The Earthly Paradise: Supplementary Materials

Contemporary Victorian Reviews

Unsigned review, Spectator

March 1870, xliii, 332-4

A review of Part 3.

Whither shall a reader turn in these days who longs to escape for a while from all the toil and clamour and strife of the world, and to roam at will in pleasant places, where nothing shall remind him of the doubtful battle-field where after a short breathing-space he must again bear his part? There are great masters who strengthen our sight to look at doubt and danger with steadfast eyes, and arm us for the fight with exalted hope and renewed faith in good: whether they speak to us in articulate words, or in parables of deathless music deeper than speech, or in the visible beauty of painting or sculpture. Their task is indeed the noblest of all; they are the mighty men of whom Mr. Morris has said that they slay the ravening monsters of the sea that beats around us. But we are not always in a mood to receive their gifts; there come times when we desire not their full light, but some cooler shadow; when we would learn not how to face cares, but how to forget them. And yet we must enjoy our short oblivion only so that after it we may the better remember; we shall gain no sweet or refreshing repose if we stupefy ourselves with scorn or indifference. He who can teach us the right and innocent forgetfulness has surely attained high praise, though not the supreme eminence of those others. Such an one is Mr. Morris, and though he has called himself 'the poor singer of an empty day,' his office is no idle nor empty one. His position is singular amongst our living writers; this new part of the Earthly Paradise has appeared almost at the same time with Mr. Tennyson's last poems, but no competition or comparison is possible. They belong to different worlds of thought, and the one cannot interfere with the other. It is Mr. Morris's happy and peculiar faculty to cast utterly aside the complex questionings that vex our modern poetry. He carries us away to the days when men lived their life without overmuch thinking about it; he hardly ever touches on matters of speculation, and when he does so, it is with a very light hand. We have found no nearer approach to the modern introspective manner than this one stanza ('Story of Rhodope, p. 315):

'So is it now,' he said,

'With me as with a man soon to be dead.

Wise is he all at once, and knows not why,

And brave who erst was timorous; fair of speech,

Whose tongue once stammered with uncertainty,

Because his soul to the dark land doth reach.

And is it so that love to me doth teach

New things, because he needs must get him gone,

And leave me with his memories all alone?'

Very few poets of our time would be content to leave the matter here. Mr. Tennyson would probably comment and explain in his own person. Mr. Browning would expand this man's speech into an analysis of all that the poet's subtle and exhaustive insight could find involved in the passing fancy. George Eliot might do, yet could and perhaps might abstain from doing, something in either kind; but one at any rate feels the speculative force struggling to escape. Indeed, the Spanish Gypsy, in the places where that force is put forth, seems to afford the extremest contrast that can be found to Mr. Morris's work in this respect. In such verses as these, where Duke Silva's character is described,--

A spirit framed

Too proudly special for obedience,

Too subtly pondering for mastery;

Born of a goddess with a mortal sire,

Heir of flesh-fettered, weak divinity,

Doom-gifted with long resonant consciousness

And perilous heightening of the sentient soul,

every word carries a weight of elaborate thought, and strains the reader's attention to the utmost. The consideration of these magnificent lines, showing as they do the analytic tendency of modern poetry in its fullest development, may be a help to appreciating the difficulties Mr. Morris has had to overcome. A spirit is here exhibited which it might seem an almost hopeless task to reconcile with simple untroubled enjoyment. It has become a new thing that beauty should be offered to us without mystery, and apprehended without effort.

Mr. Morris, however, has given us an effectual antidote for the overwrought self-consciousness of this generation; and the more we perceive the arduousness of his enterprise, the more we must value his success. He has established himself as an unrivalled master of the perfectly simple representation which gives us perfect repose. He never forces us to strain the inward vision, either directly or indirectly. For it should not be left out of account that poets have many powerful means of indirect compulsion, and often exercise them unmercifully. We say that they take us out of ourselves, but they often do so only to put us straightway into some other prison; for we lose our own personality only on the terms of realizing some other of the poet's creation; and then it may happen that we have to undergo a harder work of self-inspection for the poet's characters than they could do for themselves, or than we should like to do for ourselves. For instance, Mr. Browning's men and women do not appear to us as men and women would really know and disclose themselves, but transparent as it were with the light of the poet's fuller knowledge. They live by his magic in a Palace of Truth, where they speak out a great deal more of their minds than they could be expected, in fact, either to know or to utter. There is a preternatural definiteness about them that strains and dazzles the eye. And therefore we miss the feeling of acquiescence in solid reality which is given by the truest dramatic power, that which refuses to explain its own creations more minutely than life does actually explain itself. Such power we find, among our living writers, eminently in Henry Taylor's, and to a great extent also in the purely dramatic parts of George Eliot's work. Even so, however, we are led to a certain amount of pondering and explanation; we are not forced, but neither are we forbidden to seek farther than what we see. But Mr. Morris, as a purely narrative poet, goes beyond this; his business is to do away with explanations and questions altogether. The reader is not only taken out of himself, but allowed to remain an unattached and, as nearly as may be, an indifferent spectator; his sympathy is excited, but in a general and diffused way. He is not expected to identify himself with the poet who tells the story or with any of his creatures. The persons pass before him in their due order, as parts in a connected series of beautiful images, and the beauty of the whole is the sole and sufficient reason for each part existing and being what it is. We accept them and enjoy them, as we might gaze on figures completing the effect of an excellent landscape. There is no temptation to hunt for a hidden purpose, or to inquire curiously into probabilities and motives. That such is the effect advisedly sought by Mr. Morris may be concluded not only from the general tenor of his work, but from. express declaration. He has shown in the 'Apology' prefixed to the first part of the Earthly Paradise how thoroughly he understands his object and his powers; and it is no small part of his merit that he has so clearly determined his course from the beginning, and has kept it without swerving. In this as well as the former volume the poet's firm adherence to his purpose has been, on the whole, amply rewarded. The new series of tales seems on the average somewhat less interesting than the first; but herein we cannot be sure of our judgment, till we have had time to become more familiar with these, and to view the whole work in an equal light. And whatever shortcomings there may be are at any rate far outweighed, as we shall presently see, by new achievements of no doubtful excellence. Certainly the path Mr. Morris has chosen has dangers as well as delights peculiar to itself; it is difficult in avoiding sharpness, excess of speed, and concentration, not to fall at times into a strain that wearies by very softness. We confess to certain misgivings about 'The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon.' It is a region almost too drealny and misty for living men to walk in; we lose ourselves in rambling melodies, and are oppressed with the vagueness of everlasting twilight. Yet Mr. Morris has to a great extent foreseen and disarmed this objection; for with a true instinct he has set forth this tale, and this alone, in the fashion of a dream; so that what might have been otherwise reproached as extravagant becomes in this place just and artistic. Whether or not this visionary show is exactly what we like best, we must admit that it is what we had to expect. A gradual change in the dream is finely conceived; the sleeper twice wakes and sleeps again, and whereas he began with dreaming of the tale as told by another, he dreams next that he is telling it himself, and in his third sleep it is no more a tale, but his own life. A singularly beautiful Christmas Carol is introduced (p. 86), and pleasantly relieves the rather monotonous flow of the story. It is too long to extract, and moreover we have no mind to save readers the trouble, or rather deprive them of the pleasure, of looking for it in the book. We know not if the shepherds' 'news of a fair and a marvellous thing' has been re-told by any modern poet with such a sweet antique simplicity.

Another comparatively weak portion of this volume is the story of 'The Man who never laughed again.' It fails to satisfy as much in the same way as the dream-piece; there is a similar want of substance and variety; a strange feeling, after we have heard the story out, that we cannot tell what it was all about. It is curious that the themes of these two poems are very much alike, though they seem to have come from sources widely apart, and differ in local colouring and catastrophe. In each case we have a dweller on the earth borne away to a cloudland of love and pleasure, and driven back to the common world, and losing his love, by his own perversity; and in each case we grow rather impatient of his selfish longings. Mr. Morris's characters, as we have said, are not capable of enlisting any strong or exclusive personal sympathy; rather it is essential to his method to prevent them from doing so. These solitary transports of desire and despair, relieved by no other interest, are too much for a shadow, and too little for a living soul.

But in 'The Death of Paris' and 'The Lovers of Gudrun' we find all, and more than all, that we looked for at Mr. Morris's hands. In the treatment of this last subject he has put forth new and unexpected strength. It is an Icelandic legend, terrible enough, one would think, in the original; at any rate, it demands a master's skill to make it beautiful in the telling. The abundance of incident, the length of time embraced, and the whole character' of the story, have made it almost necessary to adopt a more rapid and direct style than usual. The result has been most happy; there is to some extent a return to the straightforward impetus of Jason, but with an increase of both power and refinement. The tale is broken up into several sections, and a careful judgment is shown in keeping the less important parts of the narrative at their proper level, as well as in handling and distributing the stronger effects. Mr. Morris had not hitherto shown himself capable of this reserve and discretion, which enhance the impression made by the exercise of an unwonted force. Here, too, is seen in free play that fresh and simple delight in life which contributes so much to the charm of both the Earthly Paradise and Jason. Elsewhere it is well nigh stifled at times in very luxuriance of description, for which there is here little or no place. But the tragic passages of this tale disclose powers of which the author's former work had given no sign. The events are brought on by the working of an inevitable doom, and they are told in a way to remind us of the horror subdued by divine awe that pervades the Aeschylean drama. The whole effect of the poem is cumulative, and a short extract will therefore not do justice to it, though it will serve to illustrate the change of style. It is the morning when Gudrun's husband is going forth to slay the man who was her lover and his friend, and whom he has supplanted by treachery:

Then she arose as one might in a dream

To clothe herself, till a great cloud did seem

To draw away from her; as in bright hell,

Sunless but shadowless she saw full well

Her life that was and would be, now she knew

The deed unmasked that summer day should do. . . .

But slowly now did fade

All will away from her, until the sun

Risen higher, on her nerveless body shone,

And as a smitten thing beneath its stroke

She shrank and started, and awhile awoke

To hear the tramp of men about the hall.

Then did a hand upon the panel fall;

And in her very soul she heard the ring

Of weapons pulled adown, and everything,

Yea, even pain, was dead a little space.

We come to speak last of 'The Death of Paris.' In this, as well as in 'The Lovers of Gudrun,' there is more than usual fire and passion; but there is no marked variation from the writer's general manner. There is an especial felicity in his treatment of the Greek heroic legends, and the stories of Atalanta, Perseus, and Alcestis were those we cared for most in the former volume; here he has equalled, if not surpassed, his success with those themes, and this is the piece we should on the whole select by preference as a specimen of his best workmanship. The argument runs as follows:

Paris, the son of Priam, was wounded by one of the poisoned arrows of Hercules that Philoctetes bore to the siege of Troy; wherefore he had himself borne up into Ida that he might see the nymph CEnone, whom he once had loved, because she, who knew many secret things, alone could heal him: but when he had seen her and spoken with her, she would deal with the matter in no wise, wherefore Paris died of that hurt.

We give this at length, partly to explain the stanzas about to be quoted, partly to call attention to these short arguments generally. They are very short and unobtrusive, but not less cunningly and delicately wrought than the poems they introduce. The meeting of Paris and Oenone is thus brought about; and it will be no wonder if these lines are found hard to reconcile with our opinion as to the passionless and inlpersonal mood in which Mr. Morris's poetry ought to be enjoyed:

Then looked she towards the litter as she spake,

And slowly drew anigh it once again,

And from her worn tried heart there did outbreak

Wild sobs and weeping, shameless of its pain,

'Till as the storm of passion gan to wane

She looked and saw the shuddering misery

Wherein her love of the old days did lie.

[quotes next stanza]

He opened hollow eyes and looked on her

And stretched a trembling hand out; ah, who knows

With what strange mingled look of hope and fear,

Of hate and love, their eyes met! Come so close

Once more, that everything they now might lose

Amid the flashing out of that old fire,

The short-lived uttermost of all desire.

It is almost a matter of course that the short intermediate pieces which form a sort of connecting thread, and at the same time give a relief to the longer narratives, are as full of natural and refreshing beauty as the corresponding parts of the first volume. No doubt can remain on this point after reading the lines headed 'October' and 'November.' As for pure description, there is in 'Rhodope,' a picture of a June day, and in 'The Lovers of Gudrun,' one of a winter morning, both quite perfect in their kind.

One quarrel, however, we are inclined to have with Mr. Morris; why will he bring out his poems in winter? So many independent observers have found that they ought to be read in summer, and out of doors if possible, that their combined experience must have sufficient truth in it to deserve the regard of all persons concerned. It may be answered that the second reading of poetry is the best, and that it is, therefore, fit and proper to use the winter for a first reading, and reserve the pleasures of summer and open air for the second. To which argument we have not at present any satisfactory reply.