than a quarter of a century ago a few young men gave
impulse to a movement in English art which was destined
to be widespreading in its effect. They believed in
"art for art's sake," in beauty for beauty's
sake alone; and they called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite
Brotherhood. The best-known of these early enthusiasts
were Mr. Burne-Jones, Mr. Swinburne, and Mr. William
Morris, but the most powerful force among them at the
beginning was a strange, moody, silent man, who lent
inspiration to these friends of his, yet himself remained
content with a part in the new enterprise quite unknown
to fame. He wrote his poems and painted his pictures
and persistently refused to have them made public.
he was not sure of himself. Finally grief came upon
him, and in his young wife's coffin he buried his manuscript
volume of poems. Not until many years later, when his
friends were achieving distinction and honor all about
him, did Dante Gabriel Rossetti permit the disinterment
of that volume and its publication.
Rossetti's poetry is all of a piece. It cares nothing
at all for the thought of to-day; it knows very little
of nature, yet it is good and beautiful art. Much of
Mr. Swinburne's earlier work is of the same kind. And
Mr. William Morris's first volume, published in 1858,
"The Defence of Guinevere and Other Poems,"
must always stand as the one most typical and most perfect
product of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood.
were these men trying to do? They saw that the life
of their time was vulgar and unlovely; they wished to
lead it back to the common aristocracy of simple beauty.
And to do this they would give it art and standards
of art wholly freed from the tainting ugliness that
was daily before their eyes. If there was anything beautiful
in their daily life they did not see it.
lived in an alien clime of their own fabrication. Their
houses were of stained glass, their women were wan and
languid and on their trees hung golden apples. There
was not a breath of sea-wind to be heard, not a glimpse
of deep rich English pasture-land anywhere to be seen.
the mistake in all this was that their fellows could
not appreciate it, could not take it all home to themselves.
These poets lived in a foreign land of delight, and
to be pleased with what they had to tell it was necessary
to journey after them.
work was not the flower of contemporary life; it was
exotic; it is beautiful; much of it is lasting; but
it remains at last only a glorious freak. Such was that
attempt to give new standards to English poetry, new
ideals to English life, and to create new shapes of
imperishable beauty. It was making bricks without straw.
Wordsworth had a different plan. The Wordsworthian scheme
proposed to make bricks out of straw alone. The immortal
old scuff-heels of Cumberland also wished to lend beauty,
romance, and dignity to the life of his time; but he
made the mistake of thinking that the romance and the
dignity were so evidently inherent in that life that
they needed no emphasis in art. This fallacy, which
he followed to the bitter end with so unflagging and
persistent zeal, is not dead yet by any means. Indeed
its voice is loud in many a marketplace today: it is
the fallacy of realism. Wordsworth was a great poet
only in spite of himself. Where he followed his pitiful
little theory he was nothing but a dull and tedious
rhymster, prosy beyond endurance, prolix beyond relief.
But when the Great Spirit took him, rapt away from his
own control, and set between his lips such deathless
lines as "The Daffodils," he was indeed one
of England's greatest, one of earth's most immortal.
material, too, in technic both Wordsworth and the Pre-Raphaelites
erred; Wordsworth in using the common speech of his
country side without giving it any distinction, any
grace, any subtle quality of the inevitable; the Pre-Raphaelites
in using a quaint and antique tongue, wholly foreign
to their birth, without enriching it with the thousands
of useful, striking, and mellifluous words imported
into it through many centuries and common to their own
firesides. Both errors were grave; both must prove fatal
in the end.
have other poets done? Browning, Arnold, Tennyson-these
men have eagerly absorbed all the life about them, and
in portraying their thoughts and ideals have used the
speech of their own time and place, pressing every means
of vestal communication into the service. Of Tennyson
is this particularly true as to the substance of his
work; and of Browning it is particularly true as to
is only just to remember that Mr. Swinburne has long
since broken away from the traditions of his earlier
years; although in this country we have hardly yet ceased
to judge him by the "Poems and Ballads."
William Morris, however, has remained devoted to the
dreams of his feather-head youth. We are indebted to
him for much; for our Morris furniture, our Morris wallpaper,
our "Earthly Paradise," and thousands of lines
of epic poems which will be a perpetual delight to our
children and their children after them. The man who
has given to the world "The Life and Death of Jason,"
"The Earthly Paradise," and "The Story
of Sigurd" can never be classed among "minor
poets," yet these late volumes "The House
of the Wolfings," "The Story of the Guttering
Plain," and "Poems by the Way" impart
bulk rather than incisiveness to the impression he is
making on the tough hide of our Philistinism.
the present volume at page 94 and begin to read "The
Folk-Mote by the River:"
was up in the morn we rose betimes
From the hall floor hard by the row of times.
was but John the Red and I,
And we were the brethren of Gregory;
Gregory the Wright was one
Of the valiant men beneath the sun;
what he bade us that we did,
For ne'er he kept his counsel hid.
this is a ballad of the olden time. Mr.Morris likes
to go back to the days when men thought the earth was
flat and the sun a huge red cartwheel rolling across
the hills. Chaucer is modern compared with Mr. Morris;
and his language is packed full of recent imported Gallicisms
that must never be breathed on Wardour street. Now all
this is very artificial, very fatuous, and a pitiful
waste of good, wholesome energy. It is a part of that
same generous, flaming, feather-head enthusiasm that
led out the crusade of the Pre-Raphaelite Brothers,
and now leads Mr. Morris through all the cruelly foolish
exaggerations of his Socialistic, collarless gang. He
might as well go chase the marsh fires in the night.
is another sad proof of the difficulty of the world-old
problem, now so long unsolved, "What is the noblest
activity to which man can devote his best energy?"
Ah, no! Mr. Morris, your poetry does not help us to
solve it; your Socialism does not help us, though the
product of your art stores helps us a little.
Socialism does not help us, because the trend of science
is against you; your poetry does not help us, because
it has naught of heroism in it, and because from out
of our modern life you have carried back to the earliest
years of which you sing the modern despair and lassitude
much better if you could only have brought some of the
earlier freshness and vigor to these times. Yet this
is largely idle criticism.
point, however, is to be noted; it is the vivid power
of natural description which Mr. Morris has at his command.
In this he is eminently modern. In the poem quoted from
above, we may read on:
out we went, and the clattering latch
Woke up the swallows under the thatch.
. . .
was dark in the porch, but our scythes we felt,
And thrust the whetstone under the belt.
. . .
the cold garden boughs we went
Where the tumbling roses shed their scent.
. . .
cut a-gates and away we strode
O'er the dewy straws on the dusty road.
last line is so fragrant and altogether lovely that
one is almost tempted to revoke all unfavorable criticism
of this winning master of Saxon. "Poems By the
Way," though they may not greatly help our failing
heart, will pass an hour pleasantly away, while one
or two of the poems, such as "Earth the Healer,
Earth the Keeper," are surely applicable to us
now the pain is ended
And the glad hand grips the
Look on they life amended
And deal out due award.
of the thankless morning,
The gifts of noon unused;
Think of the eve of scorning,
The night of prayer refused.
. . .
lo! the dawn-blink yonder,
The sunrise draweth nigh,
And men forget to wonder
That they were born to die.
work is peculiar to no time or country, but is common
to the world. It may very well have been attributed
to Mr. Morris's own Wolfings or his Kindred of the Mark,
but it is just as full of meaning for us here and now.
In this lies its worth; in this lies the worth of all
art. For such service to our race, regardless of time,
not discriminating in its favors, have we called art