Joseph Knight, unsigned review, Sunday Times
June 9th, 1867, no. 2304, 7
Since the appearance of The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems, two lustres have almost elapsed. That this time, long as it seems, has not been fruitlessly occupied by Mr. Morris, the publication of Jason, and the announcement of a second work of equal or superior pretensions, are enough to vouch. Very singular has been the fate of Mr. Morris’s earlier work. As regards the general public it was a failure so complete that its author, if unsupported by self-knowledge and the promptings of genius, might well have retired in discouragement from the strife for fame. With a select few, however, comprising men of highest culture and those whose opinions upon poetry have most weight, it speedily became a remarkable favourite. Such a volume – so thoroughly imbued with antique spirit, so full of wonderful colour, so strange, mystical, and unearthly, yet withal so profoundly poetical – had seldom before been seen, and at its first appearance stamped its author a man of highest mark. A second volume from the same author has long been hoped for, and at length is here.
The first feeling on glancing at its contents, or, indeed, at reading its title, is regret. So completely has the fame of Mr. Morris been associated with Gothic art that it is not without a twinge of pain we see him desert it for Classic. To the man who can write such poems as ‘The Chapel in Lyoness,’ ‘Rapunzel,’ ‘Shameful Death,’ or ‘The Haystack in the Floods,’ a mine of wealth is open which none but he can explore. If he leave its treasures unrevealed, they must remain for ever unknown. The wealth of classic subjects is opened out to us by many explorers, and the labours of the last comer might well, seeing what need there is of them elsewhere, have been spared. During a perusal of the work, however, such feelings as we have indicated rapidly disappear. Great as has been Mr. Morris’s success in dealing with Arthurian legends and subjects drawn from mediaeval life, it is not greater than that he has obtained in his treatment of one of the oldest and most characteristic of classical stories.
The Life and Death of Jason is, indeed, one of the most remarkable poems of this or any other age. It claims the dignity of an epic having a ‘dramatic fable,’ and the ‘revolutions, discoveries, and disasters,’ on which, in the epic, Aristotle insists. The manner of Jason’s death, moreover – for which Mr. Morris has classic warranty – is such as to bring the work within the limits of the Epopee, rendering it ‘conversant with one whole and perfect action which has a beginning, middle, and end.’ This action is, of course, the Argonautic expedition, to undertake which Jason, unknown to himself, is divinely summoned. By this expedition and its results alone he is remembered, and his death is due to Argo, the vessel which has been the companion, and, in part, the means of his triumph.
In structure, moreover, The Life and Death of Jason approaches closely the celebrated epics of antiquity. Its length is certainly epic. It consists of seventeen books, whereof two contains over one thousand lines, the aggregate number of lines being almost identical with that of the Paradise Lost. An epic poem, then, in rhymed heroic stanza, is a truly remarkable experiment for a writer in modern days to attempt. Tried, however, by the tests ordinarily applied to epic poetry, Jason would scarcely claim our praise. No previous work, in fact, resembles it in many important particulars, and it can scarcely be assigned to any class. Treatment of subject, and the nature of some of the episodes, recall the Odyssey – with which, indeed, the book has more in common than it has with any other work. In the manner in which the story is narrated we are at times reminded of some of the more than half-forgotten ‘heroic’ poems of the seventeenth century, such as the Pharonnida of William Chamberlayne. Ben Jonson, we know, on the testimony of Drummond of Hawthornden, projected an epic poem in rhymed couplets of ten syllables, but he never seems to have attempted to put his scheme into execution. This metre, he maintained, was best suited to the dignity of epic poetry.
Mr. Morris’s management of this metre is, however, so different from that of any writer past or present that it scarcely seems necessary to inquire who were his predecessors in its employment. No other verse has any likeness to it. The rhymed couplets of Pope have hardly more resemblance to it than the blank verse of Milton or the Alexandrines of Drayton. Mr. Morris’s work, whatever its faults, is profoundly original, and bears the impress of the strongest conceivable individuality. It is not easy to give an idea of it by extracts, or, indeed, to judge of it by parts. Taken as a whole, it strikes us as one of the most beautiful, complete, and unearthly poems we have ever read. It is classical in thought and feeling, but its classicism is all unlike that of Swinburne, or Landor, or Tennyson, or Keats. No single idea about it seems to have even the slightest reference to any modern thought or feeling. In The Defence of Guenevere a noticeable charm was the utter unworldliness, so to speak, of the verse, its total divergence from all known models, and the manner in which its very metre carried the mind away from every-day life. Even stronger is this feeling as we read the passages of Jason. Its verse has a strange melody, the full sense and significance of which are not at first acquired. Its pictures are sharp, well-defined, and often of superlative beauty.
The poem is full of colour, not such rich and glowing hues as belong to the early volume, but wonderful colour nevertheless. Pale opal-like tints it exhibits, such as on a spring morning the sky possesses an hour before sunrise, or such as are offered by a faint and distant vision of Northern Lights. The melody of the versification is perfect. A frequent use of particular words adds to the dreamy monotony which the author appears to have studied. Few works of equal pretensions have had less heat and passion.
Here, in fact, is the most striking defect of the poem. It is too destitute of fire and glow. Strangely little is made of the dramatic opportunities offered. Yet if the poem does not rise it does not sink. It is as passionlessly beautiful as an antique bust. Its story follows so closely the common legends of Jason, it is needless to describe it. The birth of Jason and his nurture by Cherion occupy the first book. His return to Iolchos and his determination, after hearing the narration of Pelias, to go in quest of the Golden Fleece, are told in the second. The third contains an account of the various heroes whom desire to join the intended enterprise attracts, and is an imitation of the often-imitated catalogue of ships in the Iliad. Singularly beautiful is this part, the few lines in which the more-important characters, as Atalanta, Hercules, Orpheus, Theseus, or Pirithous, are described being admirable. After the departure of the heroes from Iolchos, the events that occur ere their arrival at Colchis are detailed at no great length; the famous episode of Hypsipylo and the Lemnian women being barely touched upon. Arriving at Æa, the capital of Colchis, the Argonauts are entertained by Æetes with feigned courtesy, and Jason learns the terrible conditions on which alone the fleece can be won. Aided by Medea, the sudden dawn of whose love for the hero is admirably described, Jason commences the enterprise. Æetes sees with dismay the taming of the two brazen bulls, the killing of the dragon, the sowing of its teeth, and the destruction by means of the stone which Medea had provided of the multitude of armed men which arose from the furrows. In the night Jason and Medea obtain the fleece and put to sea. The flaring of the beacon lights which follows is powerfully described. Then follow the murder of Absyrtus, the long journey northwards, the winter in the north, and the homeward journey in the spring. Circe is visited on her island and Medea learns the means by which alone she and Jason can be purified from the blood of Absyrtus. From the snares of the Sirens the travellers are preserved by the song of Orpheus. Arrived in Thessaly Medea first lands and causes the death of Pelias at the hands of his daughters, who think, under her direction to restore him to youth. Jason and his companions are received with applause and shouts of ‘Jason for King! The Conqueror for King!’ The journey to Corinth, Jason’s love for Glauce, and Medea’s terrible revenge are briefly narrated, and the poem ends with the death of Jason, by the falling of a beam of the ship Argo, under shade of which he was sleeping.
To give an idea of the story of this poem is far easier than to describe its versification or explain the secret of its attractions. Jason is a work which can never enjoy a wide popularity, but its readers must include all cultivated lovers of poetry. Those parts of the poem which deserve special attention – we have left ourselves little space to quote – are the descriptions of the gathering of the Argonauts, their departure, the introduction of Medea, her gathering of the baneful drugs, and the scenes in the Island of Circe and of the Sirens. Very little in literature is finer than the contrasted songs of Orpheus and the Sirens, the former proclaiming to the half-conquered mariners the glory of heroic deeds and the reception that awaits them at home; the latter, singing the joys of ease and sensual delight. A song of the golden days of Saturn, is like the famous ‘Happy Age of (54) Gold,’ in the Pastor Fido of Guarini. It is impossible to extract a stanza from the poem without seriously impairing its beauty. Some short specimen of the versification is, however, needed. Medea’s entry to bear to Jason, sleeping, the magic preparations by aid of which his great deeds were to be accomplished, is by no means the best passage in the volume; it can, however, with least injury be separated from the context: -
And last she reached the gilded water-gate
And though nigh breathless, scarce she dared to wait
To fasten up her shallop to the stone,
Which yet she dared not leave; so this being done,
Swiftly by passages and stairs she ran,
Trembling and pale, though not yet seen by man,
Until to Jason’s chamber-door she came.
And there awhile indeed she stayed, for shame,
Rose up against her fear; but mighty love
And the sea-haunting, rose-crowned seed of Jove
O’ermastered both: so, trembling on the pin,
She laid her hand, but ere she entered in
She covered up again her shoulder sweet,
And dropped her dusky raiment o’er her feet,
Then entering the dimly-lighted room,
Where with the lamp dawn struggled through the gloom,
Seeking the prince she peered, who sleeping lay
Upon his gold bed, and abode the day
Smiling, still clad in arms, and round his sword
His fingers met; then she, with a soft word,
Drew nigh him, and from out his slackened hand
With slender rosy fingers drew the brand;
Then kneeling, laid her hand upon his breast,
And said: ‘O Jason, wake up from thy rest,
Perchance from thy last rest, and speak to me’
Many single lines and short stanzas have exceeding beauty, music, and picturesqueness. The description of the home of Erginus, son of Neptune, is very fine: -
Nigh the sea
His father set him, where the laden bee
Flies low across Meander, and falls down
Against the white walls of a merchant town
Men call Miletus.
Here are a few lines the beauty in which is of an altogether different order: -
But far away the sea-beat Minyae
Cast forth the foam as through the growing night
They laboured ever, having small delight
In life all empty of that promised bliss,
In love that scarce can give a dying kiss,
In pleasure ending sweet songs with a wail,
In fame that little can dead men avail,
In vain toil struggling with the fateful stream,
In hope, the promise of a morning dream.
Comment and quotation must, however, both cease. With no ordinary reluctance we take leave of this poem. Musical, clear, and flowing, strangely imaginative and suggestive, presenting pictures of almost incomparable beauty, it is a work of which an epoch may be proud. Its perusal leaves on the mind images of drowsy beauty, which are neither entirely recollections nor quite suggestions, but partake of the nature of each. Whoever loves poetry of the highest order will have this book on his shelves, will dip into it often, and will love it none the less that it will assuredly be ‘caviare to the general.’
unsigned review, The Athenaeum
June 15, 1867 [pdf]
The Life and Death of Jason: a Poem. By William Morris. (Bell & Daldy)
NEARLY ten years have passed since Mr. Morris published his ‘Defence of Guenevere, and other Poems,’ and it is a new proof of the vitality inherent in true poetry that a volume which attracted little attention at the period of its issue, or indeed for some time afterwards, has gradually gained for itself an increasing audience amongst men of imaginative taste. The poem which gave its name to the book was not, indeed, the best in it; but the tragic and passionate tale, ‘The Haystack in the Floods,’ ‘The Chapel in Lyoness,’ with its pensive and suggestive sweetness, ‘Riding Together,’ in which a sad adventure is set in a frame of description which has almost the vividness of visible form and colour, and ‘The Praise of my Lady,’ with a quaint simplicity which, though it now and then excites a smile, is steeped in the spirit of old chivalric lore,—these are pieces which, if still “caviare to the general,” are well-known to that select court of judges which awards his crown to the singer.
The work to which we have referred, however,—a collection of poems, none of which are of great length,—can hardly have prepared the readers of Mr. Morris for the ambitious venture which we have now to notice. If ‘The Life and Death of Jason’ do not fulfill all the conditions of an epic, it certainly approaches nearer to that class of composition than to any other, its design calling upon all the qualities of mind that are demanded by epic narrative. Following the career of Jason from his childhood till he lies crushed beneath the fatal beam of the Argo, Mr. Morris sets forth in minute detail the story of his exploits, his perils, his triumphs, and his faithlessness to Medea, who is of course a figure not second in importance to that of Jason himself. Juno, under various disguises, is conspicuous on all occasions that affect the fortunes of his favored hero; and Circe, the Sirens, and the Hesperides combine with mortal agents to work out the eventful drama.
In the execution of a plan embracing persons so dignified and an action so romantic, Mr. Morris has displayed poetic qualities rare in themselves, and especially rare in these days, when poets, amongst others, have too much conformed to the public impatience of high Art. We should have to go back for a quarter of a century to find any labour of equal pretension that exhibits the same amount of fortitude in the writer, and the same intimate knowledge of all that relates to his theme,— a knowledge which, implying something far more than correct and ample information, betrays itself often by careless happiness of allusion, and a mode of expression which might seem to have sprung from living amongst the scenes and persons described. Mr. Morris portrays the spirit, the manners, and the localities of the ancient Greeks as if he had been one of them. In dealing with classical legends he is as full of simple, child-like faith as was Froissart in dealing with the legends of medieval chivalry. He is averse almost to a fault from the introduction of set pictures and climaxes, and accordingly those salient points in Jason’s story from which will be expected,—the winning of the Fleece itself, for instance,—by no means give rise to the most successful portions of the poem. Throughout, Mr. Morris assumes the part of a chronicler who has a tale to tell, the interest of which is to be found in the events, and not in the chances which they afford for imaginative display. Many reader, consequently, will peruse page after page of ‘Jason’ without being startled into admiration; but the charm of the narrative will, we think, grow upon them by degrees, until they know at last that the smooth river upon which they have been borne, is a strong though even current. To leave metaphor, so thoroughly has Mr. Morris shunned all parade, that the happiness of epithet and of local colouring, the picturesque detail and the appropriate phrase, which give life and originality to his pictures, are for the most part known only by their effects and only fully appreciated in the retrospect.
From what has been said it will be plain that a few extracts will give no adequate idea of a work the value of which resides in its harmony and completeness. Still, readers will not excuse us from giving some passages from a poem of which we have spoken so highly. Waving then, on account of its length, the gathering together of Jason’s companions, a striking catalogue of individualities and of local specialities,—our first extract shall be the description of Iolchos on the morning when the heroes depart,—a picture which will at once prove that minuteness of work and breadth of effect of which the poem affords so many examples. Nor will the poetic reader miss the pathos of the closing lines, which temper the full blaze of youthful adventure with a soft cloud of regretful memory:—
BUT through the town few eyes were sealed by sleep
When the sun rose; yea, and the upland sheep
Must guard themselves, for that one morn at least,
Against the wolf; and wary doves may feast
Unscared that morning on the ripening corn.
Nor did the whetstone touch the scythe that morn;
And all unheeded did the mackerel shoal
Make green the blue waves, or the porpoise roll
Through changing hills and valleys of the sea.
For 'twixt the thronging people solemnly
The heroes went afoot along the way
That led unto the haven of the bay,
And as they went the roses rained on them
From windows glorious with the well-wrought hem
Of many a purple cloth; and all their spears
Were twined with blossoms that the fair earth bears;
And round their ladies' token-gifts were set
About their helmets, flowery wreaths, still wet
With beaded dew of the scarce vanished night.
So as they passed, the young men at the sight
Shouted for joy, and their hearts swelled with pride;
But scarce the elders could behold dry-eyed
The glorious show, remembering well the days
When they were able too to win them praise,
And in their hearts was hope of days to come.
Jason cuts the cable, and the Argo plunged seaward,—
Set free, and smitten by the western breeze,
And raised herself against the ridgy seas,
With golden eyes turned toward the Colchian land,
Made heedful of wise Tiphys' skilful hand.
But silent sat the heroes by the oar,
Hearkening the sounds borne from the lessening shore;
The lowing of the doomed and flower-crowned beasts,
The plaintive singing of the ancient priests,
Mingled with blare of trumpets, and the sound
Of all the many folk that stood around
Altar and temple and its brazen Lord.
So sat they pondering much and spake no word,
Till all the landward noises died away,
And, midmost now of the green sunny bay,
They heard no sound but washing of the seas
And piping of the following western breeze,
And heavy measured beating of the oars:
So left the Argo the Thessalian shores.
Obstinately resisting the temptations of the text for nearly a hundred pages, we next quote the flight of the heroes from Colchis after the Fleece has been won. By the aid of Medea they embark secretly in Argo, but the Colchian king follows in their wake, and the intercepting galley of his son Absytus lies in their van:—
NOW swift beneath the oar-strokes Argo flew,
While the sun rose behind them, and they drew
Unto the river's mouth, nor failed to see
Absyrtus' galley waiting watchfully
Betwixt them and the white-topped turbid bar.
Therefore they gat them ready for the war,
With joyful hearts, for sharp they sniffed the sea,
And saw the great waves tumbling green and free
Outside the bar upon the way to Greece,
The rough green way to glory and sweet peace.
THEN to the prow gat Jason, and the maid
Must needs be with him, though right sore afraid,
As nearing now the Colchian ship, they hung
On balanced oars; but the wild Arcas strung
His deadly bow, and clomb into the top.
Then Jason cried: Absyrtus, will ye stop
Our peaceful keel, or let us take the main?
For of thy slaying nowise are we fain
If we may pass unfoughten, therefore say,
What is it thou wilt have this dawn of day?
Now on the other prow Absyrtus stood,
His visage red with eager wrathful blood,
And in his right hand shook a mighty spear,
And said: O seafarers, ye pass not here,
For gifts or prayers, but if it must be so,
Over our sunken bulwarks shall ye
Nor ask me why, for thus my father wills,
Yet, as I now behold you, my heart thrills
With wrath indeed; and hearken for what cause!
That ye against all friendship and good laws
Bear off my sister with you; wherefore now
Mars give you courage and a brazen brow!
That ye may try this dangerous pass in vain,
For soothly of your slaying am I fain.
Then Jason wrathfully threw up his head,
But ere the shout came, fair Medea said,
In trembling whisper thrilling through his ear:
Haste, quick upon them! if before is fear,
Behind is death! Then Jason turning, saw
A tall ship staggering with the gusty flaw,
Just entering the long reach where they were,
And heard her horns through the fresh morning air.
Then lifted he his hand, and with a cry
Back flew the balanced oars full orderly,
And toward the doomed ship mighty Argo passed;
Thereon Absyrtus shouted loud, and cast
His spear at Jason, that before his feet
Stuck in the deck; then out the arrows fleet
Burst from the Colchians; and scarce did they spare
Medea's trembling side and bosom fair;
But Jason, roaring as the lioness
When round her helpless whelps the hunters press,
Whirled round his head his mighty brass-bound spear
That flying, smote the Prince beneath the ear,
As Arcas' arrow sank into his side.
Then falling, scarce he met the rushing tide,
Ere Argo's mighty prow had dashed apart
The huddled oars, and through the fair ship's heart
Had thrust her iron beak, then the green wave
Rushed in as rush the waters through a cave
That tunnels half a sea-girt lonely rock.
Then drawing swiftly backward from the shock,
And heeding not the cries of fear and woe,
They left the waters dealing with their foe;
And at the following ship threw back a shout,
And seaward o'er the bar drive Argo out.
To some felicities of description in the above, we have drawn attention by italics; but few will require such aid for the appreciation of painting so full of life and movement, so well studied in its particulars, yet so free and bold in its entirety.
Our last extract must be the description of the abode of the Hesperides. Here, again, reflection will show what wealth of full and just observation the writer has amassed, and how delightfully he has veiled the hard toil of his process by his easer of manner and his happy glow of imagination:—
BUT toward the south a little now they bent,
And for a while o'er landless sea they went,
But on the third day made another land
At dawn of day, and thitherward did stand;
And since the wind blew lightly from the shore,
Somewhat abeam, they feared not with the oar
To push across the shallowing sea and green,
That washed a land the fairest they had seen,
Whose shell-strewn beach at highest of the tide
'Twixt sea and flowery shore was nowise wide,
And drawn a little backward from the sea
There stood a marble wall wrought cunningly,
Rosy and white, set thick with images,
And over-topped with heavy-fruited trees,
Which by the shore ran, as the bay did bend,
And to their eyes had neither gap nor end;
Nor any gate: and looking over this,
They saw a place not made for earthly bliss,
Or eyes of dying men, for growing there
The yellow apple and the painted pear,
And well-filled golden cups of oranges
Hung amid groves of pointed cypress trees;
On grassy slopes the twining vine-boughs grew,
And hoary olives 'twixt far mountains blue,
And many-coloured flowers, like as a cloud
The rugged southern cliffs did softly shroud;
And many a green-necked bird sung to his mate
Within the slim-leaved, thorny pomegranate,
That flung its unstrung rubies on the grass,
And slowly o'er the place the wind did pass
Heavy with many odours that it bore
From thymy hills down to the sea-beat shore;
Because no flower there is, that all the year,
From spring to autumn, beareth otherwhere,
But there it flourished; nor the fruit alone
From 'twixt the green leaves and the boughs outshone,
For there each tree was ever flowering.
Nor was there lacking many a living thing
Changed of its nature; for the roebuck there
Walked fearless with the tiger; and the bear
Rolled sleepily upon the fruit-strawn grass,
Letting the conies o'er his rough hide pass,
With blinking eyes, that meant no treachery.
Careless the partridge passed the red fox by;
Untouched the serpent left the thrushes brown,
And as a picture was the lion's flown.
BUT in the midst there was a grassy space,
Raised somewhat over all the flowery place,
On marble terrace-walls wrought like a dream;
And round about it ran a clear blue stream,
Bridged o'er with marble steps, and midmost there
Grew a green tree, whose smooth grey boughs did bear
Such fruit as never man elsewhere had seen,
For 'twixt the sunlight and the shadow green
Shone out fair apples of red gleaming gold.
Moreover round the tree, in many a fold,
Lay coiled a dragon, glittering little less
Than that which his eternal watchfulness
Was set to guard; nor yet was he alone,
For from the daisied grass about him shone
Gold raiment wrapping round two damsels fair,
Of whom one slept, one sat and combed her hair,
And with shut eyes sung low as in a dream;
But yet another stood in the blue stream,
While on the bank her golden raiment lay;
But on that noontide of the quivering day,
She only, hearing the seafarers' shout,
Her lovely golden head had turned about,
And seen their white sail flapping o'er the wall,
And as she turned had let her tresses fall,
Which the thin water rippling round her knee
Bore outward from her toward the restless sea.
We are compelled to pass over the lyrics which relieve the narrative. Of these the most admirable is the contest between Orpheus and the Sirens, the former urging the Argonauts to pursue their course by the stimulus of pure and ennobling attractions, the latter seeking to detain them by the spells of vicious allurement. For beauty and psychology this contest must be ranked with Mr. Morris’s best achievements.
Long as out notice is already, we have failed to give anything like a complete account of this remarkable poem, and have chiefly contented ourselves with comments upon its general character. Some drawbacks from the high pleasure derivable from the work must now be mentioned. With all the variety of adventure which the career of Jason affords, he is not himself the most interesting of heroes. However brave and adventurous he may be, with a goddess and a sorceress ever at his side to rescue him from his perils, it is impossible to feel all the sympathy for him that we should give to a more self-dependent adventurer. Medea, in fact, is the presiding spirit of the poem. Her character is well drawn from the first; and with great skill the sense of a sad destiny is early in the poem associated with the the majestic beauty of the enchantress. In her, indeed, whatever human emotion the poem contains find its chief vent. But even in her case, passion and grief are subordinated to the prevailing law of repose. Probably by the poet’s design, although his expression of emotion sometimes charges us, it neither rouses nor pierces. His great merits are his feeling for the supernatural, his love of romance, his vivid descriptions of scenery, the identification of his modes of seeing and thinking with those of ancient Greek, and the conscientious labour with which underlies the whole poem. But the human element is comparatively wanting.
In his passion for Nature, Mr. Morris is a painter; but in dealing with person, his bias—at least in this poem—is towards the serene and the sculpturesque. The reader walks in a Southern garden which front upon the sea. We have the pungent air, the moving sapphire of the waters, and the fresh verdure of the trees; but the forms that glance through the last are marble, not flesh.
Minor faults might, doubtless, be pointed out. Occasionally, simplicity degenerates into baldness; occasionally, too, we meet with a line the harshness of which can hardly be justified by the intention of giving variety to the verse. How many times Mr. Morris applies the epithet “wan” to the sea, we will not precisely say; but we think they might be counted by scores. To dwell, however, upon flaws of this kind is so large a work, would be hypercriticism. We close, however, by remarking, less as an objection than as a significant fact, that the sole, but probably sufficient, hold of this poem upon the reader is the presence of beauty. Except in this respect, ‘The Life and Death of Jason’ has nothing in common with the hopes, the interests and the sympathies of modern life. For all that appears never have been processed. Its great lessons, that suffering ennobles, that self-sacrifice is the germ of blessedness, that man’s earthly life is but a road, and death but a portal, to a more glorious realm, might never have been taught. We will not upbraid Mr. Morris for having carried us once more to the dreamy but lovely shores of classical romance. Still a retreat will arise that he did not emulate the fortitude of his own Argonauts, and resisting the Sirens on the enchanted coast of Mythology, push on to regions of song fainter, perhaps, in color and severer in clime, but quickened by a more vital air, and crowned by temples that bear witness to a living belief, rather than commemorating a dead one.
A.C. Swinburne, review, Fortnightly Review
July 1867, viii, 19-28
(reprinted in Essays and Studies, London, 1875)
The hardest work and the highest that can be done by a critic studious of the right, is first to discern what is good, and then to discover how and in what way it is so. To do this office for any man during his life is a task essentially difficult, sometimes seemingly ungracious. We demand of the student who stands up as a judge, to show us as he best may, how and why this man excels that, what are the stronger and what the weaker sides of his attempted or achieved work when set fairly by the work of others. For if in some one point at least it does not exceed theirs, it is not work of a high kind, and worthy of enduring study. Who is to say this, who is to prove it, we have first to find out; and found out it must be, if criticism is to be held of more account than the ephemeral cackle of casual praisers and blamers; if it is to be thoughtful and truthful, worthy of an art, handmaid of higher arts. Now, as a rule, men are mistrustful of one who takes leave to judge the work of a fellow-workman. And not without reason or show of reason; for no verdicts more foolish or more false have been delivered than some of those passed by poet upon poet, by painter upon painter. Nor need this be taken as proof of anything base, or partial, or jealous in the speaker’s mind. It is not easy to see at once widely and well. For example, could Byron and Wordsworth have judged better of each other’s work, each might have lost something of fitness for his own. It is a hard law, but a law it is. Against this, however, a counter truth not less grave than this must be weighed. We do not appeal to men ignorant of politics for a verdict on affairs of state, to men unskilled in science on a scientific question. And no matter of science or state is more abstruse and hard to settle than a question of art; nor is any more needful to have settled for us in good time, if only lest accident or neglect, ignorance, or violence, rob us unaware of some precious and irrecoverable thing, not known of or esteemed while safely with us. Consider what all men have lost already and for ever, merely by such base means as these; how much of classic work and mediaeval, how much of Greece, of Italy, of England, has gone from us that we might have kept. For this and other reasons it may be permissible, or pardonable at least, for a student of art to speak now and then on art; so long only as he shall speak honestly and carefully, without overmuch of assumption or deprecation.
Over the first fortunes of a newly-born work of art accident must usually preside for evil or for good. Over the earliest work of the artist whom we are here to take note of, that purblind leader of the blind presided on the whole for evil. Here and there it met with eager recognition and earnest applause; nowhere, if I err not, with just praise or blame worth heeding. It seems to have been now lauded and now decried as the result and expression of a school rather than a man, of a theory or tradition rather than a poet or student. Those who so judged were blind guides of the purblind; reversing thus the undivine office of their god Accident. Such things as were in this book are taught and learnt in no school but that of instinct. Upon no piece of work in the world was the impress of native character ever more distinctly stamped, more deeply branded. It needed no exceptional acuteness of ear or eye to see or hear that this poet held of none, stole from none, clung to none, as tenant, or as beggar, or as thief. Not as yet a master, he was assuredly no longer a pupil.
A little later than this one appeared another volume of poems, not dissimilar in general choice of stories and subjects, perfect where this was imperfect, strong where this was weak; but strong and perfect on that side alone. All that was wanting here was there supplied, but all that was here supplied was wanting there. In form, in structure, in composition, few poems can be more faultless than those of Mr. Tennyson, few faultier than those of Mr. Morris, which deal with the legend of Arthur and Guenevere. I do not speak here of form in the abstract and absolute sense; for where this is wanting, all is wanting; without this there can be no work of art at all. I speak of that secondary excellence always necessary to the perfection, but not always indispensable to the existence of art. These first poems of Mr. Morris were not malformed; a misshapen poem is no poem; as well might one talk of unnatural nature or superhuman manhood; but they are not well clad; their attire now and then has been huddled on; they have need sometimes of combing and trimming. Take that one for example called ‘King Arthur’s Tomb.’ It has not been constructed at all; the parts hardly hold together; it has need of joists and screws, props and rafters. Many able writers of verse whom no miracle could endow with competence to do such work, would have missed the faults as surely as the merits; would have done something where the poet has cared to do nothing. There is scarcely connection here, and scarcely composition. There is hardly a trace of narrative power or mechanical arrangement. There is a perceptible want of tact and practice, which leaves the poem in parts indecorous and chaotic. But where among other and older poets of his time and country, is one comparable for perception and expression of tragic truth, of subtle and noble, terrible and piteous things? where a touch of passion at once so broad and so sure? The figures here given have the blood and breath, the shape and step of life; they can move and suffer; their repentance is as real as their desire; their shame lies as deep as their love. They are at once remorseful for the sin and regretful of the pleasure that is past. The retrospective vision of Launcelot and of Guenevere is as passionate and profound as life. Riding towards her without hope, in the darkness and the heat of the way, he can but divert and sustain his spirit by recollection of her loveliness and her love, seen long since asleep and waking, in another place than this, on a distant night.
Pale in the green sky were the stars, I ween,
Because the moon shone like a tear she shed,
When she dwelt up in heaven a while ago
And ruled all things but God.
Retrospect and vision, natural memories and spiritual, here coalesce; and how exquisite is the retrospect, and how passionate the vision, of past light and colour in the sky, past emotion and conception in the soul! Not in the idyllic school is a chord ever struck, a note ever sounded, so tender and subtle as this. Again, when Guenevere has maddened herself and him with wild words of reproach and remorse, abhorrence and attraction, her sharp and sudden memory of old sights and sounds and splendid irrevocable days finds word and form not less noble and faithful to fact and life. The first words of Arthur bidding her cherish the knight ‘whom all the land called his banner, sword, and shield;’ the long first pressure of Launcelot’s lips on her hand; the passionate and piteous course of love here ended (if ended at all) above the king’s grave dug in part and unwittingly by their wrong-doing; the solitary sound of birds singing in her gardens, while in the lists the noise went on of spears and shouts telling which knight of them all rode here or there; the crying of ladies’ names as men and horses clashed one against another, names that bit like the steel they impelled to its mark; the agony of anger and horror which gives edge and venom to her memory –
Banner of Arthur – with black-bended shield
Sinister-wise across the fair gold ground!
Here let me tell you what a knight you are,
O sword and shield of Arthur! you are found
A crooked sword, I think, that leaves a scar
On the bearer’s arm so be he thinks it straight –
Twisted Malay’s crease, beautiful blue-grey,
Poisoned with sweet fruit – as he found too late,
My husband Arthur, one some bitter day!
O sickle cutting harvest all day long,
That the husbandman across his shoulder hangs,
And going homeward about evensong,
Dies the next morning, struck through by the fangs!
– all these points and phases of passion are alike truly and nobly rendered. I have not read the poem for years, I have not the book at hand, and I cite from memory; but I think it would be safe to swear to the accuracy of my citation. Such verses are not forgettable. They are not, indeed, – as are the Idylls of the King – the work of a dexterous craftsman in full practice. Little beyond dexterity, a rare eloquence, and a laborious patience of hand, has been given to the one or denied to the other. These are good gifts and great; but it is better to want clothes than limbs.
The shortcomings of this first book are nowhere traceable in the second now lying before us. A nine years’ space does not lie between them in vain; enough has been learned and unlearned, rejected and attained. Here, indeed, there is not the stormy variety, the lyric ardour of the first book; there is not the passion of the ballads, the change of note and diversity of power, all that fills with life and invigorates with colour the artist’s earlier designs; for not all of this is here needed. Of passion and humour, of impulse and instinct, he had given noble and sufficient proof in manifold ways. But this Jason is a large and coherent poem, completed as conceived; the style throughout on a level with the invention. In direct narrative power, in clear forthright manner of procedure, not seemingly troubled to select, to pick and sift and winnow, yet never superfluous or verbose, never straggling or jarring; in these high qualities it resembles the work of Chaucer. Even against the great master his pupil may fairly be matched for simple sense of right, for grace and speed of step, for purity and justice of colour. In all the noble roll of our poets there has been since Chaucer no second teller of tales, no second rhapsode comparable to the first, till the advent of this one. As with the Greeks, so with us; we have had in lieu of these a lyric and a tragic school; we have also had the subordinate schools, gnomic and idyllic, domestic and didactic. But the old story-singers, the old ‘Saga-men,’ we have no more heard of. As soon might we have looked for a fresh Odyssey from southward, a fresh Njala from northward. And yet no higher school has brought forth rarer poets than this. ‘But,’ it is said, ‘this sort of poetry is a March flower, a child of the first winds and suns of a nation; in May even, much more in August, you cannot have it except by forcing; and forcing it will not bear. A late romance is a hothouse daffodil.’ And so indeed it must usually be. But so it is not here; and the proof is the poem. It could not be done, no doubt, only it has been.
Here is a poem sown of itself, sprung from no alien seed, cut after no alien model; fresh as wind, bright as light, full of the spring and the sun. It shares, of course, the conditions of its kind; it has no time for the subtleties and hardly room for the ardours of tragic poetry. Passion in romance is of its nature subordinate to action; the flowing stream of story hushes and lulls the noise of its gurgling and refluent eddies with a still predominance of sound. To me it seems that there has here been almost too much of this. Only by rare and brief jets does the poet let out the fire of a potent passion which not many others can kindle and direct. For the most part, the river of romance flows on at full, but keeping well to its channel, unvexed by rains and undisturbed by whirlpools. In a word, through great part of this poem there is no higher excellence attempted than that of adventurous or romantic narrative couched in the simplest and fittest forms of poetry. This abstinence is certainly not due to impotence, possibly not to intention, more probably to distaste. Mr. Morris has an English respect for temperance and reserve; good things as drags, but not as clogs. He is not afraid to tackle a passion, but he will not move an inch from his way to tackle it. Tragedy can never be more than the episode of a romance, and romance is rather to his taste than naked tragedy. He reminds us of the knight in Chaucer cutting sharply short the monk’s tragic histories as too piteous for recital, or the very monk himself breaking off the detail of Ugolino’s agony with a reference to Dante for those who can endure it.
The descriptive and decorative beauties of this romance of Jason are excellent above all in this, that, numberless though they be, they are always just and fit. Not a tone of colour, not a note of form, is misplaced or dispensable. The pictures are clear and chaste, sweet and lucid, as early Italian work. There are crowds and processions, battle-pieces and merry-makings, worthy of Benozzo or Carpaccio; single figures or groups of lovers in flowery watery land, worthy of Sandro or Filippo. The sea-pieces are like the younger Lippi’s; the best possible to paint from shore. They do not taste salt or sound wide; but they have all the beauty of the beach. The romance poets have never loved the sea as have the tragic poets; Chaucer simply ignores it with a shiver; even Homer’s men are glad to be well clear of it. Ulysses has no sea-king’s impulse; he fights and beats it, and is glad, and there an end; necessity alone ever drives him off shore. But Aeschylus loves the Oceanides; and Shakespeare, landsman though he were, rejoices in the roll and clash of breakers.
For examples of the excellences we have noted – the chastity of colour and noble justice of composition, the fruitful and faithful touches of landscape incident – almost any page of the poem might be turned up. Compare the Hesperian with the Circean garden, the nameless northern desert lands with the wood of Medea’s transformation, or the seaward bent where Jason ‘died strangely.’ No flower of the landscape is slurred, but no flower is obtrusive; the painting is broad and minute at once, large and sure by dint of accuracy. And there are wonderful touches on it of fairy mystery; weird lights pass over it and wafts of mystical wind; as here: –
There comes a murmur from the shore,
And in the place two fair streams are,
Drawn from the purple hills afar,
Drawn down unto the restless sea,
The hills whose flowers ne’er fed the bee,
The shore no ship has ever seen,
Still beaten by the billows green,
Whose murmur comes unceasingly
Unto the place for which I cry.
All this song of a nymph to Hylas is full of the melody which involves colour and odour, but the two lines marked have in them the marvel and the music of a dream. Compare again this of Orpheus, in his contest with the Sirens: –
O the sweet valley of deep grass,
Wherethrough the summer stream doth pass,
In chain of shallow, and still pool,
From misty morn to evening cool; . . . .
[quotation of 16 lines here omitted]
Not more noble in colour, but more fervent, is the next picture: –
Nigh the vine-covered hillocks green,
In days agone, have I not seen
The brown-clad maidens amorous,
Below the long rose-trellised house,
Dance to the querulous pipe and shrill,
When the grey shadow of the hill
Was lengthening at the end of day?
[quotation of 23 lines omitted]
Nor is any passage in the poem pitched in a higher and clearer key than the first hymn of Orpheus as Argo takes the sea: –
O bitter sea, tumultuous sea,
Full many an ill is wrought by thee!
Unto the washers of the land
Thou holdest out thy wrinkled hand;
And when they leave the conquered town,
Whose black smoke makes thy surges brown,
Driven between them and the sun
As the long day of blood is done,
From many a league of glittering waves
Thou smilest on them and their slaves.
The rest is not less lofty in tone and sure in touch, but too long for an excerpt. As noble is the song of triumph at p. 217, which should be set by the side of this, to which it is in some sort antiphonal.
But the root of the romance lies of course in the character of Medea, and here, where it was needfullest to do well, the poet has done best. At her first entrance the poem takes new life and rises out of the atmosphere of mere adventure and incident. The subdued and delicate ardour of the scene in Jason’s chamber, following as it does on the ghastly beauty of that in the wood of the Three-formed, is proof enough and at once with how strong and soft a touch the picture will be completed. Her incantations, and her flight with Jason, have no less of fanciful and tender power. The fifteenth book, where she beguiles Pelias to death at the hands of his daughters, is a sample of flawless verse and noble imagination unsurpassed by any here. For dramatic invention and vivid realism of the impossible, which turns to fair and sensible truth the wildest dreams of legend, there has been no poet for centuries comparable. But the very flower and crest of this noble poem is the final tragedy at Corinth. Queen, sorceress, saviour, she has shrunk or risen to mere woman; and not in vain before entering the tragic lists has the poet called on that great poet’s memory who has dealt with the terrible and pitiful passion of women like none but Shakespeare since.
Would that I
Had but some portion of that mastery
That from the rose-hung lanes of woody Kent
Through these five hundred years such songs have sent
To us, who, meshed within this smoky net
Of unrejoicing labour, love them yet.
And thou, O Master! – Yea, my Master still,
Whatever feet have scaled Parnassus’ hill,
Since like thy measures, clear, and sweet, and strong,
Thames’ stream scarce fettered bore the bream along
Unto the bastioned bridge, his only chain –
O Master, pardon me, if yet in vain
Thou art my Master, and I fail to bring
Before men’s eyes the image of the thing
My heart is filled with: thou whose dreamy eyes
Beheld the flush to Cressid’s cheeks arise,
As Troilus rode up the praising street,
As clearly as they saw thy townsmen meet
Those who in vineyards of Poictou withstood
The glittering horror of the steel-topped wood.
Worthy, indeed, even of the master-hand is all that follows. Let the student weigh well the slight but great touches in which the fitful fury and pity and regret of the sufferer are given; so delicate and accurate that only by the entire and majestic harmony of tragedy will he discern the excellence and justice of every component note.
Ah! shall I, living underneath the sun,
I wonder, wish for anything again,
Or ever know what pleasure means, and pain?
And for these deeds I do; and thou the first,
O woman, whose young beauty has so cursed
My hapless life, at least I save thee this –
The slow descent to misery from bliss, &c.
To come upon this part of the poem is as the change from river to sea (Book XII.), when wind and water had a larger savour in lip and nostril of the Argonauts. Note well the new and piteous beauty of this: –
Kindly I deal with me, mine enemy;
Since swift forgetfulness to thee I send.
But thou shalt die – his eyes shall see thine end –
Ah! if thy death alone could end it all!
But ye – shall I behold you when leaves fall,
In some sad evening of the autumn-tide?
Or shall I have you sitting by my side
Amidst the feast, so that folk stare and say,
‘Sure the grey wolf has seen the queen to-day’?
[quotation of 14 ½ lines omitted]
Rarely but in the ballad and romance periods has such poetry been written, so broad and sad and simple, so full of deep and direct fire, certain of its aim, without finish, without fault. The passion from hence fills and burns to a close; the verse for a little is as the garment of Medea steeped in strange moisture as of tears and liquid flame to be kindled by the sun.
O sons, with what sweet counsels and what tears
Would I have hearkened to the hopes and fears
Of your first loves: what rapture had it been
Your dear returning footsteps to have seen
Amidst the happy warriors of the land;
But now – but now – this is a little hand,
Too often kissed since love did first begin
To win such curses as it yet shall win,
When after all bad deeds there comes a worse,
Praise to the Gods! ye know not how to curse.
But when in some dim land we meet again
Will ye remember all the loss and pain?
Will ye the form of children keep for aye
With thoughts of men? and ‘Mother,’ will ye say,
‘Why didst thou slay us ere we came to know
That men die? hadst thou waited until now,
An easy thing it had been then to die,
For in the thought of immortality
Do children play about the flowery meads,
And win their heaven with a crown of weeds.’
O children! that I would have died to save,
How fair a life of pleasures might ye have,
But for your mother: –nay, for thee, for thee,
For thee, O traitor! who didst bring them here
Into this cruel world, this lovely bier
Of youth and love, and joy and happiness,
That unforeseeing happy fools still bless.
It should now be clear, or never, that in this poem a new thing of great price has been cast into the English treasure-house. Nor is the cutting and setting of the jewel unworthy of it; art and instinct have wrought hand in hand to its perfection. Other and various fields await the workman who has here approved himself a master, acceptable into the guild of great poets on a footing of his own to be shared or disputed by no other. Strained clear and guided straight as now, his lofty lyrical power must keep all its promise to us. Diffusion is in the nature of a romance, and it cannot be said that here the stream has ever overflowed into marshland or stagnated in lock or pool. Therefore we do not blame the length and fulness of so fair a river; but something of barrier or dam may serve to concentrate and condense the next. Also, if we must note the slightest ripples of the water-flies that wrinkle it, let us set down in passing that there are certain slight laxities or perversities of metre which fret the ear and perplex the eyes, noticeable only as the least shortcoming is noticeable in great work. Elision, for example, is a necessity, not a luxury, or metre. This law Chaucer, a most loyal versifier, never allows himself to slight after the fashion of his follower. But into these straits of technical art we need not now steer. So much remains unremarked, so much unsaid; so much of beauty slighted, of uncommended excellence; that I close these inadequate and hurried notes with a sense of grave injustice done. To the third book of Mr. Morris we look now, not for the seal of our present judgment, but for the accomplishment of our highest hopes; for a fresh honour done to English art, a fresh delight to us, and a fresh memory for the future.
Perhaps in all this noble passage of poetry there is nothing nobler than this bitter impulse of irony, this fiery shame and rage of repentance, which here impels Guenevere to humiliate herself through her lover, and thus consummate the agony of abasement. ‘False and fatal as banner, or shield, or sword, wherein is he better than a peasant’s dangerous and vulgar implement, as fatal to him it may be, by carelessness or chance, as a king’s weapon to the king if handled amiss?’ And yet for all this she cannot but cleave to him; through her lover she scourges herself; it is suicide in her to slay him; but even so his soul must needs be saved – ‘so as by fire.’ No poet about to start on his course ever saw for himself or showed to others a thing more tragic and more true than this study of noble female passion, half selfless and half personal, half mad and half sane.
The comparison here made is rather between book and book than between man and man. Both poets have done better elsewhere, each after his kind; and except by his best work no workman can be fairly judged. A critic who should underrate either would be condemnable on both hands.
Henry James, unsigned review, North American Review
October 1867, cvi, 688-92
In this poetical history of the fortunate – the unfortunate – Jason, Mr. Morris has written a book of real value. It is some time since we have met with a work of imagination so thoroughly satisfactory a character, –a work read with an enjoyment so unalloyed and so untempered by the desire to protest and to criticise. The poetical firmament within these recent years has been all alive with unprophesied comets and meteors, many of them of extraordinary brilliancy, but most of them very rapid in their passage. Mr. Morris gives us the comfort of feeling that he is a fixed star, and that his radiance is not likely to be extinguished in a draught of wind, –after the fashion of Mr. Alexander Smith, Mr. Swinburne, and Miss Ingelow. Mr. Morris’s poem is ushered into the world with a very florid birthday speech from the pen of the author of the too famous ‘Poems and Ballads,’ –a circumstance, we apprehend, in no small degree prejudicial to its success. But we hasten to assure all persons whom the knowledge of Mr. Swinburne’s enthusiasm may have led to mistrust the character of the work, that it has to our perception nothing in common with this gentlemen’s own productions, and that his article proves very little more than that his sympathies are wiser than his performance. If Mr. Morris’s poem may be said to remind us of the manner of any other writer, it is simply of that of Chaucer; and to resemble Chaucer is a great safeguard against resembling Swinburne.
The Life and Death of Jason, then, is a narrative poem on a Greek subject, written in a genuine English style. With the subject all reading people are familiar, and we have no need to retrace its details. But it is perhaps not amiss to transcribe the few pregnant lines of prose into which, at the outset, Mr. Morris has condensed the argument of his poem:–
Jason the son of Æson, king of Iolchos, having come to man’s estate, demanded of Pelias his father’s kingdom, which he held wrongfully. But Pelias answered, that if he would bring from Colchis the golden fleece of the ram that had carried Phryxus thither, he would yield him his right. Whereon Jason sailed to Colchis in the ship Argo, with other heroes, and by means of Medea, the king’s daughter, won the fleece; and carried off also Medea; and so, after many troubles, came back to Iolchos again. There, by Medea’s wiles, was Pelias slain; but Jason went to Corinth, and lived with Medea happily, till he was taken with the love of Glauce, the king’s daughter of Corinth, and must needs wed her; whom also Medea destroyed, and fled to Ægeus at Athens; and not long after Jason died strangely.
The style of this little fragment of prose is not an unapt measure of the author’s poetical style,–quaint, more Anglo-Saxon than Latin, and decidedly laconic. For in spite of the great length of his work, his manner is by no means diffuse. His story is a long one, and he wishes to do it justice; but the movement is rapid and business-like, and the poet is quite guiltless of any wanton lingering along the margin of the subject-matter,–after the manner, for instance, of Keats,–to whom, individually, however, we make this tendency no reproach. Mr. Morris’s subject is immensely rich,–heavy with its richness,–and in the highest degree romantic and poetical. For the most part, of course, he found not only the great contours, but the various incidents and episodes, ready drawn to his hand; but still there was enough wanting to make a most exhaustive drain upon his ingenuity and his imagination. And not only these faculties have been brought into severe exercise, but the strictest good taste and good sense were called into play, together with a certain final gift which we hardly know how to name, and which is by no means common, even among very clever poets,–a comprehensive sense of form, of proportion, and of real completeness, without which the most brilliant efforts of the imagination are a mere agglomeration of ill-reconciled beauties. The legend of Jason is full of strangely constructed marvels and elaborate prodigies and horrors, calculated to task heavily an author’s adroitness. We have so pampered and petted our sense of the ludicrous of late years, that it is quite the spoiled child of the house, and without its leave no guest can be honorably entertained. It is very true that the atmosphere of Grecian mythology is so entirely an artificial one, that we are seldom tempted to refer its weird, anomalous denizens to our standard of truth and beauty. Truth, indeed, is at once put out of the question; but one would say beforehand, that many of the creations of Greek fancy were wanting even in beauty, or at least in that ease and simplicity which has been acquired in modern times by force of culture. But habit and tradition have reconciled us to these things in their native forms, and Mr. Morris’s skill reconciles us to them in his modern and composite English. The idea, for instance, of a flying ram, seems to an undisciplined fancy, a not especially happy creation, nor a very promising theme for poetry; but Mr. Morris, without diminishing its native oddity, has give it an ample romantic dignity. So, again, the sowing of the dragon’s teeth at Colchis, and the springing up of mutually opposed armed men, seems too complex and recondite a scene to be vividly and gracefully realized; but as it stands, it is one of the finest passages in Mr. Morris’s poem. His great stumbling-block, however, we take it, was the necessity of maintaining throughout the dignity and prominence of his hero. From the moment that Medea comes into the poem, Jason falls into the second place, and keeps it to the end. She is the all-wise and all-brave helper and counsellor at Colchis, and the guardian angel of the returning journey. She saves her companions from the Circean enchantments, and she withholds them from the embraces of the Sirens. She effects the death of Pelias, and assures the successful return of the Argonauts. And finally–as a last claim upon her interest–she is slighted and abandoned by the man of her love. Without question, then, she is the central figure of the poem, –a powerful and enchanting figure,–a creature of barbarous arts, and of exquisite human passions. Jason accordingly possesses only that indirect hold upon our attention which belongs to the Virgilian Aeneas; although Mr. Morris has avoided Virgil’s error of now and then allowing his hero to be contemptible.
A large number, however, of far greater drawbacks than any we are able to mention could not materially diminish the powerful beauty of this fantastic legend. It is as rich in adventure as the Odyssey, and very much simpler. Its prime elements are of the most poetical and delightful kind. What can be more thrilling than the idea of a great boatful of warriors embarking upon dreadful seas, not for pleasure, nor for conquest, nor for any material advantage, but for the simple recovery of a jealously watched, magically guarded relic? There is in the character of the object of their quest something heroically unmarketable, or at least unavailable. But of course the story owes a vast deal to its episodes, and these have lost nothing in Mr. Morris’s hands. One of the most beautiful – the well-known adventure of Hylas – occurs at the very outset. The beautiful young man, during a halt of the ship, wanders inland through the forest, and, passing beside a sylvan stream, is espied and incontinently loved by the water nymphs, who forthwith ‘detach’ one of their number to work his seduction. This young lady assumes the disguise and speech of a Northern princess, clad in furs, and in this character sings to her victim ‘a sweet song, sung not yet to any man.’ Very sweet and truly lyrical it is, like all the songs scattered through Mr. Morris’s narrative. We are, indeed, almost in doubt whether the most beautiful passages in the poem do not occur in the series of songs in the fourteenth book. The ship has already touched at the island of Circe, and the sailors, thanks to the earnest warnings of Medea, have abstained from setting foot on the fatal shore; while Medea has, in turn, been warned by the enchantress against the allurements of the Sirens. As soon as the ship draws night, these fair beings begin to utter their irresistible notes. All eyes are turned lovingly on the shore, the rowers’ charmed muscles relax, and the ship drifts landward. But Medea exhorts and entreats her companions to preserve their course. Jason himself is not untouched, as Mr. Morris delicately tells us, – ‘a moment Jason gazed.’ But Orpheus smites his lyre before it is too late, and stirs the languid blood of his comrades. The Sirens strike their harps amain, and a conflict of song arises. The Sirens sing of the cold, the glittering, the idle delights of their submarine homes; while Orpheus tells of the warm and pastoral landscapes of Greece. We have no space for quotation; of course Orpheus carries the day. But the finest and most delicate practical sense is shown in the alternation of the two lyrical arguments,–the soulless sweetness of the one, and the deep human richness of the other. There is throughout Mr. Morris’s poem a great unity and evenness of excellence, which make selection and quotation difficult; but of impressive touches in our reading we noticed a very great number. We content ourselves with mentioning a single one. When Jason has sown his bag of dragon’s teeth at Colchis, and the armed fighers have sprang up along the furrows, and under the spell contrived by Medea have torn each other to death: –
One man was left, alive but wounded sore,
Who, staring round about and seeing no more
His brothers’ spears against him, fixed his eyes
Upon the queller of those mysteries.
Then dreadfully they gleamed, and with no word,
He tottered towards him with uplifted sword.
But scarce he made three paces down the field,
Ere chill death seized his heart, and on his shield
Clattering he fell.
We have not spoken of Mr. Morris’s versification nor of his vocabulary. We have only room to say that, to our perception, the first in its facility and harmony, and the second in its abundance and studied simplicity, leave nothing to be desired. There are of course faults and errors in his poem, but there are none that are not trivial and easily pardoned in the light of the fact that he has given us a work of consummate art and of genuine beauty. He has foraged in a treasure-house; he has visited the ancient world, and come back with a massive cup of living Greek wine. His project was no light task, but he has honorably fulfilled it. He has enriched the language with a narrative poem which we are sure that the public will not suffer to fall into the ranks of honored but uncherished works,–objects of vague and sapient reference,–but will continue to read and to enjoy. In spite of its length, the interest of the story never flags, and as a work of art it never ceases to be pure. To the jaded intellects of the present moment, distracted with the strife of creeds and the conflict of theories, it opens a glimpse into a world where they will be called upon neither to choose, to criticise, nor to believe, but simply to feel, to look, and to listen.
unsigned review, The Contemporary Review
Vol. VI, December 1867 [pdf]
The Life and Death of Jason. A Poem. By Willam Morris. London: Bell and Daldy. 1867.
We can say for this poem what has been true of very few poems: its interests carried us on, and we read it through in an autumn-day’s ramble through the glowing glades of the Kentish highlands. When we add that the poem extends over seventeen books and contains 10,526 lines, it will be felt that this is no mean recommendation.
Mr. Morris has told the old story of the Argo with much spirit and power: in English heroics, not of the Popian kind, but those which frequently break away from the yoke of couplets, and almost simulate blank verse, such as we meet in the “Endymion” of Keats. Mr. Morris rather prefers breaking the couplet to keeping it: and not infrequently ends a strain with the first line of a pair, beginning the next with the second. This a capital form of the heroic for a continuous narrative. It avoids the constant temptation to epigrammatic turn and antithetical counterpoise which the strict couplets bring: while at the same time it has more ring, and satisfies the ear better, than plain blank verse. And it had need to possess some powers of sustaining a long story; for Mr. Morris’s poem, as we have seen, is of no ordinary length.
His powers of description are considerable, and display themselves rather in objective word-painting, than in the action of the mind in combining or assimilating the things described. We will give a few of the most favourable specimens:—
“SO was it as the Centaur said; for soon
The woods grew dark, as though they knew no noon;
The thunder growled about the high brown hills,
And the thin, wasted, shining summer rills
Grew joyful with the coming of the rain,
And doubtfully was shifting every vane
On the town spires, with changing gusts of wind;
Till came the storm-blast, sudden, cold, and blind,
‘Twixt gorges of the mountains, and drove back
The light sea breeze; then waxed the heavens coal-black,
Until the lightning leapt from cloud to cloud,
With clattering thunder, and the piled-up crowd
Began to turn from steely blue to grey,
And toward the sea the thunder drew away,
Leaving the north-wind blowing steadily
The rain clouds from Olympus; while the sea
Seemed mingled with the low clouds and the rain;
And one might think that never now again
The sunny grass could make a pleasant bed
For the spent limbs, and dreamy, languid head
Of sandalled nymph, forewearied with the chase.
Meanwhile, within a pleasant lighted place,
Stretched upon warm skins, did the Centaur lie.
And nigh him Jason, listening eagerly
The tales he told him, asking, now and then,
Strange questions of the race of vanished men:
Nor were the wine-cups idle; till at last
Desire of sleep over their bodies passed,
And in their dreamless rest the wind in vain
Howled round about, with washing of the rain.”
The description of the gathering of heroes to man the good ship is very spirited and well sustained, far better than the same in that dull old twaddler, Valerius Flaccus.
The departure of the heroes as related by Mr. Morris, does not sugar by comparison with the fine description of the same in Apollonius Rhodius, who somewhat mars it by the long parting interview between Alcimedé and her son.
But our short notice must hurry on, and come to the crucial test, the passage of the Sympleglades. We may be pardoned for recalling to our readers’ attention some noble lines in ballad meter relating this perilous adventure which appeared in the present volume of this journal, p. 251. But we do not mention them to disparage Mr. Morris, who has acquitted himself right well, as the following extracts will testify.
First, of the approach to the dread “concurrent” rocks: —
“And so, with sail and oar, in no long space
They reached the narrow ending of the sea,
Where the wind shifted, blowing gustily
From side to side, so that their flapping sail
But little in the turmoil could avail;
And now at last did they begin to hear
The pounding of the rocks; but nothing clear
They saw them; for the steaming clouds of spray,
Cast by the meeting hammers every way,
Quite hid the polished bases from their sight;
Unless perchance the eyes of Lynceus might
Just now and then behold the deep blue shine
Betwixt the scattering of the silver brine;
But sometimes ‘twixt the clouds the sun would pass
And show the high rocks glittering like to glass,
Quivering, as far beneath the churned-up waves
Were ground together the hard great-arched caves,
Wherein none dwelt, no not the giant’s brood,
Who fed the green sea with his lustful blood;
Nor were sea-devils even nurtured there;
Nor dared the sea-worm use them for its lair.”
Then for the passage itself:—
“THEN they for shame began to cast off fear,
And, handling well the oars, kept Argo near
The changing little-lighted spray-washed space;
Whereunto Lynceus set his eager face,
And loosed the dove, who down the west wind flew;
Then all the others lost her dashing through
The clouds of spray, but Lynceus noted how
She reached the open space, just as a blow
Had spent itself, and still the hollow sound
Of the last clash was booming all around;
And eagerly he noted how the dove
Stopped ‘mazed, and hovered for a while above
The troubled sea, then stooping, darted through,
As the blue gleaming rocks together drew;
Then scarce he breathed, until a joyous shout
He gave, as he beheld her passing out
Unscathed, above the surface of the sea,
While back again the rocks drew sluggishly.
Then back their poised oars whirled, and straight they drave
Unto the opening of the spray-arched cave;
But Jason’s eyes alone of all the crew
Beheld the sunny sea and cloudless blue,
Still narrowing fast but bright from rock to rock.
Now as they neared, came the next thundering shock,
That deafened all, and with an icy cloud
Hid man from man; but Jason, shouting loud,
Still clutched the tiller; and the oars, grasped tight
By mighty hands, drave on the ship forthright
Unto the rocks, until with blinded eyes
They blinked one moment at those mysteries
Unseen before, the next they felt the sun
Full on their backs, and knew their deed was done.
THEN on their oars they lay, and Jason turned,
And o’er the rocks beheld how Iris burned
In fair and harmless many-coloured flame,
And he beheld the way from which they came
Wide open, changeless, of its spray-clouds cleared;
And though in his bewildered ears he heard
The tumult yet, that all was stilled he knew,
While in and out the unused sea-fowl flew
Betwixt them; and the now subsiding sea
Lapped round about their dark feet quietly.”
Our notice would be incomplete without the crowning incident of the legend,—the actual grasping of the fleece itself by the aid of Medea:—
“The prize is reached, which yet I am afeard
To draw unto me; since I know indeed,
That henceforth war and toil shall be my meed.
Too late to fear! it was too late, the hour
I left the grey cliffs and the beechen bower,
So here I take hard life and deathless praise,
Who once was fain of nought but quiet days,
And painless life, not empty of delight;
I, who shall now be quickener of the fight,
Named by a great name…a far babbled name,
The ceaseless seeker after praise and fame.
May all be well, and on the noisy ways
Still may I find some wealth of happy days.
Therewith he threw the last door open wide,
Whose hammered iron did the marvel hide,”
And shut his dazzled eyes, and stretched his hands
Out toward the sea-born wonder of all lands,
And plunged them deep within the locks of gold,
Grasping the Fleece within his mighty hold.
WHICH when Medea saw, her gown of grey
She caught up from the ground, and drew away
Her wearied foot from off the rugged beast,
And while from her soft strain she never ceased,
In the dull folds she hid her silk from sight,
And then, as bending 'neath the burden bright,
Jason drew nigh, joyful, yet still afraid,
She met him, and her wide grey mantle laid
Over the fleece, whispering: Make no delay;
He sleeps, who never slept by night or day
Till now; nor will his charmed sleep be long.
Light-foot am I, and sure thine arms are strong;
Haste, then! No word! nor turn thine eyes aback,
As he who erst on Hermes’ shadowy track
Turned round to see once more the twice-lost face.
THEN swiftly did they leave the dreadful place,
Turning no look behind, and reached the street,
That with familiar look and kind did greet
Those wanderers, mazed with marvels and with fear.
And so, unchallenged, did they draw near
The long white quays, and at the street's end now
Beheld the ships' masts standing row by row
Stark black against the stars: then cautiously
Peered Jason forth, ere they took heart to try
The open starlit place; but nought he saw
Except the night-wind twitching the loose straw
From half-unloaded keels, and nought he heard
But the strange twittering of a caged green bird
Within an Indian ship, and from the hill
A distant baying: dead night lay so still,
Somewhat they doubted; natheless forth they passed,
And Argo's painted sides they reached at last.”
We had marked some matters for adverse criticism, and proceed to take note of them.
Surely the following is an example of the pure-narrative carried a little too far:—
“So there they built Iolchos great of girth,
That daily waxed till these had left the earth,
With many another, and Cretheus the king
Had died, and left his crown and everything
To Aeson, his own son by fair Tyro;
Whom, in unhappy days and long ago,
A God had loved, whose son was Pelias.
And so, within a while, it came to pass,” &c.
We have observed in several places an arrangement of words which is hardly legitimate:—
“Moreover did they note
About the wharves full many a ship and boat.”
The rule seems to be that the auxiliary verb and its subject may only be transposed—
1. In interrogative clauses: “Did they note?”
2. In negative clauses: “Nor did they note;” or,
3. When, for special emphasis, the object is prefixed to the whole verbal term: “This did they note.”
In purely copulative clauses, such as that cited, the transposition is inadmissible.
The following need only be cited to be condemned:—
“Yet ere thou enterest the door, behold
That ancient temple of the Far Darter,
And know that thy desire hangeth there,
Against the fold wall of the inmost shrine,
Guarded by seven locks, whose keys are thine
When thou hast done what else thou hast to do,
And thou mayest well be bold to come thereto.”
“Darter” and “there” as rhymes, “desi-er” for “desire,” “se-ven,” and the lame mediocrity of the last couplet, are all unworthy of Mr. Morris’s ear and ability.
We have noticed elsewhere in the book this divarication of monosyllables. It is combined with another fault in book x. 586-7:—
“And so drew Argo up, with hale and how,
On to the grass, turned half to mire now.”
We have again in book xvi. 22,—
“While o’er her head the flickering fire hung.”
Several other cases occur in the course of the poem; the worst of all being—
“Not spend one coin (co-in) of your store for this.”—(Book xvi. 345.)
In book xi. 244 we have “to clad” used as a verb:—
“And also fain of fells to clad them soft.”
In book xiii. 187 we are told “the queen grew wrath.” By usage, at least, “wroth” is the adjective—“wrath” the substantive. So also in p. 29, line 410; see Errata.
We are disposed to allow very large liberty as to rhyming syllables in this narrative, couplet-breaking, heroic measure; but we submit that book xiv. 520-1,—
“Many a green-necked bird they saw alight
Within the slim-leaved, thorny Pomegranate,”
passes even the widest limit of license.
Nor, again, must even the freest measure be allowed a character supra grammaticam, as in the following:—
“In his heart I see
He wearies of his great felicity,
Like fools for whom fair heaven is not enough,
And long (i.e. who long) to stumble over forests rough
With chance of death.”
We mention these blemishes in no captious spirit, for we really admire Mr. Morris’s poem.
Some Post-19th Century Commentaries on The Life and Death of Jason:
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:
“For all the greatest myths have been seen, by the men who tell them, involuntarily and passively—seen by them with as great distinctness . . . as a dream sent to any of us by night when we dream clearest; and it is this veracity of vision that could not be refused, and of moral that could not be foreseen, which in modern historical inquiry has been left wholly out of account: being indeed the things which no merely historical investigator can understand, or even believe; for it belongs exclusively to the creative or artistic group of men, and can only be interpreted by those of their race, who themselves in some measure also see visions and dream dreams.
So that you may obtain a more truthful idea of the nature of Greek religion and legend from the poems of Keats, and the nearly as beautiful, and, in general grasp of subject, far more powerful, recent work of Morris, than from frigid scholarship, however extensive. Not that the poet’s impressions or renderings of things are wholly true, but their truth is vital, not formal.”
(“Queen of the Air”)
One may not agree with everything that Ruskin says here, but it all leads up to the significance of this last phrase. (intro., vol. 2, Collected Works, xvi-xviii)
May Morris's remarks on her editing of The Life and Death of Jason in the introduction to vol. 2 of the Collected Works:
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.
It is this Argo-ego that defines the limits of the Earth, or the mortal world. In creating the boundaries, or conditions, of human life, it separates mankind on the one hand from the immortal forces, or gods, of Heaven, and on the other from the unconsciously regenerating womb of physical life, the Sea. If this is so, then it is one of the greatest ironies of an extremely ironic poem that we should be continually reminded by the narrator of the transience and consequent sadness of human life. For the hero’s act of will, of which the narrator sings, is the very source of the narrator’s sorrow. The song of the Hesperides in Book 14 makes this clear. Their garden is a vestige of the lost golden age, left “Unchanged, unchanging” only because the hero Hercules has not yet arrived to slay the guardian dragon and steal the golden apples (II, 210-11). When this happens, the Garden of the Hesperides too will become assimilated to the finite world of man and become subject to change. Then history, the record of change, will begin. In this connection it is suggestive that the northward voyage of the Argonauts after the capture of the fleece takes them through a paradigmatic evolutionary history of the changing earth, beginning with a battle with “worms,” or primeval reptiles, and progressing through encounters with stone-age men who practice human sacrifice, to a skirmish with slightly more civilized barbarians. The stages of the voyage can be regarded as progressive phases of the history of the fallen world, where dragons can no longer live in harmony with beautiful maidens. In fact, the northward voyage of the Argonauts belongs not so much to the genre of fantasy and myth as it does to the time-travel genre of science fiction. These relatively realistic experiences follow immediately the escape of the Argonauts from the vengeful Aetes, suggesting that it is the audaciously egoistic theft of the fleece which sets in motion such Darwinian events quite out of the usual run of Greek myth. . . . . (83-84)
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:
. . . And thou, O Master!—Yea, my master still,
Whatever feet have scaled Parnassus’ hill
Since like thy measures, clear, and sweet, and strong,
Thames’ stream scarce fettered bore the bream along . . . .
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:
‘Nay, sweet’, she said, ‘let be;
Were thou more fickle than the restless sea,
Still should I love thee, knowing thee for such . . . .”
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)