Critical Introduction to The Defence of Guenevere
Make-strong old dreams lest this our world lose heart.--epigraph to Pound's Personae (1909)
Much of nineteenth-century British poetry can seem a history of loss and a long looking back. Its authors lamented the last simplicity of pre-industrial society and a coherent system of beliefs. More deeply if less consciously, they mourned the possibility of decisive action, objective perception, and human communication which had passed from the modern world. Seeking comfort in this cataclysm, many poets combed through history for soil in which their thwarted imaginations could take root. They returned now with Arnold to the Greeks "who saw life steadily and saw it whole," now with Pater and Browning to the Renaissance, but most often to the Middle Ages with poets like Scott, Keats, Tennyson, Morris, and Rossetti. For similar reasons Yeats would later look back to Irish legend, Joyce to the Odyssey, and Pound to Provence.
Other poets recalled private rather than public history and found their consolation in memories of childhood. Wordsworth perhaps inaugurated this line of thinking in his Intimations ode. By mid-century Ruskin could, without seeming absurd, identify childhood as the locus of genius. He remembered “the days of childhood as of greatest happiness, because those were the days of greatest wonder, greatest simplicity, and most vigorous imagination.” And the whole difference between a man of genius and other men . . . is that the first remains in great part a child, seeing with the large eyes of children, in perpetual wonder, not conscious of much knowledge."1
As late as 1902 Yeats, still enchanted with the child’s vision, could remember William Morris as "The Happiest of the Poets" and apply his epithet to the poet of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems as well as to the later Morris who celebrated natural abundance. To exemplify his epithet he cited the first three stanzas of "Golden Wings," which he called "the best description of happiness in the world"2--ignoring that [p.2] poem's final suicide, war, and ruin. For to Yeats all that Morris wrote seemed "like the make-believe of a child who is remaking the world" (p. 60), and even the violence, the fearful incarcerations, the unrealized loves of the Guenevere volume retain all the heightened immediacy of childhood. These early poems exhibit no philosophy, no network of image or symbol to complicate the expression of pure feeling--whether love-longing, paralyzing loneliness, lust for violence, or struggle for chastity. Morris so effortlessly animated medieval dreams that all his work recalled to Yeats an enviable innocence which usually vanishes with adulthood and industrialization but which in Morris oddly survived both. The younger poet looked back to Morris in troubled wisdom and saw an ease and assurance forever denied his own more complicated sensibility.
Hugh Kenner precisely captures the childlike charm of Morris for his successors in his cameo of Ezra Pound with H. D.: "a crow's nest high in the Doolittles' maple tree had been one of their adolescent trysting-places, and the little apple orchard in the Pounds' back garden at Wyncote another. He had brought her . . . William Morris ("The Gilliflower of Gold" and "The Haystack in the Floods"), and under the apple trees read to her . . ."3 Kenner's sketch and Yeats' essay suggest a view of Morris which closely parallels Matthew Arnold's exhausting effort to cope with Wordsworth. In fact, some of Arnold's "Memorial Verses" to Wordsworth could double as Yeats' tribute to Morris:
One "early world" Morris revived in this volume was the private world of childhood emotion: its purity of color, magic, and helplessness, of dread, destruction, and desire--a world often relived in dreams and folk tales. Moreover, he revived that world through a remarkably sophisticated adaptation of just those nineteenth-century poetic techniques which could best serve to restore basic modes of feeling and perceiving--the directness of Browning's dramatic monologue without its casuistry, the richness of a Keats or Tennyson fairyland without its fragility. These techniques, explored below in "The Nineteenth-Century Poetic Heritage," formed his legacy to poets of the [p.3] following generation. The other "early world" that Morris recovered was the early history of modern Europe as recorded in medieval chronicles, legends, and fairy tales, ballads, hymns, and carols. Here again, as indicated in "Morris and Medievalism," he worked with his sources to bring back only those forms .mud characters from medieval literature which convey continuing human emotion. These two early worlds are ultimately inseparable as they inform the poems of the Guenevere volume: an elemental period of history serves Morris as the prism through which he can project his spectrum of elemental emotions.
The accuracy of detail and close psychic inspection, the wealth of medieval allusion and facility with medieval verse forms in the present volume may suggest that Morris conveys a vision of the Middle Ages miraculously unmediated by the five centuries that separated him from Froissart's Chronicles. And to some extent he does. Yet he also grew up and wrote these poems in full sympathy with a medieval revival that had been influencing public taste for nearly a hundred years.
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