Monday, September 6, 2010

“A New Land at Last to Be Seen”: William Morris and Iceland

Lo from our loitering ship a new land at last to be seen;
Toothed rocks down the side of the firth on the east guard a weary wide lea,
And black slope the hillsides above, striped adown with their desolate green:
And a peak rises up on the west from the meeting of cloud and of sea,
Foursquare from base unto point like the building of Gods that have been,
The last of that waste of the mountains all cloud-wreathed and snow-flecked and grey,
And bright with the dawn that began just now at the ending of day.

Ah! What came we forth for to see that our hearts are so hot with desire?
Is it enough for our rest, the sight of this desolate strand,
And the mountain-waste voiceless as death but for winds that may sleep not nor tire?
Why do we long to wend forth through the length and breadth of a land,
Dreadful with grinding of ice, and record of scarce hidden fire,
But that there 'mid the grey grassy dales sore scarred by the ruining streams
Lives the tale of the Northland of old and the undying glory of dreams?

-- William Morris, “Iceland First Seen” (1891)

Tucked away in a small cabinet in a corner of William Morris’s Red House in Bexleyheath, Kent, are several small objects that tell an unlikely tale of adventure.

The 32 items, all on loan from the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter, were collected by Morris on two trips to Iceland. Among the eclectic group are a sixteenth-century Bible; carved horn containers, drinking vessels, and utensils; and various items of clothing, including woven belts, a bodice, a girdle, a cap, slippers, and a corded sash.

The container shown above, made from goat horn and adorned with an intricate floral design reminiscent of some of Morris’s own patterns, was carved in honor of Morris if not at his express direction. His initials are engraved in its brass cap.

Morris visited Iceland for six weeks in 1871 and for two weeks in 1873. The first trip was a watershed event in his life. Morris biographer J.W. Mackail called it a journey that “had to be taken in adventurous explorer's fashion, with guides and a string of pack horses ... it was a prolonged picnic spiced by hard living and rough riding.” It is described well in materials that accompany the display at Red House, which draw on Fiona McCarthy’s William Morris: A Life for Our Time (1994) and Jan Marsh’s Jane and May Morris: A Biographical Story, 1839-1938 (1986).

Morris’s Expedition to Iceland, 1871

“Morris went to Iceland as a place of pilgrimage. The importance that the journey had for him is suggested by the way in which Morris, the atheist, would refer to it afterwards as his ‘Holy Land.’ He went there to see for himself the landscape that had inspired the Sagas, the folktales of a race who had survived the barrenness and stark reality of Iceland by sitting out the winters conjuring tales of their steely tribal forebears.

“Morris had begun his literary journey in advance of his first expedition and had been devotedly translating the Sagas over the preceding two years, ensconced in his study at Queen Square with his Icelandic interpreter and collaborator, Eirikr Magnusson. Magnusson noticed early on how clearly Morris identified with the defiant spirit and unflinching sense of duty shown by the Sagas’ heroic warriors.

“Morris and Magnusson set off with the faithful Charley Faulkner, one of Morris’s inner circle, in July 1871. In many ways the expedition reprised those of his bachelor days; perhaps this was part of the motivation for the trip, as Morris particularly admired the Saga treatment of male friendship. The concept of returning albeit briefly to the carefree life he had enjoyed before Rossetti and pre-Raphaelite influence took hold must have been an attractive proposition. His new passion for the Sagas was itself in effect a discarding of those old allegiances: he regarded the bluntness of the Old Norse literature as ‘a good corrective to the maundering side of mediaevalism.’

“Morris’s pursuit of the Saga sites gave shape to the itinerary and slowly Iceland seemed to justify the writer’s calling: here were people saved by literature. At the same time, the artist in Morris was buoyed up by the Icelandic folk art he saw. The daughter of a doctor they lodged with briefly was introduced in full gala dress which included a spectacular silver belt, dated by Morris as not later than 1530. He observes that ‘the open-work of the belt was very beautiful, the traditional northern Byzantinesque work all mixed up with the crisp sixteenth century leafage.’

“Morris also came to greatly admire the traditional turf-walled Icelandic farmers’ houses. Indeed, he seized on them as a confirmation that beauty was a matter of the functional and decorous (‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’). In these so-called bonders’ houses Morris took note of how the loom was never cast out into an outhouse but regarded as the family furniture, so essential was weaving to the economy of rural self-sufficiency.

"Iceland had an effect on Morris that was purgative and cathartic. He wrote that ‘the glorious simplicity of the terrible and tragic, but beautiful land with its well-remembered stories of brave men, killed all querulous feeling in me, and have made all the dear faces of wife and children, and love, and friends dearer than ever to me.’ Certainly he began to allow himself to long for the familiar sweetnesses of domesticity. He returned from Iceland at the end of the summer with a treasure trove of mementos. As they had travelled around Iceland, he and Faulkner had scoured the steads they stayed in and negotiated prices for desirable objects. Faulkner had acquired some Icelandic silver spoons. Morris’s hoard comprised some of the objects shown here.

"Morris related his traveller’s tales and demonstrated his success in cooking on an ‘outdoor kitchen’ built of bricks. Thirty years later his daughter May discovered the ‘rather melancholy remains’ of such a campfire in one of the garden fields. Morris’s trip to the land of glaciers and geysers meant that ever after Iceland was to her both a real and a legendary place, overpoweringly beautiful and sad. For the rest of her life, she dreamt of voyaging there herself.”

In fact, the items that Morris collected were donated to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in 1939 by Mary Frances Lobb, May’s companion. Lobb had been a “land-girl” during World War I (a member of the Women’s Land Army), putting skills she had learned during her West Country upbringing to use as a farm laborer. She moved in with May at Kelmscott Manor following May’s divorce from her husband and failed affair with George Bernard Shaw.

The collection can be seen at Red House, a National Trust property, until at least March 2012. For visiting information, click here.

Read more…

William Morris, “Iceland First Seen,” 1891

John Purkis, The Icelandic Jaunt: A Study of the Expeditions Made by William Morris to Iceland in 1871 and 1873 (William Morris Society, 1962).

“William Morris Climbing a Mountain in Iceland,” caricature by Edward Burne-Jones, c. 1871 

“William Morris and the Legendary,” BBC

Richard L. Harris, “William Morris, Eiríkur Magnusson, and Iceland: A Survey of Correspondence,” Victorian Poetry, vol. 13, no. 3/4, Fall-Winter 1975, pp. 119-130. Summary: The diversified interests of William Morris led him, in the late 1860s, into a serious study of Iceland and its literature. With his Icelandic friend, Eirikur Magnusson, who taught him the language and collaborated with him in translating a number of sagas, Morris visited Iceland in the summer of 1871. He returned there in 1873 and maintained an interest in, and contacts with, the country and its people until his death. Letters and documents found recently in Iceland suggest the extent, depth, and nature of the poet's relationships with Eirikur Magnusson, his fellow countrymen, and their culture. This material is helpful to a better understanding of Morris' desire to provide a true representation in English of the sagas as he saw them, his concern for Iceland during a period of famine in 1882, his views on the possibilities of economic reform there, and his lifelong friendship with Jón Jónsson, the saddlesmith from Hliðarendakot, who was his guide on the 1873 visit.

“William Morris in Iceland,” The Guardian, 27 March 2010 (describes how Morris’s travels inspired “Earthly Paradise,” a new work for chorus and opera by Ian McQueen named for an epic poem written by Morris).


Hermes said...

What a great post - lots I didn't know.

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