“Us poor singers”: Victorians and The Earthly Paradise audience, community, and storytelling in William Morrisʼ first success
Doucet, Emily Rose
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The Earthly Paradise was William Morris’s first real success, and it remained his best-known work even after his death. It has not fared as well since the mid-twentieth century, when it became overlooked and problematic, as the Morris of The Earthly Paradise years became coextensive with a portrait of Victorian middle-class myopia. This verdict has been brought to the doors of the poem’s first readers, who are imagined to have liked it for uncomplicated reasons of fashion and entertainment. I reconsider these assumptions by returning to the contemporary reception of the poem to ask what audiences thought about Morris as a public figure, what it was that they so responded to in his work, and what the poem itself says about reception—the relationship between story, audience, and speaker. I argue both within the text and in the reception of it, such relationships are nearly always understood as communal, as storytellers—Morris and those in his text—address audiences as collective publics, and speak on behalf of them. Moreover, this speech is always marked by a mutually inclusive relationship with text, so that stories are properly understood as arising from the discursive field established through the participation, both textual and vocal, of anyone who understands himself or herself addressed by the discourse.