Of all the poems of William Morris, the most successful, in terms of popularity, is The Earthly Paradise, published originally in five thick volumes. Following closely the plan of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400), this composition reveals Morris’s attraction to Chaucer’s method as well as his sense of beauty. Like Chaucer, Morris found in medieval legends and ancient myths material for his poetic narrative art, and he also found a general plan according to which these unrelated stories could be brought together harmoniously by a technique in which Eastern cultures had long anticipated Chaucer and other Europeans. Unlike Chaucer, whose plan was so large that he could not complete it, Morris, upon an almost equal scale, brought his work to a happy conclusion.
The prologue introduces a company of Norsemen who have fled the pestilence and set sail to seek the fabled Earthly Paradise “across the western sea where none grow old.” Not having succeeded in their quest, they have returned “shrivelled, bent, and grey,” after lengthy wanderings abroad, to a “nameless city in a distant sea” where the worship of the ancient Greek gods has not died out. In this hospitable city they spend the rest of their lives. Twice each month they participate in a feast at which a tale is told, alternately, by one of the city elders and one of the wanderers. The former tell tales on classical subjects, and the latter draw their tales from Norse and other medieval sources. Thus, of the twenty-four stories, twelve are Greek and classical and twelve are medieval or romantic. Each pair of stories corresponds with one of the twelve months, the first two being told in January, the second two in February, and so on. Thus the long poem is neatly partitioned into twelve books with interpolated prologues and epilogues in the form of lyrics about the progressive changes in nature. The Earthly Paradise actually revived in England an enthusiasm for long romances. Despite their high cost, many thousands of Morris’s books were sold, and the effect was a favorable one for the new revival of romantic feeling that Morris was fostering in art and decoration as well as in literature. Instead of exhausting Morris, this poetic effort inspired him to embark on other vast projects such as the translation of Homer and Vergil and a modern version of a Scandinavian epic, Sigurd the Volsung.
Among the tales told by the wanderers in The Earthly Paradise, the most striking is “The Lovers of Gudrun,” a version of the Icelandic Laxdaela Saga. It tells of Gudrun, daughter of a great lord in Iceland, who is loved by many men but especially by Kiartan, a youth of manly deeds and kindly disposition. Although Gudrun passionately returns his love, Kiartan, before he will marry her, goes with his bosom friend and cousin Bodli to seek fame in Norway, where he remains some years at the court of Olaf Trygvesson. When Bodli returns alone to Iceland, he yields to his passion for Gudrun and tells her that...
(The entire section is 1243 words.)