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.