Victorian Poetry 41.3 (2003) 450-455
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The Earthly Paradise, by William Morris, ed. Florence Boos. 2 vols. New York and London: Routledge, 2002. xxxix + 687 pp. ; 779 + lxv pp. Illustrated. $325.00.
Florence Boos is to be commended not only for a monumental editorial effort that has led to successful achievement but for her perseverance over several years in a search for a publisher willing to risk the cost of publishing The Earthly Paradise. As she gracefully tells us, "My efforts to find a haven for this edition sometimes seemed to me almost as long as the Wanderers' search for their Earthly Paradise." And that Routledge, with its excellent resources for publicity, has agreed to be the publisher means there will be a fair test to determine whether there is an audience today for Morris' epic—the longest narrative poem in the English language.
The Earthly Paradise was first published in three volumes between 1868 and 1870. Since Volume I consists of two Parts, there are four Parts altogether. Frankly indebted to TheCanterbury Tales, one of Morris' chief delights in literature, The Earthly Paradise tells the story of a group of Norsemen, fleeing the Black Death, who come upon a hitherto unknown island in the Adriatic peopled by descendants of the ancient Greeks. The wanderers and the inhabitants of the island agree to tell each other tales from their respective heritages, one from each side each month between March and December. Their conversation is the frame story, and outside the frame is the voice of the narrating persona, who declares himself "the idle singer of an empty day" and who also recites the "Apology," the "Epilogue," and a set of lyric poems that punctuate the tales, one such poem preceding the stories for each month. Thus there are frames within frames—the one produced by the narrating persona, the conversation between the Wanderers and the Elders of the island, and the voices that tell the individual tales.
A brief outline of what Boos has accomplished is in order. Volume I of her edition contains a forty-one page Introduction (to which I shall return), a copious number of appropriate illustrations, the text of the narrative epic from March through August, a collation of the manuscript (which is at the Huntington Library), and three editions published during Morris' lifetime. (She has wisely chosen the Kelmscott Press edition of 1896 as her copytext.) And present throughout are footnotes explaining [End Page 450] terms and references Boos deems needful of elucidation. Volume II contains the tales from September through February, and again, illustrations, notes, and collation of the four witnesses.
It is a small irony of literary history that Walter Pater's unsigned review article of Morris' poetry, published in The Westminster Review for October 1868, on the occasion of the appearance of Volume I of The Earthly Paradise, is, in its several reincarnations, better known and more widely read than is any part of The Earthly Paradise. The final section ofPater's review article reappeared as the notorious "Conclusion" to The Renaissance (1873), and a revised form of the rest was published as "Aesthetic Poetry" in Appreciations (1889). It is worth noticing that very little of Pater's original review is devoted to The Earthly Paradise. When he does get round to it, after discussing The Defence of Guenevere and The Life and Death of Jason, he makes it the occasion for illustrating what he means by "aesthetic poetry." He writes: "We have become so used to austerity and concentration in some noble types of modern poetry, that it iseasy to mistake the lengthiness of this new poem. Yet here mere mass is itself the first condition of an art which deals with broad atmospheric effects." Referring to specific tales, "Atalanta's Race," "The Man Born to be King," "The Story of Cupid and Psyche," "The Doom of King Acrisius," and the episode of Danae and the shower of gold, Pater continues: "[These tales] have in a pre-eminent degree what is characteristic of the whole book, the loveliness of things newly washed with fresh water; and...