January 1871, cxxxiii, 243-66
[G. W. Cox (1827-1902) was a divine and historian. His review is of Jason and the whole Earthly Paradise. The review is unusual in doubting the likely popularity of the poems, and in the severe morality of its judgment of the characters in 'The Lovers of Gudrun'. P. F.]
Not many men have been more richly endowed with the gift of song than the author of the beautiful poems which are here woven together as a garland of flowers gathered in an earthly Paradise. Not many poets have so successfully schooled themselves to rest content with the mere appearances of things; and hence it is that, while he professes to seek only to draw forth sweet music from a harp which could scarcely be swept by more skilful fingers, he has succeeded in impressing on all his utterances the character of the philosophy, which regards the outward aspect of things as all that may be known about them. This success he has achieved, not by any efforts to fathom the depths and measure the varying currents of human thought. His purpose is rather to watch the movements or the calms on the surface of the waters, without an answer to the question of that inner life which dwells beneath it. Thus while his words flow on in streams soft as any which might come from the lyre of Hermes or the reed of Pan, they carry with them the burden of a strange weariness and sadness.
In truth, the exquisite simplicity and grace of Mr. Morris's poems are the fruit of consummate art and skill. The subjects which he has chosen are with few exceptions subjects which have been already handled by the Homeric and Orphic poets, by Pindar and Stesichorus, by Sophocles and Euripides. They are, in other words, the stories with which the bards of the Greek heroic age charmed their countrymen, and which in the hands of the tragic and lyric poets were made vehicles of the highest lessons of political or ethical wisdom, or means of imparting the purest and most intense delight. These stories Mr. Morris has told again, professedly with the latter of these two purposes only. He speaks of himself emphatically as 'the idle singer of an empty day;' and, as we read tale after tale, it would be vain to attribute to him the fixed design by which Mr. Tennyson has worked the several parts of the Arthurian story into one magnificent whole. But as our thoughts rest on the Medea and Alcestis of Mr. Morris, we cannot banish from our minds the images of the Medea and Alcestis of Euripides, and we are led to contrast the atmosphere in which these creatures of Greek imagination move, with that in which the same forms are exhibited to us by the modern poet. Probably none have sought more earnestly to relate these stories simply as stories, and certainly none have imparted to them a more touching charm. The Arthur of Mr. Tennyson is manifestly the embodiment of the highest
Christian chivalry, and the Prometheus of Shelley is the man who strives against injustice and wrong in all ages and in all countries; these poems may therefore be regarded from a point of view lofty and immutable. Mr. Morris's tales can be subnlitted to no such criticism. They are put before us as 'murmuring rhymes;' insensibility to their delightful melodies would argue a strange coldness to versification. Yet, while we give up ourselves to the spell of the enchanter as at the waving of his wand the scenes change and each creation of his plastic power comes before us, it is impossible to rest under it. It may not be fair to compare a poet with other poets, but it can scarcely be unfair to compare him with himself; and if Mr. Morris's purpose has been only to charm away the hours when 'feeling kindly unto all the earth,' we
Grudge every minute as it passes by,
Made the more mindful that the sweet days die,
we cannot help marking the signs which seem to show the channel in which the thoughts of the poet have been running, or sometimes pausing to reflect how far it may be wise to follow in the same path.
The melody of Mr. Morris's verse is so sweet, the movement so smooth, that we care as little to assume the attitude of critics towards these poems as to analyse our feelings while we watch the light playing on calm waters beneath a cloudless summer sky. Some flaws may doubtless be found--a few false rhymes, a few sentences which differ from prose only in the recurrence of the same sound at the end of each couplet, and, more frequently, a certain ruggedness and faultiness of scanning. With Mr. Morris, 'real' is invariably a monosyllable, and 'really' a dissyllable. But we need not give instances of defects which, after all, are little more than the purposed discords of the musician. While we accompany Mr. Morris we roam through an enchanted land; and we are too much contented with the beauty of the scenes before us to dwell on the neutral tints or the few unshapely objects which in no way mar their loveliness.
The tales related in the Earthly Paradise are strung together on a very simple framework. The horrors of a wasting plague at Micklegarth give strength and shape to the vague dreams of a happier land far away to the West, with which some of its people had been wont to solace themselves while serving among the Varangian guards at Byzantium; and the learned squire Nicholas, whose betrothed is ready to follow him over the world, makes a vow with the Swabian Lawrence and others, that they will at once set out and never give up their search for this land,
Till death or life have set their hearts at rest.
In the English Channel they fall in with the fleet of Edward III and the Black Prince, who gives them some lines of writing, lest they should find it hard to deal with some of his people
who pass not for a word
Whate'er they deem may hold a hostile sword.
But the story of the voyage, until they descry a new land, differs little, if at all, from the story of Columbus and his men, or of others who have wandered through unknown seas led on chiefly by their hopes and fancies. It is the old tale of eager anticipation and wild enjoyment, followed by blank depression and dismay; but when, after surmounting dangers not less terrible than those which Ulysses encountered in the land of the Laestrygonians or the dwelling of Circe, after escaping from an ocean of misery, in which they had grown to be like devils and learnt what man sinks to
When every pleasure from his life is gone,
they come at last to a land where the simple folk, taking them to be gods, treat them as kings, we may well doubt whether the insane yearning for an earthly home where there is no death can live on in the hearts of men who had already numbered their threescore years and ten. But this passion to escape from Death is the burden of Mr. Morris's poems. From the Prologue to the Epilogue of the Earthly Paradise, which concludes the fourth and last part, his ancient mariners are described as men, who
deemed all life accurst
By that cold overshadowing threat--the end.
If the delights of a life not without some likeness to that of the Lotos-eaters still left, as it might well leave, them dissatisfled, the longing would surely be rather for the old home, where they might once again hear the old familiar speech. But though after a time their life seenled to them once more 'trivial, poor, and vain,' not a thought is given to Norway; and the one desire is still to find the country where the old may become young again, and the young nuy not die. They would be fools and victims, and the veiled prophet was not wanting to lure them on to their destruction. From the horrible captivity which follows they escape at last, only to see their numbers dwindle quickly away from sickness of body and mind, until Nicholas, the most learned and the most besotted of them all, dies and is left beneath the trees upon the nameless shore, and the scanty remnant is at length brought to a shining city in a distant sea, where they hear not the language of Norway, but the softer sounds of that Greek tongue to which they had listened long ago in Byzantium. Here, kindly welcomed by the grey-haired elders, they feel that their earthly wanderings are done, and their journey to the grave must now be
like those days of later autumn-tide,
When he who in some town may chance to bide
Opens the window for the balmy air,
And seeing the golden hazy sky so fair,
And from some city garden hearing still
The wheeling rooks the air with music fill,
Sweeet hopeful music, thinketh, Is this spring,
Surely the year can scarce be perishing?
But then he leaves the clamour of the town,
And sees the withered scanty leaves fall down,
The half-ploughed field, the flowerless garden-plot,
The dark full stream by summer long forgot,
The tangled hedges where relaxed and dead
The twining plants their withered berries shed,
And feels therewith the treachery of the sun,
And knows the pleasant time is well-nigh done.
The mournful sound of autumn-tide runs as a keynote through all the tales which the city elders and these storm-tossed men relate to each other, and which are here woven into the chaplet of the Earthly Paradise. They may be tales which tell of high hopes and heroic deeds; they may paint the joys of the young and the mighty achievements of fearless men; but the shadow of death is 0n these 'murmuring rhymes' which
Beat with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay;
and the touch of the very fingers of death alone stirs within us whatever sense of life there may be left. If it be hard to say whether the music of Mr. Morris's song carries with it more of pleasure than of pain, the pleasure must at the least be that of men who sit at the banquet-table in the presence of the veiled skeleton, and the enjoyment that of the youth who is bidden to rejoice because all is vanity and vexation of spirit, and because the hour will soon come when the bowl shall be broken at the fountain. That 'the idle singer of an empty day,' who has here woven together some blossoms which lay before his footsteps 'in a flowery land, fair beyond words,'
Not plucked by him, not overfresh or bright,
has given us melodies of exquisite sweetness, it would be mere ingratitude to deny; but the music of this Earthly Paradise is mournful because it is so earthly. Whether the tale be that of Perseus victorious over every enemy who seeks to bar his way, or of Alcestis going forth in all the freshness of youth to the dark land whither her husband should have gone, or of Ogier the Dane, who rises from his charmed sleep to strike a blow for the land where the great Karl had reigned; whether it be the legend of Jason turning deliberately from the old love to the new, or of Psyche toiling on with the very sickness of hope deferred in her search for the glorious being on whom her eyes had but for one moment rested, there is everywhere the same thought that gladness is only gladness because it is dogged by decay and change. The lesson may be true; but the penalty for the iteration of it is a monotony which disposes rather for drowsiness than enjoyment; and the words by which it is enforced leave on the mind the impression of a faith altogether less hopeful than that of the poets who told these tales long ago in their old land, and of whom we are wont to speak as heathens.
The truth is that Mr. Morris never cares to lift his eyes from the earth, except to the visible heaven in which we may see the glories of dawn and sunset; and only on this earth and under this heaven is there any real hope and any real joy for man. For the agonies involved in the constant flux and reflux of human affairs the only remedy lies in the 'crucible of time,'
that tempers all things well,
That worketh pleasure out of pain,
And out of ruin golden gain.
But for the individual man the language of the poet throughout is not only that of resignation to a doom of absolute extinction after a short sojourn here, but of the philosophy which makes this extinction the one justification of merriment. The cornel-wood image stands in the city of Rome
For twice a hundred years and ten,
While many a band of striving men
Were driven betwixt woe and mirth
Swiftly across the weary earth,
From nothing unto dark nothing;
and the fact that a log of wood will last
While many a life of man goes past,
And all is over in short space,
is a reason for not fearing what any son of man can do, and for being
merry while we may,
For men much quicker pass away
than the tablet on which a tale is written. It is true that it is a wicked sorcerer who asks
who knoweth certainly
What haps to us when we are dead?
Truly, I think, by likelihood,
Nought haps to us of good or bad.
Therefore on earth will I be glad
A short space, free from hope or fear.
But everywhere the signs are manifest that to the mind of the poet the future presents the same utter blank, and that life is not merely a mystery but an unsubstantial and wearisome dream. This is the cold comfort administered by Phoebus Apollo to Admetus, when he tells him
The times change, and I can see a day,
When all thy happiness shall fade away.
And yet be merry. Strive not with the end,
Thou canst not change it;
and when the end comes, it swallows up the thought of all other things. Trust or reliance in a loving Father, or even in a guiding Mind, there had been none; and with the fading away of hope the last props give way,
When death comes to stare
Full in men's faces and the truth lays bare,
How can we then have wish for anything
But unto life that gives us all to cling?
Hence, although great things are said of the power of love, it is not easy to think of a love stronger than death. Love is bounded by the limits of time, and derives its strength from the certainty of coming separation which shall last for ever. In the words of Admetus to Alcestis,
O love, a little time we have been one,
And if we now are twain, weep not therefore;
or of Cupid to Psyche,
Time will go
Over thine head, and thou mayest mingle yet
The bitter and the sweet, nor quite forget,
Nor quite remember, till those things shall seem
The wavering memory of a lovely dream.
There is nothing solid, nothing real anywhere; and life itself is but a mirage which lasts a little longer than the mocking paradise of the desert. It is not here and there only that the same chords are struck. The one burden runs through all. We have it in the beautiful song in Ogier the Dane:
By the white-flowered hawthorn brake,
Love, be merry for my sake;
Twine the blossoms in my hair,
Kiss me where I am most fair;
Kiss me, love, for who knoweth
What thing cometh after death?
The placid resignation of the lover passes into something like the impassiveness of the mystic:
Shall we weep for a dead day,
Or set sorrow in our way?
Hidden by my golden hair,
Wilt thou weep that sweet days wear?
Kiss me, love, for who knoweth
What thing cometh after death?
Rejoicing in the love of the Icelander Kiartan, the beautiful sister of the Norwegian alaf still casts not away
From out her heart thought of the coming day,
When all should be as it had never been,
And the wild sea should roll its waves between
His grey eyes and her weary useless tears;
and the same lesson is preached still more pointedly when Perseus rescues Andromeda from the dragon:
Love while ye may; if twain grow into one,
'Tis for a little while: the time goes by,
No hatred 'twixt the pair of friends doth lie,
No troubles break their hearts,--and yet, and yet
How could it be? we strove not to forget;
Rather in vain to that old time we clung,
Its hopes and wishes round our hearts we hung:
We played old parts, we used old names,--in vain,
We go our ways, and twain once more are twain;
Let pass,--at latest when we come to die,
Then shall the fashion of the world go by.
This cold consolation, couched in words whose music is sweet as that of a dream, is introduced somewhat gratuitously into a myth which, unlike those of Phoebus, Theseus, Dionysos, Heracles, or Jason, knows nothing of inconstancy or forgetfulness. From first to last Perseus is bent on avenging his mother's wrong; and with him Danae returns in glory to the land from which she had been cast forth with her babe into the unpitying sea. From first to last his love is given unvaryingly to the maiden whom he had rescued on the Libyan sands from the jaws of the merciless monster.
How thoroughly the same strain pervades these poems we may see by comparing almost any one portion of them with another. When Jason, in the full exultation of early manhood, undertakes the quest of the Golden Fleece, he still thought
When sixty years are gone at most,
Then will all pleasure and all pain be lost,
Although my name indeed be cast about
From hill to temple, amid song and shout;
So let me now be merry with the best.
When, at the beginning of March, the poet rejoices in the outburst of a new spring, he asks
Ah! what begetteth all this storm of bliss,
But death himself, who, crying solemnly
E'en from the the heart of sweet forgetfulness,
Bids us, 'Rejoice, lest pleasureless ye die;
Within a little time must ye go by.
Stretch forth your open hands, and while ye live
Take all the gifts that death and life may give.'
It is the old maxim, 'Let us eat and drink, for to-morrow we die.' Hence, although almost every story is a tale of love, whether happy or unrequited, all exhibit the same type. In each case it is the armed Eros who pierces his victim, and holds him as the captive of his bow and spear. If we have ecstatic unions and unimaginable bliss, this joy is the fruit of a glance or a touch. The love, in short, is both sudden and physical; and we look in vain for anything more. While Medea, at her father's bidding, is telling Jason of the perils to be surmounted before he can win the Golden Fleece,
Love came unseen, and cast his golden yoke
About them both, and sweeter her voice grew
And softer ever, as betwixt them flew
With fluttering wings the new-born strong desire;
and, when coming to offer him her aid in the quest, she expresses her dread of the wrath of Aetes after the departure of the Argonauts, the words rush to the lips of Jason,
By this unseen delight of thy fair body, may I rather burn,
Nor may the flame die ever, if I turn
But to my hollow ship, and leave thee here,
Who in one minute art become so dear,
Thy limbs so longed for, that at last I know
Why men have been content to suffer woe
Past telling, if the gods but granted this
A little while such lips as thine to kiss,
A little while to drink such deep delight.
So it is again when, sated with the exacting love of the wise Colchian woman, Jason first sees the brilliant Glauce. No sooner have her fingers touched his than he forgets
all the joys that he had ever known;
And when her hand left his hand with the ring
Still in the palm, like some lost stricken thing
He stood and stared, as from his eyes she passed;
And from that hour all fear away was cast,
All memory of the past time, all regret
For days that did those changed days beget;
And there withal adown the wind he flung
The love whereon his yearning heart once hung.
So is it with Accontius when first he sees the Delian maiden whom he is to win as his bride:
Then standing there in mazed wise,
He saw the black-heart tulips bow
Before her knees, as wavering now
A half step unto him she made,
With a glad cry, though half afraid,
He stretched his arms out, and the twain
E'en at the birth of love's great pain,
Each unto each so nigh were grown,
That little lacked to make them one,
That little lacked that they should be
Wedded that hour, knee touching knee,
Cheek laid to cheek.
So, again, when, in the story of the 'Lovers of Gudrun,' Thorgerd, Kiartan's sister, seeks to excite his love for Refna, she can think of no other way of attaining her end than by saying
If I were a man, not old or wise,
Methinks I should remember wide grey eyes,
Lips like a scarlet thread, skin lily white,
Round chin, smooth brow 'neath the dark hair's delight,
Fair neck, slim hands, and dainty limbs well hid,
Since unto most of men doth fate forbid
To hold them as their own.
In all this there is not much in harmony with the thought and feelings, perhaps even with the ethics, of our own day; and as we are compelled in some degree to measure humanity by our own standard, we may fairly say that such words as these possess no great human interest. It is for this reason that although Mr. Morris is already one of the most voluminous of poets, and has a marvellous power of imagery and diction, we question whether his works will attain great popularity or pass to lasting fame. They lack entirely the divine element, which touches in its power the human heart, and makes the poet, like itself, immortal. Yet of all the old stories which Mr. Morris has related again in the Earthly Paradise, and not a few of which may be resolved even into grotesque absurdities, there is probably not one which fails to exercise over us an indescribable fascination. They are tales which have been told for ages on ages in almost every land, and on which have been built the great fabrics of the epic and tragic poets of old time. They are tales which mingle possible events with things impossible, and exhibit characters which we can conceive as those of real men by the side of others which must be to us simply unmeaning. But, although the possible and the impossible elements of the story are so mingled together that no attempt to separate or decompose them can be successful, we cannot say that our interest is excited only by the words and deeds of those who are manifestly represented as of our own flesh and blood, and not at all by the joys and sufferings of beings who, if they have any existence, belong to another sphere of life. We do feel moved by the sorrow of Zeus when he mourns that Sarpedon, his bright and beautiful child, must die; and we smile no smile of contempt when the poet tells us how the tears, great as drops of blood, fell from the sky when the brave Lycian chieftain was smitten by the spear of Patroclos, how Phoebus bathed the body in the stream of Simoeis, and how, as the first flush of dawn lit up the sky, the Powers of Sleep and Death laid him on the threshold of his Eastern home nigh to the banks of the golden river. We can feel the woes of Psyche, as she wanders on in all but hopeless misery in her search for the beautiful being whom her envious sisters had slandered to her as an unsightly monster; and if the story of Aphrodite weeping for the lovely Adonis done to death by the wild-boar's tusk be too sensuous for northern taste, no such flaw mars the pathos of the tales which tell us how Baldur and the heroic Helgis, smitten down in the fulness of youth and beauty, rise again to a renewed life and strength 'which should never waste away. But, if we would raise our enjoyment of these stories to the highest point, we must take them simply as they are. Any attempts to define sharply the boundaries which separate the human from the divine are as wise as the efforts of the man who might think to heighten the butterfly's beauty by brushing the down from its wings.
There can be no doubt that the attempt to treat the actors in the old tales as specimens of human character has done much towards blinding us to the real beauty of the tales themselves, and that this attempt in the case of legends which we are in the habit of regarding as nearer to our time and as framed by men whose thoughts were more akin to our own, can be made only at the cost of more or less serious moral mischief. Mr. Morris is well aware of this, and he is careful before beginning some of his stories to warn us that they are dreams and no histories of men who ever lived; but he touches on doubtful ground when he adds--
Yet as in dreams
Of known things still we dream, whatever gleams
Of unknown light may make them strange, so here
Our dreamland story holdeth such things dear,
And such things loathed, as we do: else, indeed,
Were all its marvels nought to help our need.
If we follow the beautiful rhymes in which 'the idle singer of an empty day' introduces us to his fairy garden, we must believe that we have no needs to help; but if we have, then it may fairly be doubted whether some or any of the poet's legends will stand the test which he has himself laid down. Taken in its bare outlines, few myths are more repulsive than that of the maiden who stakes her person on the issue of a race in which the penalty for the unsuccessful lover is instant death by the headsman's axe, and who day by day sees human blood poured out with eyes unmoved and heart untroubled. Nor can the magic of the poet's verse at all reconcile us to the thought of the pitiless being who, armed with superhuman powers, can see brave men die for her sake, until one comes who wins her only because he has the special aid of a god. It is of little use to tell us of her beauty as, standing at the starting-post,
She seemed all earthly matters to forget,
Of all tormenting lines her face was clear;
Her wide grey eyes upon the goal were set,
Calm and unmoved as though no soul were near;
Or again how, when she had reached the goal, she stood
breathing like a little child
Amid some warlike clamour laid asleep,
For no victorious joy her red lips smiled,
Her cheek its wonted freshness did but keep:
No glance lit up her clear grey eyes and deep,
Though some divine thought softened all her face,
As once more rang the trumpet through the place.
We remember that this divine thought is no thought of pity for the victim whose head falls at the trumpet blast; and if we judge by any human standard, we turn aside from the maiden as we should from the ferocious rites which marked the devil-worship of Artemis Tauropola or the Spartan Iphigeneia. But although the poet speaks of Atalanta as reared up, like Helen, to be 'a kingdom's curse,' and as making her
city's name accurst
Among all mothers for its cruelty,
he does not wish us so to dwell upon this thought as to kill all our sympathy for her when the warm human feeling wakes up in her heart as Milanion, by the help of a god, and by this help alone, at last outruns her. Neither do we wish it. But we can avoid this only by ceasing to look upon her as human at all. The beauty of the tale cannot be questioned, but neither can we question the beauty of those many other tales in which we find the two thoughts that furnish the framework of the story of Atalanta--the idea, namely, of themaiden whom hundreds stake their lives to win, and the idea of the suitors who meet their death until in due time comes the man destined to win her. Some of these stories have been wedded to verse by modern as well as by ancient poets; and if the beauty of their work must be measured by the degree of their fidelity to the ideas which lie at the root of these stories, we can but wonder at the magic power which those ideas have exercised on poets who seem to have scarcely felt a temptation even to modify them.
In the 'Doom of King Acrisius' Mr. Morris handles a subject which mlight furnish materials for many epics, and which is handled by himself more than once in other poems. The child Perseus is also 'the Man born to be King'; and none will read the two tales as the one follows the other, without seeing that the framework in both is the same and that not a few of the incidents correspond. No beauty can exceed that of Danae, no grace surpass that of her child Perseus, the pure hero, whose office it is to redress wrong and punish the evil-doers. Here then is the chord struck which excites our human sympathy; but we cannot rest on this or on the love of Perseus for the Libyan maiden, as we wander along in the midst of wonders, marvellous as any in Arabian story, which tempt us continually to stray into the many other regions where we may survey the same scenes and hear the same sounds. The temptation is the stronger, because the points of likeness between the several tales heighten their charm; and thus we may follow the 'idle singer' through his 'murmuring rhymes,' being well assured that the imagery of his stories will at each step recall other scenes in the enchanted land.
We feel ourselves in the old and well-known paths as we read
There on the sill she laid her slender hand,
And, looking seaward, pensive did she stand,
And seemed as though she waited for the Sun
To bring her news her misery was done;
At last he came, and over the green sea
His golden road shone out right gloriously,
And into Danae's face his glory came
And lit her softly waving hair like flame.
But in his light she held out both her hands,
As though he brought her from some far off lands
Healing for all her great distress and woe.
In the incidents that follow, Mr. Morris adheres more strictly to the old legend, which shows with singular clearness how thoroughly the elements of European folk lore were known to the nurses and poets of ancient Hellas. In the rescue of Andromeda we approach the true work of all heroes; and Mr. Morris's dragon, which is very well described, may serve excellently as a type of all the monsters slain by Theseus, Heracles, Bellerophon, or Jason, by Cadmus, Oedipus, St. George, or Feridun. True to himself, Mr. Morris closes the scene in which Perseus first sees and wins his bride by words which, put into the mouth of Andromeda, throw over it the shadow of future darkness:
O love, to think that love can pass away,
That soon or late to us shall come a day
When this shall be forgotten! e'en this kiss
That makes us now forget the high God's bliss,
And sons of men with all their miseries.
Mr. Morris introduces us into a very garden of delights when he tells us again the often-told story of Psyche--the history of lovers severed by the malice of others almost as soon as they are wed, and retaining no other consolation than the thought that it is 'better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.' If to explain the hatred of Aphrodite for Psyche Mr. Morris has departed from the ordinary story, his language still shows that her jealousy of the fair maiden is but another form of the jealousy of Eos in the story of Procris. Psyche is receiving at all hands the worship which should be reserved for the Queen of Beauty only: she is a maid
Whom any amourous man this day would kiss
As gladly as a goddess like to me;
And though 0 known an end to this must be,
When white and red and gold are waxen grey
Down on the earth, while unto me one day
Is as another, yet behold, my son,
And go through all my temples one by one,
And look what incense rises unto me;
Hearken the talk of sailors from. the sea
Just landed, ever will it be the same,
'Hast thou then seen her?'
The Love-God promises obedience; but his cruel purpose gives way to a feeling of absorbing rapture when he comes upon the desolate Psyche, who has sunk to sleep beneath the weight of her sorrow. The god kneels beside her as she slumbers, and the picture, sensuous, though it may be, is full of beauty:
From place to place Love followed her that day,
And ever fairer to his eye she grew,
So that at last, when from her bower he flew,
And underneath his feet the moonlit sea
Went shepherding his waves disorderly,
He swore that of all gods and men, not one
Should hold her in his arms but he alone;
That she should dwell with him in glorious wise,
Like to a goddess in some paradise;
Yea, he would get from Father Jove this grace,
That she should never die, but her sweet face
And wonderful fair body should endure
Till the foundations of the mountains sure
Were molten in the sea.
After a long and grievous pilgrimage--after tasks wholly beyond human powers, in which, like the wandering princes and maidens of folk lore in like case, she is aided by birds and beasts whom she has befriended, this consummation is at last brought about: but although to do full justice to the way in which Mr. Morris has told the story, we should have to quote the whole of it, we must pause for awhile to look on the picture of the beautiful maiden who leaves the abode of lost love and happiness, with a weight of misery not to be described in words, yet nerved by a purpose which no earthly power could conquer or turn aside:
Thenceforth her back upon the world she turned,
As she had known it; in her heart there burned
Such deathless love, that still untired she went;
The huntsman dropping down the woody bent
In the still evening saw her passing by,
And for her beauty fain would draw anigh,
But yet durst not; the shepherd on the down,
Wondering, would shade his eyes with fingers brown,
As on the hill's brow, looking o'er the lands,
She stood with strained eyes and clasped hands,
While the wind blew the raiment from her feet;
The wondering soldier her grey eyes would meet,
That took no heed of him, and drop his own;
Like a thin dream she passed the clattering town;
On the thronged quays she watched the ships come in.
Patient, amid the strange outlandish din;
Unscared, she saw the sacked town's miseries,
And marching armies passed before her eyes.
And still of her the god had such a care,
None did her wrong, although alone and fair
Through rough and smooth she wandered many a day,
Till all her hope had well-nigh passed away.
From this image of purely spiritual beauty, the loveliness of Una which the touch of neither man nor beast may mar, the poet takes us with consummate art to the sensuous home of the Paphian Queen,
Whose beauty sole had lighted up the place,
where the maidens danced in the house made beautiful with gold.
A crown there was upon her glorious head,
A garland round about her girdlestead,
Where matchless wonders of the hidden sea
Were brought together and set wonderfully.
Naked she was of all else, but her hair
About her body rippled here and there,
And lay in heaps upon the golden seat,
And even brushed the gold cloth where her feet
Lay amid roses,--ah! how kind she seemed,
What depths of love from out her grey eyes streamed.
But the kindness and the love are not for those who approach her too nearly in their beauty; and her unconscious rival bleeds beneath her cruel scourges, until the time comes when Psyche must drink the draught which after her grievous sorrows is to render her immortal.
We must hasten through the other scenes of the Earthly Paradise. We must not be tempted to linger amidst the beauties of the legend of the brave Ogier, some portion of whose story Mr. Morris tells again in his charming poem of the 'Land East of the Sun.' But the simple hero of the 'Land East of the Sun' comes back, not like Ogier, to the scenes of his ancient glory and renown, but like Psyche for a long and agonizing quest, which lasts until the spell is broken by the utterance of the magic name of the land where he finds again the love whom he had lost. In the fourth part of the work, recently published, the legend of Bellerophon appears again, in Argos and in Lycia; but in our judgment the 'Ring given to Venus' is the most attractive portion of this volume, and one of the most perfect of Mr. Morris's compositions, for he avoids in it his two besetting sins of despondency and prolixity.
From this banquet in the halls of Fairyland we turn to the most powerful of the stories told in the Earthly Paradise, and the most human. In the poem which tells the story of Gudrun and her lovers we have the working only of human passions; but of the result we are bound to say plainly that it is more repulsive and more shocking to our moral sense than any incidents of the stories which professedly carry us out of the region of human ethics. The Gudrun of this terrible drama is not the Gudrun of the Volsung and Niblung legend, although she is one
Whose birth the wondering world no more would blame
Than hers who erst called Tyndarus her sire,
What hearts soe'er, what roof-trees she might fire,
What hearts soe'er, what hearths she might leave cold,
Before the ending of the tale be told.
If we choose to sup on horrors, knowing them to be impossible or unreal, it may perhaps be well. If we take these horrors as in any sort true pictures of the society of an historical age, it is not well; and the claim which Mr. Morris has put forward for the substantially historical character of the Grettir Saga, a story of like complexion, justifies some further comments on a poem, to the beauty and power of which we can have no wish to shut our eyes.
The course of Gudrun's future life is revealed to her, while she is yet a girl, by Guest the Wise; but our concern is not with the predictions but with the incidents of her strange career. The first is her marriage with Thorvald, whom she weds without feeling for him a spark of affection, but only because it was too much trouble to say 'no' for ever. The man is coarse; but his coarseness must of itself reflect on the choice of a maiden who had grown up to 'perfect womanhood.' He is also rough and passionate, and
As she ever gloomed before his eyes,
he is moved by some not altogether unnatural or inexcusable anger against the woman who, at the first, was at the least as much to blame as himself, and far more so in the end, when on a time it fell
That he, most fain indeed to love her well,
Would she but turn to him, had striven sore
To gain her love, and yet got nothing more
Than a faint smile of scorn, 'neath eyes whose gaze
Seemed fixed for ever on the hoped-for days
Wherein he no more should have part or lot.
All other feelings are now overpowered by resentment, and smiting her on the face in his despair, he rushes out and rides away furiously over hill and moor. Gudrun after this behaves more kindly to Thorvald, whose wife she continues to be for several months, till, when he is gone to the Thing, she rides over with one man to Bathstead to tell her tale:
And as in those days law strained not to hold
Folk whom love held not, or some common tie,
So her divorce was set forth speedily,
For mighty were her kin.
This is plain speaking; and the thought may be pardoned that, if Gudrun, on subsequent occasions, had chosen to set in motion the simple machinery which she had shown herself so competent to use, she needed not to have undergone the miseries of her life, or the poet to have related the horrors of her history. Freed from Thorvald, she soon marries Thord, a man of whom nothing more can be said than that he was 'brisk, and brave, and fair;' and the fact would seem to imply that with Gudrun marriage was the end of life rather than marriage with true love. We are, however, told that 'she deemed she loved him well;' and that things might perhaps have continued to run smoothly had not her husband been drowned in a summer gale. Her eyes are next turned to Kiartan, a man who is described as the bravest of the brave and the fairest of the fair--a man worthy of the love of the noblest and best of women. But Gudrun, who had thus far shown no unwillingness to run into marriage, now betakes herself to other ways; and when her father hints that she might do well to take Kiartan as her third husband,
She answered nought, but drew her hand away,
And heavier yet the weight upon her lay
That thus men spake of her. But, turning round,
Kiartan upon the other hand she found
Gazing upon her with wide hungry eyes
And parted lips; then did strange joy surprise
Her listless heart, and changed her old world was;
Ere she had time to think, all woe did pass
Away from her, and still her life grew sweet,
And scarce she felt the ground beneath her feet,
Or knew who stood around, or in what place
Of heaven or earth she was; soft grew her face;
In tears that fell not yet, her eyes did swim,
As, trembling, she reached forth her hand to him,
And with the shame of love her smooth cheek burned,
And her lips quivered, as if sore they yearned
For words they had not learned, and might not know
Till night and loneliness their form should show.
This is very pretty; but when we remember what she had done before, and what she did afterwards, we may well think that she might have married him at once, and so made an end of the business. Instead of this, when Kiartan suggests to his bosom friend and fosterbrother Bodli Thorleikson that he should get him a wife, and when Bodli, who in secret loves Gudrun, says that his sword must bring home a bride, Gudrun urges that all three should take a voyage up the Thames or Seine. Kiartan, taking up the thought, says that he will go with Bodli, and will wed Gudrun when he comes back to Iceland full of fame. The next scene shows Kiartan and his friend in the court of the sainted Olaf, whose faith they would have been willing to adopt, but that they
knew not how their forefathers to call
Souls damned for ever and ever.
Olaf, however, is less peremptory with them than it was his wont to be; but when they fail to be convinced by the exposition of a German bishop, 'that seelned both dull and long,' they bring themselves into some jeopardy, from which they are delivered by the noble and chivalrous candour of Kiartan. At length, both the friends are hallowed at the font, and Kiartan, while he says that 'nought at all may move his heart from Gudrun,' allows Ingebjorg, Olaf's sister, to fall in love with him, until the king, pleased with the affection growing up between them, has in heart to raise Kiartan so that he too should be a king. A ship is now to sail for Iceland; but Kiartan will not go, the reason given being that he 'passed his life, fulfilled of praise and love and glory.' Bodli, whom Kiartan charges with a cold message to Gudrun that he had won great honour and bliss, and that they should meet again, tells Gudrun, in answer to her importunate questionings, that Kiartan sits ever by Ingebjorg's side, and that men said that he should wed her and be king; and in so saying he spoke but the plain truth. If he thought that Gudrun might now turn from his friend to himself, her former history might pardon, or even justify, the hope. Kiartan tarries three years in Norway, sending no tidings of himself to Gudrun; but at the end of this time he determines to return to Iceland, and goes to bid farewell to Ingebjorg, whom
He loved with a strange love very sore,
Despite the past and future.
We are at a loss to know what name is to be given to this kind of love, however great may be our sympathy with the gentle Ingebjorg, who, seeing the tears streaming down his cheeks, says in all simplicity--
If thou, who art the kindest of all men,
Must sorrow for me, yet more glad were I
To see thee leave my bower joyfully
This last time; that when o'er thee sorrow came,
And thought of me therewith, thou might'st not blame
My little love for ever saddening thee.
Love! let me say Love once-great shalt thou be,
Beloved of all, and dying ne'er forgot.
Kiartan, on reaching Iceland, learns from his sister Thurid that Gudrun, incapable, it would seem, of abstaining from marriage for more than a few months, is the wife of his friend Bodli, and bursts into the cry--
O Gudrun, Gudrun,
Have I come back with all the honour won
We talked of, that thou saidst thou knewest well
Was but for thee--to whom then shall I tell
The tale of that well-doing? And thou, friend,
How might I deem that aught but death should end
Our love together? Yea, and even now,
How shall I learn to hate thee, friend, though thou
Art changed into a shadow and a lie?
The words sound much like rhodomontade, and we can but ask how he can speak of Gudrun as his love, when he had but a little while before confessed that despite the past and future he loved Ingebjorg with a strange love very sore, and in what way Bodli had become to him a shadow and a lie. If fault there were anywhere, it lay now, as before, with Gudrun; and if Kiartan had particularly wished to tell her of his exploits, he might have returned with Bodli for this purpose; for it does not appear that he added greatly to his achievements after his friend's departure, his time being chiefly taken up with furnishing fuel for the fire which was to consume the heart of Ingebjorg.
At this point a new lover of Kiartan is brought on the stage; nor is it to be wondered at that the beautiful Refna should be drawn towards Kiartan, or that Kiartan should speak kindly to her. Meanwhile, at Bathstead, Gudrun had received the tidings of Kiartan's return to Iceland, and late in the night she leaves her chamber to hold forth to her husband after the following fashion:--
Night hides thee not, O Bodli Thorleikson,
Nor shall death hide from thee what thou hast done.
What, thou art grown afraid, thou tremblest then,
Because I name death, seed of fearless men?
Fear not, I bear no sword, Kiartan is kind;
He will not slay thee because he was blind,
And took thee for a true man time agone.
My curse upon thee! Know'st thou how alone
Thy deed hath made me? Dreamest thou what pain
Burns in me now when he has come again?
Now, when the longed-for Sun has risen at last
To light an empty world, whence all has passed
Of joy and hope--great is thy gain herein!
A bitter broken thing to seem to win,
A soul the fruit of lies shall yet make vile,
A body for thy base lust to defile,
If thou durst come anigh me any more,
Now I have curst thee, that thy mother bore
So base a wretch among good men to dwell,
That thou might'st build me up this hot-walled hell.
It has been said of Cranmer, that it is difficult to speak our mind of the lessons given by him to Edward VI in the art of persecution without calling foul names; but without thus assailing Gudrun, the answer to this furious and unseemly outburst is, briefly, that Bodli had done nothing but speak the truth; that if she felt dissatisfied with his report, her business was to ascertain the real state of things by writing to Kiartan, or, if need be, by going herself to Norway; that instead of doing this, she had chosen to repeat in Bodli's case what she had done twice already, and married for the third time without real love; that her words meant nothing, for at a later time she bore children to Bodli, and that all the difficulty might have been settled at once by a resort to that court whose aid she had effectually invoked for a far smaller matter, even if her words were true, in the case of her first husband, Thorvald. It seems almost idle to waste words on this wretched medley of unnecessary miseries. Kiartan, we are told, would now sit and watch the weary sun go by,
Feeling as though his heart in him were dead.
He had already made the voyage to Norway once; he had only to make it again to find there a true and devoted woman whose love would be worth that of a thousand Gudruns. But in Ingebjorg there is no further count taken; and because Gudrun will not divorce herself from Bodli, Kiartan weds not Ingebjorg but Refna. It would not be easy to find a parallel to this mingled baseness and absurdity, unless perhaps we look for it to the confessions of Augustine, who sends away the long-loved mother of his child because he wishes to marry a Milanese lady, and because this lady is still too young, enters into another unlawful connexion until she should be old enough to marry him. To make the matter even worse, when his sister Thurid has told Kiartan the truth about Refna, Kiartan with a certain feeling of relief lays himself on his bed, thinking of Ingebjorg
And all the pleasure her sweet love had brought
While he was with her; and this maid did seem
Like her come back amidst a happy dream:
and Kiartan now called himself a Christian. 'Ah, well! what will you have?' asks Mr. Morris.
This was a man some shreds of joy to save
From out the wreck, if so he might, to win
Some garden from the waste and dwell therein.
And yet he lingered long, or e'er he told
His heart that it another name might hold
With that of the lost Gudrun.
This is intolerable. What we would have is the plain duty of a Christian man--which in such a case would be, either that he should remain as he was, or that, as he could not marry the woman whom he had first loved, he should betake himself to her whom he professed to love with a strange love great and sore. In strict truth, there was no wreck and no waste except such as he had chosen to make. According to the Icelandic ethics of the day, all might be settled on Gudrun's part by an appeal to the divorce court; on his own part, he was bound to make Ingebjorg happy and not to make Refna miserable. But in point of fact, he had allowed another name to hold his heart along with that of Gudrun, if there was but a grain of truth in the words which he had spoken of Ingebjorg; nor can we shut our eyes to these glaring inconsistencies in an awkwardly constructed story.
We need all our patience to go through the sequel of the tale. It is enough to say that a feud is made to spring up between the house of Bathstead and Kiartan's house of Herdholt--that Kiartan finds it consistent with his Christian profession to harry his neighbour's house and steal his cattle, and that in the issue
Gudrun's five brethren, and three stout men more,
valiantly attack Kiartan and his single attendant in a desolate pass, and at length succeed in slaying him, their luck being better than that of the eighty assailants of Grettir, who are vanquished by that hero as easily as the thousand Philistines were smitten by Samson when armed with the jaw-bone of an ass. The rest may be told in few words, but these are not the less noteworthy. Refna dies soon of a broken heart; and three years later Bodli is slain by Kiartan's kinsfolk. As to Gudrun,
when Bodli's sons were men,
And many things had happed, she wed again;
and when Thorkel in his turn had been dead for a long while, she discourses to one of the sons of Bodli on the merits of her several husbands. If we allow, as well we may, when she came to speak ofone who had not been her husband, that she told no more than the bare truth in saying,
I did the worst to him I loved the most,
we must also allow that, if these words imply blame to herself, that blame was most fully deserved; but as we can see nothing to praise or to love in her life, we can find little that is wholesome in the chronicle of her self-inflicted miseries. It may, indeed, be said that if there are horrors here, there are horrors also in the story of Jason. But when we get among firebreathing bulls, and men springing up after the sowing of dragon's teeth, and the marvels wrought by the wise CoIehian maiden, our thoughts pass at once into another channel, where the contrast of the tale of Gudrun with the laws which underlie all our social life is not forced upon us; and in the story of Jason Mr. Morris has found a subject which he has handled with even greater skill than the most beautiful of the legends selected for the poems of the Earthly Paradise. That this poem is tinged with the same tones of thought and feeling which pervade all the others, we have already seen; but here, as elsewhere, the lines in which these feelings are expressed are among the most melodious of Mr. Morris's rhymes. The Argonautic legend itself is worked up into a tale of absorbing interest; and from the moment when the Olympian Queen reveals her loving purpose respecting Jason to the hour when he lies down to take his last sleep beneath the divine Argo, we are carried on with the art of the bard whose strains drive away all sleep from the eyes of his hearers. The contrast between the earlier scenes of the story and those in which the career of Jason is brought to the end, is drawn with singular force. The great work of Medea is done, and she sits a queen beside her crowned king:
Yet surely now, if never more again,
Had she and all these folk forgotten pain,
And idle "words to them were Death and Fear;
For in the gathering evening could they hear
The carols of the glad talk through the town
The song of birds within the garden drown:
And when the golden sun had gone away,
Still little darker was the night than day
Without the windows of the goodly hall.
But many an hour after the night did fall,
Though outside silence fell on man and beast,
There still they sate, nor wearied of the feast;
Yea, ere they parted, glimmering light had come
From the far mountains) nigh the Colchian's home,
And in the twilight birds began to wake.
The golden light rests on all,
And there in happy days, and rest and peace,
Here ends the winning of the Golden Fleece.
But the winning of the Golden Fleece is not the end of the story; and, as though to nerve himself for the great catastrophe, Mr. Morris breaks off into one of the few passages in which he speaks of hmself; nor will his readers think that in these lines he advances a claim which savours in the least of presumption.
So ends the winning of the Golden Fleece,
So ends the tale of that sweet rest and peace,
That unto Jason and his love befell.
Another story now my tongue must tell,
And tremble in the telling. Would that I
Had but some portion of that mastery
That from the rose-hung lanes of woody Kent
Through these five hundred years such songs have sent
To us who, meshed within this smoky net
Of unrejoicing labour, love them yet.
And thou, 0 master -- yes, my master still,
Whatever feet have scaled Parnassus' hill,
Since like thy measures, clear and sweet and strong,
Thames' stream scarce fettered, bore the bream along
Unto the bastioned bridge, his only chain.
O master, pardon me, if yet in vain
Thou art my master, and I fail to bring
Before men's eyes the image of the thing
My heart is filled with; thou, whose dreamy eyes
Beheld the flush to Cressid's cheeks arise,
When Troilus rode up the praising street,
As clearly as they saw thy townsmen meet
Those who in vineyards of Poitou withstood
The glittering horror of the steel-topped wood.
Chaucer himself might regard with complacency the work of his disciple throughout this poem, and, most of all, in that closing scene in which Jason thinks with tenderness of his first love and with more than tenderness of the later-won maiden,
Whose innocent sweet eyes and tender hands
Made [him] a mocking unto distant lands,
and with high purpose nerving his heart, can still say
with the next returning light will I
Cast off my moody sorrow utterly,
And once more live my life as in times past
And 'mid the chance of war the die will cast.
So, thinking of great deeds still to be done in other lands, and
gazing still across the sea,
Heavy with days and nights of misery,
His eyes waxed dim, and calmer still he grew,
Still pondering over times and things he knew,
While now the sun had sunk behind the hill,
And from a white-thorn nigh a thrush did fill
The balmy air with echoing minstrelsy,
And cool the night-wind blew across the sea,
And round about the soft-winged bats did sweep.
The next day a shepherd of the lone grey slope finds crushed under the ruined stem of Argo all dead of Jason that here can die; and amid the funeral rites of the great king and hero the divine ship is offered
to the Deity
Who shakes the hard earth with the rolling sea.
We turn reluctantly from this noble poem as from the charming tales which Mr. Morris has gathered from the great storehouse of Greek tradition. Of the Earthly Paradise we need only say that if, as in the story of Gudrun, there may be some thorny plants in its beautiful garden, and if the songs which tell us of its glories and its pleasures rather add to than lighten the burden of life, we are not blind to the loveliness of its flowers, or deaf to the music which is heard amidst its groves.