THERE is much to be said for setting a poet to appraise a poet. He has worked in the same medium ; he has known the travail of putting theory to the test of practice ; he promises to be suitably equipped, in point of style, for the task of doing at least poetic justice to his theme. On the other hand, two of a craft seldom agree. • The poet-critic may well have followed different ideals from those of his subject, been inspired by different models, and aimed at different standards' of technique. He is liable, also, to prefer his own instinct and
taste to the dispassionate judgment of the scholar. It is' therefore not surprising that the selection of Mr. Alfred Noyes for the honour of writing on William Morris for the " English Men of Letters " Series has only partially been justified. Hie eye is the understanding eye of a fellow- craftsman ; the heart with which he worships beauty, and the hand with which he writes its praise, are the band and the heart of a poet; but he is apt to impose his own prejudices, intuitive or acquired ; and though he has read widely (at times, indeed, be naïvely speaks as if the whole world of poetic literature wore familiar ground to him), his judgment lacks the seal of erudition. He seems to have set out with the misgiving that, if ho appreciated Morris at his true value, be might appear, by implication, to call in question the supremacy of Tennyson. " Writing," he says, "out of a full-hearted admiration and enthusiasm for the work of Morris, it seems at the outset more than ever neces- sary for us to emphasise this,";—that Tennyson "had a range of which Morris was unaware altogether." And in proof of his contention this couplet of the author of "The Defence of Guenevere "
" And ever she sung from noon to noon, Two red roses across the moon "-
is compared, not with another rhymed poem, cognate in theme, like "The Lady of Shalott," but with the opening passage of the majestic blank verse of "Mode d'Arthur," and in particular the lines : "On one side lay the Ocean, and on one Lay a great water, and the moon was full."
And at the end of his book, lest we should have forgotten his earlier admonition, he gives us two solid pages of gratuitous • glorification of Tennyson. Yet in theme, in method, in purpose, the two poets have scarcely anythitg in common; and in any case it was no part of the critic's task in this volume to anticipate the verdict of time by deciding who was the greatest poet of the second half of the nineteenth century. Mr. Noyes may, happily, be young enough to rank as " posterity " ; but if he claims admission to that judicial body it can only be on the strength of his youth, and he would perhaps do well to wait and consult with his grand- children, Meanwhile he might have dote better service to criticism by employing the comparative method as between Morris and those poets—ancient, mediaeval, and modern— with whom he has an obvious affinity of style. It would have been natural—it was, indeed, almost an obligation—for him to set " The Defence of Guenevere" beside certain poems of Morris's brother Pre-Raphaelite, Gabriel Rossetti ; to trace a kinship between the Odyssey and "The Life and Death of Jason," if it were only in the matter of the solenne epitheton ; to show by illustration why it was that the author of " The Earthly Paradise " hailed Chaucer as his " master " and the inspirer of his work. Yet of Homer, Chaucer, Rossetti not a single line is quoted in this book,—a really grave and inexplicable omission. But Mr. Noyes will go out of his way to find a resemblance to the manner of Morris in the poetry of Robert Browning, the least likely place on earth to look for it. Of the famous line in " Any Wife to Any Husband "—
" Why need the other women know so much P "- lie says : "It is almost a typical Morris line." Surely a nice instinct never blundered worse. The line is essentially of Browning's brand and no other's. Neither its thought, nor
• Wiligun Morris. By Alfred Noel. " Enreirdt Non of Lettere Eerier. London : Macmillan And CO. [2a. noLl
its phrasing—in "the other women" there is a note of almost colloquial modernity—could conceivably have come from Morris. It is quoted in connexion with Medea's farewell to
Jason— "Be happy I think that I have never boon 1"—
a passage of which the "incomparable pathos" (to use the words of Mr. Noyes, who finds it more " vital" in its poignancy than Browning's poem) has something of a false ring about it when one remembers that Medea had already arranged for the murder of Jason's lover and children. If Browning bad to be dragged in, why should not the words " Be happy I" have recalled another passage—from " The Worst of It "—where the poignancy of the pathos is more " vital" than Medea's, because it is more sincere ? It is a man that writes to the woman who has been false to him :— " Dear, I look from my hiding-place.
Are you still so fair ? Have you still the eyes P Be happy 1 . • . I knew you once ; but in Paradise, If we meet, I will pass nor turn my face."
A more trivial example of faulty judgment is shown in Mr. Noyes's selection of the line from the " Eve of Crecy "—
" qu'elle est belle la Marguerite / "— as a case "where the refrain is for once perfectly right.' "
Yet if he wanted to quote a refrain that was really free from bhe suspicion of artificiality, he had to his hand in another poem, "The Gilliflower of Gold," from the same volume, a far truer example-
" Huh! hale! la belle jeans giroflee I "-
the actual battle-cry of the knight who wears this flower for his favour in the tourney.
But if Mr. Noyea's literary judgment seems at times to fail unaccountably it is more easy to understand a certain psychological inexperience which betrays itself in his criticism of the most complex of Morris's characters, Gudrun. "She [the Gudrun type] is not," he protests, "an adequate cause for all that anguish and spiritual bloodshed; and it is a remarkable fact that it is only the Pre-Raphaelite school, with their ' aesthetic' descendants, that ever mistook her for such a cause." It would indeed be a remarkable fact, if it were a fact at all. It would imply, on the part of other poets, a curious indifference to the evidence of history and legend and their own eyes. Has he forgotten Tennyson's own apostrophe to that notorious married woman, the " hell of men and ships" ?— " No marvel, sovereign lady : in fair field Myself for such a face had boldly died."
However, Mr. Noyes admits that he gathers from the news- ! papers that " the world is and always has been a pitiful tangle of motives and passions "; and one is glad that his poor opinion of its heroine, as a woman, does not prevent him from acknowledging, though "Cupid and Psyche" may be nearer to his heart, that " The Lovers of Gudrun," the most ambitious of Morris's themes by reason of its tragic complexity of motive, is also " decidedly the finest of all his poems." Here he consents, in a not very felicitous phrase, to endorse the view of our greatest living poet. " Mr. Swinburne's judgment on this matter," he says, " may be accepted."
Of Morris's other activities, more space is here devoted to his Socialism than to his art, of which Mr. Noyes has practically nothing to say. But then the poet's Socialism, found expression in his prose works, while his art had perhaps no direct claim to separate recognition in a book professedly dealing with him as a man of letters. Still, though he avoids detail about the poet's handiorafts, he is at pains to trace a correspondence, distinct from the mediaevalism of theme which was common to both, between his poems and his tapestry. Mr. Noyes should have been warned by his academic study of Leasing to shun the danger of attempting to define one art in terms of another. Yet he is constantly talking of the tapestry quality of Morris's verses : to a purely creative art, that is to say, he applies the language of an art that is deco- rative, and therefore conditioned, within limits however generous, by its environment ; to an art that knows no restrictions in respect of time or space he applies the language of one that is confined to the representation of fixed corporeal forms. And he does not seem to notice that be is stultifying his theory of affinity between the two arts when
he insists, in his appreciation of "Cupid and Psyche," on " the supreme skill with which the details are marshalled in their logical order as the tale progresses, and are only revealed to us with the onward movement of the central figure, step by step, to its goal,"—an effect impossible to pictorial or textile art, since, even in fresco-work or tapestry, any series of connected scenes is at best only a, sequence of isolated moments of arrested aotion. Again, in the phrase "lower scale of values," repeated by Mr. Noyes with a persistence worthy of Matthew Arnold, he employs the technical terminology of pictorial art to define a quality of Morris's poetry. Elastic in its adaptability, the phrase is applied at one time to the " tenuity " of his diction, at another to his habit of " reticence " or understatement, at a third to his spiritual limitations. Ultimately be relieves it of all meaning in the sentence : "Morris keeps to his low scale of richly-coloured earthly beauty,"—which on the lips of a painter would be a mere contradiction in terms.
However, when all is said, Mr. Noyes has made a not unworthy contribution to the literature of criticism. His faults are, at worst, the faults of youth, and, like youth, will easily correct themselves. Meanwhile the instinct is very Sure with which he recognises what is representative of Morrie at his best. And not only does he prove himself possessed of a fine and discerning sense of beauty in the work of his subject—of whom, in a noble metaphor, he claims that " the poorest of his singing-robes will have some gold feather clinging to it that shows what paradisal floor it lately swept" —but his own style, with it■ wealth of delicately sensuous imagery, has the half-exotic charm of the borderlands that lie between poetry and prose. For those who count themselves qualified to judge of Morris's work without assistance this is a greater attraction than infallibility. And for most of us he has at least helped to recapture the glow of other days when Morris appealed more closely to the imagination, an appeal too soon forgotten because the spell of those rhymes that "beat with light wings against the ivory gate" were not " importunate" enough.