I’ll just go right to the problem with The Earthly Paradise. When I think of The Canterbury Tales, I think of a variety of tone and voice. Even setting aside the dull prose parts, the characters telling the tale have some existence as people – sometimes, like the Wife of Bath, they are as alive as anyone in literature – and the tales and how they are told usually seem to fit the tellers.
Morris’s tale-tellers are not characters at all and the poems all sound the same. Within the tales there are good characters, but not in the frame. And although Morris is an outstanding poet in the usual senses, meaning he elevates the aesthetic effect of whatever he is doing by turning it into verse, he is hardly has the color or music – whichever metaphor is preferable – of the finest English poets.
Let’s turn to one of them. Algernon Swinburne is a bit younger than Morris. Swinburne and his old college chums worship Morris, who they call Topsy. He has just torn through the second half of The Earthly Paradise and is writing to Dante Gabriel Rossetti about it:
I have just received Topsy’s book; the Gudrun story is excellently told, I can see, and of keen interest; but I find generally no change in the trailing style of work; his Muse is like Homer’s Trojan women [Greek gibberish] – drags her robes as she walks; I really think a Muse (when she is neither resting nor flying) ought to tighten her girdle, tuck up her skirts, and step out. It is better than Tennyson’s short-winded and artificial concision – but there is such a thing as swift and spontaneous style. Top’s is spontaneous and slow; and especially, my ear hungers for more force and variety of sound in the verse. It looks as if he purposely avoided all strenuous emotion or strength of music in thought and word: and so, when set by other work as good, his work seems hardly done in thorough earnest. The verses of the months are exquisite – November I think especially. (The Swinburne Letters, vol. 2, ed. Cecil Lang, Yale UP, 1959, letter 331 to DGR, Dec. 10, 1869, p. 68)
The “Gudrun story” is the Laxdæla saga, which is superb, and the Greek gibberish is not gibberish to Swinburne, but just to me; how kind of Swinburne to translate it. Perhaps we can see here why I have so enjoyed reading Swinburne’s letters. I believe this phrase – “tighten her girdle, tuck up her skirts, and step out” – should be read with a touch of camp, as if said by Bette Davis or Nathan Lane – “and step out!”
I found Morris’s verse to be very thick, like it was surrounded by a gummy layer that took effort to penetrate, that made it hard, after a pause, to find the music and rhythm of the story again. I would either read a fifty page story in one sitting, or read two pages and think: Try again tomorrow. Exhausting.
Here is the first third of the “exquisite” November, in rime royal. Please keep in mind that Swinburne had a finely tuned ear for poetry, much finer than, for example, mine:
Are thine eyes weary? is thy heart too sick
To struggle any more with doubt and thought,
Whose formless veil draws darkening now and thick
Across thee, e’en as smoke-tinged mist-wreaths brought
Down a fair dale to make it blind and nought?
Art thou so weary that no world there seems
Beyond these four walls, hung with pain and dreams?