THE IDLE SINGER
Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I can not ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming death a little thing,
Or bring again the pleasure of past years,
Nor for my words shall ye forget your tears,
Or hope again for aught that I can say,
The idle singer of an empty day.
But rather, when aweary of your mirth,
From full hearts still unsatisfied ye sigh,
And feeling kindly unto all the earth,
Grudge every minute as it passes by,
Made the more mindful that the sweet days die,–
Remember me a little then, I pray,
The idle singer of an empty day.
* * * * *
Dreamer of dreams, born out of my due time,
Why should I strive to set the crooked straight?
Let it suffice me that my murmuring rhyme
Beats with light wing against the ivory gate,
Telling a tale not too importunate
To those who in the sleepy region stay,
Lulled by the singer of an empty day.
—From “The Earthly Paradise”
The parents of William Morris were well-to-do people who lived in the village of Walthamstow, Essex. The father was a London bill-broker, cool-headed, calculating, practical. In the home of his parents William Morris received small impulse in the direction of art; he, however, was taught how to make both ends meet, and there were drilled into his character many good lessons of plain commonsense–a rather unusual equipment for a poet, but still one that should not be waived or considered lightly. At the village school William was neither precocious nor dull, neither black nor white: his cosmos being simply a sort of slaty-gray, a condition of being which attracted no special attention from either his schoolfellows or his tutors. From the village school he went to Marlborough Academy, where by patient grubbing he fitted himself for Exeter College, Oxford.
Morris, the elder, proved his good sense by taking no very special interest in the boy’s education. Violence of direction in education falls flat: man is a lonely creature, and has to work out his career in his own way. To help the grub spin its cocoon is quite unnecessary, and to play the part of Mrs. Gamp with the butterfly in its chrysalis stage is to place a quietus upon its career.
The whole science of modern education is calculated to turn out a good, fairish, commonplace article; but the formula for a genius remains a secret with Deity. The great man becomes great in spite of teachers and parents: and his near kinsmen, being color-blind, usually pooh-pooh the idea that he is anything more than mediocre. At Oxford, William Morris fell in with a young man of about his own age, by the name of Edward Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones was studying theology. He was slender in stature, dreamy, spiritual, poetic. Morris was a giant in strength, blunt in speech, bold in manner, and had a shock of hair like a lion’s mane. This was in the year Eighteen Hundred Fifty-three–these young men being nineteen years of age. The slender, yellow, dreamy student of theology and the ruddy athlete became fast friends.
“Send your sons to college and the boys will educate them,” said Emerson. These boys read poetry together; and it seems the first author that specially attracted them was Mrs. Browning; and she attracted them simply because she had recently eloped with the man she loved. This fact proved to Morris that she was a worthy woman and a discerning. She had the courage of her convictions. To elope with a poor poet, leaving a rich father and a luxurious home–what nobler ambition?