Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Gods are kind, and will not suffer men all things to find they search for - why William Morris rhymes

Of what he said, that seemed both dull and long  (“The Lovers of Gudrun,” 1549)

I used to have a gag where I put a quotation in the upper right corner of Wuthering Expectations and claimed it was my motto.  If I still did that, this would be my new motto.

It’s a good question, what Morris was trying to accomplish with The Earthly Paradise, with the huge mass of it.  Why not write the stories he wanted to tell in prose?  In one of the many strange features of his strange career, Morris in fact had published a mix of verse and prose narratives during the 1850s, the short stories, fantasies and fairy tales, and in the 1890s he published a series of long heroic fantasy novels in prose.  So Morris was asking himself the same question, and answering differently at different times.

The rise of the novel pressed the issue.  At one point – even as late as the early 19th century – a long narrative poem had a clear advantage in prestige over the novel, and no obvious disadvantage in sales.  By the mid-19th century, The Song of Hiawatha and The Idylls of the King still had a mass audience, as did The Earthly Paradise, but the prestige gap was closing.  Writing a poem of the length and artistic quality of any of these is such a difficult task.  Writing a novel of the complexity of Middlemarch was, readers were beginning to realize, comparably difficult.  Meanwhile, writers like Melville, Flaubert and Gogol had demonstrated that the kinds of linguistic effects associated with poetry were also available to novelists.

 And then, eventually, the audience for poetry receded, but neither this point nor the previous could have been relevant for Morris.  Poetry was the means to achieve a certain kind of compression and intensity of language that, with skill, could achieve sublimity.

“The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon” is a version of the swan-maiden fairy tale.  The hero has captured the swan-princess by hiding her feathered cloak; they fall in love; he makes an error; she leaves, into the snow, to vanish:

She paused not; the wild west wind blew
Her hair straight out from her; her feet
The bitter, beaten snow did meet
And shrank not; slowly forth she passed,
Nor backward any look she cast,
Nor gazed to right or left, but went
With eyes on the far sky intent
Into the howling, doubtful night,
Until at last her body white
And its black shadow on the snow,
No more the drift-edged way did know.  (ll. 2067-78)

If I find this too dull and long, it is perhaps because I have failed to do my job as a reader.  I should not just read the poem but become the skald – I should , imaginatively, sing it.  Thus the elaborate story-telling frame.  Thus so many of the successful epics, then, before, and after, are about mythological subjects.

The Gods are kind, and hope to men they give
That they their little span on earth may live,
Nor yet faint utterly; the Gods are kind,
And will not suffer men all things to find
They search for, nor the depth of all to know
They fain would learn  (“Bellerophon at Argos,” ll. 2157-62)

The Earthly Paradise must still have some readers.  The scholarly edition I read is from 2002, and more surprisingly, the Icelandic novelist Sjón’s 2005 novel The Whispering Muse is somehow built around the poem.  As unlikely as it seems, The Earthly Paradise is alive.


  1. AR(T) great point about The Earthly Paradise being still influential. Sjón is great at intensifying older material for his novels.

    In the Muslim world there's this tradition (I quote caddy caddy's version from a certain online literature forum):
    'Satan was an Angel; his name is Eblees. When Allah created Adam in his image , all angels knelt in front of him, except for Eblees. Angels kneel in front of no one. Kneeling in front of Adam would have meant that Adam came directly after Allah in hierarchy . When Eblees didn't kneel like the others, Allah asked him "Eblees , what's wrong with you. Why didn't you kneel?" Eblees replied: "You created him from burned soil and you created me from fire. I'm better than him."'

    Sjón turned this into the prelude to his novel, From the Mouth of the Whale:

    "Yes, there you lay in His hand, with your knees tucked under your chin, breathing so fast and so feebly that you quivered like the pectoral fin of a minnow. Our Father rested His fingertip against your spine and tilted His hand carefully so that you uncurled and rolled over onto your back. I stepped forward to take a better look at you. You scratched your nose with your curled fist, sneezed, o so sweetly, and fixed on me those egotistical eyes -mouth agape. And I saw that this mouth would never be satisfied, that its teeth would never stop grinding, that its tongue would never tire of being bathed in the life-blood of other creatures. Then your lips moved. You tried to say your first word, and that word was, 'I'. But the Father interrupted you and addressed me in an affable but commanding tone.
    'Lucifer, behold Man! You must bow down before him like the other angels, your brothers...'
    I looked at you a second time and in that instant you released a stream of slimy green feces. Quick as lightning, you shoved your hand under your buttocks, fetched a fistful of whatever you found there, and raised it to your mouth.
    As all the world knows, I did not bow my knee to this new pet of my Father's, and for that I was cast out of Heaven along with all who wished to follow me. "

  2. Those Sjón novels are on the way to my home now. Perhaps they will arrive today. I hope so.

  3. He overdoes the inversions, doesn't he? In the words of Wolcott Gibbs, "Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind."

  4. Overdoes it, does he ever. This is exactly one of the reasons it was an effort to re-enter the book.