William Morris Archive

By contrast with William Morris’ Defence of Guenevere, for which only a few scattered drafts for individual poems survive, The Life and Death of Jason evolved from a series of notebooks Morris drafted in his thirties (two of which have survived) through at least three traceable stages of revisions, and to a final edition which he prepared shortly before his death.

Morris originally planned to make “The Deeds of Jason,” drafted in 1866 and early 1867, the first of The Earthly Paradise’s classical tales, and prefaced it in this form with a poem which still survives. The tale eventually became too long to fit into the larger work’s original scheme (Jason has 296 pages in the Collected Works, and 357 in the Kelmscott edition), however, and he decided to publish an extensively revised version of it in 1867 as The Life and Death of Jason. In 1882, he revised the text of this enormously popular work, then in its eighth edition, and he made still more revisions for the 1895 Jason, the last Kelmscott Press edition of one of his works to appear in his lifetime.  

The resulting palimpsest therefore offers ideal evidence for a longitudinal study of Morris’ changing views of his own work and its physical presentation. The stylistic and aesthetic changes he made, which arguably reflect corresponding changes in his views of narrative transmission and stereotypical ‘heroism’.  

“The Deeds of Jason”

Morris was about to destroy his last two autograph notebooks of what he then called “The Deeds of Jason” when a friend’s offer to purchase them prompted him to preserve them. The surviving one hundred sixty-eight manuscript pages included prototypes of the first through seventh of The Life and Death of Jason’s seventeen books.  Absent from them therefore were the finished work’s descriptions of the Argonauts’ trek across the Black Sea and Northern steppes to the edge of the ‘known world’; Jason’s betrayal of his resourceful companion Medea for Glauce, daughter of the King of Corinth, and Medea’s ruthlessly effective revenge; and the aging Argonaut’s half-hearted remorse and ironically un-‘heroic’ death under his once-proud ship, now a hulk which collapsed on him as he slept.

In fact, this truncated but fairly concise and polished autograph printer’s copy was almost certainly a first draft, whose numbered notebooks matched numerations of first drafts for other Earthly Paradise tales—the first draft of “The Hill of Venus,” for example. In any case, whatever its stage of composition, this text differed markedly from corresponding passages in the first printed edition of The Life and Death of Jason. [for evidence, please see the collations pages]

The Editions of 1867, 1882 and 1895

The wide popularity of the modestly printed first edition of The Life and Death of Jason startled everyone. The volume’s publishers (Bell and Daldy) made no stereotypes from its initial run of five hundred copies, and had to reset another five hundred for a hastily prepared second edition, in which Morris inserted chapter titles and a prefatory page for the “Argument.” Roberts Brothers, the volume’s American publishers in Boston, had prepared an initial run of two thousand copies, but they too had failed to prepare stereotypes and had to reset the text for another edition. 

Jason became in fact the most widely read of Morris’ poetic works in his own lifetime, with the possible exception of The Earthly Paradise, and it continued to hold its audience as long as Latin remained a standard subject of study in the schools. Aside from Morris’ own impressum in 1896, subsequent editions of The Life and Death of Jason in Britain alone included a thousand-copy-run by Morris’ friend F. S. Ellis in 1869; two thousand copies of a revised eighth edition by Ellis and White in 1882; and long series of reissues and reprinting by Reeves and Turner (1889), Longmans (1896, 1897 and 1907); May Morris (in the Collected Works  of 1910): Routledge (also 1910); Everyman (1912); the Clarendon Press (1914); Collins, with illustrations (1914); and the Swarthmore Press, with illustrations by Maxwell Armfield (1915). Macmillan even put out an edition “for younger readers” in 1923, and graced it with a frontispiece-illustration of an Attic vase depicting Medea’s alleged resurrection of a dismembered ram. [see Illustrations page]

Whatever Morris’ reaction to the extravagantly enthusiastic interest in his second volume of poetry, he revised it more than he did any of his other works. He made substantial changes in the sharpness and dramatic quality of its language in the 1882 edition, for example, and—more surprisingly, perhaps—in the text he prepared for the Kelmscott Press shortly before his death.  

The 1895 Kelmscott Press Version

Gravely ill when he revised the Life and Death of Jason for publication by the Kelmscott Press, Morris was also a seasoned socialist who had remarked in print that protagonists in bourgeois novels were “content to live on a sea of other people’s troubles.”  Prompted in part perhaps by such views, he revised his earlier work to bring into sharper relief the character of his “singer” Orpheus, and distance himself somewhat more from the text’s somewhat narcissistic action-‘hero’ Jason, whose ‘large appetites’ included avidity for power and a capacity for self-delusion. 

Morris's final redaction of Jason’s voyage made a surprising number of apt, even elegant modifications in the text. He also exploited the new opportunities for design offered by the Kelmscott Press, and its inclusion of carefully executed drawings by his famous collaborator, Edward Burne-Jones.

It seems noticeable however that Burne-Jones, who contributed twenty-four drawings to the press’s edition of The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, furnished only two for The Life and Death of Jason, a reflection perhaps of his preference for medieval over classical themes. 

The first, used as the frontispiece, depicts a dragon a sly but rather tamely allegorical dragon—one of the large “sea-worms” which attacked Atalanta in book 10, perhaps—and conveys Jason’s energy and Medea’s exotic beauty, but little of the latter’s bravery, intensity, high practical intelligence, or capacity for anger.  As Robert Coupe observes in his Illustrated Editions of the Works of William Morris in English, she “stands as serenely as if she were in a reception line at a wedding" (71).

The second illustration--which appears at the work's end--as Coupe interprets it, represents Medea’s interrogation of Circe in Book XIII but “has a passive quality . . . . [and] conveys no suggestion of the drama of their meeting, the horrible ambiance and bleak prophecies which Circe is making about Medea’s future” (71). To me the second plate’s medieval ambiance suggests that its rather detached female figure, whoever she may be, has read the fates of Jason, Medea and Orpheus as an allegory of life—its voyages, its passions, and its betrayals—within the frame of The Earthly Paradise, in which classical and other tales are retold for a‘medieval’ audience and a (once-)‘modern’one.

By contrast, Jason’s best-known 20th century illustrator, Max Armfield, sought to return Morris’s poem to the classical ambiance suitable for its separate publication (apart from The Earthly Paradise and thus outside the latter’s medieval frame). [see Illustrations page]

But Burne-Jones’ interpretation would also be compatible with Morris’s colophon, which reminds us once again that the cultural past is a product of its transmission, and its interpreters part of the tale. 

Such an ‘abyme-of-narrators’-interpretation of myth as refracted myth and sublation of action in music, song and reflective book-making would also underscore the hermeneutic role of Orpheus—mourner and voyager, poet and performer, as well as compassionate interpreter of the tale’s once-heroic wanderer and his tormented lover, seen after two thousand years through a receding meditative frame, their limits and defeats forgiven but not forgotten by time.

May Morris, Collected Works, III, xxii.

The information in this account is indebted to Eugene LeMire, A Bibliography of William Morris, 2006, 15-25.

illustrated by P. B. Hickling; omitted from LeMire’s Bibliography, this version is mentioned in Robert Coupe’s Illustrated Editions of the Works of William Morris in English: A Descriptive Bibliography, 72-73.

Parallel editions in the U.S. appeared in 1870, 1871, 1877, 1886, 1893 (with Roberts Brothers), 1900, 1903 and 1909 (Longmans); and 1915 (Dodd, Mead).