‘Prologue of the Earthly Paradise’ by William Morris is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of seven lines, or septets. Each of these septets follows a rhyming pattern of ababbcc, alternating as the poet saw fit from stanza to stanza. A reader should also take note of the fact that each stanza ends in a very similar way. The final lines are not identical, but are close enough to be considered a refrain.
The speaker spends the first part of the stanza speaking of his own abilities or lack of abilities and then makes sure to remind the reader that he is only a “singer of empty days.”
Summary of Prologue of Earthly Paradise
The poem begins with the speaker listing out a number of things he is unable to do. These include having no power to alleviate one’s fears of death or bring back happy memories. In the second stanza, he lists his intentions. Firstly, that when one is sad they are able to remember him and the words he created and feel better, at least somewhat. Ideally, the speaker will “sing” about residents of the past and bring back their memories to those who are currently suffering.
In the last sections, he describes his perfect outcome. He would like his words to create a paradise on earth that allows one the opportunity to escape from the struggles of everyday life. All while remembering that he is just an “idle singer.”
Read more poetry from William Morris.
Analysis of Prologue of Earthly Paradise
Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot 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.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by stating a number of things he is unable to do or of which he has no knowledge. The first of these is “Heaven or Hell.” He does not understand any more about Heaven or Hell than his listener does. This disallows him from “sing[ing]” about their natures. Additionally, he is unable to, with his song or words, “ease the burden” of one’s fears.
These two elements combine into his inability to make death seem any less great of a thing than it is. It will always be something one will fear; he cannot make it “a little thing.” The speaker is also unable to bring back the “pleasures” of one’s “past years” nor make one forget one’s “tears.” All of these statements which speak against the narrator’s abilities conclude with a phrase describing how in addition to everything mentioned previously, he is unable to make one “hope again.”
The stanza ends with him referring to himself as being an “idle singer of an empty day.” These lines make the speaker’s space in the world seem almost purposeless, or at least not grandiose.
He has no great skill with which he can improve one’s mental or emotional state.
These first lines also bring up an expectation that the speaker will now turn to the things he is able to do with his words.
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.
In the second stanza, the speaker asks that his readers and listeners, when feeling depressed or “aweary” rather than full of mirth, remember him. These times can be improved by thinking of the speaker and the words he created.
One should not spend life “Grudg[ing] every minute as it passes by.” This state of mind will only allow more “sweet days” to pass by unnoticed or unappreciated. The lines conclude with the speaker reiterating the fact that he is just an “idle singer.”
By this point in ‘Prologue of the Earthly Paradise,’ it is clear he thinks of himself as much more than just a normal writer. He wants to, and believes that he does to some extent, have the ability to change one’s outlook on life. While he cannot do all the things he mentioned in the first stanza, he might be able to help a little.
The heavy trouble, the bewildering care
That weighs us down who live and earn our bread,
These idle verses have no power to bear;
So let me sing of names remembered,
Because they, living not, can ne’er be dead,
Or long time take their memory quite away
From us poor singers of an empty day.
In the third stanza, he speaks on the “troubles” which weigh down every person on earth. He knows all people are “bewilder[ed]” by their own cares and the constant need to “earn…bread.” In an effort to alleviate the burden felt by humanity, the speaker will “sing of names remembered.” He will cast the reader or listener back into the past and remind them of others how have made it through similar troubles.
It is the “memory” of these people who cannot be taken away, that might lift one’s spirits. It is only from “us poor singers” that one’s emotions can be improved. He sees it as his responsibility to do what he can to help others through the darkest parts of their lives.
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.
In this stanza, the speaker begins by taking another look at his life and what it is he is trying to do with his words. He asks himself why he should spend his time pining over the fact that he cannot impact the world in any substantial way. It does not need to be his task to “set the crooked straight.”
Instead, he says, he will try to be content with his “murmuring rhyme” and how it touches the world. It comes with “light wing” and “Beats…against the ivory gate. From these lines the speaker is emphasizing his ability to touch the ephemeral with his words. He comes close to the “ivory gate,” likely a reference to heaven. The words he speaks are described as being not too “importunate” or annoying. They do not intrude on one’s life but instead remain in the “sleepy region.” They are peaceful and have a “lull[ing]” impact on one’s life.
Folk say, a wizard to a northern king
At Christmas-tide such wondrous things did show,
That through one window men beheld the spring,
And through another saw the summer glow,
And through a third the fruited vines a-row,
While still, unheard, but in its wonted way,
Piped the drear wind of that December day.
In the fifth stanza, the speaker changes directions and utilizes his talents as “a poor singer” to tell the story of a “wizard” who shows “a northern king” a spectacle at “Christmas-tide.” The story opens with the king and his companions looking around the room and seeing “through one window…the spring.” When they turn again they see “the summer glow.”
These two views into other seasons continue with the third containing “the fruited vines a-row.” The mystical portals are then intruded on by the “drear wind” of their present month, “December.”
This story is a metaphor for the type of world the speaker would like to create. If he could, he would be the wizard crafting a way out of the miseries of life.
So with this Earthly Paradise it is,
If ye will read aright, and pardon me,
Who strive to build a shadowy isle of bliss
Midmost the beating of the steely sea,
Where tossed about all hearts of men must be;
Whose ravening monsters mighty men shall slay,
Not the poor singer of an empty day.
In the sixth stanza of ‘Prologue of the Earthly Paradise,’ the speaker asks that his readers and listeners acknowledge the fact that “this Earthly Paradise” he is seeking to create is the same as the world made by the wizard in the previous stanza. He also asks that they “pardon” him for the fact that he cares so much about “build[ing] a shadowy isle of bliss.”
This construct, which is a metaphor for the words he speaks and writes, will be a place of safety amongst the “beating of the steely sea.” The speaker understands all men want to have a refuge to return to. All people are within the sea, being tossed and turned with the tides of the world.
In the final two lines, the speaker again references the fact that he cannot change the world or slay monsters, but he can use his rhyme to create moments of peace.