The Earthly Paradise

by William Morris

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1243

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 Kiartan has fallen in love with King Olaf’s sister Ingibiarg and will marry her. Convinced of Kiartan’s unfaithfulness, Gudrun brokenheartedly marries Bodli. When Kiartan returns to claim his bride, Gudrun curses Bodli, and the desolate Kiartan, half in contempt, spares his life. Despairing and taunted by those about him, Bodli participates in an ambush set up by Kiartan’s enemies, treacherously slays his friend, and is in turn killed by Kiartan’s brothers. Although Gudrun marries again, what remains indelibly with the reader is Morris’s picture of her agonized realization of what, in...

(This entire section contains 1243 words.)

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her faithlessness, she has done:

She cried, with tremulous voice, and eyes grown wetFor the last time, what e’er should happen yet,With hands stretched out for all that she had lost:“I did the worst to him I loved the most.”

Morris was a natural creator; that his hand could not outspeed his brain is evidenced by his composing seven hundred lines of poetry in a day. Years after the composition of The Earthly Paradise he explained the nonchalant attitude toward the writing of poetry that enabled him to race undaunted through that enormous project: “Waiting for inspiration, rushing things in reliance on inspiration, and all the rest of it, are a lazy man’s habits. Get the bones of the work well into your head, and the tools well into your hand, and get on with the job, and the inspiration will come to you.”

In spite of its quantity, his poetry has a remarkably high quality. Although somewhat lacking in humor, pathos, and rich humanity, it shows none of the crabbed complaints of many poets. His range of subject matter is as broad as his composition was fluent. The very spacious cycle of stories in The Earthly Paradise includes these titles: “The Story of Theseus,” “The Son of Croesus,” “Cupid and Psyche,” “The King’s Treasure-House,” “Orpheus and Eurydice,” “Pygmalion,” “Atalanta’s Race,” “The Doom of King Acrisius,” “Rhodope,” “The Dolphin and the Lovers,” “The Fortunes of Gygis,” “Bellerophon,” “The Watching of the Falcon,” “The Lady of the Land,” “The Hill of Venus,” “The Seven Sleepers,” “The Man Who Never Laughed Again,” “The Palace East of the Sun,” “The Queen of the North,” “The Story of Dorothea,” “The Writing on the Image,” “The Proud King,” “The Ring Given to Venus,” and “The Man Born to Be King.”

These stories are so arranged that, with the revolving calendar, their temper becomes darker and stronger, developing into a sinister tone at the end. The full effect thus depends upon a continuous and consecutive reading. Conversely, the problem that arises as the reader progresses through this lengthy work is that the embroidery becomes too profuse to be sustained by the fabric. The result is the taint of decoration inherent in the Pre-Raphaelites—too much of beauty, love, languor, everything—so that the reader longs for a little substantial simplicity and cheerfulness. One might, therefore, argue for an occasional and selective reading of the stories, so long as their total scope is kept in mind.

The interludes give readers glimpses into the poet’s mind, and these glimpses give evidence that despite his disapproval of introspective poetry, Morris did not always avoid it. While the stories of The Earthly Paradise come from all parts of the medieval world, these poems of the months are unequivocally English; they give an admiring description of the land of Morris’s birth and life. With variations, they repeat the keynote of the prologue in which he characterizes himself as “the idle singer of an empty day” who has no power to sing of hell or heaven or to make death bearable. By “idle” Morris does not mean “useless” but, rather, one who can, by the scenes he presents, distract from “empty,” daily cares. In this manner he acknowledged spiritual emptiness in his time.

Throughout this poetic work there runs a strain of despondency, doubt, and mild skepticism that records the poet’s genuine pity for humanity. Although there is in the work an elemental vigor, glorying in youth, power, love, and possessions, these aspects of life are presented primarily through old men’s memories. Despite the swift-moving action, the narrative generally seems grandly slow. Neither the tale-tellers nor the actors in the tales are particularly individualized as characters. Finally, readers see a vast, intricate tapestry with its panorama of interwoven figures.