Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets
1900-1930


 

 

Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


 

William Morris*


 

"Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasures of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day.

But rather, when aweary of your mirth,
From full hearts still unsatisfied ye sigh,
And feeling kindly unto all the earth,
Grudge every minute as it passes by,
Made the more mindful that the sweet days die-
-Remember me a little then, I pray,
The idle singer of an empty day.

.      .      .

Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.

These verses are from the introduction to Mr. Morris' Earthly Paradise, and give an exact account of the charm and compass not only of that work but of all the author's poetry. As we read them we almost begin to doubt whether he "cannot ease the burden of our fears," and as we go on we feel that here is a musical voice, singing for us such sweet songs, telling for us such wonderful tales as the world has not known since all these legends took shape in the fair land of Greece, that home of beauty and thought; thought, which once spoke in the most beautiful language, preserved to us now in the most beautiful poetry; beauty, which moulded our fairest statues and wrought out a civilization such as we are only now attaining to-full of culture, of delicacy and of restraint.

The stories of Greece are known to every scholar, and the uninitiated may read them in all their life and interest in Mr. Morris' verse, rippling on from incident to incident, unweary and unwearying, full of delight and repose. To reproduce the effect of the old conditions of life of the Greeks, the spirit of their literature is above all things necessary. There may be accuracy in events, minuteness of description, elaborate detail, endless scenery painting, but without the master touches, so powerful in their grace, so delicate in their wide compass, the long past ages of Greece may remain almost dead and dusty to all but the students of her language and literature. For myself, I would rather have my present knowledge of the first book of Homer than the best translation of the Iliad; nor could any translation take the place of the graceful poetry of Horace.

But if you do not know Homer, and want to breathe the air of Greece, and see the world in its first flush of beauty across the blue Aegean, if you would turn in weariness from all the trouble and doubt which half a thousand years have laid upon our poetry,-from useless questionings back to the simple enjoyment of shadowy lands of the sunlit sea,-from the feverish haste and hurry, that work the slavish body to death, back to the cool pure springs of life, where the heart had rest and spurned not the good gifts of the gods; then you will do well to read the story of "THE LIFE AND DEATH OF JASON."

Here is a poet who stands aside from strife and vain metaphysical inquiry; who seems quite happy telling to us the old stories anew. He belongs to a school, with Swinburne and Rosetti, yet in one way he is apart from all the poets of our century; "born out of his due time"; a "dreamer of dreams" in a world of wakeful men; one loving, and beloved by, the early morning, living in the scorching heat of noon day; where all are so busy looking through and under the earth that they think not of the fresh dewy dawn of their day, or the tarrying repose of the grateful night. Like Virgil, he belongs to an age not strong in faith or in beauty of life, when his race has ripened with the fulness of time and the next breath of Autumn may bring the fruit to the ground, there to lie and decay until it enrich the soil and pass up the sapling stems once more and blossom out with the full fragrance of spring, when all the wealth of the harvest shall have been forgotten, and the golden Autumn have drifted away into the cloud-land of the Age of Gold. But, unlike Virgil, there is no shadow of sadness in his eager face and full bright eyes; his heart is not heavy with the satiety of his age.

This much of his matter; in form Mr. Morris is thoroughly English; his poems are almost written in dialect, so careful is he to use only the purest Saxon words. Though partly, of course, this is the result of the kind of work he does, which requires only the simplest diction. And it is natural that one, who is full of a love of all these old scenes and tales, should seek a master-singer among our early poets. Such he has found in Chaucer.

"'Another story now my tongue must tell,
And tremble in the telling. Would that I
Had but some portion of that mastery
That from the rose-hung lances of woody Kent
Through these five hundred years such songs have sent,
To us, who, meshed within the smoky net
Of unrejoicing labour love them yet.
And thou, O Master!-Yea, my Master still.

.      .      .

O Master, pardon me, if yet in vain
Thou art my Master and I fail to bring
Before men's eyes the image of the thing
My heart is filled with: thou whose dreamy eyes," etc.

The story of Jason is told with absorbing interest. Not to be read, in the sense that one reads Paradise Lost or Pilgram's Progress: it is the very book for a long Summer holiday under the trees, with a cool brook murmuring at our feet, and the bobolinks echoing it from the corner of an old rail fence hard by. Then we could easily slip away to the oak groves and blue sky of Thessaly, and lose there many lovely hours, to return at length rested and well content with our own clear sky and shadowy maple trees.

The story begins:

"In Thessaly, beside the trembling sea,
Once dwelt a folk, men called the Minyae;"

Then is told how Jason was brought up by a Centaur, and in early manhood undertook his great expedition in search of the Golden Fleece. All the herds assemble to help him. Wonderful Argo is built-the sacrifice offered-the cable cut.

    "And seaward straight did Argo reel,
Set free, and smitten by the western breeze,
And raised herself against the ridgy seas."

.      .      .

    "Now Neptune, joyful of the sacrifice
Beside the sea, and all the gifts of price
That Jason gave him, sent them wind at will,
And swiftly Argo climbed each changing hill,
And ran through rippling valleys of the sea,
Nor toiled the heroes unmelodiously,
For by the mast sat great Oager's son,
And through the harp-strings let his fingers run
Nigh soundless, and with closed lips for a while;
But soon across his face there came a smile,
And his glad voice broke into such a song
That swiftlier swept the eager ships along.

    'O bitter sea, tumultuous sea,
    Full many an ill wrought by thee!

.      .      .

    But whatso thou wilt do with us,
    Our end shall not be piteous,
    Because our memories shall live
    When folk forget the way to drive
    The black knee through the heaped-up sea,
    And half dried up thy waters be.'

Then shouted all the heroes and they drove
The good ship forth, so that the birds above,
With long white wings, scarce flew so fast as they.

In their journey towards Colchis, they land in the kingdom of Phineus, a man blind and old, who must have envied them their strength and sight as he greeted them:

                    "Now blessed be the way
That led thee to me, happiest of all
Who from the poop see the prow rise and fall
And the sail bellying, and the glittering oars;"

When they have gained their prize and are making out to sea with the Fleece and Medea on board, they see her brother waiting to stop them-

"Now swift beneath the oar-strokes Argo flew,
While the sun rose behind them, and they drew
Unto the river's mouth, nor failed to see
Absystus' galley waiting watchfully
Betwixt them and the white-topped turbid bar.
Therefore they gat them ready now for war,
    With joyful hearts, for sharp they sniffed the sea
And saw the great waves tumbling green and free,
Outside the bar upon the way to Greece,
The rough green way to glory and to peace."

What perfect power of description! Through the poem are scattered many songs of Orpheus, like the one I have quoted from. Here is part of that he sang to overcome the Sirens:

A little more, a little more,
     O carriers of the Golden Fleece,
A little labor with the oar,
     Before we reach the land of Greece.

E'en now perchance faint rumours reach
     Men's ears of this our victory,
And draw men down unto the beach
     To gaze across the empty sea.

.      .      .

Ah, once again, ah, once again,
    The black prow plunges through the sea,
Nor yet shall all your toil be vain,
    Nor ye forget, O Minyae."

But there is no end of quoting, until-

    "Argo they offered to the Deity
Who shakes the hard earth with the rolling sea.
And now is all that ancient story told
Of him who won the guarded Fleece of Gold."


"William Morris," University Monthly, Apr. 1884 [back]