Professor John Carey’s lectures on modernism were certainly one of the highlights of my days as a postgraduate student at Oxford University. The dry, sardonic wit of his delivery (which also came over very well on television arts programmes), and his exposure of the deeply inhumane attitudes of some major modernist writers, were both intensely memorable – even if there none the less remains much to be said about the cultural and political importance of modernism.
So I am glad to see that, in retirement and now in his early eighties, John Carey remains academically productive (as well as keeping bees in the Cotswolds) and has just brought out an abridged version of Milton’s Paradise Lost, which comes in at about one third of its full length. Reviews on social media are predictably divided: some see it as a welcome introduction, which may helpfully lead readers on to the full poem, while others denounce it as a symptom of our culturally dumbed-down times, when even the classics have to be turned into sound-bites. I myself take the dialectical view that both opinions, for and against, are true.
But this slimline Paradise Lost raises the question of what we should do with Morris’s long poems, of how we might get them back into some sort of circulation. Most recent anthologies of Morris’s poetry have concentrated on the shorter, early works and merely given very brief snippets from the lengthier ones. So does Carey’s Milton project suggest a way forward for us here? Could Morris’s prodigious poetic feats – The Life and Death of Jason or The Earthly Paradise itself – be edited down to a half or a third of their current length, and then published with interlinking editorial commentary that would fill in the resulting narrative gaps, as Carey has done for Milton? Is there a Morrisian editor out there bold enough to take this on, and, more important still, would there be a publisher daring enough to give it a go?