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   Chapter 11 LATER WRITINGS.

William Morris By Elizabeth Luther Cary Characters: 22873

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


The writings of Morris's later years consist, as we have seen, chiefly of prose romances. The little group beginning with The House of the Wolfings and ending with The Sundering Flood were written with no polemical or proselytising intention, with merely his old delight in storytelling and in depicting the beauty of the external world and the kindness of men and maids. Curiosity had never played any great part in his mental equipment; he cared little to know or speculate further than the visible and tangible surface of life. "The skin of the world" was sufficient for him, and in these later romances all that is beautiful and winning has chiefly to do with the skin of the world presented in its spring-time freshness. The background of nature is always exquisite. With the landscape of the North, which had made its indelible impression upon him, he mingled the scenes-"the dear scenes" he would have called them-of his childhood and the fairer portions of the Thames shore as he had long and intimately known them; and in his books, as in his familiar letters, he constantly speaks of the weather and the seasons as matters of keen importance in the sum of daily happiness. Thus, whatever we miss from his romances, we gain, what is missing from the majority of modern books, familiarity with the true aspect of the outdoor world. We have the constant sense of ample sky and pleasant air, and green woods and cool waters. The mountains are near us, and often the ocean, and the freedom of a genuine wildwood that is no enchanted forest or ideal vision. Inexpressibly charming are such pictures as those of Elfhild (in The Sundering Flood) piping to her sheep and dancing on the bank of the river, on the bright mid-April day, whose sun dazzles her eyes with its brilliant shining; and of Birdalone (in The Water of the Wondrous Isles) embroidering her gown and smock in the wood of Evilshaw. What could be more expressive of lovely open-air peace than this description? "Who was glad now but Birdalone; she grew red with new pleasure, and knelt down and kissed the witch's hand, and then went her way to the wood with her precious lading, and wrought there under her oak-tree day after day, and all days, either there, or in the house when the weather was foul. That was in the middle of March, when all birds were singing, and the young leaves showing on the hawthorns, so that there were pale green clouds, as it were, betwixt the great grey boles of oak and sweet-chestnut; and by the lake the meadow-saffron new-thrust-up was opening its blossom; and March wore and April, and still she was at work happily when now it was later May, and the harebells were in full bloom down the bent before her ... and still she wrought on at her gown and her smock, and it was well-nigh done. She had broidered the said gown with roses and lilies, and a tall tree springing up from amidmost the hem of the skirt, and a hart on either side thereof, face to face of each other. And the smock she had sewn daintily at the hems and the bosom with fair knots and buds. It was now past the middle of June hot and bright weather."

And only less delightful than these glimpses of the natural world are the recurring portraits of half-grown boys and girls, all different and all lovable. The sweetness of adolescent beauty had for Morris an irresistible appeal, and while his characters have little of the psychological charm inseparable in real life from dawning qualities and undeveloped potentialities, they are as lovely as the morning in the brightness of hair, the slimness of form, the freedom of gesture with which he endows them. The shapely brown hands and feet of Ursula, her ruddy colour, her slender sturdiness, and brave young laugh are attractions as potent as the more delicate charm of Birdalone's serious eyes and thin face, or Elfhild's flower-like head and tender playfulness; and all these heroines are alike in a fine capability for useful toil and pride in it. When the old carle says to Birdalone, "It will be no such hard life for thee, for I have still some work in me, and thou mayst do something in spite of thy slender and delicate fashion," she replies with merry laughter, "Forsooth, good sire, I might do somewhat more than something; for I am deft in all such work as here ye need; so fear not but I should earn my livelihood, and that with joy." Ursula also knows all the craft of needlework, and all the manners of the fields, and finds nothing in work to weary her; and even in the Maid of The Wood beyond the World, with her magic power to revive flowers by the touch of her fingers, is felt the preferable human power to make comfort and pleasantness by the right performance of plain tasks.

Nearly if not quite equal to Morris's expression of love for the beauty of nature and of fair humanity is his expression of the love for beautiful handicraft, to which his whole life and all his writings alike testify. Whatever is omitted from his stories of love and adventure, he never omits to familiarise his readers with the ornament lavished upon buildings and garments and countless accessories; hardly a dozen pages of any one of the romances may be turned before the description of some piece of artistic workmanship is met. Osberne's knife in The Sundering Flood is early introduced to the reader as "a goodly weapon, carven with quaintnesses about the heft, the blade inlaid with runes done in gold and the sheath of silver," and the gifts he sends to Elfhild across the flood are "an ouch or chain or arm-ring" fashioned "quaintly and finely," or "fair windowed shoon, and broidered hosen and dainty smocks, and silken kerchiefs"; much is made of his holiday raiment of scarlet and gold, of his flowered green coat, and of the fine gear of gold and green for which Elfhild changes her grey cloak. In The Story of the Glittering Plain, filled as it is with the sterner spirit of the sagas, there is still room for much detail concerning the carven panelling of the shut-bed, in which was pictured "fair groves and gardens, with flowery grass and fruited trees all about," and "fair women abiding therein, and lovely young men and warriors, and strange beasts and many marvels, and the ending of wrath and beginning of pleasure, and the crowning of love," and for the account of the painted book, "covered outside with gold and gems" and painted within with woods and castles, "and burning mountains, and the wall of the world, and kings upon their thrones, and fair women and warriors, all most lovely to behold." As for the fair Birdalone, her pleasure in fine stuffs and rich embroideries is unsurpassed in the annals of womankind. The wood-wife with canny knowledge of her tastes brings her the fairy web, declaring that if she dare wear it she shall presently be clad as goodly as she can wish. Birdalone can be trusted to don any attire that meets her fancy (and to doff it as willingly, for she has a startling habit not uncommon with Morris's heroines of stripping off her garments to let the winds of heaven play upon her unimpeded). The wood-wife places the raiment she has brought on Birdalone's outstretched arms, "and it was as if the sunbeam had thrust through the close leafage of the oak, and made its shadow nought a space about Birdalone, so gleamed and glowed in shifty brightness the broidery of the gown; and Birdalone let it fall to earth, and passed over her hands and arms the fine smock sewed in yellow and white silk, so that the web thereof seemed of mingled cream and curd; and she looked on the shoon that lay beside the gown, that were done so nicely and finely that the work was as the feather-robe of a beauteous bird, whereof one scarce can say whether it be bright or grey, thousand-hued or all simple of colour. Birdalone quivered for joy of all the fair things, and crowed in her speech as she knelt before Habundia to thank her." Thus Morris carried into his "pleasure-work of books" the "bread-and-butter work" of which he was hardly less fond.

But in the deeper realities of life with which even romantic fiction may deal, and must deal if it is to lay hold of the modern imagination, these romances are poor. Not one of his characters is developed by circumstance into a fully equipped human being thoroughly alive to the intellectual and moral as to the physical and emotional world. His men and women are eternally young and, with the physical freshness of youth, have also the crude, unrounded, unfinished, unmoulded character of youth. They have all drunk of the Well at the World's End, and the scars of experience have disappeared, leaving a blank surface. The range of their emotions and passions is as simple and narrow as with children, and life as the great story-tellers understand it is not shown by the chronicle of their days. In many of the romances, it is true, the introduction of legendary and unreal persons and incidents relieves the writer from all obligation to make his account more lifelike than a fairy-tale; but Morris is never content to make a fairy-tale pure and simple. Marvellous adventures told directly as to a child are not within his method. One of his critics has described The Water of the Wondrous Isles as a three-volume novel in the environment of a fairy-tale, and the phrase perfectly characterises it. A sentimental atmosphere surrounds his figures, and suggests languor and soft moods not to be tolerated by the writer of true fairy-tales, for while love is certainly not alien to even the purest type of the latter, with its witch and its princess and its cruel step-mother and rescuing prince, it is not love as Morris depicts it any more than it is love as Dante or Shakespeare depicts it. In Morris's stories the lovers are neither frankly symbolic creatures of the imagination whose loves are secondary to their heroic or miraculous achievements, and who apparently exist only to give a reason for the machinery of witchcraft, nor are they, like the lovers of the great novels, endowed with thoughtful minds and spiritual qualities. They are too sophisticated not to be more complex. The modern taste is unsympathetic to their endless kissing and "fawning" and "clipping," nor would ancient taste have welcomed their refinements of kindness toward each other or the lack of zest in their adventures. Morris seems to have tried somewhat, as in the case of his handicrafts, to start with the traditions of the Middle Ages and to infuse into them a modern spirit that should make them legitimate successors and not mere imitations of the well-beloved medi?val types. That he did not entirely succeed was the fault not so much of his method as of his deficient insight into human nature. He could not create what he had never closely investigated.

When we read his prose romances, their framework gives many a clue to their ancestry, but it is an ancestry so remote from the interest of the general reader as to puzzle more than charm in its influence upon the modern product. In The House of the Wolfings, The Roots of the Mountains, and especially The Glittering Plain, we have more or less modernised sagas, obviously derived from the Icelandic literature of which he had been drinking deep. The hero of The Glittering Plain is as valorous a youth and as given to brave adventures as the great Sigurd, the environment is Norse, and so are the names of the characters-Sea-eagle, Long-hoary, Grey Goose of th

e Ravagers, and Puny Fox. Other words and phrases also drawn from the "word-hoard" of the Icelandic tongue are sprinkled over the pages. We find "nithing-stake" and byrny, and bight, spoke-shave and ness and watchet, sley and ashlar and ghyll, used as expressions of familiar parlance. The characters give each other "the sele of the day," retire to shut-beds at night, and look "sorry and sad and fell" when fortune goes against them. They wander in garths and call each other faring-fellow and they yea-say and nay-say and wot and wend. It is not altogether surprising to find some of Morris's most loyal followers admitting that they can make nothing of books written in this archaic prose.

In the subsequent romances the comparative sturdiness imparted by the writings of the North gives place to a mildness and grace suggestive of those early French romances the charm of which Morris had always keenly felt. We still have much the same vocabulary and more or less use of the same magic arts, "skin-changing" holding its own as a favourite method of overcoming otherwise insuperable difficulties; but we have more of the love motive and a clearer endeavour to portray the relations of the characters to each other. In all, however, the French and Scandinavian influences are so mingled with each other and with the element provided by Morris alone, and so fused by his fluent prolix style, as to produce a result somewhat different from anything else in literature, with a character and interest personal to itself, and difficult to imitate in essence, although wofully lending itself to parody. The subject never seems important. There is no sense that the writer was spurred to expression by the pressure of an irresistible message or sentiment. We feel that anything may have started this copious flow of words, and that there is no logical end to them. The title of The Well at the World's End was taken from an old Scottish ballad called by that name which Morris had never read, but the title of which struck his fancy, and the book reads as though it had grown without plan from the fanciful, meaningless title.

Of these later romances, The Glittering Plain is the most saga-like, and The Water of the Wondrous Isles is most permeated by the romantic spirit of the Arthurian legends and their kin. Despite all defects, the latter has a bright bejewelled aspect that pleases the fancy although it does not deeply enlist the imagination. The story is leisurely and wandering. The heroine, Birdalone, some of whose characteristics have already been mentioned, is stolen in her infancy from her home near a town called Utterhay, by a witch-wife who brings her up on the edge of a wood called Evilshaw and teaches her to milk and plough and sow and reap and bake and shoot deer in the forest. When she is seventeen years of age she meets in the forest Habundia, a fairy woman, who gives her a magic ring by which she may make herself invisible and a lock of hair by burning a bit of which she may summon her in time of need. Birdalone soon after escapes from the witch-wife in a magic boat, and passes through fabulous scenes to enchanted islands, where she finds friends and enemies. Three maidens, Atra, Viridis, and Aurea, save her from the latter, and send her forth to find for them their lovers. While on her quest she travels to various isles,-the Isle of the Young and the Old, the Isle of the Queens, the Isle of the Kings, and the Isle of Nothing,-which afford opportunity for strange pictures and quaint conceits but have nothing to do with the narrative. When Birdalone finds the lovers of her friends, the Golden Knight, the Green Knight, and Arthur the Black Squire, called the Three Champions, they are charmed by her beauty and friendliness, and she immediately falls in love with the Black Squire, betrothed of Atra.[3] The Black Squire returns her prompt affection, but has grace to show himself moody and downcast at the thought of breaking faith with his lady. Presently the Three Champions go their ways to find the three maidens who were kind to Birdalone and who are kept on the Isle of Increase Unsought by a witch, sister to Birdalone's early guardian, and Birdalone, weary of waiting for their return, fares forth to meet adventures and lovers in plenty. To all the brave knights and youths who take their turn at wooing her she is pitiful and gentle after her fashion, and thanks them kindly, and praises them and suffers them to kiss her for their comfort, and deems them "fair and lovely and sweet," but keeps her preference for the Black Squire. Now, when the Three Champions come back with their ladies and find Birdalone fled there is much distress among them, and the knights set forth to find her. Meeting with her, they are set upon by the bad Red Knight, into whose custody she has recently been thrown, and Baudoin, the Golden Knight, is killed. Returning with this bad news to the three ladies, the two remaining knights, who have rescued Birdalone and killed the Red Knight, decide to ride back into the latter's domain and make war upon his followers. In the meantime Atra has learned that the Black Squire has transferred his affections from her to Birdalone, and does not attempt to dissemble her grief thereat, none of Morris's characters being gifted in the art of dissimulation, particularly where love is concerned. Birdalone, departing from the course which Morris elsewhere is most inclined to sanction, decides to renounce in Atra's favour, and betakes herself to the town of Greenford, where she is received into the broiderers' guild and works with a woman who turns out to be her own mother, from whom she was stolen by the witch. With her she lives for five years, when sickness slays Audrey, the mother, and Birdalone can no longer resist the temptation to seek her love, the Black Squire, again. So she makes her way once more through marvellous adventures into the old forest of Evilshaw, where she comes again upon her fairy friend Habundia, by whose aid she finds the Black Squire. The latter has met with misfortunes and is lost in the forest, where he falls ill. Birdalone nurses him back to health, and they decide that whether Atra be dead or alive they will have no more parting from one another. They are soon to be put to the test, as in the wood they come upon Atra and their other friends, who have set out to seek them, being anxious for their welfare, and who have been overcome by caitiffs and bound and held prisoners. Arthur and Birdalone rescue them, and all these friends make up their minds to go together and dwell in Utterhay for the rest of their lives. Aurea finds another lover in place of the Golden Knight she has lost, but Atra is faithful in heart to the Black Squire, though able to bear with philosophy his union with Birdalone. Thus they live happily ever after. Upon this skeleton of mingled reality and dream Morris built his general idea of happy love. The tale might easily be twisted into an allegory, since all the creatures of his imagination stand for either the satisfactions or dissatisfactions of the visible world, but nothing is more certain than that he meant no such interpretations to be put upon it. When one of his critics assumed an allegorical intention in the story called The Wood Beyond the World, he was moved to public refutation, writing to the Spectator: "It is meant to be a tale pure and simple, with nothing didactic about it. If I have to write or speak on social problems, I always try to be as direct as I possibly can." The truth of this is best known by those who most faithfully have followed his writings, and it is entirely vain to try to squeeze from his "tales" any ethical virtue beyond their frank expression of his singularly simple temperament. Nevertheless, like the rest of his work, they reveal in some degree his way of regarding the moral world. As we have seen, Birdalone has her impulse toward renunciation, and for a brief interval one feels that the story possibly may be allowed to run along the conventional lines laid down by the civilised human race for the greatest good of the greatest number. This, however, would have been wholly alien to the writer's temper, and there is no shock to those familiar with this temper in finding that in the end the hero and heroine eat their cake and have it. Renunciation on the side of the unbeloved is effected with grace and nobility, but it is made clear that it is a question of accepting the inevitable in as lofty a spirit as possible. It is perhaps the most obvious moral characteristic of Morris's types in general, that they are no more prone than children to do what they dislike unless circumstance forces them to it. If we were to argue from his romances alone we could almost imagine him contending that what one dislikes in conduct is wrong, just as he did contend that what one dislikes in art is bad. But if his men and women do not willingly renounce, at least they do not exult. The sight of unhappiness pains them. For stern self-denial he substitutes the softer virtues of amiability and sweetness of temper. A high level of kindliness and tenderness takes the place of more compelling and formidable emotions. "Kind," indeed, is one of the adjectives of which one soonest wearies when confined to his vocabulary, and "dear," is another. We read of "dear feet and legs," of dear and kind kisses, of kind wheedling looks, of kind and dear maidens, and dear and kind lads, and everyone is kind and dear who is not evil and cruel. What Morris's romances preach, if they preach anything, is: that we should get from life all the enjoyment possible, hurting others as little as may be consistent with our own happiness, but claiming the satisfaction of all honest desires; that, in thus satisfying ourselves, we should keep toward those about us a kind and pleasant countenance and a consideration for their pain even when our duty toward ourselves forces us to inflict it. It is a narrow and exclusive teaching, and ill adapted to foster freedom of mind and spirit. It is a teaching that provides no breastplate for the buffets of fortune, and sets before one no ideal of intellectual or spiritual life the attainment of which would bring pleasure austere and exquisite. There is no stimulus and no sting in the love depicted. Even its ardour is checked and wasted by its dallying with the external charms that seem to veil rather than to reveal the spirit within the flesh. It is the essence of immaturity. But while we gain from the observation of Morris's childlike characters, playing in a world that knows no conventions and consequently no shame, a foreboding of the weariness that would attend such a life as he plans for them, we are conscious also that he is trying characteristically, to go back to the beginning, and to start humanity aright and afresh; to show us fine and healthy sons of Adam and daughters of Eve, "living," to use his own words, "in the enjoyment of animal life at least, happy therefore, and beautiful according to the beauty of their race." He sets them among the surroundings he loves, gives them the education he values, and leaves them with us-the blithe children of a new world, whose maturity he is content not to forecast. With such health of body, he seems to say, and such innocence of heart, what noble commonwealth may not arise, what glory may not enter into civilisation?

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