Big Books

Penelope Fitzgerald

  • William Morris: An Approach to the Poetry by J.M.S. Tompkins
    Cecil Woolf, 368 pp, £20.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 900821 84 1

As a schoolboy, Rudyard Kipling used to stay in North End Road, Fulham with his aunt and uncle, the Burne-Joneses. One evening William Morris came into the nursery and, finding the children under the table and nobody else about, climbed on to the rocking-horse and

slowly surging back and forth while the poor beast creaked, he told us a tale full of fascinating horrors, about a man who was condemned to dream bad dreams. One of them took the shape of a cow’s tail waving from a heap of dried fish. He went away as abruptly as he had come. Long afterwards, when I was old enough to know a maker’s pains, it dawned upon me that we must have heard the Saga of Burnt Njal ... Pressed by the need to pass the story between his teeth and clarity it, he had used us.

Morris’s open-heartedness, his shyness, his reckless treatment of the furniture, his concentration on whatever he had in hand as though the universe contained no other possible goal, all these can be felt clearly enough. Kipling, however, was really listening, not to Burnt Njal but to the Eyrbyggia Saga. This was first pointed out by a sympathetic but strong-minded scholar, Dr J.M.S. Tompkins.

For twenty years, both before and after publishing her Art of Rudyard Kipling, Joyce Tompkins worked on her study of Morris’s poetry. In December 1986 she died, at the age of 89. Now her book is out at last, not quite in finished form. She grew old and ill, never had the chance to consult the original manuscripts, and could not make her final revisions.

Morris did, thought, and protested forcibly against, so many things that the critic has to protect himself. He may know a lot about the first generation of European Communists but less about paper-making or indigo or Victorian business management – Morris being one of the pioneers of a ‘house style’. In spite of this, all the emphasis today is on his wholeness. In the annotated biography which they bring out in two-yearly instalments, David and Sheila Latham ‘resist categorising under such subjects as poetry and politics because we believe that each of Morris’s interests is best understood in the context of his whole life’s work.’ Joyce Tompkins, also, wants to see Morris whole. ‘The wide and varied territory,’ she says, ‘has an integrity which adds to the complexity of study.’ But commentators have to advance in separate fields, keeping in touch as best they can. Although she doesn’t make the claim herself, her book can be seen as a complement to E.P. Thompson’s William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. ‘We have to make up our minds about William Morris,’ Thompson said. ‘Either he was an eccentric, isolated figure, personally admirable, but whose major thought was wrong or irrelevant and long left behind by events. On the other hand, it may be that [he] was our greatest diagnostician of alienation.’ Joyce Tompkins is making the case for the Morris who has lost his readers, the narrative poet.

The telling of tales, as Kipling had realised, was essential to Morris, both before and after he declared for socialism. ‘They grew compulsively,’ Joyce Tompkins writes, ‘from his private imaginative life. It is this imaginative life which is my subject.’ But stories, Morris believed, were also necessary as daily bread to human beings, who should listen willingly. If, a hundred years later, they seem to be unwilling, what can be done?

Her book is divided into six parts, each one aimed at ‘the chief omissions in contemporary understanding and evaluation’. She begins with The Defence of Guinevere. This was Morris’s first book of poems, appearing in 1858, the year before Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Ballads inspired by (or possibly the inspiration of) Rossetti’s water-colours stand side by side with hard-edged Froissartian themes ‘The Haystack in the Floods’, ‘The Judgment of God’. Here Joyce Tompkins believes that modern readers are adrift through ignorance. They are no longer familiar with the field of Arthurian reference. She has noticed, however, that although they have lost the sense of magic, they respond to the tougher element in the poems, the sound ‘between a beast’s howl and a woman’s scream’.

Godmar turned grinning to his men,
Who ran, some five or six, and beat
His head to pieces at their feet.

Ten years later, in The Earthly Paradise, Morris’s voice has changed. This was to be ‘the Big Book’, his dearest project in the late 1860s, in which he hoped to unlock the world’s tale-hoard from the North, the Mediterranean and the Middle East. But in spite of their wide range, it was the serene and even soporific quality of the stories which gave them great success. (Florence Boos, in a study of the Victorian response to The Earthly Paradise, quotes Alfred Austin’s review: ‘Under the blossoming thorn, with lazy summer sea-waves breaking at one’s feet – such were the fitting hour and mood in which – criticism all forgot – to drink in the honeyed rhythm of this melodious storier.’) Knowing that ‘it is not easy now to feel good will towards Morris’s linear narrative,’ Joyce Tompkins tells us to read the stories with attention to their rich detail. We ask, she thinks, not too much of them, but too little. There are two kinds of movement in The Earthly Paradise, one defined by Walter Pater as ‘the desire of beauty quickened by the desire of death,’ the other a gradual progress through the melancholy and distress of the second and third parts to the ‘tolerance and resolution’ of the fourth, where in ‘Bellerophon in Lycia’ the hero learns first to forgive himself, then to forgive others.

To Sigurd the Volsung, the great epic of the North drawn from all the versions of the Volsung and Nibelung story that Morris could lay hands on, her approach is somewhat different. Jessie Kocmanova, in The Maturing of William Morris, interpreted Sigurd as corresponding to three stages of society – the barbarian, the early Nordic and the feudal – which brought dissent and ruin. Joyce Tompkins sees Sigurd as a redeemer, and the whole poem not as Christian, but presented at least ‘in words and images that recall the Christian legacy’.

This is one of the underlying ideas or perhaps hopes of her book. She takes, for example, the cold and empty glance of the King of the Undying in The Story of the Glittering Plain as representing Morris’s loss of faith as a young man. About this, however, he never showed the slightest regret, anchoring himself in human happiness and human work, and to ‘the earth and all things that deal with it, and all that grows out of it’. He refused, in any case, to discuss religion, and ‘in the circumstances’ – as she says – ‘there is perhaps nothing to do but to imitate his silence.’

The last section of the book is left for the late romances, on which so much work has been done in the past few years. As always, Joyce Tompkins is thorough, discussing in detail the neglected Child Christopher and Fair Goldilind and the unfinished Desiderius and Kilian of the Closes. One of her main concerns is to rescue Morris’s land-wights, sending-boats and magic islands from a rigid political interpretation. Both the young Morris and the harassed middle-aged socialist looking back on his former self can, she thinks, be recognised here. The stories ‘testify to the constant habits of his imagination.’