Poetry as Wallpaper: In (Ambiguous) Praise of Low-Intensity Poetics
There are many William Morrises. For Marxists, he is a central figure in nineteenth-century English radicalism, author of a number of still riveting essays on labor and art and the memorable utopian socialist novel News from Nowhere. For readers in the fantasy and science fiction hinterlands, he is preëminently the author of a half-dozen prose fantasy “romances” that deeply influenced J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. But for nine out of ten people in my town—where late-Victorian houses are crowded with stained glass and elaborate wood moldings—the William Morris who matters in the Morris of the Arts and Crafts movement, of the Morris Chair and the ubiquitous, elaborate, and undeniably beautiful Morris wallpapers.
In his own day, Morris was best known as “the author of The Earthly Paradise.” First published between 1868 and 1870, The Earthly Paradise is a collection of twenty-four verse tales set within a frame narrative reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales. (Chaucer gets a shout-out as the poet’s “Master” in the “Envoi.”) At over 42,000 lines—that’s four Paradise Losts, three Divine Comedies, or a Faerie Queene with an Argonautica thrown in—it’s the longest poem in the English language. It was also extremely popular: The Earthly Paradise propelled Morris from obscurity to the front ranks of Victorian writers, and there were at least 40,000 copies of the poem in print by 1910.
It’s hard not to think of Morris wallpaper when you’re reading The Earthly Paradise. The tales unfold in unbendingly regular verse—tetrameter or pentameter couplets, seven-lined rhymed pentameter stanzas; the diction is Keatsianly elevated, antiqued with occasional archaisms; the narratives flow, and occasionally eddy, but almost never rush, tumble, or splash. In one of her introductions to her father’s works, May Morris sums up The Earthly Paradise’s idiom: “simple and direct and sweet and not too monotonous.” By “monotonous,” I take it she means “of a single tone,” but it’s hard to avoid the implication of just plain soporific. Morris’s friends Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones used to doze off when he read them passages, despite Georgiana’s surreptitiously poking herself with a pin to stay awake.
Early readers of The Earthly Paradise, even the most admiring, recognized the placid, sustainedly decorative qualities of the verse. A reviewer for the Spectator commented that “it is difficult in avoiding sharpness, excess of speed, and concentration, not to fall at times into a strain that wearies by its very softness.” Morris’s friend Swinburne, in a letter to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, confessed that “my ear hungers for more force and variety of sound in the verse. It looks as if he purposely avoided all strenuous emotion or strength of music in thought and word.”
The experience of reading The Earthly Paradise, then, is rather like that of contemplating Morris’s wallpaper. There is grace, and there is emotional movement, but there is also—ultimately and unavoidably—repetition, sameness. There are no striking highs and lows, no arresting climaxes, only a calm, ever-unrolling surface of decorative figures. A canvas framed on a wall focuses our attention, but we enter a wallpapered room as an environment, an aesthetic “surround.” Walter Pater captures this sense of immersion in his review of The Earthly Paradise: “here mass itself is the first condition of an art which deals with broad atmospheric effects. The water is not less medicinal, not less gifted with virtues, because a few drops of it are without effect; it is water to bathe and swim in.”
It goes without saying, I think, that this isn’t the way most twenty-first-century readers conceive of the experience of poetry, any more than patterned wallpaper is what we look for in visual art. Timothy Hilton perhaps puts it most savagely: “the classic method of Morris’s art is patterning, and his classic production is wallpaper, wallpaper…. The whole concept of wallpaper is an insult to the human eye’s ability to distinguish one thing from another. So too is Morris’s poetry, so very like wallpaper in that there is no reason for it ever to stop…”
Why then, if wallpaper-like poetry is so repetitive and boring, did the Victorians love The Earthly Paradise so much? And conversely, why is it today the least-read of Morris’s major works? News from Nowhere is regularly reprinted, as are various of Morris’s essays; the prose romances have a solid circulation among fantasy fans; and poems from Morris’s first collection, The Defense of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858) are regularly anthologized. But aside from its splendid opening passages and some bits of the seasonal “songs” that punctuate the tales, The Earthly Paradise remains largely unread.
Let me tackle that second question first: it’s a matter of changing tastes, specifically of our expectations of intensity in poetry. “Few modern readers have the patience to read” Morris’s long poems, Peter Stansky writes, but more importantly those poems lack the “intensity of vision” of The Defense. For better or worse, that is, we contemporaries are products of a long tradition of valuing intensity in poetry; and Morris’s long poems,
We haven’t always held intensity as a primary value in poetry. Eighteenth-century critics were far more likely to praise a poem for its elegance, its decorum, its wit. But as one moves through the nineteenth century, moments of affective and verbal intensity become increasingly prized, until for some writers poetry becomes actually defined by such moments. Samuel Johnson defined a poem as “a metrical composition,” no more or less. For Edgar Allan Poe, writing some ninety years later, the essence of poetry lay not in its form but in its effect on the reader—“that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment.”
Poe wasn’t a terribly influential poetic theorist in his own country and day, but his notion of the poem as a machine for generating emotional and aesthetic intensities in the reader, rather than a vehicle for telling stories, imparting wisdom, or simply amusing—all of those things poems had done in earlier centuries—would become central to Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and French Symbolism. And Symbolist doctrine, coming back across the Channel and the Atlantic in the work of Yeats, Eliot, and Stevens, would be a central ingredient in a modernist poetics prizing intensities.
Closer to home, readers of Morris’s placidly-unwinding, low-intensity, wallpaper-like poetry could find an argument for intensity-based aesthetics in the infamous “Conclusion” to Walter Pater’s The Renaissance, surely the inaugural document of the British Aesthetic movement. “A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life,” Pater writes: “How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in the purest energy? To burn always with this hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” To burn with a hard, gem-like flame, to maintain ecstasy, is more a life-program than a poetics. But it’s easy to imagine the poems that conduce to such ecstasy: poems not of calm contemplation or expansive breadth and subdued musical and emotional excitement, but precisely of verbal and affective intensity.
Heaven knows there’s a rhetoric of intensity among the modernists, especially in Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. Pound’s rhetoric of the arts and poetry is all about energies and intensities: “Great literature,” he writes, “is simply language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”; “the thing that matters in art is a sort of energy, something more or less like electricity or radioactivity, a force transfusing, welding, and unifying.” Pound has no higher category of praise than to say that a work is of the “first intensity.”
Eliot’s enormously influential poetry criticism likewise revolves around questions of intensity. “Intensity” becomes not merely an honorific but almost a mantra, or a shorthand index of the qualities Eliot looks for in the poetry he reads and hopes to write. Great poetry, he writes, is achieved through “the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place.” Some poets, Eliot argues, have become impatient of conventional “meaning” because they “perceive possibilities of intensity through its elimination.” And the most damning critique he levels against Swinburne’s “diffuse” verse is that it manifests “emotion reinforced, not by intensification, but by expansion.”
To some degree we’ve all been schooled in this tradition, even if we haven’t worked our way through Poe, Pater, Pound, Eliot, and the New Critics who built Eliot’s pronouncements into a teachable system; we’ve grown up with the self-evident notion that great poetry is a matter of intensities, whether verbal, imagistic, conceptual, or emotional. That’s why “Because I could not stop for Death” is a great poem, while Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees” is merely clever. That’s why Blake’s “The Tyger” beats out Whittier’s “Snow-Bound” in the anthologies, and why we read Keats’s odes over and over but practically never open Wordsworth’s The Recluse. And that’s why our “great” Victorian long poem is In Memoriam—though for the Victorians themselves, it might well have been The Earthly Paradise.
But why did the Victorians so love this poem, with its gargantuan length, its mild, slightly soporific music, its relentlessly low-intensity affect? First things first: The Earthly Paradise is by no means a bad poem; Morris was a very talented poet indeed. We aren’t dealing with a culture-wide enthusiasm for a somehow inferior cultural production—just one whose sources of popularity are alien to us. Whatever creative endeavor Morris attempted—designing furniture, weaving tapestry, dying fabric—he threw himself into with a craftsman’s commitment, and poetry was no different. But Morris’s notion of workaday poetic craftsmanship is quite different from the still-current Romantic conception of the poet. “That talk of inspiration is sheer nonsense,” he writes, “I may tell you flat, there is no such thing; it is a mere matter of craftsmanship.” More infamously: “If a chap can’t compose an epic poem while he’s weaving tapestry he had better shut up; he’ll never be any good at all.”
The tales of The Earthly Paradise unroll themselves under the reading eye precisely like scenes from some endless Morris-Burne-Jones tapestry. The characters strive, undergo adventures, are seized by emotional turmoil, but all of the activity of The Earthly Paradise feels oddly muted, distanced by the verse’s placid regularity. There could be no more striking contrast to the wrenching effects of The Defense of Guenevere and Other Poems: the adulterous queen’s passionate monologue in the title poem, the savage murder at the climax of “The Haystack in the Flood.” But while a few readers—like Browning, who found The Earthly Paradise “a laboured brew with the old flavour but no body”—preferred Morris’s early poems, the majority embraced The Earthly Paradise, much as contemporary American drinkers choose watery domestic lagers over piquant imported stouts.
The most basic reason for the poem’s popularity is not far to seek: first and foremost, The Earthly Paradise’s first public read the book out of the ancient and not yet dishonorable motive of escapism. Morris, like his friends in the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, like Carlyle and Ruskin before him, hated modernity, hated what the Industrial Revolution had made of England’s pastoral landscape, what industrialization had made of the common laborer. His poem looks back nostalgically to a cleaner, simpler, more beautiful time—Chaucer’s fourteenth century, as announced in the opening of the “Prologue”:
Forget six counties overhung with smoke,
Forget the smoking steam and piston stroke,
Forget the spreading of the hideous town;
Think rather of the pack-horse on the down,
And dream of London, small and white and clean,
The clear Thames bordered by the gardens green….
The Earthly Paradise stands athwart the parallel traditions of western classicism and Romantic medievalism: half of its tales are retellings of ancient Greek myths, the other half European folk-tales of the Dark Ages, an Icelandic saga, the story of Tannhäuser and the Venusberg. Victorian readers could repair to these tales and forget for a time their “real” lives in the smoky, “hideous town,” forget how concerned they were with “getting and spending” and making do in the vertiginous, ever-accelerating atmosphere of industrial capital.
“Escapism” is of course one of the most damning words in our critical vocabulary (along with “decorative” and “ornamental,” words describing so much of Morris’s creative output). The word itself only dates back to the 1930s—that heyday of “isms”—but it seems to have acquired pejorative connotations almost as soon as it was coined. It’s in 1939, in a heated atmosphere of political turmoil and aesthetic “commitment,” that the Morris-admirer J. R. R. Tolkien commented on escape and “escapism”: “Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”
Even if they disavow overly crude demands that poetry take particular political stances, many critics and readers are still uneasy with writing that not merely refuses to confront social reality, but explicitly offers its readers an escape therefrom. Contemporary scholars have argued that The Earthly Paradise is not really escapist, that by various subtle pastoral-dialectical moves, Morris is really critiquing his own society. Maybe so; but Victorian readers read the poem, not for complex subversion, but for simple escape: “Whither shall a reader turn in these days,” begins the Spectator’s reviewer, “who longs to escape for a while from all the toil and clamour and strife of the world, and to roam at will in pleasant places, where nothing shall remind him of the doubtful battle-field where after a short breathing-space he must again bear his part?” To The Earthly Paradise, of course.
What I’ve been calling the “low-intensity” nature of The Earthly Paradise—its “wallpaper” poetic—is part and parcel of its escapist function; its readers seek to escape, not merely from the outward paraphernalia of Victorian England—the smoke, the “snorting steam and piston stroke”—but from the emotional intensity of an everyday life that capitalism has rendered increasingly precarious, a struggle, a competition, a “doubtful battle-field.” “The rippling unemphatic rhythm of Morris’s verse,” writes Graham Hough,
is not due to a defect of energy, it is part of the quality he wants to attain—a state of suspended animation in which we trace the adventures of Jason or the knight of the Hill of Venus with just so much emotional engagement as to take us away from our own daily preoccupations, but not so much as to bring back “the agony and strife” of human hearts with anything like its real force.
As alien as such a poetic might seem to those of us reared in a tradition of “first intensities”—“It is not a poetic purpose which will arouse much sympathy at the moment,” Hough comments drily—this description strikes me as precisely right.
Whatever deep social and emotional needs Morris’s low-intensity poetry served in its day, a wallpaper poetics seems pretty dead on arrival to us post- and late-moderns. But “we cannot be sure that this is anything more than mere fashion,” Hough notes: “a taste which has recurred so often may well recur once more.” Hough wrote in 1947; seventy years later, in a literary field vastly changed from that of the Victorian era, one can see evidence of the revival of poetry as wallpaper.
The American poet Tan Lin, whose writing, like that of other soi-disant “conceptual” poets, straddles the boundaries of art theory and poetry, has made the boldest statements in favor of a low-intensity poetic. “Poetry=wallpaper. Novel=design object. Text as ambient soundtrack?” he writes in Seven Controlled Vocabularies; “It would be nice to create works of literature that didn’t have to be read but could be looked at, like placemats.” “As we all know,” Lin parodies Pater, “poetry and the novel should not aspire to the condition of music but to the condition of relaxation and yoga.” These are scattered manifesto-calls, rather than descriptions of the work at hand; Lin’s writing, at least in Seven Controlled Vocabularies, is jumpy, various, and eye-opening—anything but relaxing, yogaesque, or wallpapery. Lin’s fellow conceptualist Kenneth Goldsmith’s Weather and Traffic are as dull and wallpapery as one could imagine, but Kenny G. has told us repeatedly these are works to be thought about, not actually read. In many ways, such classic works of late twentieth-century Language Poetry as Lyn Hejinian’s My Life and Ron Silliman’s Tjanting approach the condition of wallpaper: the even procession of non-consecutive sentences (both are prose poems, exemplars of Silliman’s “new sentence”), the frequent reappearance of words and phrases, the generally distanced, low-temperature affect of the whole.
I think it can be argued, however, that the contemporary poet whose work most regularly evokes the emotionally disengaged, “suspended animation” Hough describes, the state of bemused-but-not-quite-consuming attention evoked by an intricate wallpaper, is also one of the most celebrated writers of our day: John Ashbery, of course. The conversational poems of Some Trees are landmarks of “New York School” poetics; in avant-garde quarters, the uncompromising disjunctions of The Tennis Court Oath are widely celebrated; and every so often, as with the autobiographical Flow Chart or Girls on the Run, Ashbery surprises with a fresh and conceptually challenging major work, recalling the salad days of Three Poems or Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror. But for the most part, for the last three decades of his long career Ashbery has published collection after collection of shortish poems: beautifully written, quirky, witty, enigmatic. Few of them are moving; fewer are memorable; but all of them are highly literate, graceful, and absorbingly readable. Absorbing, at least, for the space while we’re reading: afterwards, we return to the “doubtful battle-fields” of our everyday lives, and find Ashbery’s poems have left no trace in our consciousness. Perhaps, in a historical moment that may remind one of the sense of precariousness and vertiginous change that so unsettled the Victorians, they have given us a brief period of escape.
My overall reaction to a low-intensity poetics, to the poem as wallpaper, is—perhaps appropriately—ambivalent. But as one of the few people alive who’s actually read The Earthly Paradise, I should say a few words on the poem’s behalf. Yes, it’s intimidatingly long: a work to be dipped into, rather than read straight through. Yes, the texture of the verse throughout is altogether too regular, its diction just a trifle too elevated, the temperature of the whole just a notch above lukewarm. Yet there is throughout a sturdy narrative sense, a wealth of offhandedly felicitous descriptive language, and not a few stretches of really compelling readerly interest: I’d single out the haunting dream-fantasy “The Land East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and “The Lovers of Gudrun,” which retells much of the Laxdæla saga, suffusing the laconic Icelandic original with a poignant psychological realism.
Time and again, as I worked my way through the poem, occasionally jabbing myself with a (metaphorical) pin, I reflected on how The Earthly Paradise, as a piece of escapism, is ultimately a gorgeous failure. Whatever social and emotional anxieties it helps its readers escape, it refuses to satisfy what Tolkien, in his discussion of “escape,” identifies as humanity’s “oldest and deepest desire, the Great Escape: the Escape from Death.” For Tolkien, fantasy’s happy ending—or eucatastrophe, in his terminology—sounds a distant echo of the Christian evangelium, the human triumph over mortality through Christ’s sacrifice. The atheist Morris will have none of that.
The poet of The Earthly Paradise begins by enumerating what he cannot do. He cannot change the world: “Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time, / Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?” He cannot write of present woes—“The heavy trouble, the bewildering care / That weighs us down who live and earn our bread.” And most importantly, he tells the reader, “I cannot ease the burden of your fears, / Or make quick-coming death a little thing.” The “wanderers” of the poem’s frame narrative have fruitlessly sought “the earthly paradise,” a place of eternal spring, a sanctuary from death itself. Now they while away their remaining years exchanging stories with their hosts, stories which one and all are colored by inevitable mortality.
Whatever “escape” these tales provide us as we read them—whatever distraction from the anxieties of commercial or domestic existence—they are shot through with chilling reminders of the brevity of human life, overshadowed by the specter of death—death as the full stop to human life, with no prospect of an afterlife. As I read The Earthly Paradise, lulled by its regular music, soothed by its level, “poetic” diction, I seem to be tracing the complex, graceful, and ever-recursive whorls of some fabulous wallpaper; but a wallpaper within whose flowers and leaves is always woven the motif of a human skull.