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twenty could hesitate to predict for that youth a literary career of no ordinary kind. But if these romantic tales, one of which is so recklessly fanciful as to make a dead man the chronicler of his own experiences, were sound material for prophesying good concerning Morris, still more so was his first volume of poetry, "The Defence of Guenevere and other Poems," issued in 1858. Here the life of our medieval ancestors is depicted with a sympathy and insight perhaps unparalleled. The reading of Froissart and Monstrelet has stirred to its depths a receptive artist-nature of the rarest kind; and a strength of hand equal to that receptiveness has produced at the age of twenty-four work that must stand or fall with English literature. "Sir Peter Harpdon's End," "The Haystack in the Floods," "Shameful Death," and other pieces in the volume, would be known anywhere as the work of a master. Some poems in the book are immature in craftsmanship; but not one shows defective intuition.
Morris did not remain with Street for the full term of his articles, but made a practical start in a less restricted line than that of architecture. Before he had established himself in literature with the public as distinguished from the few "who know," he had taken the leading part in founding an undertaking then deemed to be somewhat quixotic, but none the less destined to be an important factor in the developement of English taste. It was the author of "The Defence of Guenevere" whose name figured in the style of the firm of fine-art decorators, Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., who began nearly a quarter of a century ago an attempt to reform English taste and make people furnish and
decorate their abodes with things beautiful instead of things hideous. This enterprise, now long conducted under the poet's name only, may fairly claim the principal place among the agencies which have brought about a great and favourable change in the style of our domestic decoration and in our taste for colour. The so-called æsthetic movement has been a mere bastard off-shoot of this genuine reform; but the reform itself is still going on steadily, notwithstanding the transient reflected ridicule which it incurred through the gauche eccentricities of its by-blow. Those who remember the arrival from Paris of the fine colours (since nick-named "æsthetic"), which superseded in women's attire the crude horrors affected by the last generation, may be pleased to doubt the credit given above to Morris in this matter. Nevertheless, the truth is that the French milliners, who sent those colours hither to our women, got them from Morris's upholstery stuffs.
The year 1867 must be set down as that in which Morris established himself with the public as a poet who had mastered the tale-teller's craft. In that year appeared "The Life and Death of Jason," a narrative poem in seventeen books, written in fivefoot iambic couplets of the Chaucerian model, as distinguished from the Waller-Dryden-Pope distich. Indeed, Chaucer was the acknowledged master of Morris at this time, and is recalled to the reader's recollection in the next work, "The Earthly Paradise," of which the first instalment appeared in 1868, and the last in 1870. In that treasure-house of lovely tales, with lyric interludes, distinguished by their manliness and sincerity from the introspec
Morris was becoming
tive mosaics of the day, the stock metres, three in number, derive from Chaucer, while the tales themselves are of various origin-mainly Greek or Northern, but drawn occasionally, either directly or indirectly, from the East. While "The Earthly Paradise" was in progress, deep in Icelandic literature. derived the magnificent tragic story of "The Lovers of Gudrun," in which "The Earthly Paradise" sounds its deepest notes, and soars highest, but he also enriched our literature with prose versions of several of the sagas, being assisted by Mr. Eiríkr Magnússon. "The Story of Grettir the Strong," published in 1869, represents the ruder domestic sagas of the tenth century. "The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs," issued in the following year, represents the primeval mythic literature of the race. The two shorter sagas of "Frithiof the Bold " and "Gunnlaug the Wormtongue are admirable samples of Icelandic legend and domestic romance. The translations were executed near about the same period as the two large works, and appeared in periodicals that of Gunnlaug in The Fortnightly Review for January 1, 1869, and that of Frithiof in the The Dark Blue Magazine for March and April 1871. All these works are interspersed with snatches of scaldic song in the alliterative measures of the Icelanders; and with the version of “Volsunga" Morris gave a considerable number of the songs of the Elder Edda. The first independent original fruit borne by this revelling in the forthright, simple, manly, and most craftsmanlike narratives of the hardy Norsemen who peopled Iceland, was the poem entitled "Love is Enough; or, the Freeing
of Pharamond: a Morality." Here Morris employed alliterative metre in a truly masterly manner for the shaping of one of the most noteworthy poems of the third quarter of the century. This came out in 1873; and, though something above the heads of the large public to which "The Earthly Paradise" appeals, it widened the poet's credit with the critical few. Two years later the sagas of Frithiof and Gunnlaug were reprinted, with that of Viglund the Fair, and some shorter Icelandic tales, under the title of "Three Northern Love Stories," etc. In 1876 Morris issued "The Æneids of Virgil done into English Verse." The verse chosen was the ballad metre employed by Chapman in translating the Iliad. If the service of the modern poet to Virgil is not in all respects better than that of the Elizabethan to Homer, this latter-day Æneid is at least of a more equable quality, of a finer taste in language, and much more literal than Chapman's Iliad. It is a translation, not a mere paraphrase; and the metre is handled in the noblest manner. A single sample, the opening of Book x., must illustrate :
"Meanwhile is opened wide the door of dread Olympus' walls,
And there the Sire of Gods and Men unto the council calls, Amid the starry place, wherefrom, high-throned he looks adown
Upon the folk of Latin land and that beleaguered town."
There is a fidelity to the original here which we seek in vain in such charming couplets of Chapman as these from the opening of Book viii.-
"The cheerful lady of the light, deck'd in her saffron robe, Dispersed her beams through every part of this enflowered globe,
When thundering Jove a court of Gods assembled by his will,
In top of all the topful heights, that crown th' Olympian hill."
which can hardly be held to render closely what is literally translated thus by Messrs Lang, Leaf and Myers:-"Now Dawn the saffron-robed was spreading over all the earth, and Zeus whose joy is in the thunder let call an assembly of the gods upon the topmost peak of many-ridged Olympus."
Up to this point Morris might almost be said to have been frankly medieval in his way of looking at things. His spiritual birth into his own century is to be found recorded in his next substantive work, "The Story of Sigurd the Volsung, and the Fall of the Niblungs." Here not only does he fill a large canvas with an art higher and subtler than that shown in "Jason," or even in "The Earthly Paradise," but he betrays a profound concern in the destinies of the race, such as we do not exact from the mere story-teller. Love and adventure he had already treated in a manner approaching perfection; and a sympathetic intelligence of all beautiful legends breathes throughout his works; but Sigurd is something more than a lover and a warrior: he is at once heroic and tragic; and he is surrounded by characters heroic and tragic. In his mythic person large spiritual questions are suggested; he is the typical saviour as conceived by the Northern race; and this side of the conception is more emphatic and unmistakable in the modern work than in the "Volsunga Saga," which is the basis of this great poem. In structure, in metre, and in the adoption of the Icelandic system of imagery into our tongue,