether; but each touch is sharp, the colour is brilliant, the costume picturesque. Still, the general effect is decidedly unpleasant. If the ages of faith and chivalry were this sort of thing, it must have been a queer world to live in. We never knew any knights or ladies of this class, but there must have been a great deal of blood as well as lances and shields in these days; and though there was a great amount of kissing, both according to the chronicles and Mr. Morris, it appears that the kissers and kissed had but little respect for the marriage service. This, we are bound to say, is the general moral impression conveyed by Mr. Morris's very chivalrous little pictures. His men and women, and trees and flowers, and castles and houses, are not like anything we ever saw, except in illuminations; but they might, when they did exist, be like Mr. Morris's delineations. Only it is a mercy to have got rid of them. If this thing is to be reproduced, perhaps this is the only way to do what is not worth doing. Mr. Morris could employ himself better; and we regret that, with his gifts of colouring and sense of force and beauty, he does not give us people and passions with which we could sympathize. We have not the patience to go through his anatomy—often a morbid study, of all the component parts of forests or castles, or even of ladies' dresses or ladies' morals; but he depicts these things by so many and so true touches, often with such vivid realism, that if he would but consider that poetry is concerned about human passions and duties—with men of like moral nature with ourselves, and with material nature where green and white is not got up on the art principles of the mediaeval miniaturists—he might win a great place (which is not saying much) among his contemporaries. But although aware that specimens will present neither Mr. Morris's best nor worst points—neither his insufferable affectation nor his command of language—we must let the poet of pre-Raffaelitism exhibit himself. The picture is a besieged knight waiting for succour:—
I cannot bear the noise
And light out there, with this thought alive,
Like any curling snake within my brain;
Let me just hide my head within these soft
Deep cushions, there to try and think it out.
[Lying on the window-seat]
I cannot bear much noise now, and I think
That I shall go to sleep: it all sounds dim
And faint, and I shall soon forget most things;
Yea, almost that I am alive and here;
It goes slow, comes slow, like a big mill-wheel
On some broad stream, with long green weeds a-sway,
And soft and slow it rises and it falls,
Still going onward.
Lying so, one kiss,
And I should be in Avalon asleep.
Among the poppies and the yellow flowers;
And they should brush my check, my hair being spread
Far out among the stems; soft mice and small
Eating and creeping all about my feet,
Red-shod and tired; and the flies should come
Creeping on my broad eyelids unafraid;
And there should be a noise of water going,
Clear blue, fresh water breaking on the slates,
Likewise the flies should creep, &c.
And so long as they do not creep on canvas, and are not done in the brightest of verditer and ultramarine next year in Trafalgar-square, we may leave them creeping, creeping in Mr. Morris's poem.2
1 The painting Sir Isumbras at the Ford was exhibited by J. E. Millais in 1857.
2 The extract is from 'Sir Peter Harpdon's End' and in fact conveys the feelings of his lady, Alice.
These selections and notes are indebted to Peter Faulkner, William Morris: The Critical Heritage, London: Routledge, 1973.