Saturday, 6 March 2010

Wanted: Good Ornithological Critic

In his lively study of Morris in the old ‘English Men of Letters’ series (1908), Alfred Noyes throws down the gauntlet to readers of Morris’s poetry. There is, he claims, only a ‘narrow range of natural objects which he [Morris as poet] will allow himself to mention … The lark and nightingale and a few other birds he will allow; but the bullfinch and the yellowhammer, the white-throat and the herring-gull are all, we may say beforehand, avoided by him as if they were turkeys’. Nine times out of ten in the poetry, Noyes argues, Morris ‘would be content with some such phrase as “the brown bird’s tune”’ (p.45).

Can we rescue Morris from this charge? When Sigurd the Volsung kills the dragon Fafnir in Morris’s epic and tastes the blood of its heart, ‘there came a change upon him, for the speech of fowl he knew’, and he then hears the great eagles prophesying to him. Can we effect such a magical transformation on Morris’s verse itself and show it as being a good deal more sensitive to the variety of bird life than Alfred Noyes allows? We certainly know how attentive Morris himself was to birds and their habitats; for as Cormel Price recorded in his diary on February 22 1883: ‘Spent the evening at Top’s – a long talk on birds: T’s knowledge of them very extensive: can go on for hours about their habits: but especially about their form’.

As far as I know, Noyes’s challenge has not been definitively answered, even a hundred years on. Philip Larkin once wrote an essay entitled: ‘Wanted: Good Hardy Critic’. What we now need, in relation to Morris’s poetry, is a good ornithological critic.

1 comment:

Theo said...

For an ornithological account of other aspects of Morris's work, see Jacqueline Herald's good essay 'On Designing Textiles with Birds' in 'William Morris and Kelmscott' (The Design Council, 1981, pp.117-23)