Review of William Morris’s Love Is Enough

[Unsigned] Review of Love Is Enough; or, the Freeing of Pharamond: A Morality. By William Morris. The Athenaeum, 23 November 1872, 657-58.

[NOTE: When Mathilde Blind first met William Morris in the late 1860s, he was immersed in his study of Icelandic language and myth, aided by the Icelandic expatriate Eiríkr Magnússon. The collaboration between the two men resulted in a series of translations that began in 1869 and continued for another twenty years. In 1870 Morris published a prose translation of the Scandinavian epic The Volsunga Saga, based on a poetic translation Magnússon had sent him in the summer of 1869, and on 25 May 1870 Blind delivered a lecture on the saga that singled out Morris’s version for special praise. Blind’s first publication in the Dark Blue was her June 1871 review of Magnússon’s translation of Eystein Ásgrímsson’s fourteenth-century Icelandic poem Lilja (The Lily), which she had likely read while writing her Morris lecture. Her review of Morris’s Love Is Enough thus grew out of the reading and research she did for her lecture and from her Dark Blue review. Blind’s analysis of Morris’s prosody, technical yet lucid, reveals how much she gained from Magnússon’s discussion of alliteration and assonance in Icelandic poetry. It also demonstrates that she associated the aesthetes’ revival and adaptation of earlier poetic modes (including Swinburne’s embrace of Greek forms) not with escapism or mere stylistic virtuosity, but with the search for new forms of poetic truth.]

* * * * *

MR. MORRIS may be said to have, in point of form, enlarged the limits of English verse in his new poem. Its metrical construction, although fundamentally, perhaps, the only purely national one, had fallen into such total disuse, that its reviver might be fairly entitled to the claim of invention. It is the more singular that this species of rhythmical expression should have been ignored, as it clearly adapts itself with admirable pliability to the peculiar genius of our language. No stronger proof of this could be adduced than the latest production of the poet.

‘Love is Enough’ is, for the greater part, written in alliterative measure. This style of versification was habitual with Northern nations. It was rhymeless, like the poetry of the Greeks; but possessed no system of foot measure, depending on accent instead. The finest examples of this kind of verse are to be met with in the Icelandic songs of the Elder Edda, and in the Middle English poem of the fourteenth century, ‘Pier Ploughman.’ Some of the choicest of Eddaic pieces were translated with remarkable felicity in Mr. Morris’s version of the Volsunga Saga; but the structure of his verse in the present work has a greater affinity with English than Norse models.

Let us briefly examine what was the general law which regulated all alliterative metres. Syllables of identical sound and following each other at regular intervals invariably bring about the harmonious unison of a couplet. The Icelandic language possessed a much stricter rule of alliteration than the Anglo-Saxon. In the former it was absolutely requisite that the first line of a couplet should possess two alliterative syllables; the second line being rigorously enchained to it from the necessity that its initial letter should reiterate the preceding alliteration. The only modification of this latter rule was, that occasionally a short syllable was allowed to precede it. To make this sort of structure clear, we will quote two lines from a fourteenth-century Icelandic poem:

Skapan ok fœðing, skírn ok pryði
Skysend full, at betre er gulli.

The chief distinction between this metre and that is use amongst the Anglo-Saxons was that here we find a strict regulation as to the number of times the alliteration may be employed. Not only was it forbidden to exceed or fall short of the three alliterative accents, but these must also succeed each other at stated periods.

The Anglo-Saxons allowed themselves more latitude. They sometimes only employed two alliterative syllables in couplets of four, five, and even six accents, while, on the other hand, they would not scruple to exceed the number of three. The opening lines of ‘Piers Ploughman’ may, however, be cited as the more regular specimen of alliteration:—

In a somer seson
When softe was the sonne,
I shoop me into shroudes
As I a sheep weere,
In habit as a heremite,
Unholy of werkes,
Wente wide in this world
Wondres to here.

It is manifest that Mr Morris has greatly improved on this measure. Under his hands it has assumed statelier proportions. The rise and fall of its sound-waves have acquired a more majestic sweep. The fusion of the two short lines of a couplet, as formerly used, into one, thus obtaining four accents in a single line, at once gives more scope to narrative, and allows of more freedom in the employment of the alliteration.

It would be impossible here to enter into the minutiæ of Mr. Morris’s treatment of alliteration, and of his deviation from the old writers in the respect. A few points that have struck us most may, however, be briefly enumerated here. Mr. Morris does not confine himself to the three customary alliterative syllables in a couplet. An exquisite specimen of this kind may, however, stand here :—

It shall change, we shall change, as thorough rain and through sunshine
The green rod of the rose-bough to blossoming changeth.

A slighter alliteration, as here in “bough” and “blossoming,”  is so repeatedly to be met with in the track of the principal one, that it cannot be imputed to accident, and often enhances the melodious beauty of the verse. The alliteration is not always confined to a couplet, but is sometimes arranged in metrical clauses, from one and a half to two or three lines, apparently in harmony with the spirit of the narrative. For example :—

Thou hast followed my banner amidst of the battle,
And seen my face change to the man that they fear,
Yet found me not fearful nor turned from beholding.

Occasionally, we find a double alliteration of double consonants, which has a very fine effect, as thus:—

There is a place in the world, a great valley,
That seems a green plain from the brow of the mountains.

And again:—

By the fair wife, long dead, and thy sword-smitten children,
By thy life without blame, and thy love without blemish.

Sometimes a single line will contain a complete alliterative verse, as thus :—

O woe, woe is me that I may not awaken!

As a splendid example of the general character of the metre, we will quote the following lines :—

Who shall ever forget it? the dead face of thy father,
And thou is thy fight-battered armour above it,
Mid the passion of tears long held back by the battle;
And thy rent banner o’er thee, and the ring of men mail clad,
Victorious to-day, since their ruin not a spear-length
Was thrust away from them.–Son, think of thy glory,
And e’en in such wise break the throng of these devils!

By such means the sense is thrown into vivid relief. We not merely realize a scene, or an image, by means of a mental effort, but are brought into an immediate sensuous contact with it. Triumphs of this kind are of the essence of poetry.

Here, it appears to us, we detect an admirable innovation on the old system. This consists in the rise of a new alliterative wave before the preceding one has completely subsided, and produces an inexpressibly rich and far-reaching echo of sounds. By such means the sense is thrown into vivid relief. We not merely realize a scene, or an image, by means of a mental effort, but are brought into an immediate sensuous contact with it. Triumphs of this kind are of the essence of poetry. The least sensitive ear must, in the verses above cited, become conscious of the strong forcible colouring which the use of alliteration imparts to the description.

A metre which possesses such remarkable rhythmical capacities, while at the same time it allows the poet almost the latitude of prose, might have been chosen as the appropriate form for an English Iliad, had we any such. It certainly seems to possess, to a greater extent than blank verse, the quality of minutely assimilating its modulating to every graduation of the thought which it clothes.

We must not forget here to point out the crowning beauty of this poem—its songs. They are based on the same metrical arrangement as the other portions, excepting that rhyme is superadded. This at once transforms narrative into lyrical poetry. The melodiousness of their liquid numbers make them unique of their kind. We select the shortest, that is may answer for the rest :—

Love is Enough: though the World be a-waning,
And the woods have no voice but the voice of complaining,
Though the sky be too dark for dim eyes to discover
The gold-cups and daisies fair blooming thereunder,
Though the hills be held shadows, and the sea a dark wonder,
And this day draw a veil over all deeds passed over,
Yet their hands shall not tremble, their feet shall not falter;
The void shall not weary, the fear shall not alter
These lips and these eyes of the loved and the lover.

Turn we now to the story. In celebration of the marriage of an emperor and empress a Morality is performed. A pair equally happy, although they be but humble peasant-folk, Giles and Joan, look on wonder-eyed from amidst the throng of people. The bride is held up in the crowd by the goodman, and their naïve remarks form a charming introduction, as likewise the couple charmingly conclude the poem, by settling that they will invite the player-king and player-maiden, who are also a newly-wedded pair, to their homestead, and treat them there to the best cheer.

In the Morality itself, in harmony with the character of that species of mediæval play, we find one allegorical personage introduced. It is Love, who appears under various disguises, –as a king, as a pilgrim, as a maker of pictured cloths,–and who might be regarded as the real hero of the play, considering how completely he triumphs over its ostensible one, King Pharamond. This king, the liberator of his country, whose five years’ reign has been distinguished by the most glorious achievements, falls unaccountably into a strange deathlike lethargy. It avails not that by order of the physicians he is taken on board ship, or induced to assist at the tournament or the hunt; for even should a momentary gleam of animation sparkle up, it straightway is quenched again, and leaves him “with no life in his lips,” says the deeply-concerned Oliver, his foster-father, who likened him rather

To King Nimrod carved fair on the back of the high-seat
When the candles are dying, and the high moon is streaming
Through window and luffer white of the lone pavement,
Whence the guests are departed in the hall of the palace.

At last, in his garden, with none but the lilies for listeners, the King, partly roused from his trance, reveals to Master Oliver the secret of his malady. He loves, but the loved one has appeared to him in dreams only. He proceeds to describe how

Five years are passed over since in the fresh dawning
On the field of that fight I lay wearied and sleepless,
‘Till slumber came o’er me in the first of the sunrise;
Then as there lay my body rapt away was my spirit,
And a cold and thick mist for awhile was about me,
And when that cleared away, lo, the mountain walled country
‘Neath the first of the sunrise in e’en much a spring-tide
As the spring-tide our horse hoofs that yestereve trampled;
By the withy-wrought gate of a garden I found me,
‘Neath the goodly green boughs of the apple full-blossomed;
and fulfilled of great pleasure I was as  I entered
The fair place of flowers, and wherefore I knew not,
Then lo, mid the birds’ song a woman’s voice singing.
Five years passed away, in the first of the sunrise.

Since then through all the turmoil and strife of his stormy glorious career, the vision of her remains in his heart. As great armies fell back before the rumour of his coming, and freed cities welcomed his entrance, it ever seemed to him that she beckoned him onward, and over and over again his spirit met her in that same “mountain-walled country,” with its green plain and narrow gorge, “fulfilled by a black wood of yew-trees.” But when his empire was well established, every invader conquered, the vision seemed to fade, while his longing grew but the more eager and fierce. At last, but a month from the time he speaking, he found himself once again

Fulfilled of all joy at the edge of the yew-wood;
Then lo, her gown’s flutter in the fresh breeze of morning.
And slower and statelier than her wont was aforetime,
And fairer of form, toward the yew-wood she wended.
But woe’s me! as she came and at last was beside me,
With sobbing scarce ended her bosom was heaving,
Stained with tears was her face, and her mouth was yet quivering
With torment of weeping held back for a season.
Then swiftly my spirit to the King’s bed was wafted,
While still toward the sea were her weary feet wending.
–Ah, surely that day of all wrongs that I hearkened,
Mine own wrongs seemed heaviest and hardest to bear–
Mine own wrongs and hers–till that past year of ruling
Seemed a crime and a fully.   Night came, and I saw her
Stealing barefoot, bareheaded, amidst of the tulips
Made grey by the moonlight; and a long time Love gave me
To gaze on her weeping. Morn came, and I wakened–
I wakened and said;–Through the World will I wander,
Till either I find her, or find the World empty.

The upshot of this is, that he and his foster-father start in quest of the dream-land and dream-maiden. And three weary years of seeking have elapsed before meet them again in a forest among the hills of a foreign land. The King has fallen sick, and well-nigh despairs of success. Nevertheless, they journey on once again, till Pharamond, quite exhausted, feels his limbs fail under him, and sinks down on the highway, which is covered by a thick mist. Oliver, sorely troubled, departs in search for help; for, the mist growing lighter,

                    There come sounds through its dullness,
The lowing of kine, or the whoop of a shepherd,
The bell-wether’s tinkle, or clatter of horse-hoofs,
A homestead is nigh.

While he is gone, Love himself approaches the King; they hold converse together, interrupted by delicious snatches of song, during which the latter again falls asleep. Then at last Azalais, the dream-girl, draws near. Love departs joyful, and she, seeing him lying there by the wayside, with

                             —beauty sore blemished
By sorrow and sickness, and for all that the sweeter,
stoops down and kisses him.

Thus the long quest is ended. The seeker has found the sought, the lover his loved one. But still there is no peace for him. The memory of the kingdom he has left, of the vacant throne, of his people yearning to see his face again, now that his desire attained, comes back to him once more, drawing him thither. He therefore returns across the sea with his faithful Oliver. But his city knows him no more, and he discovers “that much may be forgot in three years’ space.”

A new king sits on his throne, and he passes unrecognized through the throng of many well-known faces. Oliver would have him once again draw his sword and conquer his empire afresh. But Pharamond is not minded thus. Having left all for Love, he likewise finds that “Love is Enough” for him, and to Oliver’s question,—

In what land of the world shall we dwell now hence-forward!

he makes answer,–

In the land where my love our returning abideth,
The poor land and kingdom of the shepherding people,
There is peace there, and all things this land are unlike to.

On considering this story, this dream within a dream rather, we conscious of a strangely-mingled sensation, in which exquisite enjoyment is yet tinged by a shade of regret. The rare mastery with which Mr. Morris handles an unusual and truly magnificent form of versification,–a form the full scope of which reveals itself in passages where the grandeur of conception requires to be vigorously embodied,–is father to the wish that the subject thus presented had been possessed of the loftier proportions.

In this metre we may repeat Homer would, for the first time, become truly naturalized on English soil. In this metre some of the grand but fragmentary Norse tales might, for the first time, unfold their eagle plumage to the full, or the Arthurian legends at last attain to complete development. Mr. Morris has already, in his earliest work, selected some incidents from the latter for poetical presentation, and he was singularly successful. Why should he not once again select this subject for more exhaustive treatment?–for it seems to be the only really national tradition which contains inherent epic and narrative capacities. And the mysticism, the weird sweetness, of these Celtic legends, their strange, dreamy fascination, would marvellously harmonize with some of the most distinctive characteristics of Mr. Morris’s genius.

. . . this kind of poetry always produces on our imagination an effect somewhat resembling the impression received on looking at a familiar landscape through the mellow emblazonry of a painted casement. We cannot say that objects we see thus are idealized; for to idealize is not to lose sight of reality, but to sever what is impure and transient from the lofty and imperishable.

Surely the fact of Mr. Tennyson having, in a manner, for the first time selected this theme, could not and ought not to act as a deterrent motive. As it is, his Idyls, beautiful as they are for the greater part, do not pretend to any faithful rendering of the spirit of the old tale, but aim at a perfectly modern and individual treatment. So far from precluding, this method of dealing with the subject would rather seem to challenge a fresh attempt, starting from an entirely different conception. There would be a double charm in this: that of the work itself in the first instance; in the second, the pleasure which is always experienced in instituting a comparison of the dissimilarity of treatment between similar subjects. For in this treatment, of course, reside the Alpha and the Omega of the poet’s power; and we are inclined to think that, on the whole, it is rather a gain than a loss to Art that the same theme should be handled over and over again. If we had as many ‘King Arthurs’ as the Greeks possessed tragedies concerning the woes of the house of Agamemnon, or the Italians representations of the Madonna, we should probably find that in this way we could not fail to attain some culminating achievement. And one inestimable result would certainly be arrived at, the poet would at once have a type, a firm substratum, which, like the block of marble under the sculptor’s hands, he could mould, elaborate, and fashion forth into perfect loveliness, while, nevertheless, he in some senses would be bound down by the necessary conditions of his material. This, it appears to us, is an immense advantage to the poet, and it will be a subject of regret if he does not avail himself of it. That King Pharamond is no such type, it is unnecessary to add. He is, in fact, but a vague shadowy king, whose deeds impress us with a sense of unreality akin to his dreams. Who can deny, however, that those possess an exquisite enchantment, which transports us for the time into a land of mingled romance and færie, or resist the undefinable sweet glamour they cast over him? In fact, this kind of poetry always produces on our imagination an effect somewhat resembling the impression received on looking at a familiar landscape through the mellow emblazonry of a painted casement. We cannot say that objects we see thus are idealized; for to idealize is not to lose sight of reality, but to sever what is impure and transient from the lofty and imperishable. Here, however, if the comparison be permissible, we see reality, not enhanced, but transformed. We behold her through an unfamiliar medium of strange and deceptive splendour; and it is in this splendour, glowing as well as soft, that the present poem is steeped.