In a helpful companion, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Robert Frost, its editor Harold Bloom describes William Morris (1834–1896) as a “gifted lyrical and narrative poet.” It’s an uncontroversial description but perhaps a tad laconic, as is the rest of his two paragraph summary of Morris’ poetic reputation. Nevertheless, Bloom’s selection contains what I believe to be a quite under-rated poem, his “A Garden by the Sea,” reproduced below.
(1) I know a little garden-close,
Set thick with lily and red rose,
Where I would wander if I might
From dewy morn to dewy night,
And have one with me wandering.
(6) And though within it no birds sing,
And though no pillared house is there,
And though the apple-boughs are bare
Of fruit and blossom, would to God
Her feet upon the green grass trod,
And I beheld them as before.
(12) There comes a murmur from the shore,
And in the close two fair-streams are,
Drawn from the purple hills afar,
Drawn down unto the restless sea:
Dark hills whose heath-bloom feeds no bee,
Dark shore no ship has ever seen,
Tormented by the billows green
Whose murmur comes unceasingly
Unto the place for which I cry.
(21) For which I cry both day and night,
For which I let slip all delight,
Whereby I grow both deaf and blind,
Careless to win, unskilled to find,
And quick to lose what all men seek.
(26) Yet tottering as I am and weak,
Still have I left a little breath
To seek within the jaws of death
An entrance to that happy place,
To seek the unforgotten face,
Once seen, once kissed, once reft from me
Anigh the murmuring of the sea.
One can see straight away that the poem has a varied rhyme scheme. For example, in verses 21–32, we see a sharp revolution to the AABBCC, etc. scheme. Rather than dwell on structure, however, I’d like to suggest a possible interpretive web that may lend itself practicable for purposes of empathizing for the one who hurts; perhaps the poem can be read as an allegory for yearning and loss—what the perpetually dissatisfied ego experiences “east of Eden.”
Verses 1–5 are iconic for their depiction of natural beauty: “I know a little garden-close, / Set thick with lily and red rose.” In a very obscure source, Jean Sherwood Rankin defines the word-cluster that includes garden and close to (generally) signify, “small enclosures adjoining a house or other building.” “Garden-close” makes me think of just such an enclosure, though perhaps more private. The lack of the preposition of in the first verse of the first stanza brings to mind a more intimate knowledge of the garden-close. Not only does the narrator have knowledge of the whereabouts, even visual memories of the garden-close, the narrator knows this garden-close.
Verse 4, “From dewy morn to dewy night,” brings to the fore the first semblance of temporality, of an experience of time passing that is not fraught. Time, as it is represented and reified now, passes into the abyss of nothingness. The first stanza is caught up into the narrator’s memory such that he or she perceives a certain sense of timelessness, though time was passing nonetheless. In fact, the duration of his or her days was spent in this space until a point in time. Evidently the garden-close is more than aspirational, a locus of well-being, although it is also that. It is fleeting, so sweet that it can surely become bitter if it is lost. Or rather, it may become the object of the narrator’s bitterness, longing, and despair.
The beauty of the garden, however idyllic, is qualified in the second stanza. What we learn is that in the garden-close, at least now, birds do not sing their songs. It is an interpretive leap, but I believe that the “thoughs” of vv. 6–8 indicate a perversion of the purity of the garden in the first stanza. This is to say that the text is not in stasis, it is moving from its exalted state to a self-reflexive criticism in search of an ill-defined Other, with the implication being that it was lost at some point.
In verse 7, reference is made to “pillared house[s].” One source has argued that the term pillared houses may be synonymous with a four room house, often found in Israel during the Iron Age. If this description holds, and the term is not simply referring to classically influenced architecture, the poem is given an ancient, almost psalm-like quality—we will return to this shortly. Verse 8 calls to mind the branch of an apple tree from which one picks apples. The bareness of the tree may indicate one of several possibilities: an unlikely possibility is that the tree has been picked bare, somewhat more likely, and more in line with the context of the surrounding verses, is that the tree is dead and withered. There are no “fruit and blossom” on the “apple-boughs.” It is tempting to see parallels with the forbidden fruit of the knowledge of good and evil in the fall narrative of the early chapters of Genesis.
Eden, forever intertwined with the Fall of Humanity, is a bittersweet reminder for the narrator. The expanse of Eden, the beautiful garden, could have included buildings and structures. Indeed, one commentator has argued that,
“The physical and spiritual dimensions of Adam’s responsibilities in relation to the Gen. 1 commission are apparent from the recognition that Adam was like a primordial priest serving in a primeval temple.” — Beale, NTBT, pp. 32–33
The lack of such buildings can be read as their dilapidation or destruction at the point of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the garden. As Beale has argued, the primeval temple space was the area in which Adam worshipped God. The loss of such may be reflected here.
Everything from the context, cadence, rhyme structure, rhythm, and overall impression of the stanza leads me to believe that this is a reference to a deep memory, one that every human has. I have chosen to link this deep memory to that of Eden and of the greater longings in human experience — communion, wholeness, etc. What if, at this point in the lyrical arc of the poem, one chooses to imagine that the narrator is the biblical/literary Adam-figure? What if Adam’s yearning for “an help meet for him,” famously satisfied by Eve in Genesis 2:18, 20, is called to mind by the prayerful request — “would to God,” (v. 9) — that the narrator may “[behold]” this person’s “feet upon the green grass [treading]” (v. 11) “as before” (v. 10)?
The desire to see the narrator’s lover does not demand physical intimacy with another person. Morris may be alluding to his muse—his source of poetic inspiration. Expanding on this point, a psychological reading of this “one” (v. 5)/“her” (v. 10) could be a return (on the basis of the narrator’s lived experience) to a non-depressive state. It could refer to his or her memories of a time, space, and place in which he or she didn’t experience melancholia.
At this point, the murmurings of the Fall, Satan’s oppression, and the trials and tribulations of daily life are put under a microscope for the narrator. The Adam-figure dares to speak of the turmoil both around him and surrounding him by speaking of the oft-hated (by the Ancient Israelites) image of water in the violence of the sea. In the wreck of sin-infected, post-Fall garden and world, the expanse to which Adam and Eve may have been privy, one sees “two fair-streams,” that are “in the close” (v. 13). In the world outside of the close, there is trouble afoot. The “murmur from the shore” (v. 12) brings the narrator’s attention to “Dark hills whose heath-bloom feeds no bee, / Dark shore no ship has ever seen, / Tormented by the billows green / Whose murmur comes unceasingly” (vv. 16–19).
The anxiety provoked by the sound of uneasy waters seem to reverberate with the unwinding chaotic disorder that God himself first tamed, beginning with the hovering of His spirit-wind over the face of the deep. This murmuring is a constant reminder of the brokenness, the lost opportunities, the shame and guilt of life postured away from God. So we learn that it is for this reason that the murmur travels to the Eden-remnant, “Unto the place for which [the narrator cries]” (v. 20).
The sound of the murmur evokes profound, long-lasting emotional distress. The Adam-figure cries out for his or her lost garden-close. Indeed, it is for this reason he or she is able to proclaim the following: “For which I cry both day and night, / For which I let slip all delight, / Whereby I grow both deaf and blind, / Careless to win, unskilled to find, / And quick to lose what all men seek” (vv. 21–25). Life after the Fall is filled with misery and suffering. It is the narrator’s aforementioned deep-memory, about which he or she is so mournful, namely due to its loss. The tears flow because his or her garden-close is gone. And the loss of this Eden-type locus is so traumatic, it lends itself to suffering so great that the narrator should grow “both death and blind” (v. 23). Lines 24–25, then, indicate the apathy, listlessness, and sadness that comes in retrospect, when the narrator perceives the deep and profound divorce from paradise, and furthermore, the lack of his or her beloved.
Lines 26ff. bring us our hope and peace, the resolution of the broken man and woman. The impression of the final stanza is captured by Psalm 71:14, “But I will hope continually and will praise you yet more and more.” The life-breath in our lungs is the spirit-breathed power of God, and so, “Yet tottering as I am and weak, / Still have I left a little breath To seek within the jaws of death / An entrance to that happy place” (26–29). The narrator, the Adam-figure, has the breath (his or her power and hope) to stand still in the storm and peer in the jaws of death; he or she will confront the terror of the Nothing, the abyss of nothingness, the miasma of Spleen, yet with a purpose, and that is “To seek the unforgotten face / Once seen, once kissed, once reft from me / Anigh the murmuring of the sea” (vv. 30–32).
Poetic inspiration, a lover, interpersonal fulfillment, even communion with God himself… The search into the “jaws of death” is the search for “the unforgotten face.” The word anigh means nearby or close to. Morris concludes his poem with a description of the narrative reality of life after Eden. It involves a confrontation with the trauma that this separation causes. It recognizes that the relationship between the Adam-figure and the very nature of the object of his or her affection is qualitatively different after the garden-close is gone. In the poem, the Adam-figure was “reft” (past participle of reave, or to steal) of his or her beloved. It is true that Adam and Eve remained together, but the purity of their union was disturbed by the aggression and distrust that the curse inserted between them.
Morris’ promise is that the search will continue in perpetuity, and that there will be the anxiety-producing loom of the sea to torment us all the while. We will sail through the loudest noise, however, purely on the basis of the memory of this garden-close, and the sheer power of the object of our affections.
I will close this discussion of Morris’ poem with a quotation from Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin:
Perhaps everybody has a Garden of Eden, I don’t know; but they have scarcely seen their garden before they see the flaming sword. Then, perhaps, life only offers the choice of remembering the garden or forgetting it. Either, or; it takes strength to remember, it takes another kind of strength to forget, it takes a hero to do both. People who remember court madness through pain, the pain of the perpetually recurring death of their innocence; people who forget court another kind of madness, the madness of the denial of pain and the hatred of innocence; and the world is mostly divided between madmen who remember and madmen who forget. Heroes are rare. (1.2.19)