William Morris Archive

The Medieval Tale for October

Florence S. Boos 

The haggard and melancholy Firuz discovers that generosity has impoverished his old acquaintance Bharam, a once-rich young man, and leads him to the palace where he dwells with six equally valetudinarian companions. All warn Bharam not to inquire into their strange situation, and enjoin him to bury them in a neighboring wood when they die. Firuz-the last survivor--promises to reveal the secret, but pauses for a moment to address an unnamed lost beloved, and dies in Bharam's arms with his secret intact.

Bharam then falls into a dream-state, in which he dreams that he walks to a nearby river, where a waiting ship carries him to a verdant land. This kingdom's strangely melancholy queen takes him into her bed at first, then gives him a key to the room in which they have made love, warns him never to enter it, and curtly orders him to leave.

Hurt feelings and "baneful jealousy" lead Bharam to make eventual use of the key, and he finds behind the door a cup and a tablet inscribed "Drink ... For make no doubt that thine old life is done," (11. 1430-31). When he obeys the tablet's injunction, he reels on the edge of derangement, but gradually recovers and manages to make his way home. Here he finds Firuz's palace in ruins, and roams thereafter "with dreamy eyes distraught," (1. 1583). Mter a time, those who encounter him in his wanderings begin to call him "The Man Who Ne'er Shall Laugh Again."


Morris radically modified his source for this tale-liThe Man Who Never Laughed for the Rest of his Life," the Fifth Weezer's tale in The Thousand and One Nights (trans. Edward Lane, 3 vols., London: Charles Knight and Co., 1841; III, 169-73) to cast Bharam's otherwise inexplicable reverses as a search for love and knowledge thwarted by ultimate betrayal.

In the Fifth Weezer's tale, a "sheykh" offers wealth to a young wastrel if he will serve him and his melancholy fellows, and the young man agrees. Mter twelve years, the last surviving sheykh gives him the key to an inner chamber as he rues, and the no­longer-young man, inwardly compelled ("his soul desired him to open the door"), uses the key.

Beyond the door, he finds many adventures, and an opulent kingdom in which "women. . . are the governors and magistrates and soldiers." One of these rulers oversees his marriage to a beautiful princess, but warns him never to open yet another ominous door.

After seven happy years, however, his desire for more "great treasures" overcomes him, and a voice sternly warns him that: "Far, far from thee is the return of what is past! And how many therefore will be the sighs!" Consumed by grief and overwhelming depression, the still-unnamed protagonist dies as his former masters had before him.

Morris modified this prototype in several significant ways. He elided, first, the protofeminist matriarchy of his source. His Bharam distinguishes himself in the dream-kingdom as warrior, ruler, and judge, and the injunction to leave the fatal key unused comes from a capricious queen, not a gravely authoritative woman­"Weezer."

Other modifications are more attractive. Morris excised, for example, the Arabian-Nights hero's greed and conventionally emulative responses to sumptuous palaces and beautiful princesses, .and added the worthy rationale for Bharam's poverty. He also invented Bharam's prior acquaintance with Firuz, and a series of meditative conversations between them about the futilities and illusions of conventional social life.

Above all, Morris made Bharam's primary motive for his curiosity a longing to understand his employers' pain, and created the respect for beauty and selfless devotion that mark many of his actions.

Critical Remarks:

Bharam's melancholy fate in Morris's tale seems conspicuously undeserved. Callowness drove his Arabian Nights-prototype to disobey the first proscription, and greed to disregard the second, but Bharam's lapse into the initial dream-state is involuntary, and bitter disappointment and forlorn hope later impel him to enter the forbidden chamber.

Several of his other actions also seem quasi-preordained-he inserts the key in the lock of the queen's bedchamber, for example, "as one constrained thereto" (1. 1370)--s0 much so that Morris seems to ascribe the tale's pain and loss to the fluctuating and transient nature of love itself. Aspects of Bharam's disillusionment, humiliation and sense of isolation suggest related autobiographical parallels, and the tale's melancholy and suspensive ending may have distracted critics from more extensive examination of its merits.

Those merits are real. Some of the tale's descriptions of inner mind-states are sharply delineated-the despairing Bharam's sudden sense that "The world was narrowed to his heart at last" (l. 763), for example--and its conclusion also leaves open a small shutter of hope that wanderers with "dreamy eyes distraught" may encounter new visions.

The bystanders, moreover, may not know the full truth about the inner life of "The Man Who Ne'er Shall Laugh Again"--and neither, in this case, may we. Bharam could change names and identities, for example, and walk into the role of Walter in "The Hill of Venus," whose stubborn fidelity to a doomed but ideal love makes the pope's scepter bloom.

Be that as it may, a sense of redemption does hover at the end of the narrative interlude's lyric meditation, in which the despairing outer singer observes that Bharam, Elders, Wanderers, and we:

. . . find nought real except ourselves, and find

All care for all things scattered to the wind,

Scarce in our hearts the very pain alive.

Compelled to breathe indeed, compelled to strive,

Compelled to fear, yet not allowed to hope.... (ll. 11-15)

Indeed, this meditation's modulation from despair to empathetic identification with the, wider tale of human emotions anticipates the resolution of the Earthly Paradise itself, for

All [became] a picture in these latter days, . . . .

[the poem's "Aged Men"] might sit and praise

The calm, wise heart that knoweth how to rest,

The man too kind to snatch out at the best,

Since he is part of all, each thing a part,

Beloved alike of his wide-loving heart. (ll. 23-28),

and the night

dulled not or made weak the minstrel's song

That through the hall bemocked the lost year's wrong" (ll. 31-32).

See also Bellas, 268-82; Boos, 133-37; Calhoun, 183; Kirchhoff, 189-91; Oberg, 55, 57-58; and Silver, 67, 71-72.


An early draft exists in British Library Add. M. S. 45,303, and the final version is found in Huntington Library 6418.