November 1869, xxvii, 45-51
Alfred Austin (1835-1913) was a minor poet and literary journalist who was to become Poet Laureate in 1896.
Austin contributed a series of articles to Temple Bar under the title 'The Poetry of the Period,' stressing the weaknesses of contemporary poetry but attributing these to historical circumstance. The omitted first part of the present article dealt with Matthew Arnold. The articles were published in book form as The Poetry of the Period in 1870. [P. F.]
Turn we to the singer of, perhaps, the most unvarying sweetness and sustained tenderness of soul that ever caressed the chords of the lyre. Whom can we mean, if not Mr. William Morris, the author of The Life and Death of Jason, and The Earthly Paradise? Even the critic, accustomed to grasp frail things firmly, almost shrinks from handling these exquisite poems with any but the lightest touch, and in turning them to the light, is fain to finger them as one does some beautiful fragile vase, the fruit of all that is at once simple and subtle in human love and ingenuity. Under a blossoming thorn, stretched 'neath some umbrageous beech, or sheltered from the glare of noon by some ferncrested Devonshire cliff, with lazy summer sea-waves breaking at one's feet--such were the fitting hour and mood in which--criticism all forgot--to drink in the honeyed rhythm of this melodious storier. Such has been our happy lot; and we lay before this giver of dainty things thanks which even the absence of all personal familiarity cannot restrain from being expressed affectionately. But if we are to persist in our task--if we are really to understand the 'Poetry of the Period,' we must needs lay aside for awhile the delicacy of mere gratitude, and attempt some more genuine estimate of Mr. Morris's poems than is implied in the fervent acknowledgment of their winsome beauty.
Delightful as a writer standing by himself and on his own merits, he is invaluable to us when considered along with the other writers whose precise station and significance in poetical literature we have striven to discover: invaluable when we apply to him the test already applied to them, and inquire how comes it that his muse is such as she is, and no other and no greater?
For in Mr. Morris is plain and obvious what in Mr. Tennyson, Mr. Swinburne, and Mr. Arnold has to be made so by some little examination, unravelling, and exegesis on the part of the critic. They halt infirmly and irresolutely between two currents, two influences, two themes. Mr. Morris's poetical allegiance is undivided. Now lured to sing of the Golden Year, now of Oenone--now fancying, as in Aylmer's Field, that a poem of value can be constructed out of the tritest and most threadbare of modern incidents, and now flying back across the centuries in the hope that King Arthur and his Knights may yield more enduring material for the texture of his strains--the Laureate has alternately courted the past and the future, without ever once being able to satisfy our, and, we presume, his own, ineradicable longings for a great contemporaneous poem. In Mr. Swinburne, endowed as he is with more fire and less skill, the results of these conflicting influences are far more apparent, and he is in turns coldly classical and effusively and erotically modern--modern, as of to-day. When we pass Mr. Arnold, we find him not only likewise a prey to this inevitable distraction--this sundering of the poet's soul in twain, this irreconcileable combat for it between the past and the future, because the present is not strong enough to hold it against the claims of either; but we see him conscious of the raging struggle of which he is the subject and the victim, and conscious whence is derived his impotence, and that of his peers, to wreak full undivided self on song, and produce a great poet linked for all time with a great period. In his own words, he
Wanders between two worlds: one dead,
The other powerless to be born.
Now, in Mr. Morris we have nothing of this. He too, like Mr. Arnold, has taken the measure of the age in which, whatever he will do this side the 'cold straight house,' must be done; but, unlike Mr. Arnold, he has cut himself off from all its active influences, compounded of disgust, sanguineness, impatience, and despondency, and has surrendered himself wholly to the retrospective tendency of his time, which, when taken by itself, is the most pathetic and poetical proclivity of which the time is capable. He ignores the present, and his eyelids close with a quiet sadness if you bid him explore the future. He has no power, he says, to sing of heaven or hell. He cannot make quick-coming death a little thing; neither for his words shall we forget our tears. His verses have no power, he candidly confesses, to bear the heavy trouble and bewildering care that weigh down the earners of bread. All he can do is to sing of names remembered, which, precisely because they are not living, can ne'er be dead. He finds no life in anything living, in anything around and about him; and he feels no impulse to strive vainly to vitalise them:
Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.
The realities of the latter half of the nineteenth century suggest nothing to him save the averting of his gaze. They are crooked; who shall set them straight? For his part, he will not even try. He knows that effort would be vain; and he warns us not
To hope again, for aught that I can say.
He feels that he has wings, but all he can do with them is to beat against the ivory gate. He sings only for those who, like himself, have given up the age, its boasted spirit, its vaunted progress, its infinite vulgar nothings, and have taken refuge in the sleepy region. Not only conscious of, but vitally imbued with, the truth of Mr. Arnold's words, when applied to such a period as this, that
He only lives with the world's life
Who has renounced his own--
Mr. Morris refuses to renounce the latter, and throws over all the lights, sounds, and struggles of the former, such as they are, to quote Mr. Coventry Patmore, 'in these last days, the dregs of Time.' Having done so, he invites us to
Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the snorting steam and piston-stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town,
and to forgive him that he cannot ease the burden of our fears, but can only strive to build a shadowy isle of bliss in the golden haze of an irrevocable past. Again and again he repeats what it is he can and what it is he cannot do:
Yet as their words are no more known aright
Through lapse of many ages, and no man
Can any more across the waters wan
Behold those singing women of the sea
Once more I pray you all to pardon me,
If with my feeble voice and harsh I sing,
From what dim memories may chance to cling
About men's hearts, of lovely things once sung
Beside the sea, while yet the world was young.
A certain comparative feebleness there may be in his voice--must be, indeed, in any voice that is laden with the suppressed sobs of backlooking regret, as contrasted with one firmly charged with present messages or confident presages of a grand approaching future; but harshness is there none, here or ever, in the strains of this dulcet client of Apollo. But whether feeble or harsh, or whatever to men's ears it may fairly seem, his muse refuses to wander from the sleepy region:
Alas! what profit now to tell
The long unwearied lives of men
Of past days--threescore years and ten,
Unbent, unwrinkled, beautiful,
Regarding not death's flower-crowned skull.
But with some damsel intertwined
In such love as leaves hope behind!
Alas! the vanished days of bliss.
Will no god send some dream of this,
That we may know what it has been?
For all the unprofitable nature of reverting to these vanished days, he never quits them. But he is conscious all the while that it is a strange thing for a poet, a maker, a seer, to turn his back on his own time in order to dwell, through memory, in 'that flowery land, fair beyond words,' his love for which, he declares, no scorn of man can kill:
Thence I brought away
Some blossoms that before my footsteps lay,
Not plucked by me, not over-fresh or bright;
Yet since they minded me of that delight,
Within the pages of this book I laid
Their tender petals, there in peace to fade.
Dry are they now, and void of all their scent
And lovely colour; yet what once was meant
By these dull stains, some men may yet descry,
As dead upon the quivering leaves they lie.
What beautiful humility in the metaphor! Yet, we are constrained to add, what truth! What delicate loveliness, what rich hues, what lingering fragrance even, in the tales of The Earthly Paradise, and in the rhymed story of The Life and Death of Jason! But, for all that, the delicacy, the colour, the scent, are as of pressed flowers, 'not plucked by me.' How far short, then, of not being plucked at all, but still bright, dew-sprinkled, odorous, and blossoming
In lovely meadows of the ranging land,
Wherein erewhile I had the luck to stand!
Mr. Morris knows this, and says it. Still, be they what they may, these dry petals of a bygone world are better than any grown by a present world, that knows only
Mother of hate, or envy cold,
Or rage for fame, or thirst for gold,
Or longing for the ways untried,
That, raving and unsatisfied,
Draws shortened lives of men to hell.
Therefore it is that he chooses his part, and his songs are all of
And memories vague of half-forgotten things,
Not true or false, but sweet to think upon.
If we turn from the details of The Earthly Paradise, and regard it in its entirety, we meet with the most remarkable confirmation of the view we are taking, and the view it is impossible not to take--for, just as in Mr. Browning's and Mr. Arnold's cases, it is the author's own of the scope and limits of his genius. For what is the story, the 'argument' of the Earthly Paradise? Certain 'gentlemen and mariners of Norway, having considered all that they had heard of the Earthly Paradise, set sail to find it,' and after many troubles and sore disappointments, come to a 'peaceful and delicious land,' where they are tended and carried into a city whose denizens are 'seed 'of the Ionian race,' where there are 'pillared council-houses' and 'images of gold':
Gods of the nations, who dwelt anciently
About the borders of the Grecian sea.
We cannot say whether Mr. Morris consciously intended by this outline, and the way in which he fills it up, to typify the yearning shared by him with the age for some immortal poetry, art-production, his own, and its utter failure to find them, and their joint discovery in the poetry and art of the nations who dwelt about the borders of the Grecian sea, of their greatest and, indeed, their only refuge; or whether this be a light flung, as has so often before been the case, from the poet's page, without the poet being aware that he had set it there. The point, however, is immaterial, since the similitude, when once pointed out, is too obvious to be missed. We need not repeat what we have said already of the Greek turn of much of Mr. Tennyson's work; of Mr. Swinburne's entire enslavement, in the non-lyrical portions of his writings, to the Athenian dramatists; to Mr. Arnold's hankering after the Muse that has gone away; to the something astir which drives one Prime Minister to translate Homer, and another to publish volumes about the Homeric poems and theology, and which has, moreover, urged so many living men of letters to 'do' translations of the bards of Hellas. The facts are too notorious to require more detailed indication. Like Mr. Morris's 'gentlemen and mariners of Norway,' now that we see
... the land so scanty and so bare,
And all the hard things men contend with there,
A little and unworthy land it seems,
And worthier seems the ancient faith of praise.
We have missed what we really wanted; we have not found for ourselves immortal verse in some hitherto unexplored region; but we are well content, or at least resigned, to find ourselves
.... once more within a quiet land,
The remnant of that once aspiring band,
With all hopes fallen away, but such as light
The sons of men to that unfailing night,
That death they needs must look on face to face.
Who does not feel how strangely applicable, too, are the following lines to those who have turned from the unfruitful turmoil of the time to the calm study of the serene products of better days?
Yet though the time with no bright deeds was rife,
Though no fulfilled desire now made them glad,
They were not quite unhappy: rest they had,
And with their hope their fear had passed away. . . .
In such St. Luke's short summer lived these men,
Nearing the goal of threescore years and ten!
The elders of the town their comrades were,
And they to them were waxen now as dear
As ancient men to ancient men can be.
So is it with Mr. Morris. So is it with Mr. Arnold. So is it with the age, or that in it and us which is alive to poetical impulse and dominion. The elders have waxen dear to us because we are ourselves ancient men, in all that concerns the soul, 'with all hopes fallen away.' The spiritual side of us can find nothing akin, nothing to assimilate, in 'six counties overhung with smoke,' in 'the spreading of the hideous town,' and all the mean vulgar passions which material civilisation calls into supreme play:
Among strange folk they now sat quietly,
As though that tale had nought with them to do. . . .
Yet, since a little life at least was left,
They were not yet of every joy bereft,
For long ago was past the agony,
Midst which they found that they, indeed, must die
And now well-nigh as much their pain was past,
As though death's veil already had been cast
Over their heads--so, midst some little mirth,
They watched the dark night hide the gloomy earth.
Could there be a more accurate picture of the real 'gentlemen and mariners' among ourselves? They have nursed a beautiful dream; they have passed through a series of disillusions; and now among strange folk, among the records and regrets associated with the past, they sit quietly
Watching the dark night hide the gloomy earth.
But how can great poetry spring from such a mood or attitude as that? Impossible--for ever impossible! Great poetry is the growth of confident creed and fervent or settled passion combined. Great anything cannot be made out of beautiful regrets. What can be made out of them Mr. Morris has made; and we are inclined to think that his, after all, is the most valuable, as it is certainly the most definite, contribution to the Poetry of the Period. Mr. Ruskin, in his latest publication, 'The Queen of the Air,' speaks of Mr. Morris's poems as not quite so beautiful as those of Keats, but displaying a far more powerful grasp of subject. We think the criticism is sound; certainly the latter part of it is. Mr. Morris's grasp is complete--far more so, at least, than that of any other living poet. But that arises entirely from his freedom from that distraction on which we have dilated, and to which all the rest of them are subject. Mr. Morris has given the go-by to his age, and he has done wisely. But in doing so not only has he not produced great poetry--he has evaded the very conditions on which alone the production of great poetry is possible. Even in co-operation with an age--as the present one, for instance--it maybe impossible to develop it: but without that co-operation all hope of such is bootless and vain. Exquisitely soothing strains, as of some sweet AEolian harp, may be borne about by the winds that have gently vexed some patient, passive soul; but they have nothing in common with the stirring notes swept by a living hand from the chords of a fresh-strung instrument. These are not for our day. The sweet sadness of things and inevitable death are the constant burden of Mr. Morris's strains, and he chants them with a childlike simplicity that, amid abominable literary affectation and artificialities has largely helped to deepen the cordiality with which hundreds of the weary have welcomed him. But when we had said all--and it might be much--of his precious contributions to the poetical literature of the time, we should, in justice, still have to estimate how far they were from being great; and less averse from saying it because he himself has said it in all sincerity, we should be compelled to pronounce him, not a great poet, not a mighty maker, not a sublime seer, but at most and at best--
The idle singer of an empty day;
the wisely unresisting victim of a rude irreversible current; the serene martyr of a mean and melancholy time.