William Morris Archive

The Medieval Tale for February

Florence S. Boos


In a dense forest, the melancholy thirty-year-old Walter approaches the Venusberg, hurls away his sword, and prepares for death. Instead he hears a hymn to Venus, observes a pageant of lovers, and finally encounters the goddess herself, "naked, alone, unsmiling." Passionate lovemaking slakes his unfocused sense of longing and anticipation, but Venus evades all questions about the past or future, and when Walter's growing frustrations at the grotto's remoteness and vacuity give way to renewed despair, he resolves to leave.

As soon as he exits, Walter's loneliness returns, and he wanders in solitude till he meets a company of pilgrims whom he accompanies to Rome. There he resolves on a desperate expedient, which he hopes may clarify and perhaps atone for his past errors: he will seek audience and perhaps absolution from the Pope himself. The prelate agrees to see him, but Walter becomes impatient with the Pope's simplistic preachments, and he stubbornly defends his "love, that never more shall bring/ Delight to me or help me anythingll (ll. 1328-29) as an act of paradoxical fidelity, which promises no earthly or heavenly reward.

During the audience, the formerly impassive Venus has also reappeared briefly to Walter for the first time since his departure, and he begins to feel for her a kind of protective anxiety, for he sees that she too is subject to a disapproving Christian order. This leads him to deliver an impassioned apology for Venus to the astonished pontiff, who predictably writes Walter off as a spiritual loss, no more to be saved than the Pope's dry staff can spring into bloom.

Back from Rome, Walter finds the "dark door" of Venus's cavern once again, and he returns to its bittersweet mixture of complex joy and intense frustration. His exile is needless, however, for in his absence the Pope's staff has indeed blossomed with heavenly blooms: "and on its barrenness/ . . . the ripe fruit of heaven's unmeasured hours" (11. 1555-56). The Pope has the wit and conscience to understand the import of this miracle, bestows a private blessing, and dies with an expression of ecstatic joy. This beautiful ending offers no help for Walter, who remains unaware that his exile has been needless, and suspended between vindication and despair-the first secular martyr, as it were, of a religion of sexual tolerance and generosity.


The Tann(en)hauser legend had been (re)told by Ludwig Tieck in "Der Getreue Eckart und der Tannenhauser," in Tales by Musaeus Tieck, translated by Thomas Carlyle in 1827, and in English in Julian Fane and Robert Lytton's Tannhauser: or, the Battle oj the Bards (1861). In the final sections of his version of the legend, Tieck's Tannenhauser, a handsome knight but a violent and ultimately culpable man, reappears to tell his friends Emma and Friedrich that he has returned from the Hill of Venus, where he enjoyed all the pleasures of earth. He too then leaves for a pilgrimage to Rome, but returns later, in despair at the Pope's rejection, and murders the innocent Emma. Neither Tieck nor Fane and Lytton relativized the Pope's reactions or interpreted the supernarural blossoms as a token of heavenly acceptance of earthly love.

Swinburne's 1865 "Laus Veneris" might have drawn Morris's attention to a parallel topic, but the love it celebrated was not only appealing but corrupt. Swinburne later evoked a more kindred distaste for the "pale Galilean" and celebration of a Venus fresh from the foam of the sea, in "Hymn to Proserpine," ten years after the appearance of Morris's poem.

Another proximate source was Sabine Baring-Gould's chapter on "The Mountain of Venus," in Curious Myths ofthe Middle Ages (1868). According to Baring-Gould, "Tanhauser" was a "famous minnesinger, and all his lays were of love and of women, for his heart was full of passion, and that not of the noblest description." After seven years of revelry in Venus's palace in the heart of the mountain, Baring-Gould's Tanhauser entreats Venus to let him depart, but when he finally succeeds and finds his way to the Pope, the latter scorns his sincere repentence, for "Guilt such as thine can never, never be remitted. Sooner shall this staff in my hand grow green and blossom, than that God should pardon thee!" The Pope's staff does indeed bloom after three days, but the despairing man has just disappeared into the cave when the Pope's messengers reach the site (interesting, perhaps, that they know where it is).

Baring-Gould glossed the tale as "the sad yet beautiful story of Tanhauser. It is a very ancient myth Christianized, a wide-spread tradition localized" (1894 ed., 212). Baring-Gould clearly sympathized with the hero, and his undogmatic secularism, dramatic descriptions of the landscape of the Venusberg, and comparative, anthropological approach to myth anticipated similar strains in Morris's work. Baring-Gould also omitted all the violent or inexplicable elements of earlier versions of the legend, adduced many cognate tales of temporary stays in underground chambers of fairies or supernatural beings, and interpreted the legend as a pan­European narrative template. Morris varied the plot in minor ways and alluded more frequently to the antiquity of Venus's worship and continuity between secular eros and Christian agape.

Critical Remarks:


More drafts survive for "The Hill of Venus" than for any other Earthly Paradise tale, and they seem to span much of the period of the larger work's composition. They also vary somewhat from the patterns outlined in the headnote to this volume's "List ofDrafts." Indeed, May Morris wrote about the composition of "The Hill of Venus" that

Morris has spent more time on bringing this strangely arresting tale to its final form than on any other poem in the book, and the fact that he did have to work so much on it, identifying himself with such intensity with the brooding spirit of doom that pervades it, gives it an interest beyond that which must already attach to the modern handling of this group of legends. (Artist, Writer, Socialist, I, 435)

In her introduction to volume VI of the Collected Works, May Morris mentioned four preliminary drafts and quoted a few stanzas from the earliest version and twelve more from the drafts she called B and C.

Huntington Library M. S. 6423 is· an extant fifty-one page copyist's draft version of Morris's autograph Fitzwilliam M. S. EP25 with a few corrections, additions and running notes in Morris's hand. This early version resembles Morris's early Earthly Paradise style, includes earlier versions of interspersed songs, and gives more attention to tournaments and combats. Its Venus resembles more closely her less-complicated "Watching of the Falcon"-incarnation and other early Morris heroines who are unintentional but innocent causes of distress, and she also responds more warmly to her lover, here called Amyot. She warns him clearly, for example, that he may be exiled from her cave, and it is she who leaves Amyot, prompted by an unexplained desire to return to the sea.

These variations in a relatively finished draft suggest that Morris prepared a near-'final' early version with the aid of the same copyist who prepared penultimate and final drafts of "The Story of Cupid and Psyche" and "Pygmalion and the Image," but continued to revise and create new versions until April 1870, about eight months before the tale appeared in print in December. This early version, like other earlier medieval tales such as "The Writing on the Image," has a more self-consciously artificial frame, and like that of its companion poem "The Ring Given to Venus," its plot also focuses more heavily on the evils of sorcery.

In the opening section of this earlier version, for example, the narrator pauses at the entrance to a dark cavern, where a friendly old man warns him that Venus's sorcery has destroyed those who came before him. He himself, when young, had spent a night in the nearby forest, and saw "the God of Heaven mocked most horribly/ By things that coming out from yonder hill/ In uncouth guise danced on the herbage green." Somewhat later, an "ancient knight" confirms the carle's story of sorcery and describes one of Venus's misdeeds.

It is in this inner frame that we encounter Amyot, a knight attracted by stories of "that hollow hill" where women dance and bathe unclothed. Like the hero of "Pygmalion and the Image," Amyot is dissatisfied with real women1s "hard light hearts, so ready to forget," and he decides to enter and try his luck. Several hours later, he comes to a luxurious city, where he follows a band of beautiful women on their way to join Venus's company and hears them sing that "Lo our Queen is at the door/ Gold clad, yet her hair is wet/ With the washing of the sea/ O Sweet Queen we kneel to thee."

Led to Venus's retreat by one of her servants, Amyot falls asleep and Venus enters, undresses, and remains with him and her servant until Itthe middle of next day." Afterwards, Venus's loving and attractive companion remains with him, but he is vaguely discontented as he prepares to ride forth with her to the lists, where Venus will officiate. Before they leave, Venus's attendants sing a version of "Before our Lady came on earth/ Little there was of joy and mirth... ," a lovely song which survived into the tale's final version (11. 281-328). After sacrificing at Venus's altar, he enters and wins the tournament against an assortment of unnamed opponents, but senses that "all those things he saw were but shadows/ Set round him but to keep his heart aflame." Venus invites him to meet her at an isolated temple, his companion loyally leads him there, and he enters a nearby walled garden, where "soon [Venus's] body fair! Naked within his arms did Amyot hold/ Therewith they vanished through the gates of gold."

Amyout remians with Venus in a state of erotic bliss for five months, but she then leaves him for the sea and fisher-folk of her native Cyprus, and he feels a wave of predictable desolation. His original companion reappears, invites him to return to her, and promises a prolonged youth, "[f]or I have charms to hold grim eld at bay." Amyot will have none of this, however, and returns to the outer world, where he joins a band of pilgrims who await a visit from the Pope. Sincerely contrite, Amyot recounts his tale to the pontiff, but the latter tells him to "Go hence, thou hast no grain of hope," and he faints away in despair. Later, however, the prelate sees the budding rod and seeks Amyot in vain until he dies himself. As for Amyot, "[I]f Dame Venus took him for her knight/ Again I know not, or what else befell/ Unto him as he journeyed on to Hell."

At the end of the tale the narrator reapepars to mediate on 'sin,' charity, and art:

Therewith the old Knight ceased and I sat still

Thinking of all the story I had heard;

And pondering on that unmatched dreadful hill

I deemed that verily the old Swinherd

Had spoken unto me a timely word.

Yet in my heart there lingered none the less

Regretful longing for that loveliness.


And thinking of the joy that I had had

To hear that tale I said, "Mens miseries

May sometimes chance to make their fellows glad

Now the shadow of them in likewise

Will bring the happy tears into our eyes

Like too sweet music too sooon passed away.

Therewith the minster chimes sung out midday.

The sentiments and formal aspects of this finished tale resembled those of other early and middle-Earthly Paradise narratives such as "Atalanta's Race" and "The Lady of the Land," and its imbricated frame-structure paralleled that of "The Land East of the Sun." It might even have formed a plausible concluding tale for the first volume, in the place now taken by "Ogier the Dane."

In any event, it seems clear that Morris remained fond of the tale's states of "regretful longing" and realized that a more nuanced version of its didactic plot might permit him to say something less trivial about the interrelations between physical love and moral self-knowledge. He continued to polish and revise the tale through successive drafts until only one remaining spot remained for it in the finished cycle.

Two drafts for "The Hill of Venus" appear in B. L. Add. M. S. 45,299. The first of these (ff. 49-65) seems to be later than the Fitzwilliam and Huntington Library manuscripts just described. The second (ff. 66-105) appears to correspond to May Morris's B. Morris devoted four pages of it (reproduced in Boos, 449-76) to an episode in which the hero (Amyot in all but the final version) lies sick and despairing in a hospital in Rome, and an attendant monk urges that he seek an interview with the Pope.

This second draft also provides details of Amyot's emotions and the vision of dancing maidens, and its Venus attempts to answer some of Amyot's agonized questions. She admits, for example, her fundamental indifference, and that she cannot assuage his yearning. The disillusioned Amyot sees "his love made manifest in the flesh, grown baselAnd hateful," and

. . . with despair and hate and longing mazed

Into the depths of her grey eyes he gazed,

That looked not on him. (f. 81)

Cognate motifs appear in "Near But Far Away" and other poems of the period, and also in the gods' indifference Orpheus condemns in "The Story of Orpheus and Eurydice." Morris's decision to omit these stanzas may have paralleled his decision to withhold "Orpheus" and several other shorter lyrics from publication, and delay the appearance of others (cf. Boos, 354-57). In the published version a procession of literary lovers also replaced these bleak reflections and detailed descriptions of venerian love.


This unusually complex evolutionary history of Morris's many drafts for "The Hill of Venus" suggests that one of his principal aims was to rework his early sources' conclusion to affirm more fully Baring-Gould's emphasis on forgiveness and earthly love, and to reject the more repressive constraints of Christian dogma. The result is also the Earthly Paradise's most direct allegory of conflict between erotic and agapic ideals and their imperfect human realizations.

Along the way Morris modulated "The Hill"'s explicit sexuality in various ways, but never repudiated it, and he emphasized more and more clearly that true 'heroism' must defend the validity of these aspirations in suitably sublimated forms, if necessary without hope of external reward or acknowledgement. Amyot/Walter's conscious acknowledgement of his ambivalence evolved into a form of strength, and his determination to accept it an integral part of his life and identity as a worthy human being. In its final form, "The Hill of Venus" clarified Morris's view of Christianity as a limited moral scheme whose best elements might belatedly respect the legitimacy of human needs.

All the same, the "love" celebrated in "the Hill of Venus" may be more complex and ambivalent than readers might have expected from the last poem in a twenty-five-tale cycle. In all the drafts of "The Hill of Venus," Walter/Amyot comes to see his love for Venus as a projection of his own will and imagination, which will therefore survive as long as he upholds and values it, in despite of religious orghodoxy, society-at-large, and external reward.

In a sense, one might see the concluding classical tales as illustraitons of the emotional framework of a worthy external life, and the last medieval one as an emblem of the more diffiuclt life of introspection. If so, the narrator/singer of "L'Envoi" may justly claim that "little is there left behind," but the ambivalent 'heroism' Morris's final tale celebrates is a near-Keatsian "negative capacitlity,' a refusal to judge others or decry the constraints of one's life. Such heroism is a receding, almost stoic ideal, and it is certainly not realizale in conventional forms of plot closure.

Morris's final medieval tale thus blended its tentative ending with a sense of eternal incompleteness, and became a miniature of Morris's belief in the arduous, processive quality of consciousness and love. This sense of the Aufhebung of individual identities in recurrent historical cycles also underlay the implicit ethic of Love Is Enough and all his other later poems.

See also Bellas, 330-50; Boos, 169-76, 446-48; Calhoun, 210­13; Kirchhoff, 206, 211-14; Oberg, 61-62; and Silver, 72-73.


As noted above, early drafts for the poem are contained in B. L. Add. M. S. 45,299, Fitzwilliam Library M. S. FW EP 25, and Huntington Library M. S. 6423. The final draft is in Huntington Library M. S. 6418.