Thursday, May 20, 2010

The idle singer of an empty day - William Morris convinces me to read William Morris

Tomorrow I’ll try to give some idea of how impressed I was with the early stories and poems of William Morris.  They are not at all to my taste – I do not worship at the altar of Le Morte d’Arthur – but are keenly imagined and sharply written.  For a self-published 22 year-old, they’re amazing.

So I want to try some more William Morris, which turns out to be a problem. The Morris canon is a mess.  His Collected Works make for an intimidating shelf.  His Utopian novel, News from Nowhere (1890), is apparently a key text, and I know enough to read a few of his essays, like “Useful Work versus Useless Toil” (1884). But after that, chaos.

The wild variety of Morris’s work must be part of the problem.  It is easy to break him into pieces.  Thus, I can easily find collections of his political writing, one of the central figures of English Socialism.  Or I can read his thoughts on painting and design, often published alongside examples of his wallpaper and other designs.  None of this is what I have in mind, is it, or only a part?  I want William Morris the writer.

Anyone have any warm thoughts about Morris, any advice?  His late fantasies novels are occasionally brought back into print.  I have no idea what they’re like. Let’s say I put The Well at the World’s End (1896) on my reading list.  Is that a good start?  Are others – The Glittering Plain (1891) or The Wood Beyond the World (1894) – as good or better?

At least the fantasy novels are discrete books.  The poetry is the real problem.  After The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (1858), the book I read, Morris abandoned short narratives and lyrics and turned to long poetic epics.  The Life and Death of Jason (1867).  The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (1877).  The enormous omnibus of classical legends, The Earthly Paradise (1868-70).  Morris anthologies include excerpts, which slice the books to ribbons.  But they’re so bulky.  Perhaps excerpts are sufficient.

My Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume 2, Fifth edition, tells me that the epics are “easily readable,” which is good, I guess, and influenced Yeats, which is also good.  But the editor seems, like me, a bit stumped.  The Norton Anthology includes the “Apology” to The Earthly Paradise (here are the first two stanzas):

Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day.

But rather, when aweary of your mirth,
From full hearts still unsatisfied ye sigh,
And, feeling kindly unto all the earth,
Grudge every minute as it passes by,
Made the more mindful that the sweet days die—
Remember me a little then I pray,
The idle singer of an empty day.

I love how Morris modestly tells us what his giant poem is not – it’s not Paradise Lost, for example – and kindly informs us how to read it.  I’ll do what he says, and perhaps give it a try when aweary of my mirth, but still feeling kindly unto all the earth.  That’s a pretty specific mood, but one I know well.


  1. I think most of us have only read a piece of Morris. I remember loving The Wood Beyond the World, but I'd have no idea if it's a good place to start or not.

  2. Ah, but I know where to start - I've started. My question is: where do I stop?