Rev. of The Defence of Guenevere by William Morris. Saturday Review 6 (20 Nov. 1858), 506-507.

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Did we choose to chronicle them, there would be no lack of materials for illustrating the current poetical literature. The volcano of poetry is not now in a state of eruption as in the good old days of the Pope school, the Lake school, and the Byron school; but there are always little jets and puffs of smoke, if not of flame, that serve to show the existence rather than the activity of the central fire. Annually there are produced, to the great benefit of paper-makers and printers, at least fifty little volumes of English poetry. They are curiously alike. They are all little thin volumes of about 200 pages. Every volume contains from twenty to a hundred little pieces, all about nothing in particular–not remarkably good nor remarkably bad–with just no character at all, like Pope’s women. They give us very fair verse and generally correct imagery, not unpleasing nor yet striking, and yet we do not review them, simply because we cannot. When there is nothing to say, with Scriblerus we say ‘We can no more.’ What is the use either to the poet or to his reader, actual or possible, of saying that Mr. Jones has a correct ear, and has attained to certain smoothnesses in versification, and ripples out in a level current of poetical talk–or that Miss Brown has read Tennyson till she has acquired the same sort of likeness to her original that probably his colour-grinder had to Michael Angelo? If we select Mr. William Morris from the crowd, it is not for his surpassing merits, because we do not think that he has such, but partly because he has some real and substantial poetical merits–much of which, however, may be resolved into conceits and affectation and extravagance–and partly because he represents, we suppose for the first time, in one department of art, what has made a very great substantial revolution in another of its kingdoms–and partly because he writes upon a principle which, true enough in itself, he contrives wilfully and carefully to spoil by overdoing it.

Mr. Morris is the pre-Raffaelite poet. So he is hailed, we believe, by himself and the brotherhood. Now, in point of fact, if we trace the genesis of what is affectedly called pre-Raffaelitism, it is the offspring rather than the progenitor of a certain poetical school and principle. Pre-Raffaelitism is the product of the principle which was first preached by Wordsworth, and has culminated in Tennyson through Keats. The poet, prophet-like, preceded the painter–the plastic, or rather pictorial, development of art followed upon its poetical. Millais and Holman Hunt have but repeated the revolt against false taste which Wordsworth’s Poetical Ballads inaugurated. It is odd enough that Wordsworth’s personal influence with his friend Sir George Beaumont did not lead him to see–or if he saw, to repent of–the falsity of the conventional brown tree, for Wordsworth’s was a life-long protest against the brown tree in poetry. But whether Wordsworth saw or did not see the application of his own principle, it is at the Laker’s urn that pre-Raffaelitism first drank inspiration. If, therefore, Mr. Morris really wished to show us what pre-Raffaelitism in poetry was, he should have gone back to its beginnings, not to its recent developments. He has overlooked or neglected this truth; and because pre-Raffaelitism has degenerated in many quarters into cant and affectation, he represents its absurdities and extravagances rather than its original aim and principle. In criticising Mr. Morris, we cannot but glance at the parallel development of art–in the poet we trace the painter. The later school of pre-Raffaelites and Mr. Morris seem to consider that all art is imitation–which Aristotle knew as well as they do–and further, that this imitation must be truthful and conscientious, which Cowper, without perhaps knowing much about it, and Wordsworth upon principle, set themselves to show.

Now, great and true as this principle is, it is not quite so simple as it looks. An exact transcript of nature is impossible, and were it possible, would be false. Photography has shown us this. The light pictures are not likenesses, and mislead. Nature is made up of evanescent, combined, and shifting elements, and just as a landscape depends upon air, and aerial tint, and local colour, so a portrait depends upon mind, character, distance, and a thousand other nameless things, rather than on a set of features and complexion. The romantic school of poets and painters set themselves to work to get what they thought a general resemblance, with a thorough and insolent contempt for fact and details. But unquestionably they worked upon a knowledge of art and attained their end. No doubt of it, though every mountain of Claude’s may be wrong in its ‘cleavage,’ and not a tree could be identified by Sir William Hooker, he could paint sunlight. So Alexander Pope does not give us Homer; but he has produced, in his Iliad and Odyssey, certain works of art which for general effect are unsurpassed and unsurpassable. Against the hazy and lazy impertinence which asked us to accept a blue blot for a man, and a scraggled scratch for a tree, or Mr. Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling for a sample of human nature, it was a duty to protest: and art has every reason to be grateful to those painters and poets who told us that patient accuracy in details, and a conscientious truthfulness in rendering the facts of the world either of matter or of mind, were the first duties of the artist, whether in letters or on canvas. But when painters think it their duty to work through a microscope, and to try to paint every stain on every leaf, as well as every leaf on every tree, they not only forget what art is, but are ignorant of what artistic imitation is. This extravagance is, we think, what Mr. Morris delights in. He works in the patient spirit of the illuminators, but then he is grotesque as well as minute and patient. All his thoughts and figures are represented on a solid plane; he has no notion of distance, or aerial perspective, or gradation of tints; or rather, of malice prepense, he neglects these things. He has abundance of vivid, positive colour, sharp outline, and great richness of word diaper, with a certain stiff, antique, cumbrous embroidery of diction; but it is all cold, artificial, and angular. It is, in words, just what Sir Isambras [sic] on the plum-coloured horse was two years ago.

Mr. Morris has taken as his general groundwork the Morte d’Arthur, the British subject which Milton resigned in despair to the feebleness of Bulwer, or–may it be hoped?–to the fulness of Tennyson’s powers. Of course he goes back to the Morte d’Arthur, for has not pre-Raffaelitism taken it under its special protection? His chief poem is the ‘Defence of Guenevere’–a very tedious affair, as, in truth, the whole story of the Knights of the Round Table is; and, as far as we can understand what is hardly worth the understanding, it is a defence of the virtue of King Arthur’s queen, a lady whose fair fame, like Helen’s, it was reserved for our politeness to vindicate. The subjoined lines are in an ugly, disjointed series of unrhymed triplets, and present a very unfavourable specimen of Mr. Morris’s powers, which are, in our judgment, considerable, though altogether spoiled and wasted by his devotion to a false principle of art. False principle, we say, because a poet’s work is with the living world of men. Mr. Morris never thinks of depicting man or life later than the Crusades. With him, the function of art was at an end when people began, in decent life, to read and write. So all that he produces are pictures–pictures of queer, quaint knights, very stiff and cumbrous, apparently living all day in chain armour, and crackling about in cloth of gold–women always in miniver, and never in flesh and blood. The trees and flowers are very pronounced in colour, and exceedingly angular and sharp in outline; every building is a prickly castle, and every castle has its moat. Here it is, and the folks about it:–

[quotes seven stanzas from "Golden Wings"]

All this and the verses that follow are pretty in their way, though labouring under the slight disadvantage of having no story to tell, and of telling the no-story by broken hints and jerks of allusion, and what is meant to be suggestive. The title is ‘Golden Wings,’ though what the wings are, and why golden, passes our wit to conjecture. And so throughout. Each poem is as hard to decipher as though it were written in black letter. It is crabbed, and involved, and stiff, and broken-backed in metre, but bright, sparkling, distinct, and pictorial in effect. You cannot quite make out what it means, or whether it means anything taken altogether; but each touch is sharp, the colour is brilliant, the costume picturesque. Still, the general effect is decidedly unpleasant. If the ages of faith and chivalry were this sort of thing, it must have been a queer world to live in. We never knew any knights or ladies of this class, but there must have been a great deal of blood as well as lances and shields in these days; and though there was a great amount of kissing, both according to the chronicles and Mr. Morris, it appears that the kissers and kissed had but little respect for the marriage service. This, we are bound to say, is the general moral impression conveyed by Mr. Morris’s very chivalrous little pictures. His men and women, and trees and flowers, and castles and houses, are not like anything we ever saw, except in illuminations; but they might, when they did exist, be like Mr. Morris’s delineations. Only it is a mercy to have got rid of them. If this thing is to be reproduced, perhaps this is the only way to do what is not worth doing. Mr. Morris could employ himself better; and we regret that, with his gifts of colouring and sense of force and beauty, he does not give us people and passions with which we could sympathize. We have not the patience to go through his anatomy–often a morbid study, of all the component parts of forests or castles, or even of ladies’ dresses or ladies’ morals; but he depicts these things by so many and so true touches, often with such vivid realism, that if he would but consider that poetry is concerned about human passions and duties–with men of like moral nature with ourselves, and with material nature where green and white is not got up on the art principles of the mediæval miniaturists–he might win a great place (which is not saying much) among his contemporaries. But although aware that specimens will present neither Mr. Morris’s best nor worst points–neither his insufferable affectation nor his command of language–we must let the poet of pre-Raffaelitism exhibit himself. The picture is a besieged knight waiting for succour:-

I cannot bear the noise

And light out there, with this thought alive,

Like any curling snake within my brain;

Let me just hide my head within these soft

Deep cushions, there to try and think it out.

I cannot bear much noise now, and I think

That I shall go to sleep: it all sounds dim

And faint, and I shall soon forget most things;

Yea, almost that I am alive and here;

It goes slow, comes slow, like a big mill-wheel

On some broad stream, with long green weeds a-sway,

And soft and slow it rises and it falls,

Still going onward.

Lying so, one kiss,

And I should be in Avalon asleep,

Among the poppies and the yellow flowers;

And they should brush my cheek, my hair being spread

Far out among the stems; soft mice and small

Eating and creeping all about my feet,

Red-shod and tired; and the flies should come

Creeping on my broad eyelids unafraid;

And there should be a noise of water going,

Clear blue, fresh water breaking on the slates,

Likewise the flies should creep, &c.

And so long as they do not creep on canvas, and are not done in the brightest of verditer and ultramarine next year in Trafalgar-square, we may leave them creeping, creeping in Mr. Morris’s poem.

This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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