Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Muse ought to ought to tighten her girdle, tuck up her skirts, and step out - Swinburne on William Morris

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? 


  1. I have a very few friends who seem profligate of talents--who have more than one major gift. They also seem to have subsidiary talents, less developed, that give them pleasure and joy. I am astonished by these people, but it is impossible for most such people, I think, to be equally good in each, even for a da Vinci. Even for a strong spirit, time is limited. Morris is one of these, who made all parts of life more beautiful. It is inevitable that some of these gifts will not be more than decorative and will lack energy and life (and so will not carry on through time.)

    I read William Morris when I was a mere sprat, and I remember writing a paper on the relation between the art and words of the Cupid and Psyche portion of "The Earthly Paradise." But nothing else about it...

    1. He's scarily varied, what with his wallpaper, household goods of many sorts, painting, poetry, etcetera! No doubt he did influence painting subjects.

  2. It is amazing, isn't it - meanwhile, on the side, Morris was designing the world's best wallpaper. Or maybe the poem was on the side. I probably have the chronology wrong.

    The poem does sometimes feel like it is solidifying into a beautiful decorative object, like an armoire. Sometimes it feels as if he is preparing texts for his friends to adapt into pre-Raphaelite paintings. I prefer Morris's poetry to almost all of those paintings, but that is mere taste.

  3. Really talented practitioners of a craft or swollen art generally know who is faking/winging it and who is innovating/pushing the craft forward.

    Swinburne (and others, like Samuel Butler) noticed 'Tennyson’s short-winded and artificial concision', his lack of originality and his limited goals as the price Tennyson had to pay in order to write the kind of good poems he was capable of.

    Another example is the low opinion Gongora and Quevedo had of the 'easy/plain' or 'llana' kind of verses written by Lope de Vega. On Lope's defense, given that he wrote about 1800 plays during the 50 years of his career (a new play almost every week), plainness and ease was only to be expected. Even the almighty J.S. Bach could keep composing a new cantata each week for only 5 years in a row.

  4. If I cherry-picked the letters, I could give the impression that Swinburne hated Tennyson - Swinburne knocks him awfully hard - but in fact Swinburne reads Tennyson almost obsessively, making his friends track down every new magazine or newspaper with a Tennyson poem. He has to read all of them, because it might be one of the great ones.

    I'm reading Bleak House now, and getting some of that Bach cantata feeling - how did Dickens keep up this level of work month after month?

  5. There's this Seinfeld episode in which Jerry finally meets a woman who dislikes the same things he dislikes, with a passion. They engage in long sessions of Fail! a deux, until one day the woman goes 'and don't even get me started on the [ethnic slur] and the [ethnic slur]!'. For some reason Jerry did not like that very much.

    I had a similar experience with Samuel Butler and Tennyson. I used to laugh in agreement with this quote by Samuel Butler: 'Blake was no good because he learnt Italian at over sixty in order to read Dante, and we know Dante was no good because he was so fond of Virgil, and Virgil was no good because Tennyson ran[praised?] him, and as for Tennyson—well, Tennyson goes without saying.'

    I used to laugh, that is, until I read a different Butler's quote: 'As for the old masters, the better plan would be never to look at any one of them, and to consign Raffaelle, along with Plato, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Dante, Goethe and Beethoven to limbo, as the Seven Humbugs of Christendom.'

  6. Wow, Butler was an outstanding hater. Real commitment.