Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Size Matters; or, Morris's Rudest Moments

We know that Morris had hopes that Burne-Jones would do some illustrations for the more improper moments of the Canterbury Tales for the Kelmscott Chaucer, but the latter declined, averring that Morris ‘ever had more robust and daring parts’ than he did. But if he thus failed to get his old friend to liven up the Kelmscott Chaucer, Morris had none the less got some pretty rude moments of his own into some of his earlier literary works.

My own personal favourites come from his translation of the Grettir Saga. We have first Grettir’s finely contemptuous vision of the cowardly Gisli propelling himself away by farts from Grettir’s rage: ‘And sweating o’er the marsh with fear,/He helped the wind from mouth and rear’.

But we also have a nicely sceptical moment about Grettir himself, put into the mouth of the handmaiden at Reeks when she sees him naked in bed the morning after his great swim from the island of Drangey: ‘So may I thrive, sister! Here is Grettir Asmundsen lying bare, and him I call right well ribbed about the chest, but few might think he would be so small of growth below; and so then that does not go along with other kinds of bigness’.

So size does matter, though Grettir might perhaps have offered in defence of his shrivelled manhood that he has just had a long exposure to what James Joyce once memorably called ‘the scrotum-tightening sea’. However, he does then pull the handmaiden into bed to show her just what he is capable of with what he’s got; she shrieks out, ‘but in such wise did they part that she laid no blame on Grettir when all was over’.

Any other candidates buried in the Collected Works for Morris’s rudest moment?

No comments: