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Outlines of English and American Literature
William Morris
by Long, William J.

William Morris (1834-1896) has been called by his admirers the most Homeric of English poets. The phrase was probably applied to him because of his Sigurd the Volsung, in which he uses the material of an old Icelandic saga. There is a captivating vigor and swing in this poem, but it lacks the poetic imagination of an earlier work, The Defence of Guenevere, in which Morris retells in a new way some of the fading medieval romances. His best-known work in poetry [Footnote: Some readers will be more interested in Morris's prose romances, The House of the Wolfings, The Roots of the Mountains and The Story of the Glittering Plain] is The Earthly Paradise, a collection of twenty-four stories strung together on a plan somewhat resembling that of the Canterbury Tales. A band of mariners are cast away on an island inhabited by a superior race of men, and to while away the time the seamen and their hosts exchange stories. Some of these are from classic sources, others from Norse legends or hero tales. The stories are gracefully told, in very good verse; but in reading them one has the impression that something essential is lacking, some touch, it may be, of present life and reality. For the island is but another Cloudland, and the characters are shadowy creatures having souls but no bodies; or else, as some may find, having the appearance of bodies and no souls whatever. Indeed, in reading the greater part of Pre-Raphaelite literature, one is reminded of Morris's estimate of himself, in the Prelude to The Earthly Paradise:

  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.


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