Boos, Florence. The Pattern of William Morris's 'The Earthly Paradise.' Mellen, 1990.
Faulkner, Peter. Against the Age: An Introduction to William Morris. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1980, pp. 37-46. [see selections below]
Faulkner, Peter. William Morris: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973, pp. 50-76.
Gibbs. Allegra. "William Morris' Use of Classical Sources in The Life and Death of Jason: A Classicist's Reading." M. Litt., University of Edinburgh, 1992.
Kermode, Helen Sybil. "The Classical Sources of Morris's Life and Death of Jason." Primitiae: Essays in English Literature by Students of the University of Liverpool. Liverpool and London, 1912, 158-82.
Kirchhoff, Frederick. William Morris. Boston: Twayne, 1979, pp. 61-66. [see selections below]
Mench, Martha D. The Argonautic Tradition in William Morris’ s “The Life and Death of Jason”: A Study in Poetic Eclecticism. Dissertation Abstracts 29 (1968): 1212A Yale Unversity.
Oberg, Charlotte. A Pagan Prophet: William Morris. Charlottesville: University of Virginia, 1978, pp. 75-85. [see selections below]
Silver, Carole. The Romance of William Morris. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1982, 50-55. [see selections below]
Tompkins, J. M. William Morris: An Approach to the Poetry. London: Cecil Woolf, 1984, 89-95.
The Major Source:
Appollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica. New York: Macmillan, 1912. Loeb Classical Library.
Morris also consulted Lemprière's Classical Dictionary, Pindar's Odes and Eudipides's Medea. He may also have drawn on the Odyssey, Ovid's Heroides, Diodorus's History, and the Argonautica of Apollodorus.
Contemporary Reviews of The Life and Death of Jason:
Joseph Knight, unsigned review, Sunday Times
June 9th, 1867, no. 2304, 7
Since the appearance of The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems, two lustres have almost elapsed. That this time, long as it seems, has not been fruitlessly occupied by Mr. Morris, the publication of Jason, and the announcement of a second work of equal or superior pretensions, are enough to vouch. Very singular has been the fate of Mr. Morris’s earlier work. As regards the general public it was a failure so complete that its author, if unsupported by self-knowledge and the promptings of genius, might well have retired in discouragement from the strife for fame. With a select few, however, comprising men of highest culture and those whose opinions upon poetry have most weight, it speedily became a remarkable favourite. Such a volume – so thoroughly imbued with antique spirit, so full of wonderful colour, so strange, mystical, and unearthly, yet withal so profoundly poetical – had seldom before been seen, and at its first appearance stamped its author a man of highest mark. A second volume from the same author has long been hoped for, and at length is here.
The first feeling on glancing at its contents, or, indeed, at reading its title, is regret. So completely has the fame of Mr. Morris been associated with Gothic art that it is not without a twinge of pain we see him desert it for Classic. To the man who can write such poems as ‘The Chapel in Lyoness,’ ‘Rapunzel,’ ‘Shameful Death,’ or ‘The Haystack in the Floods,’ a mine of wealth is open which none but he can explore. If he leave its treasures unrevealed, they must remain for ever unknown. The wealth of classic subjects is opened out to us by many explorers, and the labours of the last comer might well, seeing what need there is of them elsewhere, have been spared. During a perusal of the work, however, such feelings as we have indicated rapidly disappear. Great as has been Mr. Morris’s success in dealing with Arthurian legends and subjects drawn from mediaeval life, it is not greater than that he has obtained in his treatment of one of the oldest and most characteristic of classical stories.
The Life and Death of Jason is, indeed, one of the most remarkable poems of this or any other age. It claims the dignity of an epic having a ‘dramatic fable,’ and the ‘revolutions, discoveries, and disasters,’ on which, in the epic, Aristotle insists. The manner of Jason’s death, moreover – for which Mr. Morris has classic warranty – is such as to bring the work within the limits of the Epopee, rendering it ‘conversant with one whole and perfect action which has a beginning, middle, and end.’ This action is, of course, the Argonautic expedition, to undertake which Jason, unknown to himself, is divinely summoned. By this expedition and its results alone he is remembered, and his death is due to Argo, the vessel which has been the companion, and, in part, the means of his triumph.
In structure, moreover, The Life and Death of Jason approaches closely the celebrated epics of antiquity. Its length is certainly epic. It consists of seventeen books, whereof two contains over one thousand lines, the aggregate number of lines being almost identical with that of the Paradise Lost. An epic poem, then, in rhymed heroic stanza, is a truly remarkable experiment for a writer in modern days to attempt. Tried, however, by the tests ordinarily applied to epic poetry, Jason would scarcely claim our praise. No previous work, in fact, resembles it in many important particulars, and it can scarcely be assigned to any class. Treatment of subject, and the nature of some of the episodes, recall the Odyssey – with which, indeed, the book has more in common than it has with any other work. In the manner in which the story is narrated we are at times reminded of some of the more than half-forgotten ‘heroic’ poems of the seventeenth century, such as the Pharonnida of William Chamberlayne. Ben Jonson, we know, on the testimony of Drummond of Hawthornden, projected an epic poem in rhymed couplets of ten syllables, but he never seems to have attempted to put his scheme into execution. This metre, he maintained, was best suited to the dignity of epic poetry.
Mr. Morris’s management of this metre is, however, so different from that of any writer past or present that it scarcely seems necessary to inquire who were his predecessors in its employment. No other verse has any likeness to it. The rhymed couplets of Pope have hardly more resemblance to it than the blank verse of Milton or the Alexandrines of Drayton. Mr. Morris’s work, whatever its faults, is profoundly original, and bears the impress of the strongest conceivable individuality. It is not easy to give an idea of it by extracts, or, indeed, to judge of it by parts. Taken as a whole, it strikes us as one of the most beautiful, complete, and unearthly poems we have ever read. It is classical in thought and feeling, but its classicism is all unlike that of Swinburne, or Landor, or Tennyson, or Keats. No single idea about it seems to have even the slightest reference to any modern thought or feeling. In The Defence of Guenevere a noticeable charm was the utter unworldliness, so to speak, of the verse, its total divergence from all known models, and the manner in which its very metre carried the mind away from every-day life. Even stronger is this feeling as we read the passages of Jason. Its verse has a strange melody, the full sense and significance of which are not at first acquired. Its pictures are sharp, well-defined, and often of superlative beauty.
The poem is full of colour, not such rich and glowing hues as belong to the early volume, but wonderful colour nevertheless. Pale opal-like tints it exhibits, such as on a spring morning the sky possesses an hour before sunrise, or such as are offered by a faint and distant vision of Northern Lights. The melody of the versification is perfect. A frequent use of particular words adds to the dreamy monotony which the author appears to have studied. Few works of equal pretensions have had less heat and passion.
Here, in fact, is the most striking defect of the poem. It is too destitute of fire and glow. Strangely little is made of the dramatic opportunities offered. Yet if the poem does not rise it does not sink. It is as passionlessly beautiful as an antique bust. Its story follows so closely the common legends of Jason, it is needless to describe it. The birth of Jason and his nurture by Cherion occupy the first book. His return to Iolchos and his determination, after hearing the narration of Pelias, to go in quest of the Golden Fleece, are told in the second. The third contains an account of the various heroes whom desire to join the intended enterprise attracts, and is an imitation of the often-imitated catalogue of ships in the Iliad. Singularly beautiful is this part, the few lines in which the more-important characters, as Atalanta, Hercules, Orpheus, Theseus, or Pirithous, are described being admirable. After the departure of the heroes from Iolchos, the events that occur ere their arrival at Colchis are detailed at no great length; the famous episode of Hypsipylo and the Lemnian women being barely touched upon. Arriving at Æa, the capital of Colchis, the Argonauts are entertained by Æetes with feigned courtesy, and Jason learns the terrible conditions on which alone the fleece can be won. Aided by Medea, the sudden dawn of whose love for the hero is admirably described, Jason commences the enterprise. Æetes sees with dismay the taming of the two brazen bulls, the killing of the dragon, the sowing of its teeth, and the destruction by means of the stone which Medea had provided of the multitude of armed men which arose from the furrows. In the night Jason and Medea obtain the fleece and put to sea. The flaring of the beacon lights which follows is powerfully described. Then follow the murder of Absyrtus, the long journey northwards, the winter in the north, and the homeward journey in the spring. Circe is visited on her island and Medea learns the means by which alone she and Jason can be purified from the blood of Absyrtus. From the snares of the Sirens the travellers are preserved by the song of Orpheus. Arrived in Thessaly Medea first lands and causes the death of Pelias at the hands of his daughters, who think, under her direction to restore him to youth. Jason and his companions are received with applause and shouts of ‘Jason for King! The Conqueror for King!’ The journey to Corinth, Jason’s love for Glauce, and Medea’s terrible revenge are briefly narrated, and the poem ends with the death of Jason, by the falling of a beam of the ship Argo, under shade of which he was sleeping.
To give an idea of the story of this poem is far easier than to describe its versification or explain the secret of its attractions. Jason is a work which can never enjoy a wide popularity, but its readers must include all cultivated lovers of poetry. Those parts of the poem which deserve special attention – we have left ourselves little space to quote – are the descriptions of the gathering of the Argonauts, their departure, the introduction of Medea, her gathering of the baneful drugs, and the scenes in the Island of Circe and of the Sirens. Very little in literature is finer than the contrasted songs of Orpheus and the Sirens, the former proclaiming to the half-conquered mariners the glory of heroic deeds and the reception that awaits them at home; the latter, singing the joys of ease and sensual delight. A song of the golden days of Saturn, is like the famous ‘Happy Age of (54) Gold,’ in the Pastor Fido of Guarini. It is impossible to extract a stanza from the poem without seriously impairing its beauty. Some short specimen of the versification is, however, needed. Medea’s entry to bear to Jason, sleeping, the magic preparations by aid of which his great deeds were to be accomplished, is by no means the best passage in the volume; it can, however, with least injury be separated from the context: -
And last she reached the gilded water-gate
And though nigh breathless, scarce she dared to wait
To fasten up her shallop to the stone,
Which yet she dared not leave; so this being done,
Swiftly by passages and stairs she ran,
Trembling and pale, though not yet seen by man,
Until to Jason’s chamber-door she came.
And there awhile indeed she stayed, for shame,
Rose up against her fear; but mighty love
And the sea-haunting, rose-crowned seed of Jove
O’ermastered both: so, trembling on the pin,
She laid her hand, but ere she entered in
She covered up again her shoulder sweet,
And dropped her dusky raiment o’er her feet,
Then entering the dimly-lighted room,
Where with the lamp dawn struggled through the gloom,
Seeking the prince she peered, who sleeping lay
Upon his gold bed, and abode the day
Smiling, still clad in arms, and round his sword
His fingers met; then she, with a soft word,
Drew nigh him, and from out his slackened hand
With slender rosy fingers drew the brand;
Then kneeling, laid her hand upon his breast,
And said: ‘O Jason, wake up from thy rest,
Perchance from thy last rest, and speak to me’
Many single lines and short stanzas have exceeding beauty, music, and picturesqueness. The description of the home of Erginus, son of Neptune, is very fine: -
Nigh the sea
His father set him, where the laden bee
Flies low across Meander, and falls down
Against the white walls of a merchant town
Men call Miletus.
Here are a few lines the beauty in which is of an altogether different order: -
But far away the sea-beat Minyae
Cast forth the foam as through the growing night
They laboured ever, having small delight
In life all empty of that promised bliss,
In love that scarce can give a dying kiss,
In pleasure ending sweet songs with a wail,
In fame that little can dead men avail,
In vain toil struggling with the fateful stream,
In hope, the promise of a morning dream.
Comment and quotation must, however, both cease. With no ordinary reluctance we take leave of this poem. Musical, clear, and flowing, strangely imaginative and suggestive, presenting pictures of almost incomparable beauty, it is a work of which an epoch may be proud. Its perusal leaves on the mind images of drowsy beauty, which are neither entirely recollections nor quite suggestions, but partake of the nature of each. Whoever loves poetry of the highest order will have this book on his shelves, will dip into it often, and will love it none the less that it will assuredly be ‘caviare to the general.’
A.C. Swinburne, review, Fortnightly Review
July 1867, viii, 19-28
(reprinted in Essays and Studies, London, 1875)
The hardest work and the highest that can be done by a critic studious of the right, is first to discern what is good, and then to discover how and in what way it is so. To do this office for any man during his life is a task essentially difficult, sometimes seemingly ungracious. We demand of the student who stands up as a judge, to show us as he best may, how and why this man excels that, what are the stronger and what the weaker sides of his attempted or achieved work when set fairly by the work of others. For if in some one point at least it does not exceed theirs, it is not work of a high kind, and worthy of enduring study. Who is to say this, who is to prove it, we have first to find out; and found out it must be, if criticism is to be held of more account than the ephemeral cackle of casual praisers and blamers; if it is to be thoughtful and truthful, worthy of an art, handmaid of higher arts. Now, as a rule, men are mistrustful of one who takes leave to judge the work of a fellow-workman. And not without reason or show of reason; for no verdicts more foolish or more false have been delivered than some of those passed by poet upon poet, by painter upon painter. Nor need this be taken as proof of anything base, or partial, or jealous in the speaker’s mind. It is not easy to see at once widely and well. For example, could Byron and Wordsworth have judged better of each other’s work, each might have lost something of fitness for his own. It is a hard law, but a law it is. Against this, however, a counter truth not less grave than this must be weighed. We do not appeal to men ignorant of politics for a verdict on affairs of state, to men unskilled in science on a scientific question. And no matter of science or state is more abstruse and hard to settle than a question of art; nor is any more needful to have settled for us in good time, if only lest accident or neglect, ignorance, or violence, rob us unaware of some precious and irrecoverable thing, not known of or esteemed while safely with us. Consider what all men have lost already and for ever, merely by such base means as these; how much of classic work and mediaeval, how much of Greece, of Italy, of England, has gone from us that we might have kept. For this and other reasons it may be permissible, or pardonable at least, for a student of art to speak now and then on art; so long only as he shall speak honestly and carefully, without overmuch of assumption or deprecation.
Over the first fortunes of a newly-born work of art accident must usually preside for evil or for good. Over the earliest work of the artist whom we are here to take note of, that purblind leader of the blind presided on the whole for evil. Here and there it met with eager recognition and earnest applause; nowhere, if I err not, with just praise or blame worth heeding. It seems to have been now lauded and now decried as the result and expression of a school rather than a man, of a theory or tradition rather than a poet or student. Those who so judged were blind guides of the purblind; reversing thus the undivine office of their god Accident. Such things as were in this book are taught and learnt in no school but that of instinct. Upon no piece of work in the world was the impress of native character ever more distinctly stamped, more deeply branded. It needed no exceptional acuteness of ear or eye to see or hear that this poet held of none, stole from none, clung to none, as tenant, or as beggar, or as thief. Not as yet a master, he was assuredly no longer a pupil.
A little later than this one appeared another volume of poems, not dissimilar in general choice of stories and subjects, perfect where this was imperfect, strong where this was weak; but strong and perfect on that side alone. All that was wanting here was there supplied, but all that was here supplied was wanting there. In form, in structure, in composition, few poems can be more faultless than those of Mr. Tennyson, few faultier than those of Mr. Morris, which deal with the legend of Arthur and Guenevere. I do not speak here of form in the abstract and absolute sense; for where this is wanting, all is wanting; without this there can be no work of art at all. I speak of that secondary excellence always necessary to the perfection, but not always indispensable to the existence of art. These first poems of Mr. Morris were not malformed; a misshapen poem is no poem; as well might one talk of unnatural nature or superhuman manhood; but they are not well clad; their attire now and then has been huddled on; they have need sometimes of combing and trimming. Take that one for example called ‘King Arthur’s Tomb.’ It has not been constructed at all; the parts hardly hold together; it has need of joists and screws, props and rafters. Many able writers of verse whom no miracle could endow with competence to do such work, would have missed the faults as surely as the merits; would have done something where the poet has cared to do nothing. There is scarcely connection here, and scarcely composition. There is hardly a trace of narrative power or mechanical arrangement. There is a perceptible want of tact and practice, which leaves the poem in parts indecorous and chaotic. But where among other and older poets of his time and country, is one comparable for perception and expression of tragic truth, of subtle and noble, terrible and piteous things? where a touch of passion at once so broad and so sure? The figures here given have the blood and breath, the shape and step of life; they can move and suffer; their repentance is as real as their desire; their shame lies as deep as their love. They are at once remorseful for the sin and regretful of the pleasure that is past. The retrospective vision of Launcelot and of Guenevere is as passionate and profound as life. Riding towards her without hope, in the darkness and the heat of the way, he can but divert and sustain his spirit by recollection of her loveliness and her love, seen long since asleep and waking, in another place than this, on a distant night.
Pale in the green sky were the stars, I ween,
Because the moon shone like a tear she shed,
When she dwelt up in heaven a while ago
And ruled all things but God.
Retrospect and vision, natural memories and spiritual, here coalesce; and how exquisite is the retrospect, and how passionate the vision, of past light and colour in the sky, past emotion and conception in the soul! Not in the idyllic school is a chord ever struck, a note ever sounded, so tender and subtle as this. Again, when Guenevere has maddened herself and him with wild words of reproach and remorse, abhorrence and attraction, her sharp and sudden memory of old sights and sounds and splendid irrevocable days finds word and form not less noble and faithful to fact and life. The first words of Arthur bidding her cherish the knight ‘whom all the land called his banner, sword, and shield;’ the long first pressure of Launcelot’s lips on her hand; the passionate and piteous course of love here ended (if ended at all) above the king’s grave dug in part and unwittingly by their wrong-doing; the solitary sound of birds singing in her gardens, while in the lists the noise went on of spears and shouts telling which knight of them all rode here or there; the crying of ladies’ names as men and horses clashed one against another, names that bit like the steel they impelled to its mark; the agony of anger and horror which gives edge and venom to her memory –
Banner of Arthur – with black-bended shield
Sinister-wise across the fair gold ground!
Here let me tell you what a knight you are,
O sword and shield of Arthur! you are found
A crooked sword, I think, that leaves a scar
On the bearer’s arm so be he thinks it straight –
Twisted Malay’s crease, beautiful blue-grey,
Poisoned with sweet fruit – as he found too late,
My husband Arthur, one some bitter day!
– all these points and phases of passion are alike truly and nobly rendered. I have not read the poem for years, I have not the book at hand, and I cite from memory; but I think it would be safe to swear to the accuracy of my citation. Such verses are not forgettable. They are not, indeed, – as are the Idylls of the King – the work of a dexterous craftsman in full practice. Little beyond dexterity, a rare eloquence, and a laborious patience of hand, has been given to the one or denied to the other. These are good gifts and great; but it is better to want clothes than limbs.
The shortcomings of this first book are nowhere traceable in the second now lying before us. A nine years’ space does not lie between them in vain; enough has been learned and unlearned, rejected and attained. Here, indeed, there is not the stormy variety, the lyric ardour of the first book; there is not the passion of the ballads, the change of note and diversity of power, all that fills with life and invigorates with colour the artist’s earlier designs; for not all of this is here needed. Of passion and humour, of impulse and instinct, he had given noble and sufficient proof in manifold ways. But this Jason is a large and coherent poem, completed as conceived; the style throughout on a level with the invention. In direct narrative power, in clear forthright manner of procedure, not seemingly troubled to select, to pick and sift and winnow, yet never superfluous or verbose, never straggling or jarring; in these high qualities it resembles the work of Chaucer. Even against the great master his pupil may fairly be matched for simple sense of right, for grace and speed of step, for purity and justice of colour. In all the noble roll of our poets there has been since Chaucer no second teller of tales, no second rhapsode comparable to the first, till the advent of this one. As with the Greeks, so with us; we have had in lieu of these a lyric and a tragic school; we have also had the subordinate schools, gnomic and idyllic, domestic and didactic. But the old story-singers, the old ‘Saga-men,’ we have no more heard of. As soon might we have looked for a fresh Odyssey from southward, a fresh Njala from northward. And yet no higher school has brought forth rarer poets than this. ‘But,’ it is said, ‘this sort of poetry is a March flower, a child of the first winds and suns of a nation; in May even, much more in August, you cannot have it except by forcing; and forcing it will not bear. A late romance is a hothouse daffodil.’ And so indeed it must usually be. But so it is not here; and the proof is the poem. It could not be done, no doubt, only it has been.
Here is a poem sown of itself, sprung from no alien seed, cut after no alien model; fresh as wind, bright as light, full of the spring and the sun. It shares, of course, the conditions of its kind; it has no time for the subtleties and hardly room for the ardours of tragic poetry. Passion in romance is of its nature subordinate to action; the flowing stream of story hushes and lulls the noise of its gurgling and refluent eddies with a still predominance of sound. To me it seems that there has here been almost too much of this. Only by rare and brief jets does the poet let out the fire of a potent passion which not many others can kindle and direct. For the most part, the river of romance flows on at full, but keeping well to its channel, unvexed by rains and undisturbed by whirlpools. In a word, through great part of this poem there is no higher excellence attempted than that of adventurous or romantic narrative couched in the simplest and fittest forms of poetry. This abstinence is certainly not due to impotence, possibly not to intention, more probably to distaste. Mr. Morris has an English respect for temperance and reserve; good things as drags, but not as clogs. He is not afraid to tackle a passion, but he will not move an inch from his way to tackle it. Tragedy can never be more than the episode of a romance, and romance is rather to his taste than naked tragedy. He reminds us of the knight in Chaucer cutting sharply short the monk’s tragic histories as too piteous for recital, or the very monk himself breaking off the detail of Ugolino’s agony with a reference to Dante for those who can endure it.
The descriptive and decorative beauties of this romance of Jason are excellent above all in this, that, numberless though they be, they are always just and fit. Not a tone of colour, not a note of form, is misplaced or dispensable. The pictures are clear and chaste, sweet and lucid, as early Italian work. There are crowds and processions, battle-pieces and merry-makings, worthy of Benozzo or Carpaccio; single figures or groups of lovers in flowery watery land, worthy of Sandro or Filippo. The sea-pieces are like the younger Lippi’s; the best possible to paint from shore. They do not taste salt or sound wide; but they have all the beauty of the beach. The romance poets have never loved the sea as have the tragic poets; Chaucer simply ignores it with a shiver; even Homer’s men are glad to be well clear of it. Ulysses has no sea-king’s impulse; he fights and beats it, and is glad, and there an end; necessity alone ever drives him off shore. But Aeschylus loves the Oceanides; and Shakespeare, landsman though he were, rejoices in the roll and clash of breakers.
For examples of the excellences we have noted – the chastity of colour and noble justice of composition, the fruitful and faithful touches of landscape incident – almost any page of the poem might be turned up. Compare the Hesperian with the Circean garden, the nameless northern desert lands with the wood of Medea’s transformation, or the seaward bent where Jason ‘died strangely.’ No flower of the landscape is slurred, but no flower is obtrusive; the painting is broad and minute at once, large and sure by dint of accuracy. And there are wonderful touches on it of fairy mystery; weird lights pass over it and wafts of mystical wind; as here: –
There comes a murmur from the shore,
And in the place two fair streams are,
Drawn from the purple hills afar,
Drawn down unto the restless sea,
The hills whose flowers ne’er fed the bee,
The shore no ship has ever seen,
Still beaten by the billows green,
Whose murmur comes unceasingly
Unto the place for which I cry.
All this song of a nymph to Hylas is full of the melody which involves colour and odour, but the two lines marked have in them the marvel and the music of a dream. Compare again this of Orpheus, in his contest with the Sirens: –
O the sweet valley of deep grass,
Wherethrough the summer stream doth pass,
In chain of shallow, and still pool,
From misty morn to evening cool; . . . .
[quotation of 16 lines here omitted]
Not more noble in colour, but more fervent, is the next picture: –
Nigh the vine-covered hillocks green,
In days agone, have I not seen
The brown-clad maidens amorous,
Below the long rose-trellised house,
Dance to the querulous pipe and shrill,
When the grey shadow of the hill
Was lengthening at the end of day?
[quotation of 23 lines omitted]
Nor is any passage in the poem pitched in a higher and clearer key than the first hymn of Orpheus as Argo takes the sea: –
O bitter sea, tumultuous sea,
Full many an ill is wrought by thee!
Unto the washers of the land
Thou holdest out thy wrinkled hand;
And when they leave the conquered town,
Whose black smoke makes thy surges brown,
Driven between them and the sun
As the long day of blood is done,
From many a league of glittering waves
Thou smilest on them and their slaves.
The rest is not less lofty in tone and sure in touch, but too long for an excerpt. As noble is the song of triumph at p. 217, which should be set by the side of this, to which it is in some sort antiphonal.
But the root of the romance lies of course in the character of Medea, and here, where it was needfullest to do well, the poet has done best. At her first entrance the poem takes new life and rises out of the atmosphere of mere adventure and incident. The subdued and delicate ardour of the scene in Jason’s chamber, following as it does on the ghastly beauty of that in the wood of the Three-formed, is proof enough and at once with how strong and soft a touch the picture will be completed. Her incantations, and her flight with Jason, have no less of fanciful and tender power. The fifteenth book, where she beguiles Pelias to death at the hands of his daughters, is a sample of flawless verse and noble imagination unsurpassed by any here. For dramatic invention and vivid realism of the impossible, which turns to fair and sensible truth the wildest dreams of legend, there has been no poet for centuries comparable. But the very flower and crest of this noble poem is the final tragedy at Corinth. Queen, sorceress, saviour, she has shrunk or risen to mere woman; and not in vain before entering the tragic lists has the poet called on that great poet’s memory who has dealt with the terrible and pitiful passion of women like none but Shakespeare since.
Would that I
Had but some portion of that mastery
That from the rose-hung lanes of woody Kent
Through these five hundred years such songs have sent
To us, who, meshed within this smoky net
Of unrejoicing labour, love them yet.
And thou, O Master! – Yea, my Master still,
Whatever feet have scaled Parnassus’ hill,
Since like thy measures, clear, and sweet, and strong,
Thames’ stream scarce fettered bore the bream along
Unto the bastioned bridge, his only chain –
O Master, pardon me, if yet in vain
Thou art my Master, and I fail to bring
Before men’s eyes the image of the thing
My heart is filled with: thou whose dreamy eyes
Beheld the flush to Cressid’s cheeks arise,
As Troilus rode up the praising street,
As clearly as they saw thy townsmen meet
Those who in vineyards of Poictou withstood
The glittering horror of the steel-topped wood.
Worthy, indeed, even of the master-hand is all that follows. Let the student weigh well the slight but great touches in which the fitful fury and pity and regret of the sufferer are given; so delicate and accurate that only by the entire and majestic harmony of tragedy will he discern the excellence and justice of every component note.
Ah! shall I, living underneath the sun,
I wonder, wish for anything again,
Or ever know what pleasure means, and pain?
And for these deeds I do; and thou the first,
O woman, whose young beauty has so cursed
My hapless life, at least I save thee this –
The slow descent to misery from bliss, &c.
To come upon this part of the poem is as the change from river to sea (Book XII.), when wind and water had a larger savour in lip and nostril of the Argonauts. Note well the new and piteous beauty of this: –
Kindly I deal with me, mine enemy;
Since swift forgetfulness to thee I send.
But thou shalt die – his eyes shall see thine end –
Ah! if thy death alone could end it all!
But ye – shall I behold you when leaves fall,
In some sad evening of the autumn-tide?
Or shall I have you sitting by my side
Amidst the feast, so that folk stare and say,
‘Sure the grey wolf has seen the queen to-day’?
[quotation of 14 ½ lines omitted]
Rarely but in the ballad and romance periods has such poetry been written, so broad and sad and simple, so full of deep and direct fire, certain of its aim, without finish, without fault. The passion from hence fills and burns to a close; the verse for a little is as the garment of Medea steeped in strange moisture as of tears and liquid flame to be kindled by the sun.
O sons, with what sweet counsels and what tears
Would I have hearkened to the hopes and fears
Of your first loves: what rapture had it been
Your dear returning footsteps to have seen
Amidst the happy warriors of the land;
But now – but now – this is a little hand,
Too often kissed since love did first begin
To win such curses as it yet shall win,
When after all bad deeds there comes a worse,
Praise to the Gods! ye know not how to curse.
But when in some dim land we meet again
Will ye remember all the loss and pain?
Will ye the form of children keep for aye
With thoughts of men? and ‘Mother,’ will ye say,
‘Why didst thou slay us ere we came to know
That men die? hadst thou waited until now,
An easy thing it had been then to die,
For in the thought of immortality
Do children play about the flowery meads,
And win their heaven with a crown of weeds.’
O children! that I would have died to save,
How fair a life of pleasures might ye have,
But for your mother: –nay, for thee, for thee,
For thee, O traitor! who didst bring them here
Into this cruel world, this lovely bier
Of youth and love, and joy and happiness,
That unforeseeing happy fools still bless.
It should now be clear, or never, that in this poem a new thing of great price has been cast into the English treasure-house. Nor is the cutting and setting of the jewel unworthy of it; art and instinct have wrought hand in hand to its perfection. Other and various fields await the workman who has here approved himself a master, acceptable into the guild of great poets on a footing of his own to be shared or disputed by no other. Strained clear and guided straight as now, his lofty lyrical power must keep all its promise to us. Diffusion is in the nature of a romance, and it cannot be said that here the stream has ever overflowed into marshland or stagnated in lock or pool. Therefore we do not blame the length and fulness of so fair a river; but something of barrier or dam may serve to concentrate and condense the next. Also, if we must note the slightest ripples of the water-flies that wrinkle it, let us set down in passing that there are certain slight laxities or perversities of metre which fret the ear and perplex the eyes, noticeable only as the least shortcoming is noticeable in great work. Elision, for example, is a necessity, not a luxury, or metre. This law Chaucer, a most loyal versifier, never allows himself to slight after the fashion of his follower. But into these straits of technical art we need not now steer. So much remains unremarked, so much unsaid; so much of beauty slighted, of uncommended excellence; that I close these inadequate and hurried notes with a sense of grave injustice done. To the third book of Mr. Morris we look now, not for the seal of our present judgment, but for the accomplishment of our highest hopes; for a fresh honour done to English art, a fresh delight to us, and a fresh memory for the future.
Perhaps in all this noble passage of poetry there is nothing nobler than this bitter impulse of irony, this fiery shame and rage of repentance, which here impels Guenevere to humiliate herself through her lover, and thus consummate the agony of abasement. ‘False and fatal as banner, or shield, or sword, wherein is he better than a peasant’s dangerous and vulgar implement, as fatal to him it may be, by carelessness or chance, as a king’s weapon to the king if handled amiss?’ And yet for all this she cannot but cleave to him; through her lover she scourges herself; it is suicide in her to slay him; but even so his soul must needs be saved – ‘so as by fire.’ No poet about to start on his course ever saw for himself or showed to others a thing more tragic and more true than this study of noble female passion, half selfless and half personal, half mad and half sane.
The comparison here made is rather between book and book than between man and man. Both poets have done better elsewhere, each after his kind; and except by his best work no workman can be fairly judged. A critic who should underrate either would be condemnable on both hands.
Henry James, unsigned review, North American Review
October 1867, cvi, 688-92
In this poetical history of the fortunate – the unfortunate – Jason, Mr. Morris has written a book of real value. It is some time since we have met with a work of imagination so thoroughly satisfactory a character, –a work read with an enjoyment so unalloyed and so untempered by the desire to protest and to criticise. The poetical firmament within these recent years has been all alive with unprophesied comets and meteors, many of them of extraordinary brilliancy, but most of them very rapid in their passage. Mr. Morris gives us the comfort of feeling that he is a fixed star, and that his radiance is not likely to be extinguished in a draught of wind, –after the fashion of Mr. Alexander Smith, Mr. Swinburne, and Miss Ingelow. Mr. Morris’s poem is ushered into the world with a very florid birthday speech from the pen of the author of the too famous ‘Poems and Ballads,’ –a circumstance, we apprehend, in no small degree prejudicial to its success. But we hasten to assure all persons whom the knowledge of Mr. Swinburne’s enthusiasm may have led to mistrust the character of the work, that it has to our perception nothing in common with this gentlemen’s own productions, and that his article proves very little more than that his sympathies are wiser than his performance. If Mr. Morris’s poem may be said to remind us of the manner of any other writer, it is simply of that of Chaucer; and to resemble Chaucer is a great safeguard against resembling Swinburne.
The Life and Death of Jason, then, is a narrative poem on a Greek subject, written in a genuine English style. With the subject all reading people are familiar, and we have no need to retrace its details. But it is perhaps not amiss to transcribe the few pregnant lines of prose into which, at the outset, Mr. Morris has condensed the argument of his poem:–
Jason the son of Æson, king of Iolchos, having come to man’s estate, demanded of Pelias his father’s kingdom, which he held wrongfully. But Pelias answered, that if he would bring from Colchis the golden fleece of the ram that had carried Phryxus thither, he would yield him his right. Whereon Jason sailed to Colchis in the ship Argo, with other heroes, and by means of Medea, the king’s daughter, won the fleece; and carried off also Medea; and so, after many troubles, came back to Iolchos again. There, by Medea’s wiles, was Pelias slain; but Jason went to Corinth, and lived with Medea happily, till he was taken with the love of Glauce, the king’s daughter of Corinth, and must needs wed her; whom also Medea destroyed, and fled to Ægeus at Athens; and not long after Jason died strangely.
The style of this little fragment of prose is not an unapt measure of the author’s poetical style,–quaint, more Anglo-Saxon than Latin, and decidedly laconic. For in spite of the great length of his work, his manner is by no means diffuse. His story is a long one, and he wishes to do it justice; but the movement is rapid and business-like, and the poet is quite guiltless of any wanton lingering along the margin of the subject-matter,–after the manner, for instance, of Keats,–to whom, individually, however, we make this tendency no reproach. Mr. Morris’s subject is immensely rich,–heavy with its richness,–and in the highest degree romantic and poetical. For the most part, of course, he found not only the great contours, but the various incidents and episodes, ready drawn to his hand; but still there was enough wanting to make a most exhaustive drain upon his ingenuity and his imagination. And not only these faculties have been brought into severe exercise, but the strictest good taste and good sense were called into play, together with a certain final gift which we hardly know how to name, and which is by no means common, even among very clever poets,–a comprehensive sense of form, of proportion, and of real completeness, without which the most brilliant efforts of the imagination are a mere agglomeration of ill-reconciled beauties. The legend of Jason is full of strangely constructed marvels and elaborate prodigies and horrors, calculated to task heavily an author’s adroitness. We have so pampered and petted our sense of the ludicrous of late years, that it is quite the spoiled child of the house, and without its leave no guest can be honorably entertained. It is very true that the atmosphere of Grecian mythology is so entirely an artificial one, that we are seldom tempted to refer its weird, anomalous denizens to our standard of truth and beauty. Truth, indeed, is at once put out of the question; but one would say beforehand, that many of the creations of Greek fancy were wanting even in beauty, or at least in that ease and simplicity which has been acquired in modern times by force of culture. But habit and tradition have reconciled us to these things in their native forms, and Mr. Morris’s skill reconciles us to them in his modern and composite English. The idea, for instance, of a flying ram, seems to an undisciplined fancy, a not especially happy creation, nor a very promising theme for poetry; but Mr. Morris, without diminishing its native oddity, has give it an ample romantic dignity. So, again, the sowing of the dragon’s teeth at Colchis, and the springing up of mutually opposed armed men, seems too complex and recondite a scene to be vividly and gracefully realized; but as it stands, it is one of the finest passages in Mr. Morris’s poem. His great stumbling-block, however, we take it, was the necessity of maintaining throughout the dignity and prominence of his hero. From the moment that Medea comes into the poem, Jason falls into the second place, and keeps it to the end. She is the all-wise and all-brave helper and counsellor at Colchis, and the guardian angel of the returning journey. She saves her companions from the Circean enchantments, and she withholds them from the embraces of the Sirens. She effects the death of Pelias, and assures the successful return of the Argonauts. And finally–as a last claim upon her interest–she is slighted and abandoned by the man of her love. Without question, then, she is the central figure of the poem, –a powerful and enchanting figure,–a creature of barbarous arts, and of exquisite human passions. Jason accordingly possesses only that indirect hold upon our attention which belongs to the Virgilian Aeneas; although Mr. Morris has avoided Virgil’s error of now and then allowing his hero to be contemptible.
A large number, however, of far greater drawbacks than any we are able to mention could not materially diminish the powerful beauty of this fantastic legend. It is as rich in adventure as the Odyssey, and very much simpler. Its prime elements are of the most poetical and delightful kind. What can be more thrilling than the idea of a great boatful of warriors embarking upon dreadful seas, not for pleasure, nor for conquest, nor for any material advantage, but for the simple recovery of a jealously watched, magically guarded relic? There is in the character of the object of their quest something heroically unmarketable, or at least unavailable. But of course the story owes a vast deal to its episodes, and these have lost nothing in Mr. Morris’s hands. One of the most beautiful – the well-known adventure of Hylas – occurs at the very outset. The beautiful young man, during a halt of the ship, wanders inland through the forest, and, passing beside a sylvan stream, is espied and incontinently loved by the water nymphs, who forthwith ‘detach’ one of their number to work his seduction. This young lady assumes the disguise and speech of a Northern princess, clad in furs, and in this character sings to her victim ‘a sweet song, sung not yet to any man.’ Very sweet and truly lyrical it is, like all the songs scattered through Mr. Morris’s narrative. We are, indeed, almost in doubt whether the most beautiful passages in the poem do not occur in the series of songs in the fourteenth book. The ship has already touched at the island of Circe, and the sailors, thanks to the earnest warnings of Medea, have abstained from setting foot on the fatal shore; while Medea has, in turn, been warned by the enchantress against the allurements of the Sirens. As soon as the ship draws night, these fair beings begin to utter their irresistible notes. All eyes are turned lovingly on the shore, the rowers’ charmed muscles relax, and the ship drifts landward. But Medea exhorts and entreats her companions to preserve their course. Jason himself is not untouched, as Mr. Morris delicately tells us, – ‘a moment Jason gazed.’ But Orpheus smites his lyre before it is too late, and stirs the languid blood of his comrades. The Sirens strike their harps amain, and a conflict of song arises. The Sirens sing of the cold, the glittering, the idle delights of their submarine homes; while Orpheus tells of the warm and pastoral landscapes of Greece. We have no space for quotation; of course Orpheus carries the day. But the finest and most delicate practical sense is shown in the alternation of the two lyrical arguments,–the soulless sweetness of the one, and the deep human richness of the other. There is throughout Mr. Morris’s poem a great unity and evenness of excellence, which make selection and quotation difficult; but of impressive touches in our reading we noticed a very great number. We content ourselves with mentioning a single one. When Jason has sown his bag of dragon’s teeth at Colchis, and the armed fighers have sprang up along the furrows, and under the spell contrived by Medea have torn each other to death: –
One man was left, alive but wounded sore,
Who, staring round about and seeing no more
His brothers’ spears against him, fixed his eyes
Upon the queller of those mysteries.
Then dreadfully they gleamed, and with no word,
He tottered towards him with uplifted sword.
But scarce he made three paces down the field,
Ere chill death seized his heart, and on his shield
Clattering he fell.
We have not spoken of Mr. Morris’s versification nor of his vocabulary. We have only room to say that, to our perception, the first in its facility and harmony, and the second in its abundance and studied simplicity, leave nothing to be desired. There are of course faults and errors in his poem, but there are none that are not trivial and easily pardoned in the light of the fact that he has given us a work of consummate art and of genuine beauty. He has foraged in a treasure-house; he has visited the ancient world, and come back with a massive cup of living Greek wine. His project was no light task, but he has honorably fulfilled it. He has enriched the language with a narrative poem which we are sure that the public will not suffer to fall into the ranks of honored but uncherished works,–objects of vague and sapient reference,–but will continue to read and to enjoy. In spite of its length, the interest of the story never flags, and as a work of art it never ceases to be pure. To the jaded intellects of the present moment, distracted with the strife of creeds and the conflict of theories, it opens a glimpse into a world where they will be called upon neither to choose, to criticise, nor to believe, but simply to feel, to look, and to listen.
Some Post-19th Century Commentaries on The Life and Death of Jason:
I think that what in “Jason” struck the critics who really sought into the heart of things was the clear and simple vision of past times mingled with the inevitably modern complexity of motive and passion (though the impression produced is, of course, far from being modern). . . .
I always felt that my father’s sympathies were with Medea—not Medea the sorceress, but the woman weak in the very strength of her love; that he found the hero himself rather second-rate and that he refused to sacrifice the reality of this feeling to any apparent necessity of keeping “Jason” in the foreground of the picture. Indeed, it is not conceivable to me that the old legend, told at such length, could have been welcomed as it was, if he had not made it a new thing, neither modern nor an archaeological exercise, breathing his own spirit into it: he certainly could not have worked it out in any other way. The men of letters who noticed the poem on its appearance all commented on this handling of Medea as the personage of the story. I call to mind specially an article by my father’s old friend, Charles Eliot Norton, in “The Nation,” and one by Henry James in “The North American Review.” But it seems to me that the things said most strongly and directly about “Jason” (which applies equally to “The Earthly Paradise” tales) comes from a lecture of Ruskin’s in 1869. The actual reference is only half a sentence; but it lies embedded in a few phrases which explain with a lucid simplicity the quality of romance, and the truth that lies within it, taking for illustration the poems of Keats and of Morris:
“For all the greatest myths have been seen, by the men who tell them, involuntarily and passively—seen by them with as great distinctness . . . as a dream sent to any of us by night when we dream clearest; and it is this veracity of vision that could not be refused, and of moral that could not be foreseen, which in modern historical inquiry has been left wholly out of account: being indeed the things which no merely historical investigator can understand, or even believe; for it belongs exclusively to the creative or artistic group of men, and can only be interpreted by those of their race, who themselves in some measure also see visions and dream dreams.
So that you may obtain a more truthful idea of the nature of Greek religion and legend from the poems of Keats, and the nearly as beautiful, and, in general grasp of subject, far more powerful, recent work of Morris, than from frigid scholarship, however extensive. Not that the poet’s impressions or renderings of things are wholly true, but their truth is vital, not formal.”
(“Queen of the Air”)
One may not agree with everything that Ruskin says here, but it all leads up to the significance of this last phrase. (xvi-xviii)
The tragedy of this particular hero arises from his ego-induced blindness, that is, his failure to perceive the subsuming patterns of destiny and to accommodate himself to them.
It is this Argo-ego that defines the limits of the Earth, or the mortal world. In creating the boundaries, or conditions, of human life, it separates mankind on the one hand from the immortal forces, or gods, of Heaven, and on the other from the unconsciously regenerating womb of physical life, the Sea. If this is so, then it is one of the greatest ironies of an extremely ironic poem that we should be continually reminded by the narrator of the transience and consequent sadness of human life. For the hero’s act of will, of which the narrator sings, is the very source of the narrator’s sorrow. The song of the Hesperides in Book 14 makes this clear. Their garden is a vestige of the lost golden age, left “Unchanged, unchanging” only because the hero Hercules has not yet arrived to slay the guardian dragon and steal the golden apples (II, 210-11). When this happens, the Garden of the Hesperides too will become assimilated to the finite world of man and become subject to change. Then history, the record of change, will begin. In this connection it is suggestive that the northward voyage of the Argonauts after the capture of the fleece takes them through a paradigmatic evolutionary history of the changing earth, beginning with a battle with “worms,” or primeval reptiles, and progressing through encounters with stone-age men who practice human sacrifice, to a skirmish with slightly more civilized barbarians. The stages of the voyage can be regarded as progressive phases of the history of the fallen world, where dragons can no longer live in harmony with beautiful maidens. In fact, the northward voyage of the Argonauts belongs not so much to the genre of fantasy and myth as it does to the time-travel genre of science fiction. These relatively realistic experiences follow immediately the escape of the Argonauts from the vengeful Aetes, suggesting that it is the audaciously egoistic theft of the fleece which sets in motion such Darwinian events quite out of the usual run of Greek myth. . . . . (83-84)
Medea stays Time for Jason in order that he may steal the treasure which will ensure the immortality of his name, but the demands of Necessity, that element which binds all together all of reality, past, present, and future, must finally be triumphant. The witch Medea, a forerunner of the benign witch figures of Morris’s late romances, is in tune with Necessity, the unseen but finally omnipotent motive force of the cosmos, and it is therefore she who truly represents Morris’s ideal of heroism in The Life and Death of Jason. (85)
Substituting a gentle elegiac tone for the intense gloom of “Scenes,” Morris is again preoccupied in Jason with love, fate, and death. His main interest is in the fated and fatal passion of Jason and Medea, and his sympathies are clearly with the woman. Indeed, a title more reflective of the poem’s theme might have been the Love and Death of Medea. The romance springs to life only when she appears; hers are the joys and torments with which the poet empathizes.
Jason is essentially passive, an agent and victim of the implacable fate that rules the poem. His basic drives are for rest and peace, and the desire for glory which impels him to the quest for the Golden Fleece is external, leaving his essential character unchanged. Though far from ignoble, he is seldom truly heroic. As a lover he is restless and shallow, and, although he is willing to reciprocate Medea’s passion for him, his love is never as intense as hers. To him, eros is a lovely but “unasked gift” (2:111) from the gods. When he rejects Medea for Glace, he is repudiating the heroic way of life. While Jason’s attraction to Glauce is portrayed in a form parallel to that of his earlier meeting with Medea, the purpose of the stylistic parallel is ironic: to compare the rightful passion for Medea and the noble deeds it causes with Jason’s less mature desire for Glauce and his concomitant wish to escape from the life of challenge, action, and responsibility identified with Medea.
Jason’s desire to evade maturity and responsibility is manifested in areas other than the erotic. He is one who would rather find the golden age intact than attempt to create it anew. Morris indicates—as he does in the “Prologue” to The Earthly Paradise—that this drive seldom culminates in success or happiness. In Jason, the age of gold becomes a reiterated symbol of the past that cannot be recaptured and of an earthly paradise that men may glimpse but cannot enter. The Argonauts[’] mission is to restore the spirit of Saturn’s age to their own kingdoms, not to retreat from them. Jason’s failure to do so, his lack of desire to make the land to which he returns an excellent earthly kingdom, is another indication of his inner flaw. He fails both to maintain the constancy in love natural to the people of the golden age and to repeatedly choose the “hard life and deathless praise” (2:130) of one who would quest for the ideal.
Morris’s Medea, on the other hand, is a powerful, dynamic figure. Like Guenevere, she is a woman first enlivened then destroyed by passion. Blind to personal advantage, she relinquishes for love her chance of godlike power, her personal pride, and her loyalty to kin. Giving and losing all, she dedicates her self and life to Jason. Sacrificing her father and brother, she saves Jason’s life and enables him to obtain the golden fleece. She helps Jason and his men escape the temptations offered by Circe and the Sirens. Aware, even in the first throes of her passion, that her lover may tire of her and seek a new woman, she is, nonetheless, “the fool of love” (2:108). . . . Medea, like Guenevere before her, becomes both the victim of destructive erotic passion and its embodiment. Slayer and slain, victim and victimizer, it is her fate that moves the reader as Jason’s does not. She remains, through all, the center of interest and sympathy. (51-52)
[Jason’s] seventeen books comprise some 1,000 lines of decasyllabic couplets, employed with great freedom, including much enjambment, in a manner derived from Chaucer. Although the subject is classical, the settings sound mediaeval, and the sprit is more pathetic than heroic. An early critic in the Spectator in June 1867 remarked perceptively that ‘Jason comes as near to The Odyssey as a poem written with Chaucer’s strong sense of the piteousness of human life could come’. Towards the end, Morris directly invokes Chaucer, who is clearly the presiding influence on the poem:
. . . And thou, O Master!—Yea, my master still,
Whatever feet have scaled Parnassus’ hill
Since like thy measures, clear, and sweet, and strong,
Thames’ stream scarce fettered bore the bream along . . . .
In this we feel Morris’s deep love of English landscape and the English past, and a suggestion of bitterness about the existing state of affairs in a world of ‘unrejoicing labour’. . . .
Morris departs from his sources most in portraying Medea more as a loving woman than as a sorceress, and this enhances the pathos of the story. . . . Book I includes the speech of the usurped king Aeson to his son Jason, with its appealing vision of an Arcadian way of life. . . . But there is a kind of dramatic irony present to the reader, who knows already (if only from the synopsis at the beginning of the poem) that Jason’s life will be quite unlike this, as he commits himself to action and adventure to reclaim his father’s throne. . . .
With Medea’s aid Jason tames the brazen bulls and causes the Earth-born to destroy each other. Still the emphasis is on her love rather than on her sorcery, as in the scene at the beginning of Book 9 when she speaks presciently of Jason’s being unfaithful to her, and presents him from swearing his fidelity with loving words:
‘Nay, sweet’, she said, ‘let be;
Were thou more fickle than the restless sea,
Still should I love thee, knowing thee for such . . . .”
Morris always writes with particular tenderness at this period about the sufferings of love; the point will be taken up again in connection with The Earthly Paradise, where it is again obvious. . . . (38-42)
Modern readers react to Jason in a way directly contrary to their Victorian predecessors. We find it hard to sustain interest in a long poem simply for the sake of the story, especially if that story is well known. Even Paradise Lost suffers from this change of attitude, despite its great rhetorical energy, and it may be doubted whether many readers complete The Fairie Queene. We are quite prepared for novels to be long and time-consuming, but the idea of devoting several evenings, say, to a poem like Jason is alien. . . . Despite the paradox that both Eliot and Pound wrote longer poems – Pound’s Cantos indeed constituting one of the very longest – the assumption is still widely held and militates against much early poetry. . . . but in adopting this attitude we are depriving ourselves of pleasures which our forefathers clearly enjoyed. . . [,] especially those associated with Morris’s feeling for landscape and for the idyllic. (46)
The strong simplicity of his narrative seems to confront us with primary myth, and his use of epithets, heroic similes, and various epic conventions. . . suggest that Morris was attempting to write a romantic epic in the manner of his chief source, the third-century B. C. Argonautica of Apollonius of Thebes, rather than a medieval romance.
This contrast between hellenistic and medieval genres functions through certain overall similiarities between Jason and the prologue of The Earthly Paradise. . . But, in contrast to “The Wanderers,” Jason recounts a voyage with two distinct and successfully attained purposes—securing the Golden Fleece and returning with it to Greece. Hence, the Argonauts’ voyage is not a wandering line, but a circle returning to the point of its origin. Significantly, the Argonauts achieve their goals by rejecting a sequence of real or apparent Earthly Paradises, and it is through this pattern that the opposition between the two works is clearest. . . . As for the narrator of “The Wanderers,” the choice lies between deeds and timeless indolence. . . . . Again and again the poem suggest that men were not meant for life in an “Earthly Paradise, and that apparent Paradises are not to be trusted.
Aea, where the Fleece is held, strikes the newly arrived Argonauts as “an earthly paradise,” but they “looked to find sharp ending to their bliss” (II, 99). Similarly, Circe’s magic island is a trap. . . . Even the sight of the Garden of the Hesperides is dangerous. . . . The alternative to this prelapsarian paradise is thus not simply the life of action, but the pervasive dualism of a world in which success and failure, joy and sorrow are inextricably combined. (61-63)
If The Life and Death of Jason is a less attractive poem than “The Wanderers,” it is largely because the anticlimactic structure of Jason necessarily undercuts the stature of the hero. Unlike the Wanderers, who grew in Morris’ esteem as he wrote the poem, Jason never fully engaged Morris’s imagination. And so his revaluation of the Wanderers’ quest has its counterpart in his dissatisfaction with the classical man of action he originally intended to serve as a foil for the Wanderers’ folly.
May Morris was probably right when she argued that her “father’s sympathies were with Medea. . . .” The tragic heroine whose magic both aids her lover and alienates him from her, Medea prefigures what was to become a central image in Morris’ late romances. However, here he is not quite sure how to handle her. He revises or tones down the episodes in which she is excessively brutal—the death of her brother (which he attributes to Jason) and the murder of her children. . . . Morris was not ready--or perhaps willing—to come to terms with a character capable of acting out her revenge in such violent terms. Nevertheless, Medea is clearly a being who kindled his fascination and as such she accounts in large part for the enduring interest of the poem. (65-66)