Edward Burne-Jones (Sort Of) Illustrates The Kelmscott Chaucer

Leaving aside his other manifold accomplishments, let’s look at William Morris at the moment that the Renaissance man and Victorian gadfly became a printer. This was 1891, when Morris was fifty-five. Between 1891 and 1896, Morris’s press, the Kelmscott—named for his home in Oxfordshire—printed sixty-six books. The books are collector’s items, famous for their beauty and for using mainly pre-industrial production methods—this less for Luddite purity than for quality. The last book Kelmscott produced is The Works of Geoffrey Chaucer, a tome of seventeen pounds, almost as many inches, and 568 pages. The Kelmscott Chaucer has been in the running for the world’s loveliest book since the day it dropped.

The Rosenbach has the full run of Kelmscott, including the magnificent Chaucer. The first book Kelmscott produced, The Story of the Glittering Plain, comes with serviceable but unexceptional illustrations by Walter Crane, which you can see here. The Kelmscott Chaucer’s illustrations are by Morris’s friend and frequent collaborator, Edward Burne-Jones.

Burne-Jones is the Ozymandias of 19th century British art: a titan in his own day, forgotten or derided in ours. Beginning as an acolyte of Pre-Raphaelitism—the neo-medieval artistic reform movement—Burne-Jones rode the wave of the counter-culture till it became the establishment. His grandly diffident visions were a significant influence on artists to come, including the Symbolists, and even early Picasso. Mainly known for painting, Burne-Jones is also remembered for his work in stained glass, tapestry, and illustration. Early illustrations are conventionally Victorian, but soon take on the humid medievalism of Dante Rossetti—whose motifs and preoccupations were as contagious to younger artists as stomach flu. As he became a successful painter of the second phase of Pre-Raphaelitism, Burne-Jones largely abandoned illustration, but returned to it in the last decade of his life for William Morris and Kelmscott, when his powers were at their height.

Though his illustrations for the Kelmscott Chaucer are masterful as artworks, they are only partly successful as illustration. Burne-Jones captures Chaucer’s noble and heroic aspects, as well as his spirituality, but fails to even attempt to capture his panoptic glee or bawdiness. William Morris unsuccessfully urged Burne-Jones to illustrate the ribald episodes of the Canterbury Tales, specifically the filthy Miller’s Tale, but Burne-Jones refused, later explaining his demurral by saying that Morris “had more robust and daring parts” than he, and where the bawdier Tales were concerned he would prefer “to pretend that Chaucer hadn’t done them.”

This Grundyish view of Chaucer is as puzzling as it is disappointing from Burne-Jones. Burne-Jones doodled some adorable sketches—often of a stubbily determined Morris—and at least one erotic drawing survives of his mistress Maria Zambaco. But if they fail to give us Chaucer in full, the eighty-seven illustrations Burne-Jones produced for the Kelmscott Chaucer remain some of his best work: arresting meditations on space, distance, delay, longing, and the quietly perilous energy that vibrates between two people who dare to make eye contact.

I’ve chosen seven of Burne-Jones’s illustrations for the Kelmscott Chaucer to share here, and thank my colleague Cathy Chandler for taking photos of this immense obstreperous book! Here, on the first page of The Canterbury Tales, Burne-Jones gives us Chaucer with a book and a pen, by a well, and a tree that is delightfully full of birds:

And there, with Morris’s lovely drop letters, you see the famous opening text that some English professor encouraged you to read in a loopy approximation of what middle English might have sounded like, rendering the poetry incomprehensible and making his classroom sound like a rehearsal for a community theater production of Spamalot. (If you’d tried it in your own accent and with the help of a glossary you’d have heard Chaucer’s humor and depth and wouldn’t have dropped that class; Chaucer wrote in the vernacular for a reason.). In this image you can see the influence on Burne-Jones’s work of Japanese prints, an influence that permeated all European Art of the late 19th Century except the most stolidly Academic. As in a Japanese print, the viewer is invited to peer into the image by a distant view, here of mountains. Shapes are embodied through line alone, and shadows are few. You can see some of the same borrowed elements in Burne-Jones’s illustration for The Merchant’s Tale:

Here is Januarie, an aptly named “olde knight,” who is in a May/December marriage with a woman whose name, as it happens, is Mayus, or May. We are early in the tale, when Januarie gazes at Mayus and is overwhelmed with comical concern that his virile ardor will not exhaust Mayus on their wedding night—though this does not stop him from chugging aphrodisiacs before bed. The statue of Venus suggests that love is on both Januarie and Maius’s minds, and also foreshadows the goddess’s kindling of a lust for Maius in the heart of Januarie’s squire Damyan. As always, Burne-Jones’s work is full of meaningful gazes. Januarie gazes at Mayus, but the background landscape has distracted Mayus from him, just as it lures the eye of the viewer. I remember no ocean in The Merchant’s Tale, and unless this is a swollen river Tacino I am intrigued by what inspired Burne-Jones to flood Pavia, where the Merchant’s Tale takes place. Mayus, I suspect, here imagines the ocean of possibilities that lie outside her marriage, where there are more fish in the sea. Similarly, a good illustration can encourage a reader to wonder what lies just outside the story as written. Spoiler alert: the ending of this one, with its bouquet of forgiveness, is surprising and charming.         

In The Canterbury Tales one tale is often answered by another, with one of the pilgrims angrily responding to a perceived slight in the depiction of someone of his rank or profession in the tale of another. After The Merchant’s Tale, where a squire is possessed by lust and disloyalty, the Innkeeper gallantly offers the Knight’s young Squire a chance to tell a tale about love. Though it is set in the Mongol Empire, the Squire’s story begins with an Arthurian flourish. A knight from the king of Arabia and India crashes a feast that commemorates the twentieth year of the reign of Genghis Kahn, and brings magical gifts: a brass horse that will take you anywhere you desire, a mirror that warns of any coming sorrow or treachery, a sword that deals wounds that will not heal unless touched by the flat of the same sword, and a ring, specifically intended for the Kahn’s daughter Canacee, which will reveal the speech of birds and give knowledge of the properties of all plants. (Canacee likely wondered why she was not considered for the horse or the sword, but makes good use of the ring as it inspires her to build a wildlife rehab for a broken-hearted falcon).

The stars of this illustration are the gleaming brass horse and the rider who brandishes the magic mirror. You can see that Genghis Kahn looks glum and the rest of his court vacillate between apathy and irritation. As might be expected from the reception the rider and his gifts are receiving, the magical gifts remain unused for the rest of the tale, with the exception of Canacee’s ring. Canacee is the only person in this story who knows what to do with a magical object: if she had been given the sword, mirror, and horse she would have built homes for the unhoused of the Mongol Empire and liberated the Empire’s colonies. Instead, the last we see of the sword and mirror they have been stowed in a tower, and the horse, the Squire reports, “vanished, I know not in what manner.” The tale is unfinished.

Here is one of the most dramatic spreads in the whole of the Kelmscott Chaucer. This is not from The Canterbury Tales, but from The House of Fame, an early allegorical poem by Chaucer with trippy architecture, visitations from the sky, and a mysterious unnamed man “of greet auctoritee” who appears just as this unfinished work goes radio silent. On the right you see Chaucer, or the narrator, with his eagle guide, dreaming of an enormous house made of twigs that spins constantly and makes a colossal noise. Inside, people rush to and fro sharing news, rumors, and gossip, sometimes leaving the wicker house to spread their news further. With this menacing woven house—one of the few things in the world of the Kelmscott Chaucer that casts a shadow—the suspicious and eager gossips (who in Chaucer’s original are not specified to be only women…), and a manic determination to render every surface, Burne-Jones outdoes himself here. Also from The House of Fame, here is the holy moment where the narrator first meets his eagle guide:

The desert, the sun, the door, the eagle: this is one of the best pages in The Kelmscott Chaucer, almost as metaphysical and numinous as Blake. If Burne-Jones can give us something as celestial as his drawings for The House of Fame I guess I forgive his eschewing the earthiness of some of Canterbury’s episodes. I’ll leave you with one last Burne-Jones: this from Chaucer’s translation of the medieval best-seller The Romance of the Rose, from Old French.

Burne-Jones’s faces are often compellingly devoid of expression, like Great Garbo in the last shot of Queen Christina, famously thinking of nothing. But I love that each woman who faces us here has a distinct  expression: reticent, quizzical, earnest, or questioning. That two of the women pause mid-dance to share an athletic kiss makes the image really wonderful.

William Morris died in 1896, the same year the Kelmscott Chaucer was finished; two years later, Edward Burne-Jones followed him to the grave. Morris and Burne-Jones were 62 and 63 when they made the Chaucer, so the book is a backward glance, viewing the world, Chaucer’s teeming, complete world, from the vantage of two men who have climbed life’s mountain and look back on all the experiences life can hold.

Except the naughty ones.