William Morris Archive

Margaret Lourie

Except in the handful of poems discussed above--and there only with considerable modification--Morris does not in The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems attempt to imitate the literature of the Middle Ages. Rather, he brings to bear his sympathy with the fourteenth century on the writing of a poetry entirely modern. The special quality and achievement of that poetry depend largely on Morris' relationship to other nineteenth-century poets.

Apparently, Morris' remarkably catholic taste in medieval literature narrowed to a crotchety selectivity toward the poetry of his own century. Among the Romantics he openly despised Wordsworth (Mackail I, p. 219) and seldom mentioned Blake or Byron. Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats he admired enough to issue Kelmscott editions of their works in the 1890's. Yet he described Coleridge as "a muddle-brained metaphysician, who by some strange freak of fortune turned out a few real poems amongst the dreary flood of inanity which was his wont" (Mackail II, p. 310) and he accused Shelley of having "no eyes" (Mackail I, p. 178). Keats alone of these poets earned his unqualified veneration and discipleship.

From among his contemporaries, Morris in the 1850's was still reading avidly in the poetry of Tennyson and Browning, both of whom he later rejected. Most other Victorian poets seemingly escaped his notice. Keats, Tennyson, and Browning, then, lie behind much of this volume's poetic technique.

Browning's method in the dramatic monologues obviously influenced those Guenevere poems more or less based on Froissart's chronicles: "Sir Peter Harpdon's End," "Concerning Geffray Teste Noire," "Old Love," "The Gilliflower of Gold," "The Eve of Crecy," "The Judgment of God," "The Little Tower," "The Hay-stack in the Floods," and "Sir Giles' War-song." The debt was one which Morris himself acknowledged with respect to the title poem and which Mackail, along with nearly every other Morris scholar, readily extends to the Froissartian poems (I, p. 132). As further evidence of the debt, Morris had demonstrated his youthful enthusiasm, if not his critical acuity, for Browning's [p. 12] monologues in one of his few published comments on other poets--a review of Men and Women for the March 1856 number of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. In that review he ranked Browning "high among the poets of all time, and I scarcely know whether first, or second, in our own" (CW I, p. 347).

At least superficially, the similarities between Browning's dramatic monologues and Morris' Froissartian poems are striking. "Concerning Geffray Teste Noire" even replicates almost all the technical features of a Browning monologue: the speaker's real-world occasion for uttering the poem, the specified auditor, the self-revelation in excess of the occasion. Morris also borrows Browning's abrupt, conversational language. Compare Morris' Castel Neuf, improving his acquaintance with Allayne, and Browning's Fra Lippi Lippi, establishing contact with the watchman:

Your brother was slain there? I mind me now
A right, good man-at-arms, God pardon him!

("Concerning Geffray Teste Noire," lines 20-22)

What, brother Lippo's doings, up and down,
You know them and they take you? like enough! I saw the proper twinkle in your eye--
("Fra Lippo Lippi," lines 40-42)

Browning's ear for the halting or headlong progress of actual speech served as Morris' model in other poems as well: the title poem, "King Arthur's Tomb," "Sir Peter Harpdon's End," "The Judgment of God," and "The Haystack in the Floods."

Yet Morris learned more than the technical aspects of the dramatic monologue from Browning. He also discovered from monologues like "Andrea del Sarto" how to employ minute particulars and obscure characters from history in order to present an inside view of a sympathetic, if morally dubious, personality. Thus, Sir Peter Harpdon lives in the accurate historical context  of fourteenth-century France, justifies his own view of the hostilities between French and English, but also somewhat ignominiously severs his cousin's ears. Similarly, Roger in "The Judgment of God" readies himself for a believable fourteenth-century trial by combat, rallies sympathy for his underdog status, but also implies his probable guilt.

Morris did not, however, accomplish in his Froissartian poems exactly what Browning did in his dramatic monologues. In the monologues Browning's crucial balance between sympathy and judgment allows his reader a simultaneous subjective and objective view of his characters. But Morris omits the information that would permit objective judgment. While Browning in "Andrea del Sarto," for instance, explains his notion of artistic merit [p. 13] so that readers can judge Andrea's shortcomings, Morris in "The Judgment of God" never supplies enough information about the merits of the opposing factions to allow a confident judgment of Roger. Nor is it possible to pass informed moral judgments on Peter Harpdon or John of Newcastle. Morris' characters can only be viewed from within.

For Browning's balance between sympathy and judgment, Morris substitutes an entirely subjective tension between an aggressive, often violent public life and a passive private life of unfulfilled love. Peter Harpdon, for example, bravely defends his crumbling castle but sustains himself with a love fantasy which he is helpless to realize. And just as sympathy and judgment ultimately fuse in the reading of a Browning monologue, so public violence and private eroticism often intermingle in Morris' Froissartian poems. As Dianne Sadoff points out, the murder in "The Haystack in the Floods" replaces eroticism and even becomes erotic.5 Similarly, Castel Neuf's intensely private erotic fantasy centers on murdered lovers and a lady with lips like a "curved sword" (line 173). Thus, the Froissartian poems, unlike Browning monologues, portray and require no subtle intellection. Instead, they unfold a particular intrapsychic tension built on such amoral primitive instincts as aggression and sexuality.

The poems based on Malory's Morte d'Arthur in Morris' first volume show much of the same heritage as the Froissartian ones. Like Browning, Morris focuses on details of dress and expression to lend immediacy to characters who would otherwise seem remote. As Browning does in "Bishop Blougram's Apology," Morris has his speaker argue a position in "The Defence of Guenevere." Similarly, "King Arthur's Tomb" dramatizes two points of view in conflict, the strivings of human against religious devotion. Yet using the materials of received literary tradition automatically creates a different artistic situation from that posed by reviving empty personalities from history. Unlike the neutral citizens of past ages, the legendary figures of Guenevere, Launcelot, and Galahad come trailing clouds of glory. They immediately arouse certain associations in any literate audience, and their mythic stature puts them beyond the common life of humanity.

One effect of this legendary subject matter on the Malorian poems is that they portray passions larger than life--whether the passion be human love as in the first two poems or divine love as in the second two. Where the challenge of the history poems had been to invest Froissart's paper soldiers with human instincts, the method of the Malory poems is to take the recognizable human emotions of love, anxiety, impatience, piety, and charity to their utter limits. Hence, no mundane love but the consuming fire between a Launcelot and Guenevere; no ordinary [p. 14] piety but the pristine faith of a Galahad.

Another result of engaging Malory's major characters is that any situation the poet puts them in is bound to recall a moral or religious crux from Le Morte d'Arthur. Although Morris could easily avoid tangling with such problems in the Froissart poems, the question of, for instance, Guenevere's guilt or the dedication of Arthur's knights inevitably clings to any retelling of these tales. Thus, "The Defence of Guenevere" may appear to be a poem about the moral status of the Queen's crime and the two Galahad poems about the power of religious purity. But Morris takes certain steps in the Arthurian poems to evoke an emotional resonance rather than a moral or religious viewpoint.

Several tactics confound the moral issue of adultery in "The Defence of Guenevere." First, Guenevere maintains that her accuser Gauwaine is lying, yet the reader knows--and she tacitly admits--that she has indeed committed adultery. Thus, Guenevere effectively removes her defense from the sphere of logic since Gauwaine cannot logically be both lying and telling the truth. Only in the sphere of private emotion, not of public morality, does it make sense that anyone who wants her burned for loving Launcelot must somehow be mistaken. Alternating between confession and defiance, Guenevere also undercuts the moral issue by adopting no consistent line of argument. She urges first her helpless ignorance and the inevitability of her decline into sin, then her pitiable condition, then the justice of Launcelot's trial by combat against Mellyagraunce, and finally the inherent purity of beauty and the honor due a queen. All her arguments reveal more emotion--helplessness, love-longing, weeping, supplication, disgust at Mellyagraunce, and enchantment with her own beauty--than deliberate rhetoric.

Finally, Morris makes "The Defence of Guenevere" a poem about raging passion rather than moral judgment by emphasizing the Queen's erotic rather than her moral stature. All of the narrative sections of the poem dwell on her contorted sensuality or her tearful shame. Even when she speaks out bravely, she suffers from "passionate twisting" of her body; she is in short, a creature of sense and feeling, not of thought and judgment. Here, as elsewhere in the Guenevere volume, Morris avoids thought and grounds his action in an emotional state, even if the Queen's frenzy is wilder than any merely human one could be.

In "The Chapel in Lyoness the poet works in subtler ways to mitigate, if not dispel, religious meaning. Curtis Dahl in "Morris's 'The Chapel in Lyoness': An Interpretation" expounds  the poem as religious allegory.6 Yet what Dahl does not notice  is that an undercurrent of sensory experience and human love nearly washes out religious significance. Ozana initially describes [p. 15] himself in terms which are clearly sensual--from the colored samite to the naked chest. His paralysis is entirely physical: he cannot eat, speak, sleep, or even bleed. His invisible wound suspiciously resembles those inflicted by Cupid, and presses to his breast not the expected cross but a lock of a lady's hair. Even after Galahad's kiss of absolution, Ozona longs for sleep and love, not divine grace. Galahad, too, seems oddly sensual for a virgin knight. Like a would-be lover, he sings, suffers a heated heart, cools his face in a stream, and  plucks a rose. And in his culminating vision, Galahad sees the lovers reunited in a heaven consisting only of a distinctly non-spiritual jasper sea. Once again, Morris undercuts moral and religious significance, documenting instead human perception and erotic love.

Erotic and sensory though "The Chapel in Lyoness" may be, it certainly registers no everyday experience. Ozana likens his situation to a dream, and indeed all the characters in this poem seem to occupy a space beyond the ordinary world--one in which colors shine brighter, motives are murkier, and actions less certain. "Spell-bound," "The Wind," "The Blue Closet," "The Tune of Seven Towers," and "Golden Wings" also partake of  this atmosphere. Nothing could seem farther than the netherworld of "The Blue Closet" from the "truth to nature" espoused by the first Pre-Raphaelites in painting and by Browning in poetry.

In fact, the Morris poems in this group derive in large  part from Keats and Tennyson. According to Mackail, Morris ranked Keats first among modern English poets (I, p. 219) and claimed him as one of his few poetic masters (I, p. 200). As for Tennyson, no Oxford undergraduate in the early 1850's could have escaped his influence, and in Morris' circle the Poet Laureate was a constant object of adulation (Mackail I, p. 46). 

The younger poet inherited from Keats and Tennyson a fascination with the colors and strangely static passions of medievalism. These Keats had explored in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "Isabella," "The Eve of St. Mark," and "The Eve of St. Agnes." Before 1858 Tennyson had likewise contributed "Oriana" and several poems on Arthurian themes: "The Lady of Shalott," "Galahad," "Morte d'Arthur," and "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere."

Unlike Browning, Keats and Tennyson had no intention of  transforming remote past into immediate present. Rather, each of them saw acts of the creative imagination as possible only in a world outside "The weariness, the fever, and the fret / Here, where men sit and hear each other groan"--whether that world be the "forest dim" of Keats' nightingale or Tennyson's Palace of Art. Both poets often constructed these imaginative realms out of medieval materials. For the dark centuries of [p. 16] the Middle Ages seemed distant enough to be viewed through a veil of romance, and both poets thought of them as a time more congenial than the present to visions, dreams, and magic. Aided by their medieval settings, Keats' knight-at-arms could be visited by a nearly palpable Belle Dame, and Tennyson's Lady of Shalott could be credibly spellbound within her four gray walls. For both poets the Middle Ages served as a kind of halfway house between a quotidian existence and fairyland.

To both Keats and Tennyson the experience of these imagined lands was an intensely sensuous one. In that beautiful mingling of dream and medieval reality which forms the center of "The Eve of St. Agnes," Keats sees the colors of moonlight filtered through stained glass, feels Madeline's "warmed jewels," smells "her fragrant bodice," tastes the fruit Porphyry brings, and hears the lute. Tennyson, too, anchors his poetic world to concrete sense impressions described in meticulous detail, although for him more than for Keats visual and aural perceptions pre-dominate over the other senses.

Morris continues this tradition of sensory immediacy in a imaginative realm, relying heavily on the techniques of Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" and "Mariana." Like Tennyson's, Morris sensory appeals are nearly all visual, punctuated only occasionally by a tolling bell or an inserted song. Where Keats chose to evoke shape and texture as much as color, Morris--learning instead from Rossetti's paintings--nearly ignores matters of shadow, touch, or solidarity, often for an intensity of pure color that takes his images out of any recognizable world. From the wealth of detail and primary colors in the opening stanzas of "Golden Wings," for example, the ancient castle could undoubtedly be painted, but it has never been seen in the shadow three-dimensional daytime world.

Morris' sharp, flat, Pre-Raphaelite colors help define the world of fantasy he projects. Each character in his enchanted realm, like Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, suffers from unfulfilled desire in a place locked away from the real world. The speaker in "Spell-bound" has been mysteriously separated from his betrothed by a wizard. The dames in "The Blue Closet" have waited what seems an eternity for Arthur's return, and Jeanne in "Golden Wings" vainly expects her lover. In the opening scenes of "Rapunzel" the Prince is separated from his beloved by a kind of enchantment: "And still God ties me down to the green sward (line 154). Galahad in "Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery" falls into the thralldom of half-sleep, suffering from the absence of love until the Lord awakens him to proper piety. And before he can rejoin his lover in heaven, a spell binds Ozana speechless and tearless to the chapel floor in "The Chapel in Lyoness."

But more than Tennyson does even in "Mariana," Morris projects through his captured personages only the world they can [p. 17] see. And that world has the stasis of their own involuted passions. Its fitting counterparts are the still pictures in "The Sailing of the Sword," "Near Avalon," and the opening stanzas of "Golden Wings"--word groupings which rely for their unity only on contrasted colors and juxtaposed figures. Compared with the intensified naturalism of "Mariana," the unnatural colors of "The Blue Closet" and "Golden Wings" seem to emerge from a mind even more closed off from the real world. The psychic energy normally directed outward toward the phenomenal world has been in the Morris poems entirely redirected inward by emotional frustration. The resulting hallucinations reflect only that inner psychic tension, not external reality.

Moreover, it is for the sake merely of realizing this hallucinated dreamscape and the emotion that attaches to it that Morris multiplies the details of his descriptions in these poems. The details mean nothing other than what they are--the concretizing of an overwrought condition of mind. Morris even calls attention to the color and disposition of these details simply because they are there to be apprehended:

Across the moat the fresh west wind
In very little ripples went;
The way the heavy aspens bent
Towards it, was a thing to mind.
("Golden Wings," lines 21-24)

In all his poems of fevered fancy, details work to keep the eyes trained directly on the world before them. "The Wind" brings one close enough to the dream-remembered lady to see that "Margaret as she walk'd held a painted book in her hand; / Her finger kept the place" (lines 34-35). In "The Blue Closet" and "The Tune of Seven Towers" Morris gives corporal substance even to the shadows of death. Nearly every time his fairyland threatens; to escape ordinary waking experience entirely, the poet brings his vision back to sensory detail. Thus, Arthur's tears are hidden in a "gold and blue casket" ("The Blue Closet," line 45, and the wizard in "Spell-bound" has bound the knight "with silken chains" (line 73). The power of these poems of another world resides in their tension between an impossible setting or situation and a convincing probability of detail.

This visual insistence is not the only peculiarity of Morris’ interior fantasy land. Life there does not progress logically in time toward an unwanted death. Instead, his fairy people hover gladly on death's brink. The ladies in "The Blue Closet" may be already dead when the poem opens and are certainly both dead and happy by the end. Yoland in "The Tune of Seven Towers" sends Oliver to his death with apparent relish, as if the mission she proposes could be at once life-sustaining and death-provoking. The knights and ladies of "Near Avalon" [p. 18] occupy a similar space between life and death. And Jehane in "Golden Wings" is cheerful only in death.

These existences outside biological time also lack human motivation and activity. The Prince in "Rapunzel" is translated into the tower without any activity of his own. In "The Blue Closet" the ladies have been incarcerated mysteriously, and Arthur appears for seemingly no reason. The woman in "The Wind" dies from no apparent cause and for no apparent reason. One cannot tell why the knight in "Spell-bound" has been tied up with silken chains nor why Oliver would consider riding toward the Seven Towers. The enchantment of these creatures seems to allow neither life nor action.

In his fantasy poems, then, Morris creates a world which does not operate by the laws of time or cause and effect. It is, moreover, almost entirely a visual world, improbably hued and weirdly flat. Not surprisingly, it is a world which corresponds remarkably well to the one Freud describes in The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud maintains that all logical representations decay in dreams or hallucinations, and considerations of visual representation become primary. He even suggest that these visual images are the earliest, most primitive forms of human thought and that dreams are therefore a regression to the infancy both of the child and of the race. Perhaps these dream mechanisms are what Morris unconsciously bodied forth in his poems of fairyland. This notion seems all the more likely in view of Morris' life-long attraction to folk literature, which for the Freudian encodes racial dreams.

Thus, in the entire Guenevere volume Morris looks through various lenses to explore the details of primitive emotion. He goes back in time to wrest from oblivion a more primitive state of society, imaging through his medieval knights the persistence of primal instincts. Or he goes back into the human mind to retrieve its most primitive process in dream images. His return to legend and folk tale for much of his material reinforces his resolve to strip the human soul of ephemera. His practice in this book has been to portray the private human essentials of seeing, feeling, and dreaming.

After bringing out The Defence of Guenevere in 1858, Morris stopped publishing poetry for nearly a decade and turned instead to the decorative arts. In 1861 he and his friends founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company in an effort to elevate decoration to a new artistic plane. Eventually controlled solely by Morris, the firm manufactured furnishings, stained glass, wallpaper, and textiles which considerably influenced public taste. A man of inexhaustible energy and a celebrated diversity of talents, Morris also started the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, lectured frequently on art and society beginning in the late 1870's, helped to establish the [p. 19] Socialist League in 1884, and edited its organ Commonweal until 1890. In 1890 he launched his final business venture, the Kelmscott Press, which extended to printing the careful craftsmanship and intentional archaism he had already brought to decoration.

In literature Morris' equally prodigious achievement runs to twenty-four volumes in The Collected Works. Due primarily to The Life and Death of Jason (1867), The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870), and The Story of Sigurd the Volsung (1877), he ranked among the most famous poets of his generation. Later, he tried prose genres as well, producing essays, lectures, socialist romances, and fantasies.

Yet during the nine-year hiatus between The Defence Guenevere and The Life and Death of Jason, Morris radically altered his poetics. In writing the Guenevere poems, he had drawn ideas, subjects, and techniques from the mainstream of nineteenth-century historicism. But when he returned to poetry, he began taking medieval storytellers themselves for models--Chaucer in The Earthly Paradise, the saga writers in Sigurd. The resulting narratives, though often striking, thus constitute only a curious byway off the high road of nineteenth-century English Romanticism. When he completely rejected his immediate precursors Browning and Tennyson, Morris also rejected for his later poetry the secure place within the Romantic tradition that he had earned with the Guenevere volume.