William Morris Archive

David Latham

0.3 Orpheus] Orpheus is the mythical poet of early Greek culture. He is the son of Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, and Oeagrus, the king of Thrace. His songs could charm birds and beasts, trees and rocks, winds and rivers.

0.3 Thracian] The ancient kingdom of Thrace extended over the Balkan-mountain region of northeastern Greece and European Turkey.

0.3 his love] The nymph Eurydice was a daughter of Apollo and the wife of Orpheus. Dancing barefoot in the Laconian woods with Orpheus, she died from a serpent bite. Orpheus descends to Hades to retrieve her, but loses her when he fails to keep his vow to resist turning around for a look at her.

1 Laconian] Laconia is the southern most region of Greece, south of Arcadia on the Peloponnesian peninsula, far from Thrace in the north.

2 Tenarus] Cape Tenarus is a promontory overlooking the southern seacoast of Laconia.

3 holm oak] Called also the holly oak, the holm is a Meditterranean evergreen which often serves as a windbreak on the seacoast.

19 Pan] Half man and half goat, Pan is a woodgod of art, music, and poetry, but also a lusting beast that seduces his intended lovers with his wind-piped instrument.

46 wollen] The Old High German word for “woolen.”

120 brake-side] The “fearful wood” (102) that borders the stream, the brake is an overgrown thicket of brushwood; from Middle English.

208 laver] A water-basin or font commonly used for ceremonial purification; from Latin.

216 unmeet] Unfit, unsuitable; from Middle English.

201 a city where all folk have died] Morris gradually reveals that Orpheus is entering the “dreadful hall” of Hades (222), a tomb-like temple wherein Persephone spins “coal-black thread” from a rock in her hand (237). Persephone is not named but is described as a god with the “face of one long dead,” with hair “white and long” (238), and with “corpse-like lips” (253) confessing to Orpheus that she is the “Mother of naught at all” (259).

265 Mazed] Bewildered, as if lost in a maze; from Middle English.

308 all music on thy lips] In this key passage of the poem, Persephone identifies Orpheus as “More than a God in this one thing” of being “so loving and so lovesome and so fair, All music on thy lips, and in thine heart.... And if love ruled the world thou shouldst rule. But so it is not; love is but the tool They use to make the morning bright and fair” (307-12).

324 strive and strive and fail] Eurydice’s explanation is typical of Morris’s descriptions of the heroic. Compare this passage (322-28) with Sir Peter’s creed concerning heroism in “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End” from The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems: “Moreover, I like the straining game Of striving well to hold up things that fall; So one becomes great” (218-20).

348 fell] The sheepskin; from Middle English for the hide or pelt.

576 snake] Orpheus cannot yet sing a song that confronts directly the event of the evil snake aroused with resentment by the beauty of the young lovers, an event that will leave others with a tale to tell of “How the death of joy befell” (633). The gods tell Orpheus to bear and share his grief with others as “a tale to tell” (786), a central motif of The Earthly Paradise.

587 sward] A grass meadow; from Middle English.

591 unnailed peach] Morris may be alluding to the forlorn imagery that reflects the despair of the lovesick Mariana: “The rusted nails fell from the knots / That held the peach to the garden-wall” (“Mariana,” 3-4). Morris knew Tennyson’s first edition (1830) of this favourite poem of the Pre-Raphaelites, which Tennyson later revised in 1860 to the aptly less fertile imagery of “the pear to the gable-wall.”

714 meed] His just, deserved portion; from Old English.

786 tale to tell] In telling Orpheus to bear and share his grief with others as “a tale to tell,” the gods are expressing a motif of The Earthly Paradise.

892 pinions] The wings of the godly messenger, the Shining One (996).

907 Hermes] The speaker here identifies himself as Hermes, the messenger of the gods to mortals. Though he is credited with the invention of fire and the lyre, of numbers and the alphabet, Hermes primarily appears as the winged herald, the keeper at the gate of dreams and prophecies, his wings the image of the swift flight of eloquence as he conveys to us the dreams of Zeus.

1005 Winter in the world] This song was reprinted as “Meeting in Winter” in “A Book of Verse,” Morris’s calligraphic gift-book for Georgiana Burne-Jones (1870), and in Poems by the Way (1891). When love and loneliness meet in winter, love can console but not transform life. This consolation through love in winter is effectively demonstrated. The word “round” is repeated until it emerges as the controlling image, turning from “round about” the beloved’s lips to “wrapped about” in the wheeled chariot of time. Life’s journey is depicted not as linear and chronological but as cyclical and topological. South yields to north, tomb yields to womb, the kiss of death’s mistress yields to the kiss of love, as the lovers pass through death’s burning hall to enlighten the night with their love.

1065 Shall we wake] This song was reprinted as “From the Uplands to the Sea” in “A Book of Verse,” Morris’s calligraphic gift-book for Georgiana Burne-Jones (1870), and in Poems by the Way (1891). In the introduction to a 1994 edition of Poems by the Way, I discuss the song:
The first poem of the collection, “From the Uplands to the Sea,” acts as an introduction, inviting us to an awakening within this literary house of life. The most personal lyric of the volume, it shares the elegiac tone of the lyrical sections of The Earthly Paradise, characterized by Walter Pater in 1868 as “the desire of beauty quickened by the sense of death,” but its complexity of conflicting image patterns prepares us for the complexity of conflicting ideologies represented by the various poems that follow it. The premise of this poem is one of pure love, an erotic devotion to the physical love of two people, the microcosm of heavenly paradise. Not the fruit of experience but the sensual experience itself is to be celebrated. Such purity, however, leaves nothing else to redeem its eventual decline or loss.
The temporal and geographical movement of “From the Uplands to the Sea” is clear; its correspondence with the emotional movement is complex. Why do the two lovers think of evening in the morning? Why is the upland sloping down to the sea? Why is the garden contrasted with the desert? While the two lovers find they need rest from too much joy over the beauty of the world (l. 9), they conclude that they cannot have enough of each other, that they yearn even more for each other when together than when apart (ll. 48-49). With the beloved’s gown half disrobed below her bosom, her hair blown softly across his cheek, their passions are too stirred for them to touch, to move, to look at each other. They then rise as the daffodils are downcast. As nature fades in beauty, as “the spring day ‘gins to lack/ That fresh hope that it once had,” the lovers “grow yet more glad,” recognizing their love as the source of beauty. “Yet more glad,” but still more anxious. The day passes, the meads fade, and the “grassy slope ... Dieth in the shingly sand” down to the engulfing sea. Their blissful, paradisal love cannot last forever; death will one day separate them with a desert of oblivion.

1072 Sun-god’s lonely home] The sun-god is Apollo, god of music, poetry, and prophecy, whose association with the sun relates him to the “morn of spring” (1065). Morris depicts the temple of Apollo here with what may appear to modern readers as a mixture of pastoral, rustic imagery (“country side ... porch,” 1075-77) and exotic palace imagery (“black pillar ... from the far-off Indian mine,” 1080-81), but he uses the word “porch,” not as an outside verandah, but as the classical term for a formal portico, a columned entrance to a temple.

1312 body flit] As Orpheus at last turned and “beheld [Eurydice’s] body flit,” Morris suggests a psychological reason for the god’s snatching her back to Hades; Orpheus loses his beloved when he loses his faith in love and lapses into despair, fearing that he must die to retrieve her life, and that such self-sacrifice is worthless: “and shall I die, and shall she live ... then all the gift that thou wilt give, Her life for my life?” (277-78).

Lines 1-108 here are from folio 14 recto and verso c3

c3: 41 Hebrus] The river Hebrus, which flows through Thrace, was called the Rhombus until Hebrus was accused by his scorned mother-in-law of rape and leaps into the river to escape the sword of his father, King Cassander. Hebrus becomes a river god, and his is the river where the maenads (the “Damsels of Bacchus,” 42) will cast the head and limbs of Orpheus.

c3: 42 Bacchus] The Roman name for Dionysus, Bacchus is the god of the vine, of intoxicated ecstasy and madness. The Damsels of Bacchus, were the maenads in Greek mythology, the women disciples of Dionysus. The Roman Bacchanalia became a public festival that celebrated the grape harvest with orgies.

c3: 86 staves] The Middle English plural for staff, but staves may also refer to the carved wooden ribs of the vats (line 40) and metaphorically refer to stanzas of the “dreadful sound” of cursing scorn that “cast rage into their hearts” (76-81).

1377 Helicon] The “cloud-hid” hillside of Mount Helicon, near Parnassus, is the abode of the Muses for poetic inspiration. Morris is not referring here to the river Helicon, the river that sank underground to resist cleansing the Dionysian maenads who had sought to wash their hands after dismembering Orpheus. However, in telling us what “other some say” (1375-76) about the “Story,” Morris may be exploiting the two Helicon allusions to contrast the heights of the mountain where the songs of Orpheus may soar and the depths of the underground river where the sorrows may dwell.

c1: 3 close] An enclosed field or garden; from Middle English.

c1: 183 bole] The trunk of a tree; from Middle English.

c1: 247 ore] O’er; over.

c1: 342: clover flowers did pine] Even the carefree clover pines with grief for Eurydice.

c1: 389: no whit] Not even the smallest bit.

c1: 401 certes] Certainly, truly; from Latin.

c1: 414 myrtle wreath] As Aphrodite is adorned with a myrtle wreath, it is associated with lovers, or here with the victim of seduction or with the lovesick loss of his beloved.

c1: 433 wend] Veer, turn, wind; from Middle English.

c1: 540 rood] A patch of land the size of forty square rods or a quarter of an acre; from Middle English.