The Earthly Paradise: Supplementary Materials

Contemporary Victorian Reviews

G. A. Simcox, review, Academy

February 1870, i, 121-2

A review of Part 3.

[Simcox (1841-1905) was a classical scholar, editor and Oxford eccentric. P. F.]

Mr. Morris has always been the poet of moods rather than of passions, of adventures rather than of actions; and this characteristic is still to be traced in the third instalment of his great work; though there is a nearer approach to the familiar sources of human interest. Yet even now there is a curious abstractness and remoteness; for all the figures that move through the day-dream seem not so much to feel as to sympathise; they see themselves with other eyes, and feel for themselves as for strangers. It is without the least sense of effort or surprise that we follow Gregory's dream of the 'Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon' through its three stages. First the dreamer listens to the marvellous story, then he tells it, at last he acts it; and the change, we feel, is always natural, or rather we do not feel it to be a change at all. This subjective tendency has been asserted throughout the poem, not only in the framework, but in the tales. In more than one example the succession of moods is as important as the succession of incidents; in 'Cupid and Psyche,' and the 'Watching of the Falcon,' the incidents may be said to be governed by the moods. In the autumn tales a still greater development is given to the contemplative emotions which succeed each other, while the incidents to which they correspond are minimised in each of the tales except the last. Perhaps it may be thought that there is a conscious change of aim corresponding to this change of interest. In the introduction to the unearthliest of all the stories we are told that the personages hold such things dear,--

And loathe such things as we do; else, indeed,

Were all its marvels nought to help our need.

And in 'The Lovers of Gudrun' the narrator disclaims marvels altogether. But it would be a mistake to exaggerate the contrast between such utterances and the prologue; the help that the narrator of the 'Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon' promises, is help for the guidance of thoughts that may serve to fill and cheer a few inactive years, the help that the prologue refuses is help to overcome the difficulties and perplexities of active life in the work-a-day world. After all, though there is less of naive adventure and blithe description in these stories, and more of psychological analysis, we never cross the invisible line which divides the poetry of dream from the poetry of action. The passion of Oenone is as intense as the passion of Dido; but it is far more unearthly. It is not that the forsaken love of Aeneas is a mortal, and the forsaken love of Paris is a river goddess; but Dido is in conflict with Aeneas; she appeals to him; she is under his influence; she seeks to influence him in return. Oenone pities Paris; she complains of him; she judges him; the tone in which she speaks to him in his presence is the tone in which Ariadne appeals to Theseus in his absence. Indeed, Mr. Morris is still further fronl the dramatic tone than the vigorous and splendid idyll of Catullus; Ariadne's soliloquy represents a progressive movement of passion; she passes through regret and complaint to despair, and through despair to the fierce thirst of vengeance; Oenone unfolds with tender pitiless calm the fixed conditions of a motionless resolve. It is the triumph of our author's art to admit and use to the utmost the intensity ofthe situation, and yet to elude all agitation and excitement to maintain one weird trance unbroken from the first line to the last. For examples of a similar achievement, we have to refer to such masterpieces as 'St. Agnes Eve,' the 'Bride of Corinth,' and 'Francesca da Rimini;' and it is only in the last that the situation is equally tragic. In 'The Lovers of Gudrun,' the reader is still kept within 'the eventual element of calm' by a series of delicate, almost imperceptible artifices. The narrator is made to pity his ancestors in Laxdale with the respectful pity of the poet. When we read of

The man at Burg who sat

After a great life, with eyes waxing dim,

Egil the mighty son of Skallagrim,

it is easy to see where the modern sympathy blends with the simplicity of the ancient recital. Besides, the habitual reticence and measured speech of the North has its effect in maintaining this ideal repose; so has the unadorned and. scientific accuracy with which combats are described. If Kiartan had had the unrestrained eloquence of Achilles to bewail and denounce a wrong of the same kind; if we had been told of the efforts of the fighters as well as the result ofthe fight, then 'The Lovers of Gudrun' would have been a poem of the same order as Homer's, a poem of purely human interest. As it is, we have a poem which is mystical without a single miracle; for the aunosphere of the story impresses us more than the figures which move through it. It was a harder task to undramatize the story of 'Acontius and Cydippe,' yet the task has been accomplished without loss of interest. In Ovid the stress of the story begins when Cydippe has been surprised into her promise, and is distracted between her deliberate pledge to a former lover and her engagement to the new corner, whose claims are enforced by the recurring chastisement of Diana. Mr. Morris throws his whole strength into the aimless, hopeless, pitying waiting and watching, as Acontius pines day after day for the maiden who, in this version of the story, is dedicated to the dreary honour of perpetual maidenhood. It is just the same in 'Rhodope': the poem is an analysis too tender to be tedious of the blameless selfishness of a maiden whose nature is destined to splendour and needs it, while she 'is doomed to be the child of parents who have bartered their comfort to escape the curse 0f childlessness. The story might be told in a page, without omitting one essential circumstance. It is spread over fifty by a crowd of delicious details, which derive all their importance from their harmony with the moods of Rhodope. This deliberate parsimony of incident, which contrasts so strongly with the rich inventiveness of the 'Man born to be King' or the 'Proud King,' serves to prevent any impression of sameness between the 'Land East of the Sun' and 'He who never laughed again,' though the two legends are substantially identical with each other, and with the still finer story of 'Ogier the Dane.' This last received, as it deserved, a fuller and more life-like development. The two tales in the present series are adequately differenced by the change of scene and of catastrophe, and by one or two variations of incident, which are quite sufficient to disguise the fundamental identity of subject where incidents are few. Before leaving the subject of Mr. Morris's relation to the sources which serve as food to his rare and peculiar inspiration, we may be permitted to express a doubtful regret that while he has dwelt with equal emphasis on each of the four stages of 'Gudrun's Dream,' he has dismissed the fourth stage of her life, which serves to interpret the dream, with only a hurried and perfunctory mention. If this violation of obvious symmetry is really a fault, it may easily be forgiven to the poet who has transformed one of the least artistic of the Norse Sagas into one of the completest of English poems. It would require a very detailed analysis to show exactly how far Mr. Morris's manner has diverged as he has gone on writing from the manner of Chaucer, which he recalled so forcibly in Jason. We subjoin a few stanzas of the carol from the 'Land East of the Sun' to show how far the author has retained the power of reproducing the phantastic medicevalism of his earlier style:

News, news of the Trinity,

The snow in the street, and the wind on the door.

And Mary and Joseph from over the sea!

Minstrels and maids, stand forth on the floor.

 

For as we wandered, far and wide,

The snow in the street, and the wind on the door.

What hap do ye deem there should us betide?

Minstrels and maids, stand forth on the floor.

 

Under a bent when the night was deep,

The snow in the street, and the wind on the door.

We saw three shepherds tending their sheep

Minstrels and maids, stand forth on the floor.

 

'O ye shepherds, what have ye seen

The snow in the street, and the wind on the door.

To stay your sorrow, and heal your teen?'

Minstrels and maids, stand forth on the floor.

 

'In an ox-stall this night we saw,

The snow in the street, and the wind on the door.

A babe and a maid without a flaw.'

Minstrels and maids, stand forth on the floor.