Icelandic Journals: Notes on 1871 Journey

by Gary Aho

Thursday, July 6, 1871

‘We found Brown waiting to see us off’ 

Ford Madox Brown (1821-1893), the well-known Victorian painter, was a good friend to Morris and Janey during the Red House years and thus in on its decorations and then the advent of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner, and Company in 1861.  His design work for the Firm was important, particularly on stained glass, tiles, and furniture.  When Morris re-organized the firm in 1875, Brown left angrily, receiving a buy-out of 1,000 pounds.  But here, a few years earlier, he’s obviously still on good terms with Morris and Charles Faulkner.  What makes this bon voyage somewhat surprising is that he was even closer to Rossetti, now ensconced at Kelmscott with Janey and the girls. That situation was a primary reason for Morris’s trip to Iceland.

‘Magnusson’s womankind’

Morris’s flippant way of referring to Eirikur’s wife, Sigridur, and her sister, Maria Einarsdottir (he does it again a few days later; see July 8) provokes an amusing mistake in Fiona MacCarthy’s excellent biography, when she says that the ‘Lilja’ who leaves the boat a week later (see July 13) is Magnusson’s sister-in-law. It’s actually a book he wrote. This mistake also indicates the overly casual ways that Eirikur has been treated by Morris biographers and critics, too willing to accept what Mackail or May Morris had to say about Morris’s guide through matters Icelandic.

‘fidgety’

Magnusson gets to Kings Cross late, and Morris thus gets ‘very fidgety,’ and then when he does finally arrive he quarrels with a cabman and thus ‘fidgeted’ Morris again, so this was indeed, as Morris says at the outset, a ‘fidgety afternoon.’  I’m drawing attention to this word—it appears three times in these opening lines--because Mackail used it (Life, vol. 1, p. 242) to describe Morris’s erratic temperment, on display here when he fidgets and when he says, ‘that morning my heart had failed me and I felt as if I should have been glad of any accident that had kept me at home, yet now it would have seemed unbearable to sleep in London another night.’ And Mackail, at the outset of his discussion of the IJ, quotes this same overwrought confession, surely a strange opening for a travel narrative.  But it invites us to recall the situation at Kelmscott and the reasons for this trip to Iceland, reasons that Mackail carefully never makes explicit. Fiona MacCarthy makes a nice point, pertinent here, when she says that the IJ have at times a ‘peculiar quality that arises from the sub-text, revealing the responses that he kept from his fellow travellers, emotions that in a sense subverted the male camaraderie, whole networks of private apprehensions and joys.’  (WM, A Life for Our Times, p. 281)

‘forges of Darlington’

Darlington was a manufacturing center, particularly for Britain’s railway industry.  Here were made the locomotives and the steel rails they ran upon.  Blake’s ‘satanic mills’and Dickens’ Coketown come to mind, as Morris reacts to ‘the fires of the ugly sheds’ at Darlington, and to the countryside further north, ‘most haplessly blotched by coal . . .simply horrible.’

Warkworth

Morris’s mood changes as they move north into ‘cleaner’ country and then at the seaside  a ‘glimpse of a very beautiful old castle.’ Warkworth was a fortress site as early as the Norman Conquest, and massively rebuilt in the 16th century. The castle is mentioned in several scenes in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2, ‘a worm-eaten hold of ragged stone.’

 Holy Island

The monastery here, Lindisfarne, was sacked by Vikings in 793, and an entry in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for that year,  ‘Deliver us Oh Lord, from the fury of the Northmen,’ was well-known to every British schoolboy.  But Morris, off to another island destination of those early rovers, chooses not to comment, except to say that it lies in a ‘poetical-looking bay.’ Morris, throughout the IJ, is prone to see the poetry in land and skyscapes.                     

Berwick, border ballads

Morris’s descriptions of the long bridge here are precise and interesting and so too are his thoughts on seeing the countryside just north of Berwick: ‘very rich looking with fair hills and valleys’ with a ‘wonderfully poetical character about them; not a bit like one’s idea of Scotland, but rather like one’s imagination of what the backgrounds to the border ballads ought to be.’  Berwick, though north of the Tweed, is now part of England, and part of the ‘Debatable Land,’ site of many battles, skirmishes, and feuds, from the 13th century until the boundary was established in 1552. It is a place rife with tradition and story, stirring tales that another famed British writer collected a few generations earlier.  Scott’s three volume edition, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, first appeared in 1802.  Morris knew this ‘minstrelsy’ well. In an 1895 letter, he writes to a German doctoral student,  ‘I may say that I am fairly steeped in medievalism generally; but the Icelandic sagas, our own border ballads, and Froissart  . . . have had as much influence over me as, or more than, anything else.’  (Kelvin, volume 4, p. 338).  And he had planned, alas never finished, a Kelmscott Press edition of the Border Ballads.  The links Morris makes here at Berwick between landscape and imagination seem significant, particularly as Morris embarks for Iceland, whose landscapes he’ll famously and uniquely describe.