William Morris Archive

Margaret Lourie

The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems

Stimulated by Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which he read in Robert Southey's 1817 edition of the Caxton text, Morris intended to write a full cycle of Arthurian poems (Mackail I, p. 134, and CW I, p. xix). The only surviving fruits of that intention are the first four poems of this volume and three fragments preserved by May Morris: "The Maying of Guenevere" (CW I, p. xix) portrays Mellyagraunce perched on his castle roof and grumbling about his lust for Guenevere sometime before the incidents recounted in lines 168-221 of "The Defence;" "St. Agnes' Convent" (CW XXIV, pp. 68-69) depicts Iseult of Brittany, her conventual calm ruined by her unconsummated marriage to Tristram; "Palomydes' Quest" (CW XXIV, pp. 70-71) has Palomydes pursuing his ridiculous Beast Glatysaunt and lamenting his unrequited love for La Belle Iseult.

"The Defence of Guenevere" follows Malory more closely than any of Morris' other poems on Arthurian themes. The situation as Malory gives it is that Arthur's Queen Guenevere has been caught in adultery with Launcelot, the most prominent knight of the Round Table. Her punishment is to burn at the stake. The action of this poem occurs just before the fire is kindled. Guenevere structures a complicated self-defense, hoping to mark time until Launcelot, here as in Malory, can ride to her rescue. Morris elaborated this incident from Guenevere's silent humility in Malory:

. . . and thene the quene was led forth withoute Carleil, and there she was despoylled in to her smok. And soo thenne her ghoostly fader was broughte to her to be shryuen of her mysdedes. Thenne was there wepynge & waylynge and wryngynge of handes of many lordes and ladyes. But there were but fewe in comparyson that wold bere ony armour for to strengthe the dethe of the quene. (Book XX, Ch. 8)

Several articles on this poem probe the Queen's guilt or innocence. Laurence Perrine's "Morris' Guenevere: An Interpretation" (33) inaugurated this line of inquiry and was followed by Mother Angela Carson's "Morris' Guenevere: A Further Note" (6) and Carole G. Silver's "'The Defence of Guenevere':  [p. 182]  A Further Interpretation" (41). Jonathan F. S. Post in "Guenevere's Critical Performance" (34) summarizes these views and argues that, as the type of the verbal artist, Guenevere constructs her own imaginative universe of values. Other articles examine the connections between this and Morris' other Arthurian poems. Meredith Raymond in "The Arthurian Group in The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems" (35) sets "The Defence" and "King Arthur's Tomb," which explore earthly love, against "Sir Gala-had, A Christmas Mystery" and "The Chapel in Lyoness," which take up spiritual love. Robert Stallman's "The Lovers' Progress: An Investigation of William Morris' 'The Defence of Guenevere' and 'King Arthur's Tomb'" (45) maintains that the stages of Guenevere's Defence enact "springtime triumphant" while "Tomb" rehearses a winter victory. Similarly, Audrey Shaw Bledsoe's "The Seasons of Camelot: William Morris' Arthurian Poems" (3) links the four Arthurian poems, beginning in summer with "The Defence," to the four seasons and Northrop Frye's corresponding narrative categories. Hartley S. Spatt in "William Morris and the Uses of the Past" (42) comments on Morris' transformation of the historic and personal past in the first two poems.

Morris has chosen the difficult terza rima as the vehicle ''for this poem. Ultimately, this form goes back to Dante's Divine Comedy (see note for lines 104 ff.), but a poem like Browning's "The Statue and the Bust" might have been Morris' more immediate inspiration. In his 1856 review of Browning's Men and Women, Morris remarked the effectiveness of Browning's verse form in this poem: "the rhythm so wonderfully suited to the story, it draws you along through the days and years that the lovers passed in delay, so quietly, swiftly, smoothly" (CW I, p. 344). Moreover, the dramatic confrontation and intense emotion of "The Defence" combine with its headlong meter and insistent self-justification to make it one of the most Browningesque of the poems in this volume.

2. Guenevere's hair may be wet because she has undergone trial by cold water to determine her guilt. See introductory note to "The Haystack in the Floods." Malory, however, specifies no such ordeal for Guenevere.

22. Although Morris does not seem to have taken the idea of "choosing cloths" directly from any literary source, this kind of treacherous choice situation would have been familiar to him from old stories such as Paris and the golden apple or Portia's three caskets in The Merchant of Venice. Freud's essay "The Theme of the Three Caskets" (Imago, 1913) maintains that one of the possible choices is always death or, as Guenevere puts it  [p. 183]  here, "hell." Dennis Balch (1) argues that Guenevere's choice of the blue cloth adumbrates her eventual choice of Arthur over Launcelot in "King Arthur's Tomb."

46. In Malory it is Agravaine, Gauwaine's brother, who brings the charge of adultery against the Queen. In Malory, Gauwaine refuses to participate in disgracing Guenevere (Book XX, Ch. 8). But Morris' choice of Gauwaine rather than Agravaine as the object of Guenevere's plea seems apt for several reasons: (1) Agravaine was already dead by this point in Malory's narrative. (2) For the most part, Malory's Gauwaine is a courteous and strong knight while his brother Agravaine never wins a single battle and closes his inglorious career by betraying the Queen. Morris has added psychological and moral complexity to his dramatic situation by giving Guenevere a relatively respected opponent. (3) Morris elsewhere (see note for line 186) compresses and thereby distorts events from Malory. When Malory's Launcelot rode in to save the Queen, he unwittingly slew Gauwaine's two noble brothers Gaheris and Gareth. Gauwaine was sorely grieved over the loss of these two brothers (see note for lines 280-281) and swore to avenge the deaths on Launcelot. Morris has simply placed Gauwaine's righteous indignation before the Queen's rescue rather than after.

61. Malory omits the details of Launcelot's arrival in Camelot and first few encounters with the Queen. These are recorded in the thirteenth-century Vulgate Lancelot, with which Morris may not have been directly acquainted. But the incidents of Launcelot's courtship with Guenevere appeared so often in medieval literature that Morris would surely have encountered them somewhere. In the earlier version, Launcelot arrives at Arthur's court at the Feast of St. John (Midsummer).

64. Malory does not directly give Launcelot's lineage except to say that one of his ancestors was Joseph of Arimathea. But clearly he recalls the story of Launcelot's origins given in the Vulgate Lancelot when he has Launcelot identify himself as King Ban's son of Benwick in Book VI, Ch. 8.

67. A possible source for Guenevere's catalog of the seasons is Malory's opening of Book XX, the book which chronicles all the events alluded to in this poem: "In May whan euery lusty herte floryssheth and burgeneth, For as the season is lusty to beholde and comfortable, Soo man and woman reioycen and gladen of somer comynge with hys fresshe floures, for wynter with his rouz wyndes and blastes causeth a lusty man and woman to coure, and sytte fast by the fyre."

[p. 184]   75. Littleton Long in "Morris and Timekeeping" (23) points to the clock as one of Morris' few anachronisms. But Malory also speaks of clocks. See, for instance, the opening of Book XIV, Ch. 3.

104 ff. This scene leading up to Launcelot and Guenevere's first kiss is absent from Malory but provides one of the most charming interludes in the Vulgate Lancelot. In the thirteenth-century version, the lovers meet in a meadow, not a garden, and Guenevere brings three of her ladies. Launcelot is so timid that Guenevere must offer the first kiss. If by no other means, Morris undoubtedly knew the story of the first kiss from Dante (Inferno V, lines 127 ff.), where it is mentioned in the Paolo and Francesca episode. In 1855 Rossetti had painted a water-color of these immortal lovers embracing with the book recording Launcelot's first kiss open on their laps.

149. Just after the Grail episode, Guenevere sent Launcelot away to divert suspicion about their dalliance, then gave a dinner party for twenty-four other knights. When an innocent knight died of poison intended for Gauwaine, the Queen was wrongly accused (Book XVIII, Chs. 3 and 4). Readers of Malory would realize that the Queen had been falsely accused on that occasion and might more seriously consider whether the present charge were not also false.

153 ff. This is the second detail (see note for line 46) on which Morris departs from Malory. In Le Morte d'Arthur the noble Gaheris, not Agravaine, beheaded their mother Margawse upon finding her in bed with Lamorak (Book X, Ch. 24). But to elicit Gauwaine's pity for his mother's horrible death and for her own analogous situation, Guenevere makes the matricide seem more heinous than it did in Malory by attributing it to the ignoble Agravaine.

165. dress me to the fight cf. Malory's "How syr Launcelot cam the same tyme that syr mellagrauce abode hym in the felde and dressyd hym to bataylle" (Book XIX, Ch. 9).

169. Men might have called Mellyagraunce's castle la Fausse Garde either because of his unknightly conduct toward the Queen (see note for line 173) or because of the trap he set there for Launcelot (see note for line 190).

173 ff. While the Queen sojourned at Mellyagraunce's castle, Launcelot had broken the bars at her window in order to enter her chamber. In so doing, he cut his hand and left his blood on Guenevere's bed. The next morning Mellyagraunce impolitely  [p. 185]  drew aside Guenevere's bed curtain, saw the blood on her bed, and wrongly accused her of sleeping with one of the wounded knights in attendance in her chamber. Here is another false accustion in support of the Queen's present defense (Book XIX, Ch. 6).

186. Morris again compresses events from Malory. Actually, Mellyagraunce challenged Launcelot to defend Guenevere's honor. It was not until a week later on the field that he showed signs of terror (Book XIX, Ch. 9).

189. Slayer of unarm'ed men alludes to the incident that brought Guenevere to Mellyagraunce's castle. The Queen had taken ten unarmed knights a-maying. Mellyagraunce, long lusting for the Queen, took advantage of these festivities to kidnap her, wounding, rather than slaying, all of her companions in the process (Book XIX, Chs. 1 and 2).

190. Setter of traps refers to another of Mellyagraunce's base deeds. Afraid to meeet Launcelot in the field after he had challenged him, Mellyagraunce invited Launcelot on a tour of his castle, then contrived to have his guest fall through a trap door into a dungeon (Book XIX, Ch. 7).

196 ff. Thou not clear from Morris' account, in Malory all this activity occurs at Arthur's court when the two knights meet in battle a week after the initial accusation. Mellyagraunce is first unhorsed, then begs for mercy. Launcelot offers to fight with his head and left side uncovered and his left hand tied behind him. On these terms Mellyagraunce eagerly agrees to continue (Book XIX, Ch. 9).

205. stake and pen, where Guenevere would be burened if Mellyagraunce won his point.

209 ff. cf. Malory's strikingly similar description of the encounter: "Thenne syre Mellyagraunce came with his suerd all on hygh, and sire launcelot shewed him openly his bare hede and the bare lyfte syde, and whan he wende to haue smyten hym vpon the bare heded, thenne lyghtly he auoyded the lyfte legge & the lyfte syde, & put his ryght hand and his suerd to that stroke, and soo putte it on syde with grete sleyghte, and thenne with grete force syr launcelot smote hym on the helmet suche a buffet that the stroke kerued the hede in two partyes, thenne there was no more to doo, but he was drawn oute of the felde" (Book XIX, Ch. 9).

220-221. For the appeal to divine judgment in trials by battle,  [p. 186]  see introductory note to "The Judgment of God."

222. blent might mean either "blinded by" or "mixed with."

241. On the medieval idea that beauty manifests the mind of God and is hence intrinsically virtuous, see D. W. Robertson's A Preface to Chaucer (Princeton, 1962), especially pp. 114-137. The Pre-Raphaelites carried this notion to the extreme of exonerating criminals on grounds of their personal beauty. Oswald Doughty in A Victorian Romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti(Lon-don, 1949) relates the following anecdote: "Gabriel protested one day to his disciples, against the execution of a beautiful murderess, and when Hill ventured to suggest the supremacy of moral law even over feminine beauty, his shocked associates, really scandalized, overbore him with horrified cries of: 'Oh Hill, you would never hang a stunner!'" (p. 233).

242 ff. In Malory, Agravaine suggests that the King stay out all night hunting so that Mordred, Agravaine, and the other knights can take Launcelot and Guenevere in the act of adultery. Their plan goes off perfectly. The lovers are discovered together in Guenevere's bedroom (Book XX, Chs. 3 and 4). In 1857 Rossetti did a pen and ink sketch entitled Launcelot found in Guenevere's Chamber.

243. Ironically, it is Gauwaine in Malory who suggests these innocent possibilities for the interaction between Launcelot and Guenevere: "though it were so that sir Launcelot were fonde in the quenes chamber, yet it myghte be soo that he came thyder for none euylle, for ye knowe my lord said syr gawayne that the quene is moche beholden vnto syr launcelot" (Book XX, Ch. 7).

269. Launcelot had trustingly gone to the Queen's chamber unarmed and even in Malory seems a little nonplussed at the idea of facing fourteen armed knights (Book XX, Ch. 3).

280-281. Gauwaine's "mad fit" occurred later in Malory, after the deaths of his brothers Gaheris and Gareth. See note for line 46. In Malory, Launcelot departed from his men "and rode westerl & there he sought a vii or viii dayes, & atte last he cam to a nonnerye" (Book XXI, Ch. 9).

 [p. 187]  288-289. Guenevere has good reason to expect her deliverer. Malory provides this earlier exchange: "And yf ye see that as to morne they wylle put me vnto the dethe, thenne may ye rescowe me as ye thynke best. I wyll wel sayd sir launcelot, for haue ye no doubte whyle I am lyuynge, I shalle rescowe yow" (Book XX, Ch. 4).