William Morris Archive

Florence S. Boos

In 1891, after founding the Kelmscott Press with Emery Walker, Morris decided to issue a new volume of poetry, his first since 1876, to be published by the new press. The modesty casual title, Poems By the Way, reflected the fact that he had first drafted a number of its poems around 1870 or shortly hereafter. Several of these recast Scandinavian accounts of ill-fated love in artful stanzaic and metrical variations ("The Wooing of Hallbiorn," "The Raven and the King’s Daughter," "‘The Lay of Christine," "Hildebrand and Hellelil," and "Hafbur and Signy"). May Morris recalled her father’s wry remark that ‘A man shouldn’t write poetry after fifty’ (Artist, Writer, Socialist, I, 496). Morris was fifty in 1884, the year he left the Social Democratic Federation to co-found the Socialist League, and fifty-seven in 1891. During the intervening years he had continued to write poetry all the same, much of it with a social and communal focus, and in more accessible forms, but he sought to write for a literate ‘popular’ audience, and speak to it about certain recurrent human needs – for social justice (‘fellowship’), and for a new aesthetic, one that might express the harmonies of a better social order, and encourage forms of affection wider than individual and familial ‘love’. The volume is thus a composite reflecting several of his complementary interests between 1870 and 1891, in the aspirations embedded in the folk literature of a historical people, and the need for their descendents to frame revolutionary hopes as part of a historical continuum.* 

The Scandinavian Ballads and Other Poems

"The Wooing of Hallbiorn," for example, which Morris glossed as "A Story from the Land-Settling Book of Iceland, Chapter XXX," skillfully darkens each taunting repetition of one of its refrains, first sung at the wedding feast of Hallbiorn and Hallgerd by Snaebiorn, Hallgerd’s once and future lover. Among the volume’s other poems is "The King of Denmark’s Sons," a tale of fratricide and paternal grief in rhymed couplets, patterned loosely after Rossetti’s "The White Ship." "The Son’s Sorrow: From the Icelandic" is another refrain-poem, remarkable in this case for the naturalistic plausibility of the death it mourns – that of the speaker’s wife, who has died bearing her third son. "The God of the Poor" and "The Burghers’ Battle" celebrate medieval conflicts against evil rulers. Some of the volume’s poems – among them "The Hall and the Wood," "The Folk Mote By the River," and "Goldilocks and Goldilocks," the latter written by Morris especially for the volume in 1891 – reflected his more anthropological, ‘folk’-centered priorities in meliorative stories of rewarded love.* He also intoned several poems – "Hope Dieth: Love Liveth," "Error and Loss," "Meeting in Winter," "Love Fulfilled," "Thunder in the Garden," "Love’s Reward," "Love’s Gleaning Tide," "Pain and Time Strive Not," and "The Half of Life Gone" – in the unmediated personal voice of The Earthly Paradise’s lyric singer, but he had already inscribed most of these in his physically lovely manuscript "A Book of Verse" in 1870. (See “Poems of the Earthly Paradise Period").

Three of the volume’s better-known poems emerged from Morris’s visits to Iceland in 1871 and 1873: "To the Muse of the North," "Iceland First Seen," and "Gunnar’s Howe Above the House at Lithend." The last of these records the speaker’s profound response at the grave of the murdered Njálssaga warrior, who was heard in the saga singing at night in his grave:

O young is the world yet meseemeth and the hope of it flourishing green,

When the words of a man unremembered so bridge all the days that have been,

As we look round about on the land that these nine hundred years he hath seen.

This aspect of the legend clearly influenced Morris’s elevation of another Gunnar’s defiant last songs in Sigurd the Volsung. 

I have seen Gunnar’s grave. The ‘howe’ (haugr) is a barely-discernible grass swept elevation on a gentle slope above a green, treeless, receding plain, and Morris effectively recorded a moment of his own spiritual autobiography in his meditation over its solitary, windswept Útsùn. His deepest preoccupations with "men unremembered" resonated in its lines. The speaker’s relief and happiness spring from his recognition that nine hundred years have not (yet) entirely effaced Gunnar’s gallantry in the face of death. Retrieval of such tenuous memories from the abyss of oblivion seems to him a kind of psychological resurrection: if he helps preserve it, the "bridge" of days still stands, and something in himself may stand as well. Morris closed the poem with a tribute to the enduring qualities of the long Icelandic summer twilight, in which "day and night toileth the summer lest deedless his time pass away."

Late Poems and ‘Chants’

Morris’s "Chants for Socialists" and "A Death Song for Alfred Linnell" adapted hymnodic forms to new circumstances. Socialists set Morris’s "Chants" to familiar tunes, and sang them at their meetings, which competed for some of their audiences with the Salvation Army and the uncertain harmonies of the local pub. Morris remarked in his 1887 ‘Socialist Diary’ that he found it difficult to convey socialist doctrine to semi-literate audiences, but he expressed in his songs the movement’s basic verities: that workers have a right to the fruits of their labor, and should act in solidarity to secure that right for all the dispossessed.

Morris’s hymns remained staples in socialist and labor circles for many decades, as generations of labor-songbooks show.** All these motifs resonated in ‘A Death Song of Alfred Linnell’, written for the funeral of an innocent bystander killed by the police in Trafalgar Square in 1886:

We asked them for a life of toilsome earning,

They bade us bide their leisure for our bread;

We craved to speak to them our woeful learning:

We come back speechless, bearing back our dead.

Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,

But one and all if they would dusk the day …

Here lies the sign that we shall break our prison;

Amidst the storm he won a prisoner’s rest;

But in the cloudy dawn the sun arisen

Brings us our day of work to win the best.

Not one, not one, nor thousands must they slay,

But one and all if they would dusk the day.

Morris hardly belonged in the extensive company of Victorian hymn writers, but he did in effect write successful hymns for the ‘religion of humanity’ of a different, secular church.

Pilgrims of Hope: Love’s Bloody Cup and the Religion of Socialism

The Pilgrims of Hope, which appeared serially in 13 chapters from April to June, 1885, was the first poem Morris published in Commonweal after he became its editor in January of that year. He considered it too rough for republication in book form, but included its opening lyric (‘The Message of the March Wind’) and fourth section (‘Mother and Son’) in the 1891 volume Poems by the Way. The hero’s lifelong commitment to the cause of socialism and acceptance of his late wife’s preference for another man reflect personal and political aspects of wider egalitarian values Morris wanted to realize and diffuse, and I have elsewhere argued that linkage of these autobiographical concerns made Pilgrims a proto-feminist work – indeed, the only male-authored nineteenth century poem which set forth programmatic ‘socialist-feminist’ tenets about a woman’s right to sexual autonomy.***

I will not discuss the poem’s depictions of contemporary socialism or the fall of the Paris Commune here, but will focus instead on the poem’s qualities as an experimental verse-novel, its disrupted time-sequence, and its lyrical interludes of visionary emotion. Interesting resonances also emerged in Morris’s factually commonplace but politically unorthodox plot, in which a male hero survives his wife’s early death to raise alone their infant child.

The poem’s six-beat line is more balladic than Sigurd’s seven-beat anapaests, but it permitted rapid immediacy, colloquial informality, and credible evocations of the poem’s social ambiance. Consider the following sample, in which Morris’s narrator attends a gathering at which soldiers are sent off to an imperial war. Born and bred in a rural village, the hero Richard sadly describes a crowd of lost proletarian onlookers who ‘… never never never/ shall be slaves’:

And earth was foul with its squalor – that stream of every day,

The hurrying feet of labour, the faces worn and grey …

… these are the sons of the free,

Who shall bear our name triumphant o’er every land and sea.

(III, ‘Sending to the War’)

In Love Is Enough, Pharamond witnesses a Eucharist-like tableau, in which the figure of Love offers a blood-filled cup. Here, Morris refits popular Christian iconography to serve the cause of socialism: ‘I was born once long ago: I am born again tonight’ (V, ‘New Birth’).

Richard begins the poem as a twenty-five-year-old joiner-carpenter, the son of an unmarried village woman whom Richard’s father deserted before he was born. A small inheritance comes to him unexpectedly at his father’s death, and this enables Richard and his wife to rent a small cottage outside London. He and his wife share radical views, and his employer fires him shortly after his father’s lawyers have swindled him out of his money. Lower middle-class Victorian readers wisely feared such reversals, and all could identify with the humiliations that attended them:

I take up fear with my chisel, fear lies ’twixt me and my plane,

And I wake in the merry morning to a new unwonted pain.

 (‘The New Proletarian’)

The poem’s sections incorporate two interesting shifts of voice. In sections two, three, five, and six, Richard describes his youth, marriage, political radicalization, and unemployment. In section four, the anonymous wife sets forth her view of life in a wryly intelligent, soft-spoken monologue to her uncomprehending infant son, and she describes in section seven Richard’s arrest and imprisonment for political agitation. In section eight, ‘The Half of Life Gone’, the narrative suddenly flashes forward. Richard now grieves for his dead wife, and seems to see her working in a field, then admits to himself that

She is gone. She was and she is not; there is no such thing on the earth

But e’en as a picture painted; and for me there is void and dearth

That I cannot name or measure.

Richard recalls the intervening events in sections nine through thirteen. After Richard’s release from prison, a young middle-class socialist named Arthur has befriended them and visited their house. The three friends decide to leave the couple’s son in the care of friends – contrary to Victorian expectations – and join the Communards. Shortly before they leave for France, Richard learns that Arthur and his wife have fallen in love. The three young idealists leave together all the same, and they know when they find their way to the Commune that they have made the right decision:

… at last I knew indeed that our word of the coming day,

That so oft in grief and in sorrow I had preached, and scarcely knew

If it was but despair of the present or the hope of the day that was due –

I say that I saw it now, real, solid, and at hand.

(XI, ‘The Glimpse of the Coming Day’)

Later Richard, his now-estranged wife (‘A sister amidst of the strangers – and, alas! a sister to me’), and Arthur have become street-fighters as the siege tightens. In one engagement, Richard’s wife turns to see Arthur die, and is killed herself as she runs toward him across the path of an exploding artillery shell. Richard, who has run after her, is severely wounded by the same shell, but lives to remember that:

she never touched the man

Alive and she also alive; but thereafter as they lay

Both dead on one litter together, then folk who knew not us,

But were moved by seeing the twain so fair and so piteous,

Took them for husband and wife who were fated there to die,

Or, it may be lover and lover indeed – but what know I?

(XIII, ‘The Story’s Ending’) 

In the final section, the now solitary and recovered ‘pilgrim of hope’ has managed to return to England, where he finds work, raises his son, and clings resolutely to ‘… the love of the past and the love of the day to be’.

Richard’s valedictory in section thirteen is very brief for a work filled with reflective flashbacks, descriptions of nature, and evocations of socialist ideals, and the poem would have benefited from more counterparts of the wife’s lovely dramatic monologues in four and seven, in which she gives her own view of Richard and Arthur, or describes her experiences in the Commune. There is something deeply beautiful, nonetheless, about the abrupt dissolve from the wife’s monologue in section seven, to the husband’s sorrowing elegy in section eight. Women often survived the deaths of male lovers in Morris’s literary writings, but Morris never again closed a tale in this way.

Some of the poem’s narrative discontinuities probably reflected the exigencies of its serial composition and appearance. This was Morris’s sole effort to bring out a poem in shorter units: even the four volume Earthly Paradise appeared in several-hundred page bound ‘parts’. Had Morris ever chosen to revise the poem, he might well have enlarged and reordered its final sections, and perhaps added a socialist lyric to supplement the opening ‘Message of the March Wind’.

The poem's disjunctions and discontinuities remain interesting, however, for they show in rough-cast the emergence of a verse-novel style that Morris might well have refined and developed had he not turned in the last decades of his life to prose. Problems of time-ellipsis are not peculiar to Morris, of course – they are conspicuously present in other first-person-narrated verse-novels, such as Aurora Leigh, in which the poet must balance narrative immediacy, absence of plausible foreknowledge, and the importance of retrospective self-knowledge. Pilgrims maintains this balance, and some of its hiatðs – like the abrupt dissolve mentioned above – actually heighten the poem’s effect, as do skillfully-managed cinematic flashforwards and flashbacks. Richard’s experiences – of familial disruption and social upheaval – are themselves fragmentary and disjointed, and the meditative hand-held camera of Morris’s poetry reflects them well.

Though she cannot compete with the iconic figures of Signy, Brynhild, and Gudrun, Pilgrims’ unnamed ‘wife’ is a brave woman of strong character, and Pilgrims is a good-faith first effort to explore in a contemporary context controversial questions of female sexual autonomy and participation in war. ‘Mother and Son’ has suffered unjust neglect in comparison with better-known, ‘canonical’ monologues of the period – Browning’s ‘Pompilia’, for example. Morris’s working-class heroine also has some strong socialist-feminist lines – among them the following, spoken to her son in section 4:

Prudence begets her thousands: ‘Good is a housekeeper’s life,

So shall I sell my body that I may be matron and wife.’

‘And I shall endure foul wedlock and bear the children of need.’ 

Whatever his deficiencies as a feminist, Morris did understand completely that ‘the personal is political’. Pilgrims of Hope is the only long English poem of the period which presented political ideals and conflicts from any sort of socialist or communist perspective, and this surely has something to do with its neglect. This near-unique document in the social history of nineteenth-century poetry blended and recombined basic motifs from Love Is Enough and Sigurd the Volsung in a vastly different, near-contemporary setting, and its tone of mingled celebration and empathetic regret lingered in its two immediate prose successors, A Dream of John Ball and The House of the Wolfings. The poem’s colloquial flexibility, satiric precision, and utopian insight reappeared in News from Nowhere and The Roots of the Mountains, and some of Pilgrims’ lyrical passages – like other shorter poems Morris wrote for Commonweal and the Socialist League – anticipated the hymnlike vision of a transmuted world found in poetic interludes of the last prose romances. 


* See Peter Faulkner, ‘The Male as Lover, Fool, and Hero: “Goldilocks” and the Late Prose Romances,’ Victorian Poetry 34.3 (1996): 413-24 and Kenneth Goodwin, ‘The Summation of a Poetic Career: Poems By the Way’, Victorian Poetry 34.3 (1996): 397-410.

** Chris Waters, "'Morris's 'Chants' and the Problems of Socialist Culture," in Socialism and the Literary Artistry of William Morris, ed. Florence Boos and Carole Silver, 127-46; Florence and William Boos, "Orwell's Morris and Old Major's Dream," English Studies 71.4 (1990): 361-71.

***Florence Boos, ‘Narrative Design in The Pilgrims of Hope’, Socialism and the Literary Artistry of William Morris, eds. Florence Boos and Carole Silver, Columbia, Missouri, 1990, 147-66. See also Anne Janowitz, ‘The Pilgrims of Hope: William Morris and the dialectic of romanticism’, Cultural Politics at the Fin de Siècle, ed. Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken (Cambridge, 1995) and Nicholas Salmon, ‘The Serialisation of The Pilgrims of Hope’, William Morris Society Journal 12.2 (1997), 14-25. 

Adapted from "'The Banners of the Spring to Be': The Dialectical Pattern of Morris's Later Poetry," 2000.