Post-19th Century Commentaries on The Life and Death of Jason
The story of the genesis of “The Life and Death of Jason” cannot be given without touching a little prematurely on “The Earthly Paradise.” In the plan of this collection of tales strung together by the narrative of the Wanderers my father included the Jason legend under the title of “The Deeds of Jason.” But as he worked on the subject, the poem developed and grew out of all proportion with the other tales, until he decided to publish it separately under the title it now bears, and with it gauge the taste of the public for this form of poetic work: the romantic narrative.
“Jason” had an unqualified and immediate success; and much hung on that success, for it is possible that if this long poem had not taken the public taste, “The Earthly Paradise” would not have seen the light in its present form, or at any rate would not have been so speedily published. My father was in spirits over the reviews—a little cautious, too, and characteristically never over-sanguine until the success was an accomplished fact.
[summarizes reviews] I think that what in “Jason” struck the critics who really sought into the heart of things was the clear and simple vision of past times mingled with the inevitably modern complexity of motive and passion (though the impression produced is, of course, far from being modern). . . .
I always felt that my father’s sympathies were with Medea—not Medea the sorceress, but the woman weak in the very strength of her love; that he found the hero himself rather second-rate and that he refused to sacrifice the reality of this feeling to any apparent necessity of keeping “Jason” in the foreground of the picture. Indeed, it is not conceivable to me that the old legend, told at such length, could have been welcomed as it was, if he had not made it a new thing, neither modern nor an archaeological exercise, breathing his own spirit into it: he certainly could not have worked it out in any other way. The men of letters who noticed the poem on its appearance all commented on this handling of Medea as the personage of the story. I call to mind specially an article by my father’s old friend, Charles Eliot Norton, in “The Nation,” and one by Henry James in “The North American Review.” But it seems to me that the things said most strongly and directly about “Jason” (which applies equally to “The Earthly Paradise” tales) comes from a lecture of Ruskin’s in 1869. The actual reference is only half a sentence; but it lies embedded in a few phrases which explain with a lucid simplicity the quality of romance, and the truth that lies within it, taking for illustration the poems of Keats and of Morris:
One may not agree with everything that Ruskin says here, but it all leads up to the significance of this last phrase. (xiv, xvi-xviii)
The tragedy of this particular hero arises from his ego-induced blindness, that is, his failure to perceive the subsuming patterns of destiny and to accommodate himself to them.
Medea stays Time for Jason in order that he may steal the treasure which will ensure the immortality of his name, but the demands of Necessity, that element which binds all together all of reality, past, present, and future, must finally be triumphant. The witch Medea, a forerunner of the benign witch figures of Morris’s late romances, is in tune with Necessity, the unseen but finally omnipotent motive force of the cosmos, and it is therefore she who truly represents Morris’s ideal of heroism in The Life and Death of Jason. (85)
Substituting a gentle elegiac tone for the intense gloom of “Scenes,” Morris is again preoccupied in Jason with love, fate, and death. His main interest is in the fated and fatal passion of Jason and Medea, and his sympathies are clearly with the woman. Indeed, a title more reflective of the poem’s theme might have been the Love and Death of Medea. The romance springs to life only when she appears; hers are the joys and torments with which the poet empathizes.
Jason is essentially passive, an agent and victim of the implacable fate that rules the poem. His basic drives are for rest and peace, and the desire for glory which impels him to the quest for the Golden Fleece is external, leaving his essential character unchanged. Though far from ignoble, he is seldom truly heroic. As a lover he is restless and shallow, and, although he is willing to reciprocate Medea’s passion for him, his love is never as intense as hers. To him, eros is a lovely but “unasked gift” (2:111) from the gods. When he rejects Medea for Glace, he is repudiating the heroic way of life. While Jason’s attraction to Glauce is portrayed in a form parallel to that of his earlier meeting with Medea, the purpose of the stylistic parallel is ironic: to compare the rightful passion for Medea and the noble deeds it causes with Jason’s less mature desire for Glauce and his concomitant wish to escape from the life of challenge, action, and responsibility identified with Medea.
Jason’s desire to evade maturity and responsibility is manifested in areas other than the erotic. He is one who would rather find the golden age intact than attempt to create it anew. Morris indicates—as he does in the “Prologue” to The Earthly Paradise—that this drive seldom culminates in success or happiness. In Jason, the age of gold becomes a reiterated symbol of the past that cannot be recaptured and of an earthly paradise that men may glimpse but cannot enter. The Argonauts[’] mission is to restore the spirit of Saturn’s age to their own kingdoms, not to retreat from them. Jason’s failure to do so, his lack of desire to make the land to which he returns an excellent earthly kingdom, is another indication of his inner flaw. He fails both to maintain the constancy in love natural to the people of the golden age and to repeatedly choose the “hard life and deathless praise” (2:130) of one who would quest for the ideal.
Morris’s Medea, on the other hand, is a powerful, dynamic figure. Like Guenevere, she is a woman first enlivened then destroyed by passion. Blind to personal advantage, she relinquishes for love her chance of godlike power, her personal pride, and her loyalty to kin. Giving and losing all, she dedicates her self and life to Jason. Sacrificing her father and brother, she saves Jason’s life and enables him to obtain the golden fleece. She helps Jason and his men escape the temptations offered by Circe and the Sirens. Aware, even in the first throes of her passion, that her lover may tire of her and seek a new woman, she is, nonetheless, “the fool of love” (2:108). . . . Medea, like Guenevere before her, becomes both the victim of destructive erotic passion and its embodiment. Slayer and slain, victim and victimizer, it is her fate that moves the reader as Jason’s does not. She remains, through all, the center of interest and sympathy. (51-52)
[Jason’s] seventeen books comprise some 1,000 lines of decasyllabic couplets, employed with great freedom, including much enjambment, in a manner derived from Chaucer. Although the subject is classical, the settings sound mediaeval, and the sprit is more pathetic than heroic. An early critic in the Spectator in June 1867 remarked perceptively that ‘Jason comes as near to The Odyssey as a poem written with Chaucer’s strong sense of the piteousness of human life could come’. Towards the end, Morris directly invokes Chaucer, who is clearly the presiding influence on the poem:
In this we feel Morris’s deep love of English landscape and the English past, and a suggestion of bitterness about the existing state of affairs in a world of ‘unrejoicing labour’. . . .
Morris departs from his sources most in portraying Medea more as a loving woman than as a sorceress, and this enhances the pathos of the story. . . . Book I includes the speech of the usurped king Aeson to his son Jason, with its appealing vision of an Arcadian way of life. . . . But there is a kind of dramatic irony present to the reader, who knows already (if only from the synopsis at the beginning of the poem) that Jason’s life will be quite unlike this, as he commits himself to action and adventure to reclaim his father’s throne. . . .
With Medea’s aid Jason tames the brazen bulls and causes the Earth-born to destroy each other. Still the emphasis is on her love rather than on her sorcery, as in the scene at the beginning of Book 9 when she speaks presciently of Jason’s being unfaithful to her, and presents him from swearing his fidelity with loving words:
Morris always writes with particular tenderness at this period about the sufferings of love; the point will be taken up again in connection with The Earthly Paradise, where it is again obvious. . . . (38-42)
Modern readers react to Jason in a way directly contrary to their Victorian predecessors. We find it hard to sustain interest in a long poem simply for the sake of the story, especially if that story is well known. Even Paradise Lost suffers from this change of attitude, despite its great rhetorical energy, and it may be doubted whether many readers complete The Fairie Queene. We are quite prepared for novels to be long and time-consuming, but the idea of devoting several evenings, say, to a poem like Jason is alien. . . . Despite the paradox that both Eliot and Pound wrote longer poems – Pound’s Cantos indeed constituting one of the very longest – the assumption is still widely held and militates against much early poetry. . . . but in adopting this attitude we are depriving ourselves of pleasures which our forefathers clearly enjoyed. . . [,] especially those associated with Morris’s feeling for landscape and for the idyllic. (46)
The strong simplicity of his narrative seems to confront us with primary myth, and his use of epithets, heroic similes, and various epic conventions. . . suggest that Morris was attempting to write a romantic epic in the manner of his chief source, the third-century B. C. Argonautica of Apollonius of Thebes, rather than a medieval romance.
This contrast between hellenistic and medieval genres functions through certain overall similiarities between Jason and the prologue of The Earthly Paradise. . . But, in contrast to “The Wanderers,” Jason recounts a voyage with two distinct and successfully attained purposes—securing the Golden Fleece and returning with it to Greece. Hence, the Argonauts’ voyage is not a wandering line, but a circle returning to the point of its origin. Significantly, the Argonauts achieve their goals by rejecting a sequence of real or apparent Earthly Paradises, and it is through this pattern that the opposition between the two works is clearest. . . . As for the narrator of “The Wanderers,” the choice lies between deeds and timeless indolence. . . . . Again and again the poem suggest that men were not meant for life in an “Earthly Paradise, and that apparent Paradises are not to be trusted.
Aea, where the Fleece is held, strikes the newly arrived Argonauts as “an earthly paradise,” but they “looked to find sharp ending to their bliss” (II, 99). Similarly, Circe’s magic island is a trap. . . . Even the sight of the Garden of the Hesperides is dangerous. . . . The alternative to this prelapsarian paradise is thus not simply the life of action, but the pervasive dualism of a world in which success and failure, joy and sorrow are inextricably combined. (61-63)
If The Life and Death of Jason is a less attractive poem than “The Wanderers,” it is largely because the anticlimactic structure of Jason necessarily undercuts the stature of the hero. Unlike the Wanderers, who grew in Morris’ esteem as he wrote the poem, Jason never fully engaged Morris’s imagination. And so his revaluation of the Wanderers’ quest has its counterpart in his dissatisfaction with the classical man of action he originally intended to serve as a foil for the Wanderers’ folly.
May Morris was probably right when she argued that her “father’s sympathies were with Medea. . . .” The tragic heroine whose magic both aids her lover and alienates him from her, Medea prefigures what was to become a central image in Morris’ late romances. However, here he is not quite sure how to handle her. He revises or tones down the episodes in which she is excessively brutal—the death of her brother (which he attributes to Jason) and the murder of her children. . . . Morris was not ready--or perhaps willing—to come to terms with a character capable of acting out her revenge in such violent terms. Nevertheless, Medea is clearly a being who kindled his fascination and as such she accounts in large part for the enduring interest of the poem. (65-66)