William Morris Archive

Florence Boos


[54] In the early 1860s, William Morris began a narrative ballad about medieval mariners in search of a deathless kingdom, which he entitled "The Wanderers' Prologue" and intended to use as an introduction to a projected collection of verse tales. He completely recast this introduction in 1867, retitled it "Prologue: The Wanderers," and did use it to introduce the twenty-four seasonal tales of The Earthly Paradise.

"Prologue: The Wanderers" begins with a justly famous initial image of medieval "London, small and white and clean," and of Chaucer as customs officer: "While nigh the thronged wharf Geoffrey Chaucer's pen / Moves over bills of lading." The accompanying profusion of wares appropriately suggests a mingling of cultures, for the poem which follows is not set in medieval London, but in islands (probably) near fourteenth century Greece, a symbolically common European cultural "home."

The narrative's protagonists are the Greek-speaking Elders, and a collection of polyglot, now-aged Wanderers, whose Norwegian leader, Rolf, had spent his childhood as the son of a Vaering warrior at the Greek court of Byzantium, so that the sound of the Elders' Greek fills him with the sudden joy of utterly unexpected homecoming. Like his Norse ancestors Rolf has accepted Christianity, but this does not foreclose deep emotional responses to the old tales of his people. He faithfully remembers his ancestors' legends, and later narrates with affection the beautiful December tale, "The Story of Aslaug."

Two other Wanderers had originally planned the larger group's embarkation with Rolf in 1349: Rolf's closest friend, the [55] quasi-pacifist Breton squire Nicholas, and Laurence, a Swabian priest, healer, and astrologer. Before they organized the trip and raised a crew, this little group brooded together over legends of Leif Erikson and Kaiser Redbeard, as well as several cultures' accounts of immortality, including those of Mandeville, and conceived their journey both as a realistic flight from the Plague, and as a misguided but idealistic voyage in search of a deathless 'new' world. Of equal importance to the tale's structure is the original Wanderers' deep mutual loyalty, later exemplified by Nicholas's grief when Kirstin is slain, and Rolf's subsequent devastation at the death of his most farsighted friend.

Three episodes of their journey deserve mention. The first, an encounter with Edward III of England by sea as the monarch cruises the English Channel in search of enemy ships, is based on an account of Edward's journey by Jean Froissart (in his Chronicles of England, France, Spain, and the Adjoining Countries), but Morris characteristically creates his own, more nuanced and psychologically credible version of what he has read. Rather than impressing the young men into his fleet, a haggard and disillusioned Edward hears Nicholas's impassioned indictment of the wrongs he had experienced in war as a child, and releases them instead. Like the Wanderers themselves in old age, Edward pursues his goals with little illusion of success. Further imprisoned by his rank and martial role, he also acknowledges that the young Wanderers may win more significant victories than any he will achieve:

. . . the world is wide
For you I say, for me a narrow space
Betwixt the four walls of a fighting place. (11. 618-20)

The king thus serves as an early prototype of the Prologue's weary, experienced old men.

Another incident represents in miniature the later blunting of the Wanderers' hopes. Overwhelmed with joy when they first sight land, the Wanderers disembark to find jungle and exotic animals, and encounter a hillside shrine in which an effigy of yellow metal is surrounded by elegantly dressed, desiccated cadavers. At the [56] summit of the hill, they find a dying man who is not only richly dressed, but crowned, and accompanied by more corpses, who seem to be dressed and positioned as his attendants. These, the Wanderers later learn, are the dying monarch's family and servants, ritually murdered so that they may 'attend' him in the afterlife. When they finally leave this necropolis, they at last encounter living, friendly people, who ironically worship the Wanderers as deathless gods.

Years later in their increasingly exhausted journey of attrition, the surviving Wanderers encounter a "rejuvenated" young man who agrees to travel with them to his native region, where the disgusted and shame-faced Wanderers are taken captive by old men, and forced to play the roles of "gods" who witness the "sacrificial" slaughter of several of their old allies and friends. By the time the Wanderers are finally able to escape, they are desperately grateful for simple freedom.

The significance of all of these tableaux seems clear. In Edward, the still-youthful Wanderers meet an emblem of the constraints of power and officially-sanctioned "heroism." In the dying king they see a mockery of their own hopes for survival. And in the perverted forms of "worship" and cultic sacrifice they encounter, they witness a parody of their more overwrought desires for eternal life which is so repellent to them that death itself would be preferable. Their journey has extended their consciousness but not their life.

At last a residual party begin their final voyage, and their next landfall, after a final shipwreck, is the land of the Greek Elders. Not an earthly paradise, it is nevertheless a "ray of comfort and sweet hope," and the venue of The Earthly Paradise. The Wanderers and Elders agree to exchange tales from their respective cultures, and both bands of old men look forward to the mutual instruction and consolation of their tales, gathered from their disparate personal experiences and cultural traditions.

Critical Remarks:

[57] "The Wanderers' Prologue," an early and radically different first version of Morris's frame tale, was modelled in part on Samuel Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and remained unfinished, though May Morris published the fragment in volume 24 of the Collected Works. The later version, "Prologue: The Wanderers," exemplifies the outcome of Morris's transition from the style of The Defence to the more reflective and elegiac tone of The Earthly Paradise, and introduces preoccupations which dominated his poetry during the next six years, as he sought to temper his hopes without diminishing his aims. The "Prologue: The Wanderers" is also a much subtler work of art than its prototype, and more artfully designed than any of Morris's earlier narrative poems.

One simple example of the final version's greater clarity and precision may suffice. The narrator of the first version is an undifferentiated "mariner." The principal narrator of the second is the highly individuated Norwegian visionary Rolf, a complexly motivated and ultimately heroic protagonist, whose detailed narration and reflective observations suggest that he is thoughtful and farsighted as well as brave. The first prologue's voyage of plundering "mariners" essentially ends in a state of narrative exhaustion. The second concludes with the Elders' proposal of a systematic exchange of tales, an opportunity for the Wanderers to represent and understand their own experience, and refine as well as transmit the traditional tales of their peoples.

The later Wanderers' much more complex attempts to evaluate their own efforts, and by extension, those of other would-be "heroes" of history and legend, thus make them more plausible narrators for the other tales, whose meanings they seriously try to examine and interpret. Their own voyage eventually becomes a miniature Bildungsroman in verse, and their self-conscious introspection helps to bind together the prologue, frame, connective lyrics, and tales of the work which follows.

In its sense of forlorn search, desperate flight from the Black Death, and metaphysical uncertainty, the second version of the [58] prologue also foreshadows the psychological journeys which follow. The Wanderers' aim is not to loot, and they do not seek adventure for its own sake. They travel in great earnest to see if there is any escape for them from misery and death, and finally realize that part of their original search's purpose was futile and misconceived.

The mariners of the early version, moreover, are essentially mercenary adventurers—disloyal to each other, heedless of the consequences of their actions, and brutal to the native peoples they encounter. They take pride in their colonial conquests, and see themselves as fighters and heroes. The Wanderers have also fought, but they know their opponents were not well armed, and their occasional ability to impress relatively trusting and inexperienced people has not made more bearable to them their own failures of nerve and hope.

Several of the "Prologue"'s details of the Wanderers' encounters are historically plausible, and the Wanderers' own reactions often recall actual settlers' diaries and explorers' logs. The second prologue's voyages draw on earlier travel narratives for many events, but their recombination and interpretation arguably provide The Earthly Paradise with its most original plot, albeit one which draws primarily on historical accounts rather than literary sources.

There is ample evidence, in any case, that Morris began "The Wanderers" with the travels of assorted historical adventurers in mind. As he drafted the narrative, however, he gradually came to see its journey as the symbolic expression of the deepest questions of human endeavor, and moved toward his later use of larger narrative frames to interpret doubt and reflection as well as prouesse. The mariners are "ancient men" (cf. Coleridge's "ancient mariner"), but the Wanderers are mature men as well. In effect, the psychological distance between the second Prologue's Wanderers and their creator has also narrowed, and their voyages acquire personal as well as allegorical significance. By the time he wrote the second prologue, Morris had come to define extended journeys as "heroic" accomplishments in their own right, [59] with or without trophies of success. The second prologue's wider and more varied motifs, incidents, and descriptions represent much more adequately The Earthly Paradise's meditations on human effort and renewal.

Morris also imposes a psychological and thematic narrative structure on these encounters, in their final form, so that their emotional force does not derive from obvious falsification or heightening of events, but from its evaluation of their incremental effects on the sensibilities of the Wanderers.

At first, the young seafarers are deeply and credulously impressed by the scenery, customs, and fables they encounter, and even attribute some of their more exotic experiences to supernatural origins. Later, they inevitably become disabused, disillusioned, and even bored. The 'exotic' peoples they meet gradually cease to be objects of wonder and sources of conflict, and come to seem what they are: practitioners of a variety of customs which, like their own, make varying degrees of sense, and evoke varying degrees of animosity, tenderness, and obligation.

Several of the original Wanderers also cease to wander, and settle among the peoples they encounter. Unlike the first prologue's mariners, the remaining Wanderers often reflect on the meaning of what they see and its relation to their own values, and the growth of this reflective self-consciousness eventually becomes the narrative's main driving force.

The final narrative also includes several arresting brief portraits of human effort and loss: Nicholas desperately mourns the death of his wife Kirstin, impaled by a feathered javelin in a sudden attack; captured tribespeople commit suicide rather than remain in slavery to their captors from other tribes; a female prisoner tremblingly seeks refuge from her tribe, who will punish her for exchanging a few words with her captors. Such psychological authenticity is an immense improvement over the earlier prologue's "realism" of plundering picaros. Morris is here preoccupied with the pathos of the Wanderers' misplaced hopes, and the ironies of all sustained and desperate ventures which hover for many years between success and failure.

(60) The Wanderers' reflections on age, memory, and regret form another, related motif. They are all old when they find refuge on the Elders' island, and sudden flashes of oblique insight now shadow their recollections. Carefully individuated in his origins and early aspirations, Rolf gradually becomes a representative, if unusually reflective, human being—not only a Norwegian poet and sailor but a modest and rather dispassionate person whose responses to his nuanced experiences have become more and more interpretive and empathetic. His rationale for the resumption of the search in middle age, for example, leads to a reflection on the subjective nature of time (11. 2031-41). The bravest and second-most visionary Wanderer is also in some respects the most self-effacing. In the end, his identity is submerged in the causes he represents, and the poem's most significant "actions" are its lyric meditations. Within the Prologue, these passages serve something of the function performed by the Apology and lyrics of the months in the larger structure of The Earthly Paradise.

Beneath the Prologue's exotic surface, Morris has thus attempted to invoke common aspects of human experience confronted by many strong and decent persons in extremis, and suggest that the Wanderers' responses to those experiences—including, perhaps, "the harsh wind scarce noted midst our fears"—have been all that mattered. The Wanderers have found no utopia, of course, but instead a remote land of cultural and emotional kinspeople.

Readers who—like Rolf himself—have expected something more dramatic, also realize eventually that the cyclical nature of disappointment, hope, and desire is the Prologue's real subject. Only through their loss, disillusionment, and persistence do the Wanderers become—gradually and unevenly—more sophisticated. They have at least attempted throughout their journeys to maintain a humane openness toward each other and those they encounter, and they eventually benefit from their emergent perception that a life of human fellowship is its own reward. This is the only form of happiness which Morris ultimately seems to consider worth [61] mention: understanding of our shared vulnerability—the one form of appreciation which is confirmed, not abrogated, by death.

"Prologue: The Wanderers," one of The Earthly Paradise's first completed tales, is therefore one of the best. Its tributes to persistence, modesty, and self-abnegation anticipate the conclusions of several other Earthly Paradise tales and the work's interconnective lyrics, and it has the only plot which seems to have been Morris's own from first to last.

The most realistic and concrete of The Earthly Paradise tales, "Prologue: The Wanderers," is also one of the most meditative and abstract in its concern for the passage of time, and the intricate ironies of hope and despair. These brooding reflections on human consciousness are often refracted and diffused in the other tales' obvious preoccupation with youthful heterosexual love, but they reappear again and again in the mental states of Earthly Paradise protagonists, and in the monthly lyrics and transitional passages.

Quasi-historical accounts of Scandinavian journeys to the northeastern edges of North America and the "New World" seemed to arouse Morris's poetic imagination, and "Prologue: The Wanderers" is the only major Victorian narrative poem about a voyage to a "new world." His sailors never do come "home from the sea," but they find instead psychological refuge with a company of kindly cosmopolitan "Elders," with whom they reconstruct and reinterpret some of the narrative fragments of their pan-European culture.

Morris was always deeply moved, finally, by the thought of little-known or forgotten acts of idealism and fellowship. This is the emotion which resonates in the great sermon of the doomed priest in his later work, A Dream of John Ball. In the Wanderers' voyage and poetic recreations of their (now lost) cultural pasts, he found a near-ideal fictional subject for such resurrection.

See also Bellas, 23-43, Boos, 39-66, Calhoun, 88-116, Kirchhoff, 136-41, Oberg, 25-39, Silver, 58-60.


[62] Antecedents for the motif of a search for an "earthly paradise" include Sir John Mandeville's Travels, the legend of St. Brendan, and Sabine Baring-Gould's Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. Other works, also familiar to Morris, presented situations or episodes which closely paralleled those of the Wanderers' journey. These sources include Paul Mallet's account of Scandinavian voyagers in his Northern Antiquities, Samuel Laing's translation of the Heimskringla, and several nineteenth-century reconstructions of the expeditions of Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro.

Morris was familiar with the work of Mallet and Laing, two extended descriptions of Scandinavian culture which reflected roughly comparable assumptions about the range and ideological importance of their subject. Both Bishop Percy's translation of Mallet's 1770 Northern Antiquities: An Historical Account of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws, Maritime Expeditions and Discoveries, Language and Literature of the Ancient Scandinavians, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians and Icelanders. (1770, revised by I. A. Blackwell, London, 1847), and its successor, Samuel Laing's extended introduction to his translation of the Heimskringla ("Circle of the World"), are virtual eulogies to what their authors saw as essentially Scandinavian virtues.

Underlying their religion, social organization, and political habits, Mallet claimed to discern traits of rugged valor, impassioned and sometimes poetic temperament, comradely loyalty, and love of freedom. As Gibbon did for his English audience, Mallet redacted and elaborated for the French Tacitus's celebration of Germanic love of freedom and military valor:

[T]hat spirit of liberty, arising from their climate, and from their rustic and military life, had received new strength from the opinions it had produced, ... In effect, these people . . . were always ready to attack tyranny in the first who dared to attempt it, and in whatever formidable shape it appeared. . . . we see everywhere . . . those swarms of Germans and Scandinavians. . . changed into a sensible and free people as soon as ever they had confirmed their conquests; impregnating . . . their institutions with a spirit of order and equality.... (126-27).

[63] Morris's narrative attributes comparable qualities to the Wanderers, in the "Prologue" and the interconnective passages between the tales. Like Morris's Wanderers, Mallet's Scandinavians were also given to oaths of mutual loyalty, sworn in Mallet's narrative at great feasts where men assumed a "solemn obligation" to "defend and protect their companions on all occasions" (196).

Mallet also provides a description of the mythological and historical poetry of the Scandinavians, then summarizes the saga accounts of Icelandic voyages, especially the one described in the Saga of Erik the Red to a "low level coast, with numerous white sandy cliffs, and thickly covered with wood" (252), on which at least one of the explorers is accompanied by his wife (as is Nicholas by Kirstin). After landing, the company divides into two groups to prepare a settlement, but their attempts are foiled by attacks of native "Skraellings" (skraelingjar is the Norse/Icelandic word which corresponds roughly to the English word "barbarians"), armed with bows and arrows, and these details obviously suggest the experiences of the Morris's Wanderers.

Mallet also regrets strongly that the Scandinavians did not venture further south in the Americas, and his language reverberates with belief in the significance such a journey might have had:

It is, in fact, obvious that the merest accident might in that age have led some enterprising adventurer a few degrees further south, and given rise to a series of events resulting in the final conquest of the tropical regions of America by the seafaring Scandinavians ... It is useless, however, to speculate on ... the influence which such an event . . . might have exercised on the social condition of Europe. (267)

Enthusiastically, Mallet also reproduces what he admits to be a "groundless" but still "very brilliant theory": Finn Magnusen's claim that Columbus learned of the routes west not only from Scandinavian sources, but—astoundingly—during a personal visit to Iceland. Magnusen's rhetoric is woven from the glittering fabric of legend:

[64] . . . we have now, for the first time, a well-founded reason to suppose that the small and barren Iceland not only produced the men who were the first discoverers of the New World, but that it also pointed out to the immortal hero, whom it was long believed ought alone to enjoy that honour, the way by which he could prosecute and terminate the discovery in such a manner, that through it the earth should assume a new form, and mankind acquire, both in a material and intellectual point of view, a new state of existence. (268)

A poet who wished to honor the accomplishments of Scandinavian voyagers would probably have noted with interest Finn Magnusen's most excited claim, that "The discovery of America, so momentous in its results, may therefore be regarded as the mediate consequence of its previous discovery by the Scandinavians, which may be thus placed among the most important events of former ages." An idea which remained "groundless" in history might yet live in poetic legend. If Nicholas's account of a small, withered, black-eyed Genoese visitor to Norway during the 1340s is intended as an allusion to Columbus's supposed northward turn, this legendary association of the saga-voyages with Columbus remained in Morris's mind. Morris was also temperamentally drawn throughout his life to honor failed accomplishments and lonely efforts which remain unrecognized and unrecorded. His loyalty to inner voyages may have prompted him to imagine the efforts of a company of Scandinavians whose chief victory was survival, and whose "momentous results" a historically effaced blending of literary cultures.

In Samuel Laing's "Preliminary Dissertation" to his translation of the 1841 Heimskringla; or, Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, Morris would also have found a better-redacted version of similar ideas and idealizations of Scandinavian culture(s). Several historical incidents and details of Icelandic life recorded in Laing's work reappear in Morris's Scandinavian tales, and Morris later recapitulated many of Laing's general views about Icelandic society, patterns of landholding and slavery, culture, and poetry in "The Early Literature of the North," a lecture he prepared in 1887, [65] after he had himself learned Icelandic, and journeyed to the country twice.

Laing prefaces his translation of "The Saga of Olaf Tryggvesson," for example, with descriptions of Norwegian shipbuilding, annual voyages to Iceland from Drontheim, the Christianization of Iceland which occurred under Olaf Tryggvesson, a specific incident of Norse history Morris mentions in the "Prologue" (the emigration of Bjorn of Bradwick to Iceland, 1. 721), and most importantly for Morris's tale, the Scandinavian progress of the black death. Laing attributes the historical extinction of a Greenlandic colony to the plague, and claims that the pestilence "raged particularly in the north" (146).

Like Mallet and Percy, Laing is also certain that the sagas describe exploration of North America, even after he has demolished the evidence provided by supposed runic records at alleged landing sites:

All that can be proved, or that is required to be proved, for establishing the priority of the discovery of America by the Northmen, is that the saga or traditional account of these voyages in the 11th century was committed to writing at a known date, viz. between 1387 and 1395, in a manuscript of unquestionable authenticity. . . . This simple fact, established on documents altogether incontrovertible, is sufficient to prove all that is wanted to be proved, or can be proved. .. ." (154).

He also accepts without difficulty the account of Columbus's sojourn in Iceland—no "uncertainty of transmission" for Laing.

Of equal interest is Laing's preoccupation with the dating of the alleged simple fact on which every thing rests,—that a discovery of a new land to the west and south was made and recorded, taken out of the mere traditionary state, and fixed in writing in 1387. . . • (155)

Morris's Wanderers leave Norway in 1349, and arrive about twenty-five years later in Greece, so their journey(s) take place in the period just before Laing fixes the first record of a Norse voyage to the "new world." Laing's remark that "The details of adventures on such a voyage may not be correct, and yet the fact itself true" [66] (161), may be historical special pleading, but in Morris's hands it may at least make good poetic sense.

Morris's eclectic account of the Wanderers' experiences did not draw only on historical studies of the far north. William Prescott's Conquest of Mexico (1843) and Conquest of Peru (1847) strongly suggest some of the ethnographic details of the Wanderers' early landfalls: Prescott's description of Aztec sacrifices of young men and women in Mexico, Book I, Chapter 3; his account of the conquistadors' credulous hopes for a "terrestrial paradise" in Book II, Chapter 7; his description of their excitement as they look down over the valleys of Mexico City in Book III, Chapter 9; and, finally, his account of the ritual slaughter of a dead Incan ruler's relatives, who join their sovereign in a ghastly necropolitan court in Peru, Book I, Chapter I. Morris may have drawn on any or all of these scenarios for his "exotic" effects.

Similar parallels suggest that Morris may also have read and made use of Washington Irving's popular Life of Christopher Columbus (London, 1828). Morris was especially quick to absorb and modify arresting descriptions of character and emotional states, and his explorers resemble Irving's Columbus in several significant details of ambivalent motivation and intensely emotional response.

Like Rolf, for example, Irving's Columbus collects legends of imaginary voyages, including of course that of Mandeville (190). Both characters also enlist the aid of a 'learned' priest, are becalmed on the voyage out, and encounter peaceable natives, lush vegetation, and illusory marvels. Both expeditions benefit from the services of a friendly female interpreter, and both are greeted by the natives who trustingly assume their invaders have "descended from above" (87). Both groups of explorers witness the pathetic suicide of a native captive, battle with more warlike enemies of native allies, return to the sea after a period of settlement, and eventually split sadly into two groups, one which remains and one which sets sail. Irving's Columbus is also deeply attached to his brother and co-explorer Don Pedro, who dies on the return voyage, as does Rolf's lifelong friend Nicholas. More [67] tenuous comparisons might also be drawn—between the exhaustion of the aged Wanderers and the wasted condition of Columbus's expedition at its conclusion, for example; and between Rolf's relief when he hears the speech of the Greek Elders, and Columbus's tearful response to the warm reception he receives on his return.

More significantly, there are several personal similarities between Morris's ardent visionary Scandinavian Rolf and Irving's highly idealized simulacrum of Columbus, whom he describes as

a visionary of an uncommon kind, .... The manner in which his ardent imagination and mercurial nature were controlled by a powerful judgement, and directed by an acute sagacity, is the most extraordinary feature of his character. (396)

Like both Rolf and the Breton Nicholas, moreover, Columbus is both explorer and poet:

(An) ardent and enthusiastic imagination . . . threw a magnificence over his whole course of thought. A poetic temperament is discernible throughout all his writings and in all his actions. (395)

Like the Wanderers within the narrative frame and (the poet hopes) their creator, he is also vindicated in some sense by history, for he has accomplished more than initially hoped:

With all the visionary fervour of his imagination, its fondest dreams fell short of the reality. He died in ignorance of the real grandeur of his discovery! (397).

Several of Irving's reconstructions of his explorers' intense emotional fluctuations parallel those Morris attributes to the Wanderers. Irving dramatically describes Columbus's illusory hopes at landfall, as Morris presents with sympathetic irony the Wanderers' ecstatic confidence the night before they first disembark: "Yea, some of us in that first ecstasy/ For joy of 'scaping death went near to die" (11. 895-96). Like Morris's narrator, Irving compares his explorers' quest with assorted imaginary or fabulous voyages, and comments on their credulity: "As fast as one illusion passed away, however, another succeeded" (98).

[68] Morris's seafarers, however, are more reflective and empathetic. Irving tempers his enthusiasm and special pleading with an account of the Spanish adventurers' brutal treachery and obsession with gold and domination, a pattern of behavior that parallels rather closely the actions of the "mariners" in the first version of Morris's prologue. The second "Prologue"'s Wanderers, by contrast, do not tyrannize or exploit, and it is they who are tricked. Their quest is not for wealth or European reputation, but for survival—"immortality" if they can find it, and a significant life if they cannot. They are a company of comrades, devoted to each other and eventually to their common effort to understand the meaning of what they have experienced.


An early and radically different version of the Prologue, entitled "The Wanderers' Prologue," is preserved in British Library Add. MS 45,305. An early draft of the second version is in British Library Add. MS 37,499, and the fair copy for the printer in Huntington Library MS 6418.