The Earthly Paradise: A Poem
By ”Roberts Brothers. 1868., Author of “The Life and Death of Jason.” Boston:
THE trouvèrc, as distinct from the troubadour, seemed almost disappearing from literature, when Mr. Morris revived the ancient line, or, to speak more exactly, the ancient thousand lines. He brings back to us the almost forgotten charm of mere narrative. We have lyric poets, and, while Browning lives, a dramatic poet; it is a comfort if we can have also a minstrel who can tell a story.
It is true, as Keats said, that there is a peculiar pleasure in a long poem, as in a meadow where one can wander about and pick flowers. One should cultivate a hopeful faith, like that of George Dyer, who bought a bulky volume of verse by an unknown writer, in the belief (so records Charles Lamb) that “there must be some good things in a poem of three thousand lines.” That kindly critic would have found a true Elysium in the “ Earthly Paradise.”
If not so crowded as “Jason ” with sweet, fresh, Chaucerian passages, it has more breadth and more maturity, and briefer intervals of dulness. Yet the word “Chaucerian ” must be used with reluctance, and only to express a certain freshness of quality that no other phrase can indicate. Imitative these poems certainly are not; their simplicity is simple, whereas the simplicity of some poets is the last climax of their affectation. The atmosphere of Morris’s poems is really healthy, though limited ; and their mental action is direct and placid, not constrained.
The old legends of Cupid and Psyche, Atalanta, Alcestis and Pygmalion, are here rendered with new sweetness, interspersed with tales more modern. It is pleasant to see these immortal Greek stories reproduced in English verse ; for, at the present rate of disappearance, who knows that there will be an American a hundred years hence who can read a sentence of that beautiful old language, or to whom the names of “ the Greeks and of Troy town ” will be anything but an abomination ? It is a comfort to think that the tales of the world’s youth may take a new lease of life in these and other English rhymes, and so something of the ideal world be preserved for our grandchildren, as well as Herbert Spencer, and Greeley’s “ American Conflict.”
Such themes are far more congenial to Morris than, to Swinburne ; for Greek poetry is at once simple and sensuous, and we come nearer to it when put on short allowance of the sensuous than when it runs riot and becomes unpleasantly conscious of its own nudity. Morris is also wiser in not attempting any imitation of the antique forms. Indeed, his poems belong in a world of their own, neither ancient nor modern, and touching remotely on all human interests. The lyrical poems interspersed between the legends are the only modern things, and even those are tender little bits of English landscape-painting that might have been executed centuries ago. His story-tellers and his listeners dwell forever in a summer land, where youths and maidens may sit beneath their own vines and fig-trees, and even a poem of seven hundred pages cannot molest them nor make them afraid