The Earthly Paradise: Supplementary Materials

Contemporary Victorian Reviews

Sidney Colvin, review, Academy

December 1870, ii, 57-8

A review of Part 4.

Mr. Morris, in the verses to the reader which opened the first volume of his long poem, as well as in the 'Envoi,' which closes its last volume now before us with an accent the most intimate and winning, has on his own account disclaimed alike ambition and prowess for the deeds that befit heroes. For other people, however, it will be difficult to avoid thinking of him as the hero in truth of a notable material exploit; inasmuch as he has in little more than three years carried his great undertaking safely through, and beyond all danger of falling, like so many poetical undertakings, into the category of things unaccomplished.

Another risk proper to the work of art which grows slowly, and takes long from projection to completion, is the risk of losing unity through change of sentiment in the artist, or through new modes of treatment or conception growing upon him unawares. It seems as if this contingency might be traced as having, within certain limits, actually befallen the progress of the Earthly Paradise. There is much, certainly, to maintain in the book from end to end a prevailing harmony of impression. Above all there is one never-forgotten key-note; there are the conscious love of life for living's sake, and the realized detestation of death because it puts an end to life, which at all moments of imagined festivity or delight recur with wistfulness to deplore that such things must pass away, and to desire for them immortality in the midst of denying it. All this indeed takes, if possible, a greater explicitness and importunity in the last than in the earlier volumes. In this lay the lure which first drew the Northern voyagers from their homes, and in this lies the sadness of their latter days. After the last tale of the twelvemonth's cycle is told out, the epilogue dealing with their remaining life is very short, and is addressed chiefly to their vindication against a conjectured charge of vain hope and cowardice, in seeking to escape from fate:

Cry out upon them, ye who have no need

Of life to right the blindness and the wrong!

Think scorn of these, ye who are made so strong

That with no good-night ye can loose the hand

That led you erst thro' love's sweet flowery land!

Laugh, ye whose eyes are piercing to behold

What makes the silver seas and skies of gold!

Pass by in hate, ye folk who day by day

Win all desires that lie upon your way!

Yet 'mid your joyous wisdom and content,

Methinks ye know not what those moments meant

When ye, yet children, 'mid great pleasure stayed,

Wondering for why your hearts were so downweighed;

Or if ye ever loved, then, when her eyes

In happiest moments changed in sudden wise,

And nought ye knew what she was thinking of;

Yet, O belike, ye know not much of love

Who know not that this meant the fearful threat,

The End, forgotten much, remembered yet

Now and again, that all perfection mocks.

Again, and in a vein less intense than the above, where in the 'Envoi' the author personifies his book--despatching it, in a half-laughing manner of delightful simplicity, on its dubious journey towards 'the land of Matters Unforgot: and dictating a discourse which it is to hold with the shade of Chaucer on the road--one of the first things it is instructed to say of itself and its writer is this:

Death we have hated, knowing not what it meant;

Life we have loved thro' green leaf and thro' sere.

Tho' still the less we knew of its intent.

And once more, in the story of 'Bellerophon in Lycia,' where Philonoe urges her lover to leave her father's city because of plots laid against life, her last resort of persuasion is to a passionate amplification of the question--

Of the dead what hast thou heard

That makest thee so rash and unafeared?

Can the dead love? &c.

But it would be endless to complete the tale of instances in which this dominant sentiment asserts itself. And it remains to signify what are the points of change, and what the novelty of strain, of which we have spoken as perceptible beneath this spiritual unity, and notwithstanding the further and technical unity of a style easy and voluble in one place as in another, and calling for little castigation if perhaps it gets less, of a diction always appropriate in simple fecundity, a versification neither aiming at finish nor missing music and variety. At the beginning, then, it seemed that this story-teller was going to content himself, for sources of interest, with the primary and simplest elements of story-telling; moving his figures through incidents foreknown in the main to all of us, and, although with deliberate pause and affectionate delay devising and filling in such visible details as the mind loves to linger among, yet not working up the turns of his narrative or the inward processes of his characters to any advanced pitch of dramatic or human intensity. The work thus conceived was a new thing in modern literature, an inspiration carried out to clear and admirable success. But by degrees there have come other elements into some of the tales told,--deeper poetical motive, greater complexity of incident, greater force and subtlety of emotion, more of the conscious and sensitive modern self mingling with the ancient direct nature and all adorning fancy. And with these has come the loss of something of the old m.elodious equality, and gentle maintenance of delightfulness. The fuller and more intense poems, like those of 'Gudrun' or 'Bellerophon,' are both better and worse than the quieter and more external or pictorial poems, like those of 'The Man born to be King' or 'Acontius and Cydippe.' They are full of strokes and passages that indicate ample command over whatever lies deepest, ample knowledge of passion and the heart, full imaginative and rhetorical mastery. But these things seem to need for their expression a poetical medium more concentrated and more highly wrought than this is, except now and then for some half-dozen lines; they do not, I think, lend themselves with complete propriety to that method of descriptive cataloguing (if one may use so ugly a word for so pleasant a thing) which is full of charm when employed on matters of lighter import.

The tale of Bellerophon is the leading one of this last volume, and is divided into two parts told by two different elders, and with a Northern tale coming between them. The former part has most of tragic intensity, dealing with the difficult subject of the passion of Sthenobrea:

Ut Proetum mulier perfida credulum

falsis inpulerit criminibus nimis

casto Bellerophonti maturare necem refert.*

[* Tells how a treacherous woman drove credulous Proetus with false charges to hasten death for chaste Bellerophon; Horace, Odes, III, vii, 13-16. ] The latter part has most of narrative complexity and suspense, dealing with the love of Bellerophon for Philonoe, daughter of Jobates, his victories over the Solymi, the Amazons (conceived not as Attic art conceived them, but as grimly hags by mere hideousness a terror to their enemies), and the Chimaera; and some further adventures, invented in the spirit of the most vivid modern romance, in which the conqueror with the help of his love frustrates the wiles of a jealous captain of Lycia. This is a poem in its author's very best manner, full not only of sentiment and action, but of all that is most his own in sustained sweetness and minute visionary veracity, and equal affection for things homely and heroic. The poem placed between these two tells a version of the well-known tale of the bronze Venus closing her finger on the ring meant for the finger of a mortal bride--a tale employed, among others, by M. Prosper Merimee for his Venus d'Ille. Note in it admirable loveliness of the following passage of nature; where Laurence, the spell-bound bridegroom of the bronze, instead of the mortal lady, is on his way to an appointed encounter with a nightly train of heathen spirits:

At first on his left hand arose

Great cliffs and sheer, and, rent from those,

Boulders strewn thick across the sand,

Made weary work for foot and hand; But well he knew the path indeed,

And scarce of such light had he need

As still the snmmer eve might shed

From the high stars of sunset dead.

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But note also a certain vagueness and dreaminess of the senses coupled with a certain exaltation of the spirit, and constituting a subjective state for the reception of the landscape impression in this case, such as is alien from the ordinary temper of the writer. Ordinarily his landscape is the precise and delicate record of observation by perfectly alert senses free from all preoccupation, trouble, or impediment; and of this there is no better instance than the return of fishing-boats at morning seen by Laurence after his adventure is over:

Then from that drear unhallowed place

With merry heart he set his face.

A light wind o'er the ocean blew,

And fresh and fair the young day grew;

The sun rose o'er the green sea's rim,

And gave new life and joy to him;

The white birds crying o'er his head

Seemed praising all his hardihead,

And laughing at the worsted foe;

So, joyous, onward did he go.

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In this poem we find a weakness at a critical point, in the shape of somewhat indistinct and dubious narration of that upon which the story hinges, the misadventure of the bridal night under the curse of the goddess: and in the 'Bellerophon' what seems a similar lapse makes a little shadowy the fight of the hero with the Chimaera. The other tales of the volume are of Aslaug and Ragnar, of Hercules and the Hesperides, and of Tannhauser. Of these the Scandinavian story of Aslaug, the child of Sigurd and Brynhild, and her evil fostering by a carle and carline until Ragnar comes sailing to woo and win her, is full of the brightest grace and freshness; that of the Venusberg, I think, is again a little too vague in its most critical enchantments, and upon the whole falls perhaps into something of tediousness and surfeit. The intervening three-stanza lyrics of December, January, and February, are as full as their predecessors of tender and various pathos; and so the whole delightful book comes to an end, and leaves all readers the richer for itself.