Icelandic Journals: Notes on 1871 Journey

Monday, July 17, 1871

'as swart as a gypsy'
There are anecdotes about crack German pilots, on trans-Atlantic flights in the 1930's and re-fueling in Reykjavik, being puzzled by such dark-skinned Icelanders, here in the home of the Vikings, where they expected to meet true Aryans. The answer is simple enough. The original settlers brought with them thousands of Irish slaves.

'a time to be remembered'
Morris's prose here, in the several dozen lines describing their first day in the saddle, neatly captures his excitement at the 'clatter' and 'rattle' and 'cracking of whips,' as the party sets forth. And his descriptions of the passing scenes are exemplary. Here is his rendering of the first of many rivers they cross. It 'runs through a soft grassy plain into a bight of the firth; it is wonderfully clear and its flowery green lips seemed quite beautiful to me in the sunny evening' Such prose is magical. At the end of that long day, near mid-night, Morris goes out with Evans to look for game, and he remarks on the strange light, 'wonderfully clear but not like daylight for there were no shadows at all: I turned back often from the slopes to look down on the little camp and the grey smoke that that now began to rise up, and felt an excitement and pleasure not easy to express.' Not easy, perhaps, but he makes it seem so. And Morris's somber and surprised and sometimes fearful reactions to cliffs, bogs, lava wastes, and the like, are also sharp and convincing, among the best we have from the many travellers who have attempted to describe Iceland's unique terrain. For commentary on these travellers, see my article, 'Iceland on the Brain.'

'a steep green bank'
This phrase, and one a few lines earlier ('a bank of sweet grass') evidently encouraged Alex Jones, in a recent novel, to assert that Morris had brought along Darwin's recently published Origin of Species. So Jones has Morris quote Darwin's famous lines on 'the entangled bank' and then go maundering off on the plight of British workers, on the survival of the fittest, and the like. It is one of many liberties, often silly, that Jones takes with the IJ, in his Morris in Iceland (New South Wales: Puncher and Waterman, 2008, pp. 23-7). See my review: Journal of William Morris Studies, 20.2(2013).

'my shooting which I did not like at all'
A comment from Mackail, particularly his recollection of Morris's complaint, is pertinent here, and memorable: 'Mr. Evans did most of the shooting that was done on the journey; Morris took no pleasure in it. “I had to see to my gun,” he complains later, “which was rather a heavy charge all through the journey, wanting as much attention as a baby with croup.” (Life, vol. 1, p 254)