Icelandic Journals: Notes on 1871 Journey

by Gary Aho

Saturday July 8, 1871

Diana

Morris’s description of this Danish steamer, ‘the long low vessel with three raking masts,’ is nicely detailed.  And in a letter to Webb, Morris drew a simple tripartite diagram of the Diana’s masts and their rigging.  A photograph, taken in 1885, testifies to the accuracy of Morris’s precise and clear descriptions, both verbal and schematic.

 ‘went to write my letters in a rather excited frame of mind’ 

On the 1871 journey Morris wrote letters home three times:  from Granton, on July 8; from Reykjavik, on July 16; and from Stykkisholm, on August 16.  Only two of the Granton letters survive:  one to his mother, and the other—mentioned above—to Webb (July 7).  A week later, he posted eight or nine letters from Reykjavik.  We know the precise number because in one of the surviving four, to Louisa Baldwin, he says, excusing his brevity, ‘I have 8 letters to write, and only a limited time of privacy to do it in.’  And then there’s a brief report to his mother, and, finally, two letters to  Kelmscott, a longish and loving one to Janey, and a shorter missive to his ‘littles,’ to Jenny and May, this with a sketch of an Icelandic mountain and a wonderful description of porpoises, ‘like oiled pigs.’  Another letter from the 1871 journey survives, this one written on August 11, and sent off to Kelmscott from a port in western Iceland (Kelvin, Volume 1, pp. 140-47). [May Morris reproduces these last three letters in her Introduction to the Icelandic Journals, Collected Works, Volume 8.]  Two weeks later, back in Reykjavik, Morris eagerly seeks letters from home, hurrying to the post office, wondering ‘why doesn’t one drop down, or faint, or do something of that sort, when it comes to the uttermost in such matters?’  Eleven letters awaited him:  ‘I opened one from Ellis there and then, thinking that from him I should hear any bad news in the simplest form,’ and he admits to being in a state of ‘terror.’ Again we’re invited, or forced, to recall the situation at Kelmscott.  Six letters survive from the 1873 trip, three from Granton, three from Reykjavik.  (Kelvin, Volume 1, pp. 193-97).  Of particular interest is the letter he sent to Janey from Reykjavik on July 18, 1873, which concludes ‘My dear, how I wish I was back . . . I am so anxious for you too.  It was a grievous parting for us the other day. And this shabby letter! But how can I help it, not knowing whether I am on my head or my heels.’ (Kelvin, I, p. 196).  Two years on and the situation at Kelmscot has obviously not improved.  The Iceland letters provide important clues to that situation. 

‘very like P.P. Marshall’

A surveyor whose work for the Firm was minimal. Mackail says that his inclusion was ‘rather unaccountable’  (Life, Volume 1, p 147). And, like Brown, he was bitter when Morris took over the Firm in 1875. Marshall was, moreover, a notorious drunkard, and I suspect that the fellow he’s compared to here is a bit in his cups.   Georgie would have recognized and appreciated the reference.

Berufirth in the East 

 As Morris says in a footnote here, this itinerary change turned out to be a ‘gain . . . as we saw thereby some of the most strangest and most striking scenery in Iceland.’  And it was a gain for us as well, for it led to one of Morris’s finest poems, ‘Iceland First Seen.’   

Blue Peter hoisted

Under international regulations all ocean-going ships were required to signal their intent to leave harbor by running up a blue flag with a white square.  This is the ‘Blue Peter’ and here the Diane has picked up steam and is heading out, but without raising the signal flag.  That Morris draws attention to ‘Evans’ great disgust’ at this infraction is interesting and indicative of Morris’s take on the military mind-set.  See his remark, later, on Evans and shooting (July 26).

The four of us sat down to whist

This card game, with its bids, tricks, trumps, and the like, is similar to pinochole and bridge.  Morris played whist with Faulkner and other members of the ‘set’ at Oxford, and during the Red House years and on these two journeys, but later the pastime is never mentioned.  His evenings, what might be considered leisure time for others, were taken up, as he puts it in an 1875 letter, with either ‘bread and cheese work’ [for the Firm] or with ‘pleasure work with books’   (Kelvin, Volume 1, p. 248).  And for the next two decades his ‘work,’ whether for bread, for pleasure, for politics, increased in depth and scope.  Morris had no time for card games.