William Morris's New Work

MR. MORRIS is a long-practiced storyteller, and in the present tale he employs a very perfect art. It is a narrative of the summer campaign between a gathering of Gothic Marksmen and some Roman legionaries who were making a foray into their country. It begins with a pastoral scene, disclosing the clearing along the river, in which the House of the Wolfings stood, above the meadows and pasture, and hemmed upon the other side by the Wild Wood. Thither comes the tidings of the threatened invasion, borne by the runner with the war-arrow; and immediately the action of the piece commences with the arming of the people, the setting forth of the host, joined by the contingents from other villages, each under its own banner, and the grand folkmote of all the kindreds at the chief meeting-place of the entire clan. There leaders are chosen, and, the reports of scouts and stragglers having given warning that this new enemy, the Romans, is near at hand, part of the host goes out to meet them. The first ambuscade and the first battle are won by the Goths; but the main body of the Romans has meanwhile taken the country on the flank, and, passing the open ways by guides, has fallen on the House of the Wolfings itself. The Goths follow, upon these tidings, and by two lines of march come up with the Romans, after which there is much various fighting, ending in the overthrow and destruction of the entire Roman force in the Wolfing stronghold. This is the material part of the narrative, and the opportunities it affords for scene-painting, landscape, and battle, under conditions strange to us, are fully availed of.

With all this, however, mingles another poetical element. Thiodulf, the war-duke of the host, is loved by a goddess, the Wood-Sun, and by her has had a child, now grown to womanhood, who is the priestess of the people, and called the Hall-Sun, because she cares for the lamp that is kept burning continually under the roof of the House of the Wolfings. The Wood-Sun knows that her lover, Thiodulf, will be slain in these wars, and she has gained by stratagem a hauberk which, wrought by the Dwarfs, will preserve his life if he will wear it; but a curse goes with it, and the warrior will be saved only by the loss of his cause and people. The WoodSun does not tell of this, but Thiodulf is fearful of some such charm, and leaves the hauberk with the Daylings, and succeeds against the Romans, until the Wood-Sun again intervenes, and, obtaining the hauberk by disguise, tells Thiodulf there is no harm in it, and persuades him to wear it. The consequence is that in the thick of the battle and at its crisis the chief is overcome with faintness, and loses his opportunity and the day. The Goths, defeated, retire into the Wild Wood. Thiodulf’s daughter, the Hall-Sun, who has the second-sight, has now discovered the cause of the trouble, and by her intervention the WoodSun confesses to Thiodulf her lie, bids him take off the magic armor, and though seeing the end of their love in his approaching death, yet consents to it. Next morning the storm of attack begins under Thiodulf, now restored to his full faculties, and in the moment of victory he dies. In this portion of the plot lies the ethical element of the narrative, and out of it grows the supernatural element, of which much is made in the characters of the Wood-Sun and the Hall-Sun, through whom the life of the people is brought into relation with destiny and the gods.

We have chosen to give the outlines of the story as the best way of exhibiting to the reader the varied character of the saga; and if he is familiar with Mr. Morris’s handling, he will perceive at once that this is a story after the poet’s own heart, and that in it wide scope is given for the special traits of his genius. Something must be added, to make the matter clear, concerning the literary style and mould into which the poetry is run. The larger portion is prose, but the speeches are usually given in verse. The prose itself, however, is not ordinary prose, but is written in a peculiar and artificial style, well sustained, but having the effect to remove the work out of the domain of prose. Though measured, it is not rhythmical to any such degree as to arouse a particular metrical expectation in the reader, and it thus escapes the principal defect of so-called poetical prose. On the other hand, it brings about an illusion akin to that worked by ordinary verse form. It is very beautiful in its general movement and color, and very noble in phrase; its affectation, even, sympathizes with the Gothic element in the work itself. It is such prose as only a poet could write, and it does effect what the poet intended. Those who hold that prose is not the best medium for poetical thought will easily find objections to the poet’s method ; independently of all that, he succeeds in his aim. The test of his experiment lies rather in the question whether, having chosen this form, he should not have kept to it, whereas, as has been said, he has put the speeches, as a rule, into rhymed verse. The answer seems to us to depend on whether or not the change is natural in its place, and maintains the illusion already obtained by the prose. For ourselves, we must acknowledge that this change appears in each instance arbitrary, and also that at the moment of the transition the illusion is destroyed, and recurs only after an interval, and then in the different form of poetical expression. The poems, so to speak, are as much a change as it would be in an English book to find extracts in French. Not only is continuity broken, but consistency is lost. This, however, is an individual impression, and is apposite rather to the question, which has been raised, whether Mr. Morris may not have illustrated in this work a new literary form of mingled prose and verse, with a future development before it, analogous to the old and now well-worn forms of the epic and the drama. It does not appear to us that this is any other than a hybrid product of art, or that it contains in itself any principle by which the repugnance and incongruity of prose and poetry as modes of expression can be harmonized. Prose has been written in a poetical spirit before now, and has produced the illusion here sought for. This is of a lower intensity and less reality than the illusion of the epic or the drama; and in this work it does not show more power.

Within the limits which Mr. Morris has set for himself by his choice, the work itself is one of extraordinary beauty in detail, and rich both in minute and broad effects. The author’s characteristics shine through his words, as must be the case in creative literature; and, most prominent of all, the artistic nature is clear. Each of his chapters becomes, sooner or later, a picture, admirably grouped, lovely or grand in its unity, but with that care for light and shade and posture, even for costume and framework, which discloses the artist: sometimes there is but one figure, sometimes there is a throng; now the scene is under the sunshine of the clearings, often in the shadow of moonlight or the thicket; here a stormy dawn, there a midsummer afternoon ; but throughout there is the pencil of the artist. This quality in his work is especially felt in the heightening of the external beauty of the home surroundings of the Goths, in the carving of the woodwork of the House of the Wolfings, in the contents of their chests of precious stuffs and jewels, and generally in the manual decoration of the properties which he has chosen to use. Out of all this come, in part, the singleness of impression and the poetical illusion which are implicit in the narrative, and in part, also, the sense of artificiality and tenuousness of fact, which will be felt even by those who lend themselves most willingly to the poet’s magic. A second trait is the strong expression of the social union of the Marksmen as one people, generally most powerfully brought out in the speeches of Thiodulf as their leader, and of the Hall-Sun as their “soul” (so she calls herself) ; their tribal self-consciousness, as an evolutionist would say. The delight of Thiodulf in the thought that his life, through his deeds, will live on and become immortal in their destiny as a folk among men springs certainly from a modern feeling, or gains by it; so that the doctrine of the brotherhood of men in races and kindred, and their duty to society as a part of a larger life, has seldom been so nobly and almost triumphantly expressed. The source of this in Mr. Morris is not far to seek. The great shadow of the English race is also cast backward to make this little body of a few thousand warriors loom larger on the confines of our history. So one may detect separately many of the strains that the poet has woven into a tale which is an expression of emotions and beliefs and tastes that are more vital now than they were in the days of the Roman border wars. In one point Mr. Morris has been extraordinarily successful. We have been told in books of the position and character of the women of the Goths, and from these hints he has worked. The Hall-Sun is the idealized type of this womanhood; in the story she does not stand alone, but is surrounded by a throng of companions, unlike other women in poetry, with a kind of heroism, dignity, and serviceableness, which lends a main element of attraction to the narrative.

Criticism, however, does but half its work in making such a volume known, and discriminating between the several elements of which it is compounded. It is a harder task to give any appreciative account of the charm of the story; of its inventive power; its northern sense of life and strength and the delight of action ; its simple handling of many adventures ; its broad, clear sketches of the borderland of the forest, and of existence in its quiet glades and by the river ; the picturesqueness of its trophies and emblems ; the aloofness of its gods ; the naturalness of its superstitions, and, more particularly, of the phrase and measure in which all this is set forth in color and landscape and the murmur of a people’s life. For these we refer the reader at once to the volume, in which he will find, after all criticism, one of the few contributions of our present time to imaginative literature.

  1. A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and all the Kindred of the Mark. Written in Prose and Verse. By WILLIAM MORRIS. Boston: Roberts Brothers. 1890.