And she had fought with Gods, and they had won (“Bellerophon in Lycia,” l. 2334)
That is close to how I felt while reading William Morris’s gargantuan Canterbury Tales-like epic poem The Earthly Paradise (1869-70), but I won in the end, by which I mean I finished the poem, all 42,000 or so lines. Morris’s book about twice as long as its gigantic peer The Ring and the Book (1868-9) and massively longer than Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, of which a healthy chunk was published in 1870 – what fun fans of long English poems had in those years! A dang Golden Age of verse-in-bulk.
The Prologue of Morris’s poem, itself an eighty page poem, is about a squad of Vikings who sail to America and explore its coasts for years, discovering for example Mexico and I am not sure what else, since their great feat is stumbling onto a Greek colony – from Classical Greece, surviving a thousand years in America, cut off from their origin – who seem to the Vikings “[l]ike the gold people of antiquity” (l. 1206), which is just what they are. Now aged and tired, the Vikings decide to live with their new Greek friends in “the Earthly Paradise.” Twice a month, they assemble to tell each other stories, one Classical and one Medieval tale each month, twenty-four tales total, plus the prologue and some material describing each month, a bit like Edmund Spenser’s Shepherd’s Calendar (1579).
All that fuss about Vikings exploring America was just to give Morris an excuse to versify his favorite old stories. Cupid and Psyche, Pygmalion, and a reworking of the Bellerophon story that is one step from Morris’s future invention of the heroic fantasy novel. From the North, fairy tales, the Tannhäuser legend – no idea if Morris was familiar with Wagner – and in the longest single tale, a complete, terrific version of the 13th century Icelandic Laxdæla saga in rhyming couplets:
She turned, until her sightless eyes did gaze
As through the wall, the hills, must melt away,
And show her Herdholt in the twilight grey;
She cried, with tremulous voice, and eyes grown wet
For the last time, whate’er should happen yet,
With hands stretched out for all that she had lost:
I did the worst to him I loved the most. (“The Lovers of Gudrun,” ll. 4897-4903)
I quoted the very end, since Morris’s endings usually have a lot of punch. Here Gudrun, one of the strongest of Strong Female Characters, a complete terror, finally weakens, just a bit.
I actually read the first half of The Earthly Paradise in 2012, over several months, and was so exhausted by it that I waited over a year to start it up again, again taking months to read the entire book. My understanding is that The Earthly Paradise was Morris’s first hit, and was once a genuinely popular book. Given how long it took to read, I should try to squeeze another three weeks of posts out of it, but I think maybe only two more are feasible. I felt, when I had completed Browning’s monster, that I was finally ready to read it, and I feel the same way about Morris. Next time, then I’ll be able to do something with it.