Ten Journeys to the Venusberg: Morris' Drafts for "The Hill of Venus"

Article excerpt

One of the strongest characteristics of that . . . assertion of the liberty of the heart, in the middle age, which I have termed a medieval Renaissance, was its antinomianism, its spirit of rebellion and revolt against the moral and religious ideas of the time. In their search after the pleasures of the senses and the imagination, in their care for beauty, in their worship of the body, people were impelled beyond the bounds of the Christian ideal; and their love became sometimes a strange idolatry, a strange rival religion. It was the return of that ancient Venus, not dead, but only hidden for a time in the caves of the Venusberg, of those old pagan gods still going to and fro on the earth, under all sorts of disguises.

Walter Pater (1)

WILLIAM MORRIS REVISED NOTHING ELSE AS MANY TIMES AS HE DID "THE Hill of Venus," the last of The Earthly Paradise's twenty-five tales. (2) May Morris alluded to four manuscript versions (in addition to the fair copy and printed tale3) in her introductions to the Collected Works, and my reconstruction suggests that Morris may in fact have written as many as ten drafts in all (listed in the appendix). Their wide variations indicate that Morris began de novo again and again, unable for once either to close the book, or throw it away. (4)

One might argue that Morris's indecision was an emblem of several of the narrative's principal topoi: the ambivalence of thwarted eros and agape; the elusiveness and deferral of earthly happiness; and the incompleteness and suspensive nature of all achievement. The plot of "The Hill of Venus" also resonated in sympathy with Morris' still unresolved unhappiness about aspects of his private life; exemplified his sense of intense but suspended energies; and witnessed his aesthetic preoccupations with cyclical returns, "existential historicism," (5) and the inward life of the past. He did, of course, finally negotiate the Venusberg's exit as well as its entrance, finishing his great poetic cycle, and integrating its reflections and conclusions into his life and work.

Contemporary Analogues

In 1861 and 1862, Morris began to draft "The Watching of the Falcon," "The Ring Given to Venus," and "The Hill of Venus," a series of praiseful and monitory medieval tales loosely associated with the figure of Venus. (6) "The Watching of the Falcon" eventually appeared as The Earthly Paradise's medieval tale for July, and a later version of "The Ring Given to Venus" became the work's penultimate medieval tale.

Psychological perils of proscribed love also appeared in contemporary poetic and visual motifs of Dante Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, and Algernon Swinburne. Both Swinburne and Burne-Jones, for example, began work on the legend of Tannhauser in the early 1860s, and Burne-Jones finished the watercolor Laus Veneris in 1861 (though he did not paint the better-known painting of the same title until 1875-78). (7) Swinburne's "Laus Veneris," written in a style similar to the Defence of Guenevere narratives, later appeared as one of his more provocative Poems and Ballads in 1866. (8)

All three artists found a great imaginative beauty and cause for celebration in the "sin" their source decried, although Swinburne was least directly concerned with ethical or religious aspects of the original legend. He was heavily indebted to Morris' Malorian style for his rhetoric and detailed portrayal of the knight's inward state, but his abstractly self-conscious "love" remained a curiously sterile if persistent form of libidinal attachment. "Laus"'s speaker, for example, invokes those who died for her love "in the old time,"

  Who, sleeping with her lips upon their eyes,
Heard sudden serpents hiss across her hair.

Their blook runs round the roots of time like rain:
She casts them forth and gathers them again;
  With nerve andbone she weaves and multiplies
Exceeding pleasure out of extreme pain.

Another parallel occurs in the final affirmation of Swinburne's speaker, addressed to Venus:

Ah, love, there is no better life than this;
To have known love, how bitter a thing it is,
   And aterward be cast out of God's sight;
Yes, these that know not, shall they have such bliss

High up in barren heaven before his face
As we twain in the heavy-hearted place,
   Remembering love and all the dead delight,
And all that time was sweet with for a space? …