William Morris wrote The Life and Death of Jason, under the title of “The Deeds of Jason,” as the first Earthly Paradise tale for March, and linked it to the Wanderers’ story by an unused introductory poem which still survives (see “Morris’s Poems of the Earthly Paradise Period”). It was separately published, however, in 1867, a year before the first volume of The Earthly Paradise. The eleventh tale begun in Morris’s Earthly Paradise notebooks, it was also the first completed; this speed of composition may have reflected both the Jason-legend’s straightforward plot, and Morris’ affinity for journey and quest narratives.
The Life and Death of Jason became the most immediately popular of Morris’s poems. There were twelve British and one American reprinting before the appearance of the Collected Works volume of 1910; it was reedited for Oxford University Press in 1914, and made its last appearance in a truncated edition for schoolchildren in 1923. The Life and Death of Jason is a poem of emotional range and verbal dexterity, but its undeserved early reputation for escapism has discouraged later critical scrutiny.
In the transition from his earlier “Scenes from the Fall of Troy” to “Prologue: The Wanderers” of The Earthly Paradise, Morris’s metaphor for the central conflicts and activities of life shifted from that of conflict and battle to journey and search. The change followed Morris’s real interests: he was an intense but peaceable man, in later life an anti-imperialist and near-pacifist. More can also happen on a journey or quest than in a battle; travelers may confront vicissitudes more menacing than any armed enemy, and variety of landscape and incident is natural to such narratives. Jason is of course an archetypal seeker, who attempts brave deeds to win love and an undying memory. The Golden Fleece is sought for its own sake, as a kind of ultimate incarnation of wealth, earthly status, and divine favor.
The male protagonists of Jason desire—or claim to desire—two mutually exclusive kinds of life: a retired life of tranquil erotic fulfillment and private gardens, and an energetic one of “manly” pursuit of reputation and fortune. Morris gives a somewhat qualified approval to both these poles in the tale, or at least finds natural the hero’s alternation between the two.
Jason’s childhood and adolescent interests reflect this dual yearning. His father Aeson is dethroned, feeble, and unable to protect himself; and for his son, he desires only a peaceful, sheltered life. The baby Jason, by contrast, has other things in mind: “who ever sought/ to gain the horn all glittering of bright gold.” Still his only request when he first encounters Juno in early manhood is for unadventurous private happiness, a request which she emphatically refuses: “For verily the Gods shall give thee fame.” Jason obeys the goddess’s injunction, and what the tale interprets as worthy ambition dominates his life until his ill-fated desertion of Medea for Glauce.
Jason’s upbringing in the retired wood moreover seems to have given him a certain modesty and detachment; he does not overtly covet courts and palaces, though he suggests once that a motive of his quest is to lead others to fame and wealth, exclaiming as he leads the Argonauts forth: “O Jove, by thy hand may all these be led / To name and wealth!” Characteristically for Morris’s narratives, the protagonist’s depth of character is also demonstrated by premonition of his future fate: he gazes "upon the wild tumultuous folk/ As one who knows what troubles are to come.” In the end, Jason is a moderately attractive hero because he is at least episodically able to predict and reflect on the limitations of his quest, and assess the value of what he has lost or foregone.
The poem’s central conflict between leisure and struggle is most fully expressed through the antiphonal debate of Orpheus and the Sirens. The Sirens’ cynical critique of life’s limitations entices the mariners toward an image of Palace-of-Art like perfection, but Orpheus correctly identifies the predatory nature of their call: “O fair as the doomed victim’s wreath, / O fair as deadly sleep and death, / What will ye with them, earthly men . . . .”
Ultimately the poem will argue that suffering and freedom are intertwined: to be fully human is to endure one in the search for the other. The sirens’ sensuality is a form of languorous detachment from other human ties. By contrast, Orpheus pleads for the essential attractiveness of human life and community: “And is the fair town nothing then, / The coming of the wandering men / . . . Push on, for surely this shall be / Across a narrow strip of sea.”
In the end, there remains a paradox to the desire to voyage so that one can return home. Why leave at all? Will home ever satisfy? And does the journey have value for its own sake?
The fate of Hylas, a defector from the quest who is carried to his death by nymphs, provides a clear warning of the perils of ease. During the first brief pause on the Argonauts’ journey, Hylas wanders into a secluded garden, where a nymph feigning to be a deserted princess begs for aid. Unlike the watchful Jason (whom Medea later finds armored even when he is asleep in a private bedroom of Aetes’s palace), the gullible Hylas quickly throws off his armor, embraces the “princess,” and is soothed to sleep by her song of another world of perfect calm. The nymphs then bear him away, a contentedly witless sleepwalker in “the watery world,” “Nor dead, nor living, among faces fair.”
Jason’s downfall occurs when he eventually yields to a subtler and less blameless version of the same desire for comfort, light and peace. Ten years after returning to Greece, on a visit to a secluded garden and temple near Corinth he finds the king’s beautiful daughter Glauce. Driven by a mixture of lust, romantic sentiment and a desire to renounce his past, he arranges to desert Medea and their children and to marry Glauce. Morris deemphasizes the extent to which this choice is one of political ambition--to become king of Corinth—but even so Jason’s desertion of his former partner and children is horrifically punished by the plot.
Still later, the bereft and aged Jason, now the jaded king of Corinth, revisits the long-neglected and dilapidated Argo and plans to begin new adventures, allegedly in search of a reunion with Medea. His impulse towards a last voyage echoes the motif of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” but unlike Ulysses, Jason has entrapped himself in inextricable moral dilemmas. No divine injunction prompts this last voyage, and he is killed as he sleeps by the prow of the Argo. In lines reminiscent of Arthur’s last voyage in the “Morte d’ Arthur,” the Corinthians return the Argo to the sea: “Argo they offered to the Deity, / Who shakes the hard earth with the rolling sea.”
From The Earthly Paradise through his political romances, Morris’s vision of an ideal society tended toward alternations of strenuous work with grateful rest. The Life and Death of Jason presents this need for a balance of action and quiet in simplified allegorical form: Jason’s life is dominated by a tension between divinely enjoined “heroic” ambition and a subdominant desire for contemplative, detached “peace.” His efforts to find equilibrium between the two fail spectacularly for lack of an adequate spiritual counterweight to his physical awareness and courage. Though Morris admired many aspects of his hero’s early life and quest, the poem’s tone and ending suggest the fateful consequences of betrayal of an original vision or guiding ideal.
Critics of Jason complain of its length, but many of the individual episodes are dramatically pointed and well-written. Part of the problem lies in the episodic nature of the narrative. There is less psychological symbolism in Jason than in such Earthly Paradise tales as “Cupid and Psyche” or “The Ring Given to Venus,” and the narrative subdivides readily. The work’s first eight books bring the hero to the scene of his first great adventure, the winning of the Golden Fleece. The northern voyage which follows, complete with circumnavigated waterfall and landlocked river, is one of the poem’s most intriguing sections, but it bears little relation to the classical plot. Medea’s acts are important in the second and fourth parts of the story, the winning of the Fleece and the events which follow the Argonauts’ return. These two parts are interconnected, but are rather detached from the voyages which intervene.
The heroic quest is concluded in Book 16, and the narrative of Jason’s last years then shifts to a thematic pattern which recurs in several Earthly Paradise tales: the plight of an indecisive protagonist, who wins and then loses what he or she has sought. There are also several hiatuses and inconsistencies between the heroic and post-heroic parts of the tale—an interim, for example, during which Jason has inexplicably moved to Corinth, ceased to love Medea, and been demoted from king to private citizen. Jason continues to fear Medea’s sorcery, but assumes she will take no revenge for his desertion of her, and Medea in her turn veers rather abruptly from fond maternal sentiments to ruthless infanticide.
Other aspects of the narrative are unusually skillful, however. Morris’ description of weather, landscape, the sea, practical crafts, occupations, and voyages are nearly unique in Victorian poetry for their concrete immediacy. This explains perhaps something of the popularity of his narrative poetry in his own time, and the decline of its reputation in a time when much of the world takes travel for granted and expects in poetry more elliptical detachment from “pedestrian” economic details. Morris also takes the marvelous quite literally, and his description of Helle’s and Phrysus’ flight on the miraculous ram presents an attractive picture of the golden animal, but also makes plausible the vertiginous terror of unprotected flight:
. . . when she did behold,
so far beneath, the deep green sea and cold,
She shut her eyes for horror of the sight,
. . . till a great gust of wind
Caught the beast’s wings and swayed him round;
. . . then blind,
Dizzy and fainting, did she grow too weak
To hold her place, though still her hands did seek
Some stay by catching at the locks of gold;
And as she fell her brother strove to hold
Her jeweled girdle, but the treacherous zone
Broke in his hand, and he was left alone
Upon the ram . . . . (Bk. 2)
One is likely to ‘experience’ such sensations now in a movie.
Other interesting combinations of real and marvelous appear throughout the Argonauts’ journey—in the northern journey, for example, Atalanta attacks the worm-like monsters, with partial success: “Legged like a lizard, maned with long lank hair. He, screaming, straight arose from out his lair, / With many another of his kith and kin, / . . . and therewith began / A fearful battle betwixt beast and man.”
Morris describes with similar appreciation and attention to detail the routine uncertainties of navigation and exploration: the mariners wonder at the distant roar of a waterfall, and worry that they may find no outlet to an underground cavern. Morris is also preoccupied with motifs of entrapment and release, as he had been in The Defence of Guenevere and would be again in “Prologue: The Wanderers,” and every escape—from danger, winter, or landlocked river into open sea—is given its full psychological force. Also striking are Morris’s descriptions of everyday work, such as weaving, mining and sheep-raising; and as the narrator introduces each Argonaut, he details carefully the landscape and countryside from which he or she has come. Similarly Medea’s evocations of a projected life as a slave is concrete, and clearly resonates with Morris’s empathy:
There had I savage masters, and must learn
With aching back to bend above the quern;
There must I learn how the poor craftsman weaves,
Nor earn his wages; and the barley sheaves
Must bind in August; and across the snow,
Unto the frozen river must I go,
When the white winter lay upon the land,
And therewithal must I dread many a hand,
And writhe beneath the whistle of the whip. (Bk. 15)
On Morris’s scale of values, historians do righteous work. Morris’s good protagonists often remember past tales of their own and other cultures, and frequently pause to reflect on their histories and those of their immediate families. Evil protagonists tend, by contrast, to be heedless of all pasts—their own, their families’, the nation’s, the world’s. In anticipation of Santayana’s dictum, they suppress memory of past evils, and fearlessly repeat them.
By these standards, Jason is an exemplary hero through the first sections of the tale. The wise Chiron has taught him in infancy the practical physical skills he needs to survive in the forest, and the narrator emphasizes the antiquity of this lore. He is also taught to play the lyre, and in the waning days of his adolescence, before he attempts to obtain his crown, he spends a day learning his lineage from Chiron: “And nigh him Jason, listening eagerly / The tales he told him, asking, now and then, / Strange questions of the race of vanished men . . . . ”
During the difficult northern voyage the Argonauts tell each other the orally transmitted tales of their ancestors and their “golden age,” much as do the Wanderers and the Greek Elders in The Earthly Paradise. As they emerge from a river into the northern sea, Jason exults: “We shall not be forgotten anywhere, / But our deeds told shall free sad folk from care.” The assumption that accounts of brave or unusual human actions will not merely instruct or interest future generations, but also bring them happiness, is basic to Morris’s poetry and conception of art. To be, or strive to be, a hero, is to benefit future generations, to cheer them with knowledge that courage has been possible, and may be still.
Even Circe offers Medea the consolation that her story will be remembered: “And ‘midst all pain and joy, and right and wrong, / Thy name shall be a solace and a song . . . .” When one considers the hideous aspects of Circe’s (accurate) prophecy, the reference to “solace” startles. Apparently time transmutes horror and grief into something rich and strange, which inspires sympathy, and ultimately, comfort. According to Circe, even the gods read significance into human actions, “wishing the earth to teem / With living wills like theirs . . . / That they may have fair stories for their feasts . . . . " A flicker of independence has been granted to humankind so that the gods may “have fair stories for their feasts.”
It is not surprising, then, that the lethality of the Sirens’ seduction is associated with its debilitating, lotus-like release from past memories and cycles of human history: “So while the kingdoms pass away, / Ye sea-beat hardened toilers erst, / Unresting, for vain fame athirst, / Shall be at peace for evermore . . . . “ To the Argonauts, “fame” is exactly what is not vain, when other things have passed.
The Sirens do offer, or claim to offer, a form of selective recall: “But in that lovely land and still / Ye may remember what ye will, / And what ye will, forget for aye.” If one forgets enough of the unpleasant aspects of human life, of course, one would eventually find it incomprehensible. The mariners, in particular, would lose their understanding of the emotional secrets encoded in human history: “Be happy, while old stories sweet, / Half understood, float round your ears . . . . ” Orpheus’s parting retort is appropriate: “Nor yet shall all your toil be vain, / Nor ye forget, O Minyae.”
Once back in Greece the Argonauts related their adventures to properly appreciative audiences, and Jason’s sons touchingly reenact their father’s adventures. The Greeks preserve the Argo near Neptune’s temple, where the passing wind “tells stories of the kingly band,” and each year for some years they stage a full-scale reenactment in the Argo of the mariners’ voyage, complete with songs, flowers, wine, and maidens dressed as Juno and Iris.
Jason’s final decline is sadly reflected by a general deterioration in his memory of the voyage. Not only have the annual rites of the Argo been suspended, but when Jason heeds Glauce’s request to narrate the voyage, Medea fades out of his recollections and Glauce into them, a fundamental distortion of Medea’s crucial role. Even his sudden memory of the angry warning of the “Snatchers” on the eve of his wedding fades before the dawn. At Jason’s death, however, the Greeks commemorate him with the tributes appropriate to a man whose life, in its prime, had been essentially pious, as well as energetic and heroically successful: “They laid him in a marble tomb carved fair / With histories of his mighty deeds . . . . ”
In The Defence of Guenevere, Morris was already preoccupied with unremembered heroes, victims of the injustice of imperfect historical transmission. Jason’s narrator also expresses regret that his knowledge of ancient heroes may be incomplete: “though mayhap, one by one, / These grew to be forgotten ’neath the sun, / Being neither poor of heart, nor weak of wit, / More than those others whose crowned memories sit / Enthroned amid the echoing minstrelsy . . . .” The narrator maintains a certain historical ‘piety’ of his own, however; he apologizes to mute inglorious Jasons, but never suggests that the ‘real’ one may have been a whitewashed villain, and grants to the great deeds of the past a kind of idealized, emblematic truth.
Perhaps we should trust the narrator, in this case, for the poem’s central bearer of this truth is no mere tellers of tales, or pious entrail-reader, but the great singer Orpheus himself. His lyric meditations and exhortations entertain and hearten the mariners and dissuade them from defection. Most importantly, they define the very nature of their quest and the meaning of their lives. During the voyage, Orpheus is to some extent a subjective parallel to Jason, and he contributes as much as Jason to the poem’s fundamental unity. He is the last and most important of the Argonauts to arrive for the voyage, and the most carefully individuated. During the voyage, he sings four songs of increasing poignancy and complexity, which bind together its familiar episodes in a coherent thematic pattern.
He sings the first song as the mariners begin to row. In this he acknowledges the sea’s dread power to destroy or deliver, but asserts the ultimate power of history to preserve the spirit of their deeds. The oceans will pass away, but human memory will not pass away. Midway through their bleak northern journey, Orpheus sings one of Morris’s first efforts to oppose exploitation with a poetic vision of a golden age:
‘Alas! for Saturn’s days of gold,
Before the mountain men were bold
To dig up iron from the earth
Wherewith they slaughter health and mirth,
And bury hope far underground. . . .
“Alas, the vanished days of bliss!
Will no God send some dream of this,
That we may know what it has been?
Many of Morris’s most deeply cherished utopian images already appear in this brief early glimpse of a “vanished” land of free, joyous community—at once a region of memory and of anticipation.
Orpheus’s second song, a prayer to the god of wine, recalls the language of the “Ode to a Nightingale” and “The Lotus-Eaters”: “Thou purple-stained, but not with blood, / who on the edge of some cool wood / Forgettest the grim Indian plain, / And all the strife and all the pain . . . .” Unlike Keats’s narrator or Tennyson’s lotus-eaters, however, Orpheus both assumes the chasm between gods and humans is unbridgeable, and firmly identifies with the latter. The best humans may hope is to achieve some analogue to immortality in profound exultation and narrative song:
“Lyaeus, King! by thee alone
To song may change our tuneless moan,
The murmur of the bitter sea
To ancient tales be changed by thee . . . .
Through thee the doubtful years untried
Seem fair to us and fortunate,
In spite of death, in spite of Fate.”
Orpheus also weeps a few of his own “idle tears”:
Then, as he raised his eyes they saw them shine
In the red torchlight with unwilling tears . . . .
Orpheus’s next song vigorously celebrates the mariners’ entrance into an unexplored Atlantic Ocean: “For surely now if death be near, / Unthought-of is it, and unseen / When sweet is, that hath bitter been.” It is a characteristic of Morris’ poetry that its protagonists anticipate their last moments with a mingled sense of triumph and resignation. Again and again, Morris subsumes a sense of personal and collective loss in fervent poetic appeals to the values of narrative history.
The tenuous vulnerability and “heroism” of such attempts at encouragement and consolation are evident in Orpheus’ last song, an openly dialectical exchange with the Sirens, which is in some respects the climax of the voyage. (Bk. 14). Unlike previous songs, it does not interpret or accompany the action, but guides it, for it protects the mariners from certain death.
To inspire his fellow Argonauts and help them stay alive, Orpheus must reenact in song all in human experience that heartens and affirms life. Orpheus celebrates the joys of each aspect and season of life, and the Sirens respond with the appropriate Ecclesiastes-like memento mori (cmp. the seasonal cycle of The Earthly Paradise). Orpheus’s fond evocations and the Siren’s antiphonal flytings are the more bittersweet because they mirror each other so closely. Orpheus and his countersingers both find life intensely beautiful and sharply limited; they differ only in their response to the poignancy of that limitation. The Sirens offer a Palace-of-Art like withdrawal from time: “No vain desire of unknown things / Shall vex you there, no hope or fear / Of that which never draweth near . . . .” Orpheus insists that, even in death, all that will have mattered is the human, natural world of which he was once permitted to be a part:
Then, helpless, shall I call to mind,
Thoughts of the sweet flower-scented wind,
The dew, the gentle rain at night,
The wonder-working snow and white,
The song of birds, the water’s fall,
The sun that maketh bliss of all;
Yea, this our toil and victory,
The tyrannous and conquered sea.
Orpheus even imagines his body lying beneath the sea-fowl; he remains conscious, at least in song, of the gentle sounds of animal life after death. All that remains of human life is the nobility of effort and achievement against a background of natural elements: “Yea, this our toil and victory, / The tyrannous and conquered sea.”
In the garden of the Hesperides Morris presents one image of an utopian golden age which partly inspires Orpheus’s vision. As an adolescent Morris had read with delight Tennyson’s early poem, “The Hesperides,” and his description here of the garden owe much to Tennyson’s poems. Directly after the Argonauts escape the Sirens, they approach what at first seems to be a similar temptation, a beautiful garden in which three sisters and a dragon guard golden apples. In this Royal Botanical Garden of the gods, examples of every earthly plant in perpetual bloom surround a river of life. The sisters explain that the garden remains to commemorate what was once, in the golden age, the state of the whole world. Even the gods desire to enter it, but cannot; a watch has been set, as at Eden. The sisters describe the perfect social stasis which they guard: “while oft the very Gods are sad / With knowing what the Fates shall do.” Unlike Tennyson’s Eden, this one is egalitarian and democratic, and it lacks the melancholy knowledge of future evil.
The voyagers yearn to land, but the wise sisters themselves agree with Medea’s warning against the island, and refuse to share their knowledge of eternity with humans, lest it cause those who learn it to despise time. Their almost elegiac remarks are near-dialectical inversions of the Sirens’ specious promises: “Nay, rather let them find their life, / Bitter and sweet, fulfilled of strife, / Restless with hope, vain with regret, / Trembling with fear, most strangely set / ’Twixt memory and forgetfulness . . . . ” The passage’s complementary invocation of rest after labor is deeply and characteristically Morrisian.
Such lyric interludes in Jason are the most beautiful and reflective passages of the poem, and they express Morris’ deepest and most recurrent preoccupations. For Morris, only intense, sustained human activity creates human history, which preserves the past, confirms threatened identity, and may hearten otherwise-isolated persons of a future time. In the voice of Orpheus, Morris mediates in Jason on the nature of ideal forms of society and life, the inevitable shortfall of human hopes for timeless perfection, and the need for lived struggle and joyful rest. Orpheus’s depth and intensity clearly embody his creator’s emotions more directly than the straightforwardly active Jason, and so it seems only appropriate that he should reappear as the hero of one of Morris’s deepest and most personal narratives, “The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice,” written for The Earthly Paradise but not published until after his death, in 1915.
An uncertain feminist but temperamental egalitarian, Morris portrayed Medea as a woman thwarted in the exercise of substantial powers and abilities, and driven to madness by the injustices she suffered at Jason’s hand. Arguably the example of this interpretation influenced subsequent Victorian representations of classical heroines, such as Augusta Webster’s “Medea in Athens,” in significant ways.
Morris found Apollonius’s portrait of Medea congenial, but he also revised it considerably. The Medea of the Argonautica set marriage as an apparent condition for her aid, but Morris suppressed such quasi-‘Victorian’ preoccupations with marital status. Instead his Medea is untrammeled by thoughts of prudence or safety as she sets sail with nearly sixty men and Atalanta, the only female Argonaut. Even more pointedly, she dismisses Jason’s dutiful promises of lifelong devotion as they warily make their way toward the well-guarded fleece: “Nay. . . let be; / Were thou more fickle than the restless sea, / Still should I love thee, knowing thee for such. . . “ (IX, 21-24).
In the Argonautica, Medea had incited Jason to kill and dismember her brother Absyrtus. In Morris’s text it is Jason who decides to kill Absyrtus, but Medea seeks absolution for them both from “my father’s godlike sister,” Circe. In the Argonautica Jason had assumed a distinctly protective role, and he and Medea visited Circe together, but Morris’s Medea ventures forth alone to seek audience with the “God-begotten wonder, Circe . . . the wise of women,” warning the Argonauts sternly that “all that wander there / Are but lost men and their undoers fair.”
Similarly Circe is accorded greater dignity by Morris than by classical authors. In the Odyssey and Apollonius’s Argonautica, Circe was an irredeemably vicious seductress, but in Morris’s Jason she is an essentially honest and intermittently helpful if ambivalent figure. Not Circe herself but the island’s hetairai lead their victims down the garden path “Into the dark cool cloister, when again / They came not forth, but four-foot, rough of mane, / Uncouth with spots, baneful of tooth and claw” (XIII, 171-73). In the account in Lemprière's Classical Dictionary, Circe declined to expiate Jason and Medea at all, and Apollonius’s rather sanguinary counterpart disavowed Medea when she learned what the latter had done: “Poor wretch, an evil and shameful return hast thou planned . . . begone from my halls . . . for never will I approve thy counsels and thy shameful flight” (IV, 740-49). Morris’s Circe, by contrast, advises Medea to sacrifice a hundred “milkwhite bulls,” a hundred sheep and “many a jar of unmixed honied wine” to her grandfather, “the all-seeing Sun,” after which ”the deed thy Jason’s spear has done / Mayst thou forget . . . . ”
Morris’s Circe also regrets that she cannot avert the crimes and sorrows she is able to foretell, and broods about the burdens and complexities of her foreknowledge: “O child, I know all things, indeed, but why / Shouldst thou know all, nor yet be wise therefore? / Me knowledge grieves not, thee should it grieve sore; / Nor knowing, shouldst thou cease to hope or fear” (XIII, 294-97). In Lemprière's as well as Apollonius’s texts, Circe had brusquely commanded Medea to leave. In Morris’s version, she simply urged Medea to depart for her own safety: “Gird up thy raiment, nor run slower now / Than from the amorous boar / Once Daphne ran,” and offers a parting declaration of her affection, “[W]ell I love thee, being so wise and fair.” In effect, Morris’s Circe becomes Medea’s teacher—a more sophisticated counterpart of Charon, mentor to the boy Jason. Medea flees the island, her “fair face shuddering and afraid,” and “set herself her own vext soul to save”; Circe’s predictions effectively enhance Medea’s character and stature within the poem, but her ‘absolution’ brings chilling foreknowledge of ineluctable guilt.
Morris’s abandonment of his early draft’s initial title, “The Deeds of Jason,” marked an implicit shift of focus from heroic ‘feats’ to their antiheroic undoing, and this change in the tale’s tonalities becomes especially clear in the work’s conclusion. Book XVII’s account of Jason’s defection, Medea’s revenge and Jason’s death form a quasi-medieval tragedy of rise, fall and betrayal, which the narrator “tremble[s] in the telling” and compares with the passion and estrangement of Chaucer’s Troilus and Creseyde.
Jason, Medea and their two sons have enjoyed “ten sweet years of rest and peace” in Corinth, before Creon, the city’s ruler, presses Jason to divorce Medea and marry his daughter Glauce. Jason protests at first, though in terms which betray his egotism: “What is there dwelling above ground / That loveth me as this one loveth me? “ (XVII, 126-27) Creon persists, however, and Jason decides that his love for Medea has been “dying in the ten years’s space” (and the narrator-chorus interjects, “Alas for truth!).
In a brief moment of lucidity Jason acknowledges that he is a “wavering traitor, still unsatisfied! / . . . Fool! to cast off the beauty that thou knowst, / Clear-seeing wisdom, better than a host / Against thy foes, and truth and constancy / Thou wilt not know again, whate’er shall be!” In the end, he sends Medea a gratuitously graceless bill of divorcement, offers her money, condemns her as a recidivist sorcerer, and omits mention of the future fate of their two sons. The only rationale he can contrive for this abandonment is the flippant remark that “[t]he times are changed, with them is changed my heart.”
Morris had to find and adapt non-Apollonian models for all of this, for the Argonautica had concluded with Jason and Medea’s return to Greece. A somewhat more amenable classical template offered itself in Euripides’s Medea, whose heroine holds her own in a vituperative final exchange with Euripides’ ambitious and self-serving Jason. Nonetheless Euripides’s Medea was hardly Morris’s tragically demented “wise woman”; she calculated her murders and planned her escape with minute care, reacted with sadistic relish to the news of Glauce's and Creon’s deaths, and insisted that her children “must die at all events, and since they must I who gave them birth shall kill them” (Loeb Classical Library edition, 1994, ll. 1238-42).
By contrast Morris struggled to construct allegedly extenuating circumstances and motivations for Medea’s rage, as he had already done for the murder of Absyrtus in book XII. Euripides had dwelt on the protracted agony of Glauce’s death, but in Morris's account her death occurs quickly. Seneca and Lemprière’s Medea had murdered the children in full view of their father, and in Euripides’ version they screamed in terror offstage. Morris’s Medea, by contrast, insists (unconvincingly) that she “would have died to save” her children, and assigns the guilt of their murder to Jason, that “traitor! who didst bring them here / Into this cruel world, this lovely bier / Of youth and love, and joy and happiness” (XVII, 971-73). The killings themselves occur offstage, and the children are descried euphemistically as “Two little helpless bodies side by side / Smiling as though in sweet sleep they had died” (1184-86. Instead, Morris focuses his narrative lens on Medea’s incoherent grief: “O sons, with what sweet counsels and what tears / Would I have hearkened to the hopes and fears / Of your first loves l . . . / But now—but now—“ XVII, ll. 952-56).
In his entry for “Jason,” Lemprière had provided a laconic and rather legalistic summary of the basic plot outlines Morris followed (with one exception):
Jason’s partiality for Glauce, the daughter of the king of the country, afterwards disturbed their matrimonial happiness, and Medea was divorced, that Jason might more freely indulge his amorous propensities. This infidelity was severely revenged by Medea, who destroyed her children in the presence of their father [a plot element omitted by Morris]. After this separation from Medea, Jason lived an unsettled and melancholy life.
Morris constructed his protective “defense” of Medea along similar lines, as a plea of temporary insanity, or at least tragic confusion. The result—as Martha Mench wryly noted—effectively “subdued [Medea’s] ferocious nature while retaining her ferocious deeds” (“The Argonautic Tradition,” 206).
Even so, the revisionist sexual economy of Morris’s portraits of Medea and Circe in The Life and Death of Jason embodied newer, more egalitarian forms of poetic sensibility, and these insights persist in later portraits of strong-willed, tormented and “interesting” women—Stenoboea and Gudrun in The Earthly Paradise, the ‘other’ Gudrun in Sigurd the Volsung, and the “Lady” in Water of the Wondrous Isles. Morris’s Medea is too rhetorically deferential to be characterized as “feminist,” but her relative sexual autonomy and canny powers of uninhibited action were strikingly unconventional in their time.