‘O how their hearts were heavy as though the sun should die!’. This line from Sigurd the Volsung set me thinking about Morris’s final journey abroad, to Norway in July-August 1896. He travelled with John Carruthers and Dr Dodgson in a rather desperate last attempt to restore his health by a sea voyage, and the ship on which he travelled, the S.S. Garonne, was making a special trip to observe the total solar eclipse of that year – ‘the astronomers were playing their little game’, as Morris later wrote to Shaw. Morris biographers have assumed that the fact that his vessel was also a scientific mission was sheer coincidence; but my Sigurd quote shows that the notion of the sun dying or disappearing is actually deeply part of Morris’s imagination. Sigurd in that poem is a kind of mythological sun god, in his golden hauberk and with his ruddy rings and blazingly vivid eyes; and he is indeed ‘eclipsed’ and destroyed by the ‘Cloudy people’, the Niblungs.
So was Morris himself consciously in pursuit of a solar eclipse in August 1896? Did he want finally to literalise what had always been a powerful literary motif to him? I’m not sure; but I think that a more inventive mode of biographical writing might make something of this ‘coincidence’. It would certainly look at the role of sun imagery across his writing. It would also meditate on the role of Norway (rather than the more familiar Iceland) across his literary career, from the travellers of The Earthly Paradise, who set out from that country, to the Norwegian folktale evoked by old Hammond in News from Nowhere. It might take the occasion too to think about Morris and astronomy, which also comes up in The Earthly Paradise, and about Morris and science in general; does being on a boat of astronomers indicate a more open-minded attitude to it than we might have thought, and how might that bear, say, upon the invention of ‘the force’ in News from Nowhere? And if, in his bad moments on board, the ropes on deck appeared to Morris in hallucinatory guise as snakes, this might be the prompt to an examination of the imagery of serpents, worms and monsters across his work.
In short, I’m recommending a more adventurous and free-wheeling approach to Morrisian biography than we normally get. After Fiona MacCarthy’s spectacular effort of 1994, there is certainly no excuse for writing a routinely factual one any longer. And I would wager that, as a start in this direction, a booklength study of ‘William Morris’s Last Journey’ could be made very interesting indeed.