William Morris Archive

Peter Wright

Wright, Peter. "The Two Versions of Morris's 'The Wanderers'."

The discussion of the two versions of Morris's Prologue in J.M. S. Tompkins's William Morris: an Approach to the Poetry (1988, pp. 97-111) includes a comparison of the character of those two poems. The purpose of this essay is to offer some supplements to her treatment of that contrast, and to suggest how the alterations which Morris made in the telling of his story between the two versions might embody an implicit critique of the ethos of the original narrative.*

The two versions have the same basic structure, in which the crew of Wanderers are moved to seek out some overseas paradise where they can enjoy everlasting life in the body; following initial failures enjoy happiness after settling during their adult lives in a land which they deliver from danger; and with the approach of old age and death resume their quest for their desired paradise only to suffer a final disappointment. (Morris's portrayal in II, lines 2017-42, of the character of the 'downward journey' to the ·other gate' out of life shows an imaginative empathy for the decline of life notable in a poet still in his mid thirties.) However, the space devoted to each part of the story differs considerably between the two versions: in the first each of its three stages is handled in roughly equal amounts of his verses; in the second its Wanderers' initial voyaging takes up well over half the tale.

That expansion is partly accounted for by Morris giving a more plausible setting for their travels both in time and space. In I, though we learn soon enough that these sea-rovers are Christianised Norsemen of the Middle Ages, it is not until p. 127, with its mention of the victory at Sluys in 1340 of Edward III (whose involvement with their leader Morris probably 'discovered' in the heat of composition), that we find ourselves in the 14th century rather than in any other from the 11th to the 15th. Possibly having conceived that dating inspired him to give the Wanderers in II a more definite historical framework, filled out with elements from Froissart and from a more careful study of the material then available in English translation for Norse history and society for the Wanderers' voyage, including the much fuller account of the Wanderers' encounter with that king, and providing the Black Death and not a mere dream as their motive for setting out. Likewise in II their travelling leads not to uncharted 'wonderlands', but a not impossible landfall on the Atlantic coasts of a Pre-Columbian America. Incidentally, although the first version has perhaps more violent and dangerous tempests, the second gives a clearer sense of the toilsomeness of struggling through virgin forests and over the 'snowy peaks' of ‘rugged' mountains. (Compare I, pp. 98-99 with II, lines 943-65, 1595-1640.)

Morris has also in the second Prologue considerably improved the moral character of his Wanderers. In I they are ready enough, as chivalrous gentlemen, to come to the rescue of fair ladies in distress, but are distinctly insouciant in their willingness to use their superior European weaponry against 'black' opponents armed only with 'stone axes', and to plunder and destroy their village: pp. 103-107. Their being ambushed in the forest while returning to their ships seems a not unjust retaliation by their victims. In II they are cautious in approaching the first native settlement which they encounter, and when its people flee them, seek to reassure and establish communications with them (lines 1140-1242), nor, unlike the Spanish conquistadors described by Prescott, are they tempted by a relative abundance of gold among that people to subdue and exploit them. Later they usually have friendly relations with the brown-skinned peoples of the New World's coasts, respecting their primitive virtues, and even intermarrying with them and enlisting some as fellow-farers, for whose eventual sacrifice they grieve (II, lines 2505-14, and they only fight, though sometimes ferociously, with those who ambush them in their camp or on their march.

The central section, the Wanderers' 'life of bliss' in their new home, is dealt with much more briefly, in barely a seventh of the narrative, its largest part describing their triumphant reception though 'battered' and 'in worn-out gear' by its king and people,. The deliverance from attackers demanding human victims for sacrifice, which in I justified their position of prestige, is here virtually a residual organ, occupying barely fifty lines, of which the actual fighting, which in I is handled with as much detail and vigour as some accounts of battles in Morris's tales in verse and prose of the 1850s, is here despatched in just two. Notably, although the Wanderers instruct their hosts (II, lines 1950-62) in some of the European crafts missing from their primitive technology, we hear nothing of any attempt to convert them to Christianity, whereas in I (pp. 127-8) Nicholas had virtually insisted on the conversion of the Ladies' Land from its ancestral paganism.. At the end too (p. 160) Morris makes his People of the Shore at least curious about their visitors' religion, possibly foreshadowing a further attempt at conversion.

The Wanderers' final search for their paradise in old age is told in II in a manner rather more gentle in its presentation of their revived hopes than in I, where they deliberately resume their quest of their own accord. In II, although the ageing Rolf at least has secretly been enquiring into the chances of renewing it they are finally induced to embark by an elaborate scheme of deception, cruel in its execution. In I they pass swiftly into a realm of nightmare refuting those hopes, first, in reality in terms of the story, reaching a city of the uncorrupted dead. There devouring the nourishment of those preserved corpses subjects them to fearful visions, in which their goal of deathlessness, once accessed through landscapes of terror, is despairingly rejected by those who have apparently achieved it. Finally, when they have struggled to a place whose character resembles that seen in the dream which had induced their leader to begin the quest, he dies 'broken-hearted', shocked to hear across the water a song with the theme 'Carpe diem', (I, pp. 163-4) which reveals that there too mortality prevails. In the later version, where Captain Nicholas dies almost incidentally, they are victims of others' plotting, and emerge from their captivity in the island temple, resigned to an acceptance of necessity, following which they can spend their last years of rest as instruments of remembrance for their kindly new hosts.

In the first version the Wanderers sometimes admit that their quest may defy the laws of God and deserves the misfortunes that befall them, or look back with regret on the possibilities of ordinary human happiness which they have abandoned (e.g. I, pp. 103, 110-11, 129-30): it is unclear whether Morris considered such thoughts appropriate to medieval Christian voyagers, or intended to convict them out of their own mouths of desires unfitting for humanity. Such instances of condemnation or regret occasionally occur also in II (e.g. lines 308-11, 2003-4, 2459-60). Usually, however, Rolf blames himself and his comrades for folly rather than wickedness in their ambition to win the Earthly Paradise. So whereas in the first version the author's attitude towards such desires seems somewhat negative, especially when he describes the horrors of its concluding section, in the second the quest is regarded rather with sympathetic regret for its failure: in Morris's Epilogue his Wanderers, when finally coming to their end, were not shamed by their ancient longing for continuing happiness, and did not 'doubt it good / That they in arms against that death had stood.'


*In this essay references to the first version in ballad stanzas printed by May Morris in Morris’s Collected Works, vol. 24, pp. 87-170, are indicated by I and cited in brackets by the pages of that text, and those of the final one in heroic couplets, published with occasional modifications from 1868, as II and cited by its lines.