Early Prose Romances of William Morris:

Supplementary materials: criticism

“The Hollow Land”: May Morris on the Early Prose Romances (Collected Works, vol. 1, pp. ix-xi)

My father’s trustees published in 1903 the contributions to “The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine” in the Kelmscott Press letter known as the Golden Type. No one felt more keenly than my father the wrong done to dead authors by gathering together every fragment of their writing regardless of quality, and in his lifetime he always refused to reprint his early prose. Yet in destroying that bundle of verse when “Guenevere” appeared, the young poet did a thing that his friends regretted very much at the moment and afterwards. His first poem already mentioned, apart from its value to-day in the changed perspective, deserved a different fate, and it is probable, considering that his style altered after the appearance of that first slim book, that we have lost poems of a fine intense quality, much undervalued by the impetuous author. The blemishes of this early work, both prose and poetry, are, in truth, not disfiguring or irritating, and are far outweighed by its beauty: a beauty strange and dreamlike, that scarcely finds a place in the work of a man of mature thought.

The writer practised in his craft of stringing words is impatient of his own early work which shows too clearly all the defects as well as the ingenuous charm of youth; moreover, the task of the moment is naturally uppermost in his mind. His attitude towards life is changed, and I can imagine that it would be difficult for him to get outside himself and, forgetting the craftsmanship that displeases him, be touched by those qualities that touch and delight us. Hence, though we can understand this wholesale destruction, we regret that the impulse for it came so soon. In “The Story of the Unknown Church” the description on pages 149, 150 of the ancient abbey and the wall-girt town is as finely imagined as could well be; and the ensuing lines on the building among the waving trees, with the glimpse of the open country, brings to one’s mind most vividly the setting of Chartres Cathedral, poised above “the great golden corn sea” of the Beauce, which spreads its endless leagues to a far horizon. In “Gertha’s Lovers” one sees already that intimate knowledge of medieval warfare, with all its engines and weapons, which is noticeable all through the romances. My father writes of such things in an unconcerned way, pretty much as though he himself were in the daily habit of handling them.* He never looked upon himself as an arch├Žologist, yet his knowledge of the everyday usages of past times was amazing; it was an instinct, a sort of second sight, I believe, brought in naturally as though the writer were recounting a bit of his own experiences. I know of no case in the Froissart poems or in the Arthur poems where such detail interferes with the dramatic intensity of the piece: on the contrary, this close description and vivid realization of the story’s setting helps to place before our eyes his own wonderful prismatic vision.

In “Lindenborg Pool” is a remarkable piece of dramatic description of desolate forest waste, full of keen observation, and giving an impression of intolerable dreariness. Many times I have heard “the reeds just taken by the wind, knocking against each other, the flat ones scraping all along the round ones,” but never thought to describe them in this simple direct way. “The Hollow Land” gives, one after another, the broken pictures of a strange, beautiful dream, and should be known if only that the snatches of carols and the lovely song at the close might be read in their due place in the story. My plan has been to publish all of these contributions to the magazine, except those that appear in “The Defence of Guenevere,” so the modern tale of “Frank’s Sealed Letter” has to be included. An early Victorian story by my father, with a cold proud heroine name Mabel, is certainly a literary curiosity. The papers on Browning’s “Men and Women,” on “The Churches of North France,”** and “Death the Avenger,” etc., need no comment. One poet discussing the work of another is always interesting reading; moreover, the Browning poems are treated with a sweet seriousness and a certain direct simplicity in the attempt to straighten out some of the complicated personalities that it is scarcely possible to read without being touched; the writing seems to breathe the fresh fragrance of a June garden, and one could not wish these papers overlooked.

*He said once, in a moment of exasperation, a poor drawing of some medieval armour being in question: “No one can draw armour properly unless he can draw a knight with his feet on the hob, toasting a herring on the point of his sword.”

**He himself writes of this article: "It has cost me more trouble than anything I have written yet; I ground at it the other night from nine o'clock till half past four a. m., when the lamp went out, and I had to creep upstairs to bed through the great dark house like a thief." He was writing from Water House, Walthamstow.


Supplementary Materials:

Letter in Which Morris Discusses His Early Poems (May 1st, 1891)

Notes and Comments on "Scenes from the Fall of Troy," Dr. Peter Wright

Articles on Morris's Early Writings

The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine 1856 (introduction and selections, Rossetti Archive)

The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, text in pdf format