Monday, September 8, 2014

With hands stretched out for all that she had lost - William Morris & The Earthly Paradise

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.


  1. I know what you mean that only at the end of a long poem do you feel ready to read it properly. I find that all poems are for rereading more than for reading. And they live most richly if memorized. So the really long poem has that going against it: who, these days anyway, is really going to read and reread and commit to memory bulk poetry? The longest I've been able to manage (to memorize, that is) is a few pages. Still, I feel like it would be a marvelous and enriching experience to memorize a long narrative poem, letting it possess me and color my experience -- as the Iliad, for example, must have colored the experience of the rhapsodes. Anyway, I will be most interested to see what you have to say about Morris's behemoth, as I've (trepidatiously) contemplated taking it on myself.

  2. Yes, if I am going to memorize poetry, am I really going to pick this? But the fact is that when I fall into the right rhythm, a sort of rhapsodic Morris, or when I think of Browning's monologues as actor's monologues, I start to hear what the verse is really doing.

    I can see why you would be interested in The Earthly Paradise - I have been reading your blog! It is in part about narrative.

  3. The gods always win.
    But they can't write.

  4. The woman who is the subject of that line also wins in the end.

  5. The long poem is such a satisfying form; when you've read one of those monsters, you don't forget it. I hadn't realized that Morris waxed even longer than Joseph Beaumont's impossible "Psyche," which I must admit I've read only in parts. The longest poem I've undertaken is Raymond Roussel's posthumous "Les Noces," unfinished and unfinishable at 20,000 lines (5,000 of which are incomplete, but comprehensible). It was a memorable experience!

  6. Beaumont's "Psyche," now that's the real thing. Yikes. Morris's length only partly counts, since most of the tales could easily have been published in separate configurations. "The Lovers of Gudrun" or the two Bellerophon stories would have made fine books on their own.

    I'd love to read the Roussel. I will have to look at it someday, although I doubt I will get much farther than that.

    You're right about the satisfaction of polishing off one of these books.