William Morris Archive

Margaret Lourie 

The full measure of Morris' achievement in The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems can only be taken against the yardstick of poetics and poetic practice in the last half of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. To determine the place of this volume in literary history, it is necessary to know not only where it came from but also what it changed and where it led. Recent revaluations of modern poetry by such critics as Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, and Robert Langbaum have emphasized the staying power of the Romantic tradition in English poetry. As a result, strong links are being descried between the first and latest generation of Romantics.

Yet much remains to be discovered about the contribution of that middle generation, the Pre-Raphaelites, who kept the Romantic spirit alive through the inhospitable years of the mid-nineteeuth century. Some brief suggestions about the effect of Morris on his own and the succeeding generation may illuminate Pre-Raphaelitism in general and point directions for future studies.

As the first and in many ways the most representative volume of Pre-Raphaelite verse, Guenevere departed notably from [p. 20] most Victorian thinking about poetry. In an age dominated by Utilitarianism, most critics required poetry to serve a social function. Since the crisis of faith and rapid industrialization had brought with them a confusion in morals, philosophy, and values, a suitable function for poetry was not far to seek. The typical Victorian urgently needed to know how to live humanely in an increasingly ugly and impersonal world. For an answer he looked to poetry. With this pressing social need in mind, Arthur Hugh Clough, for instance, asked of poetry in a review of some poems by Alexander Smith and Matthew Arnold (North American Review, July 1853):

Could it not attempt to convert into beauty and thankfulness, or at least into some form and shape, some feeling, at any rate, of content--the actual, palpable things with which our every-day life is concerned; introduce into business and weary task-work a character and a soul of purpose and reality; intimate to us relations which, in our unchosen, peremptorily-appointed posts, in our grievously narrow and limited spheres of action, we still, in and through all, retain to some central, celestial fact?

Critics of Clough's persuasion often went so far as to revile any poetic subject other than the strictly contemporary since historic subjects confronted nineteenth-century problems only analogically, if at all. For such an audience poems that took up current social issues like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Cry of the Children" were more satisfactory than a mood piece set in ancient Greece like Tennyson's "Oenone."

Matthew Arnold insisted in 1880 that in a troubled time poetry needed "high seriousness" and ought to be a "criticism of life." And all the major Victorian poets had concurred. Arnold himself, unable to construct the poetry of social responsibility, dutifully turned to shoring up his society through criticism. Tennyson, who began as a Keatsian Romantic, was soon in "The Palace of Art" suffering guilt for refusing to assume the burden of social responsibility. By 1850 with "In Memoriam" he had fully shouldered that burden by resolving the Victorian religious crisis, at least for those willing to "faintly trust the larger hope." Browning turned from the self-indulgence of his early poetry to an earnest sense of his obligation to make his readers see the complexity of moral and intellectual issues in the dramatic monologues.

Even in their masterpieces, Tennyson and Browning succumbed to the Victorian demand for showing people how to live. Both risked public censure by selecting historical subjects, Tennyson the Arthurian matter and Browning Renaissance Italy. Yet each amply compensated for this distance in time by staying close to [p. 21] Victorian moral questions. Tennyson's Idylls of the King can easily be read as a tract on the glories of imperialism, the sanctity of the home, and the dangers of sexuality in Victorian England. Browning, the more modern poet and the better thinker of the two, offers no solution to the moral dilemmas posed in The Ring and the Book but tries instead to educate his readers into informed and subtle moral judgments of their own.

To a literary world pleading for answers to the great welter of Victorian questions and confusions, Morris introduced his Guenevere poems. They nowhere mentioned Victorian England, nowhere dealt with its problems even by analogy. What is more, they refused to confront a single moral or intellectual question of their own age or any other. So far from displaying "the powerful application of ideas to life" later recommended by Arnold, they displayed no ideas at all. Hence, a decade later when in The Earthly Paradise Morris declared himself "the idle singer of an empty day," the Victorian readership eagerly agreed to label him a mere escapist, weaving decorative but inessential tapestries in rhyme. Lacking this convenient handle for his first poems, both press and public ignored them.

As the century wore on, however, the mist which had obscured Morris' kind of poetry gradually began to dissipate. A growing group of poets and critics began to sense that, if Morris had abandoned contemporary England, it was to return to the roots of human feeling. If he ignored morals and ideas, it was because dreams and emotions were more universal, more primitive. If he painted only with primary colors, intruded visual close-ups into his histories, and minimized cause and effect, it was because the most basic human mental process is visual and pre-logical, because seeing precedes even the organization of events into a plot and certainly precedes analysis. The other Pre-Raphaelites, especially Swinburne and Rossetti, would engage a similar technique in later volumes. The Aesthetes of the 1880's and the Decadents of the 1890's would carry it to its extreme. But to the early W. B. Yeats and, to a lesser extent, the early Ezra Pound would belong the elaboration and perfection of the versecraft introduced in the Guenevere volume.

On Yeats the impact of William Morris was direct and compelling. He announced in the Autobiography that as a young man he had been "in all things pre-Raphaelite,"8 and Morris alone of the Pre-Raphaelites affected him personally. During the late 1880's Yeats had frequented the Sunday evening meetings of the Socialist League, held at Morris' house in Hammersmith, and had goon become one of the select group to sup with Morris afterwards. Yeats remembered those evenings and his host reverently even after Morris' poetry no longer satisfied him: "To-day I do not set his poetry very high, but for an odd altogether wonderful line, or thought; and yet, if some angel offered me [p. 22] the choice, I would choose to live his life, poetry and all, rather than my own or any other man's (Autobiography, pp. 86-87). Almost all his other remarks on Morris similarly attest a passion for the personality rather than the poetry. Yet toward the very end of his life Yeats wrote of the shaping influence that English poetry had exerted on him in these words: "I owe my soul to Shakespeare, to Spenser and to Blake, perhaps to William Morris, and to the English language."9 And indeed, Yeats as a poet learned more from William Morris than has been commonly supposed.

What Morris had achieved instinctively in the Guenevere poems, as well as in later writing, Yeats carefully formulated and performed self-consciously. Morris naturally painted pictures free of all abstraction and generalization, but Yeats spent the whole decade of the 1890's trying (unsuccessfully) to purify his poetry of ideas or what he sometimes called "rhetoric." He saw "that Swinburne in one way, Browning in another, and Tennyson in a third, had filled their work with what I called 'impurities,' curiosities about politics, about science, about history, about religion; and that we must create once more the pure work" (Autobiography, p. 102). The "pure work" would use images or symbols to shadow the subjective life, not rhetoric to theorize about the objective world. Like Morris, Yeats refused to compose the Victorian poetry of social responsibility and maintained that people would "more and more reject the opinion that poetry is a 'criticism of life' and be more and more convinced that it is a revelation of a hidden life."10

Symbols were one way back to this "hidden life." For Yeats as for Morris, another way--one which cut through the political, moral, and intellectual tangles of any given age--lay through myth and legend. According to Yeats, "legends are the magical beryls in which we see life, not as it is, but as the heroic part of us, the part which desires always dreams and emotions greater than any in the world, and loves beauty and does not hate sorrow, hopes in secret that it may become."11 Morris, a distinctly English poet during the Guenevere period, turned to the Arthurian matter while Yeats, committed to revitalizing his native Ireland, chose Irish legend.12 Both reworked the traditional ballad. Their goals--to adumbrate timeless hopes and fears--were identical.

The tone as well as the goal of Yeats' early poetry resembled Morris'. In The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) the hero passes his "three centuries . . . / Of dalliance with a demon thing" in a Morris fairyland, which charms its captives out of time and change. Returning aged and helpless to an Ireland whose heroes have long been dead, Oisin brings to mind superannuated Morris soldiers like John of Newcastle and the knights in "Old Love" and "The Wind." In the end, Oisin's miserable, [p. 23] mutable life without heroism recalls the grey, declining season of "The Haystack in the Floods”—an association Yeats fixes by comparing Oisin’s dissipation to “a haycock out on the flood.”

The prevailing mood in The Rose (1893) and The Wind Among Reeds (1899) also conjures up the Guenevere poems, particularly the "Blue Closet" group. In all these poems love is most oIten thwarted and celibate. Characters speak with the impersonality of folklore rather than the individuality of modern psychology. Both poets haunt worlds out of nature, congenial with death, and beset by a vague fear of uncontrollable powers or emotions and a consequent paralysis of action. Poems like "The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland," "The Hosting of the Sidhe," "The Everlasting Voices," and "The Unappeasable Host" thus seem to echo Morris' "Spell-bound," "Golden Wings," "Rapunzel," "The Tune of Seven Towers," "The Wind," and "The Blue Closet." Words like "dim," "pale," and "dream" deepen the shadowy atmosphere for both poets.

Yeats surely shared Morris' dark, enchanted tone, his concern to purify poetry of rhetoric, and his interest in folk literature, but he need not have inherited these notions directly from Morris. He could as well have taken them from elsewhere in the Romantic tradition. Yet one important technical aspect of Yeats' early poetry stems only from the Pre-Raphaelites and most especially from Morris. What Yeats learned from Morris was a particular interior landscape and a concrete way of visualizing it."You write my sort of poetry," Morris remarked to Yeats after reading The Wanderings of Oisin (Autobiography, p. 89), and it was truer then than it ever would be again. In Yeats' first long poem the images as well as the method of concretizing them come straight from Morris. The poet's island places are landscaped like Morris' many earthly paradises. The Island of Dancing in particular suggests the setting of a magical Morris isle:

And on the shores were many boats
With bending sterns and bending bows,
And carven figures on their prows
Of bitterns, and fish-eating stoats,

‘And swans with their exultant throats:
(I, lines 188-192)

Carven boat, swans, and stoats also surround the island in "Golden Wings." The same natural fauna--field mice, owls, flies, kingfishers—inhabit Yeats' supernatural places as inhabit Morris’ in the Guenevere poems. And they serve the same purpose: to give to airy nothing a local habitation, and a name. More than any other poet Yeats learned from, Morris knew how to make his fairylands livable to elemental men.

[p. 24] Colors work the same way. The otherworldly creatures of Yeats' dream islands are specified through costume and color:

Their brows were white as fragrant milk,
Their cloaks made out of yellow silk,
And trimmed with many a crimson feather
(I, lines 204-206)

Such a description anchors the imaginary in the perceptible by the very means Morris used most often in the Guenevere poems. Insubstantial creatures like the damsels of "The Blue Closet" wear gowns substantiated by their purple and green colors. The effect in both Yeats and Morris is as if their dreams were painted on a Pre-Raphaelite canvas.

Like Oisin, Yeats' poems during the 1890's still took many of their images from the Pre-Raphaelite storehouse. There were still Morris' ladies--mournful, elusive, long-fingered, heavy-haired, with red or parted lips. There were still the roses, lilies, dews, winds, and fairylands of the Guenevere poems. It is probably no coincidence that rose and wind, Yeats' central symbols in The Rose and The Wind Among the Reeds, correspond to two titles from the Guenevere volume, "Two Red Roses across the Moon" and "The Wind."

Yeats, then, remained within the imaginary gardens of the Pre-Raphaelites during the 1890's. But he temporarily abandoned Morris' habit of sitting Marianne Moore's real toads there. Occasionally, he would still follow Morris' method of reducing abstractions to visibility: "The Rose of Peace" mentions "Heaven's door-post" and "God's great town" just as Lady Alice in "Sir Peter Harpdon's End" envisions Christ with "solemn face / And long hair even-flowing on each side" (lines 674-675). Yet most of his poems of the 1890's worked quite differently with Morris' imaginative counters--his roses, winds, and colors--than The Wanderings of Oisin had. Now when they appeared at all, they usually stood for a cluster of ideas, as gold and siilver stood for the state of blessedness.

Furthermore, although Yeats' symbolism derived mainly from, Blake, Shelley, and French poetry, it was not unrelated to the Guenevere poems. If Yeats' symbols were exterior signs of interior states, then Morris had used them in the "Blue Closet" group. Yet where Morris had been satisfied with emotional symbols, Yeats freighted his with intellectual content as well. An illustration may clarify the difference between the two techniques. In "The Sailing of the Sword" Morris dresses his bereft heroine in white and gives her a peeled white wand to hold. The coloration serves not only to make the lady's image perceptible to the senses but also to evoke a certain emotion which combines emptiness, passionlessness, and purity but is finally ineffable. In a sense the whiteness symbolizes the emotion it [p. 25] calls forth.

In "The White Birds" Yeats also sparks these emotions, though with more positive connotations, in the color of his birds. But Yeats insists on going beyond the inexpressible feeling to the expressible idea. Sometimes, as with "The White Birds," he resorts to a prose note to help express this idea: "I have read somewhere that the birds of faeryland are white as snow." By banding his white birds with a somewhat arcane tradition, Yeats turns their whiteness into an intellectual symbol. The reader is asked not just to experience an emotion but to contemplate its relation to an idea of fairyland. For Morris, evoking the emotion had been enough.

Prose notes were not the only taxes levied against Yeats' more complicated kind of symbolism. At least in the 1890's, fidelity to natural detail suffered as well. In the Guenevere volume roses, though usually associated with romantic love, passion, or holiness, had always been primarily flowers, sometimes red and petalled. In Yeats roses were not just associated with these emotions but stood for them and for other more complex feelings and ideas too. The result was a symbolic cargo so weighty that Yeats' roses, as Richard Ellmann quite properly observes, were "often described with horticultural indifference as footed and skirted."13 The idea had overwhelmed the image.

Only after 1900 would Yeats learn to fuse his symbols with the faithful and immediate representation of the image he learned in Morris. If he had lapsed into describing the lily and the rose as dreamers in the 1890's, by the 1920's Leda in "Leda and the Swan" would be visited by a symbolic annunciator of Greek civilization which was also a palpable swan, feathered and webfooted. Natural detail had re-established its primacy for Yeats. But by that time he had deserted the Pre-Raphaelite garden for woods and towers of his own.

The flora and fauna of Yeats' wood beyond the world could be traced to his friends in the Rhymers' Club, or behind them to Swinburne, or behind him to Rossetti. But it had been William Morris who in 1858 first brought that fertile landscape, at once fantastic and precise, before the public in The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems. What he had bequeathed to Yeats was a stock of images suitable for conveying primal dreams (Yeats called them "moods") and a method of detailing those images which appealed to the waking eye as well.

Like Yeats, the young Ezra Pound in his Romantic phase wrote poetry which traced its ancestry to the Pre-Raphaelites. But the influence of Morris was less immediate to Pound than it had been to Yeats. In fact, the most important Pre-Raphaelite influence on Pound and the one he himself acknowledged was Rossetti’s. What affected Pound was not so much the direct influence of Morris as a line of influence which Morris inaugurated.

[p. 26] T. S. Eliot understood this in his introduction to a 1928 selection of Pound's poetry: "The earliest of the poems in the present volume show that the first strong influences upon Pound, at the moment when his verse was taking direction, were those of Browning and Yeats. In the background are the Nineties in general, and behind the Nineties, of course, Swinburne and William Morris."

To put it briefly, Pound learned from Yeats most of what Yeats had learned from Morris. In more fiery language than Yeats had used, Pound condemned the poetry of social responsibility: "[Arnold's] definition of literature as 'criticism of life' is the one notable blasphemy that was born of his mind's frigidity. . . . Poetry is about as much a 'criticism of life' as red-hot iron is a criticism of fire."14 Predictably, he lauded Yeats for relieving poetry of its Arnoldian baggage: "Mr. Yeats has once and for all stripped English poetry of its perdamnable rhetoric."15 And he agreed with Yeats, as Yeats had with Morris, that myths are "explications of mood" (Spirit, p. 92), a way of turning the subjective emotion into its objective equivalent.

Like Yeats, Pound wrote early poetry in the Pre-Raphaelite manner although, unlike Yeats, he suppressed most of it when he rejected Romanticism.16 "Rosalind" in A Lume Spento recalls a Morris ballad, and "The House of Splendour" in Personae pictures a house "beyond the worldly ways" built on a Pre-Raphaelite foundation. The poems in Canzoni are "full of faces / with gold glories behind them" ("Epigrams," II, lines 5-6), Pre-Raphaelite ladies like Morris' golden-haired and golden-garbed Marguerite. Winds, dreams, and roses weave through the early Pound just as they did through Yeats and Morris.

Pound, however, carried on one interest of the early Morris that Yeats had muted: his fascination with Browning. One of the most provocative aspects of the Guenevere volume is that it contains both poems like "The Blue Closet" which foreshadow Yeatsian symbolism and poems like "The Haystack in the Floods" which recall Browning and predict Pound. The Froissartian poems in the Guenevere volume embody all the stark medievalism, violence, directness of language, and psychic realism that Pound would build into his portraits of Betrans de Born and Arnaut of Marvoil. It appears that Morris in 1858 was engaged in imaginative acts remarkably parallel to those the young Pound would perform half a century later as a prelude to modern poetry. Both poets manifested the essentials of the inner life in misty medieval dreams and artificial paradises. But both also followed Browning in resuscitating individual personalities from history in an effort to reach through time and grasp enduring moods and feelings.

Even as Pound groped out of Romanticism and toward modernism, [p. 27] he took something of Morris with him into his Imagist phase. For Pound the image had to be unadorned, precisely defined, and typically taken from nature. He railed against artificial descriptive language like "dove-grey" and "pearl-pale." If the Pre-Raphaelites had tried to purge painting of artifice, Pound meant to do the same for modern poetry.

Yet an image for Pound was not simply a photographic description. Optimally it also created without authorial comment an objective correlative for an emotion. Morris had worked in just this way with images in "Golden Wings:"

Thereby the apple hangs,
And the wasp, caught by the fangs,
Dies in the autumn night. (lines 139-141)

The language here is unadorned, the image drawn from nature and accurately perceived. Moreover, it stands without comment from Morris as a precise parallel to the plight of Jehane, caught dying in a place of sensory glut. Pound would also create descriptive equivalents from nature for eternal human emotions, as in "Alba:"

As cool as the pale wet leaves of lily-of-the-valley
She lay beside me in the dawn.

But Imagists were sometimes willing to forego the emotion evoked for the object described. In fact, Imagism differs from symbolism in valuing accurate perception above the mental acts which that perception is supposed to trigger. If Yeats could write in the 1890's about imaginary fires and flowers no human eye ever beheld, Pound two decades later would sooner sacrifice the imagination than the image. Indeed, the virtue of some Imagist poems consists primarily in the delicacy of the perceiving mechanism they register. In "Les Millwin," for instance, the little Millwins gaze at art students from the Slade and the mere pattern of what they see "seems to us worthy of record." Similarly, "Image from D'Orleans" details an image of "Young men riding in the street" and does so for sheer joy of the perception. As already noted, Morris delighted in the simple interaction of eye and object throughout the Guenevere volume. He and all the other Pre-Raphaelites subscribed wholeheartedly to what Ruskin proclaimed in Modern Painters: "the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."17 Sixty years later Imagists were issuing identical manifestos.

In their early writings, W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, the two poets who most determined the course of modern poetry, were both latter-day Pre-Raphaelites with roots reaching back to William Morris. For both of them Pre-Raphaelitism was in one sense [p. 28] the demon that needed to be exorcised before a twentieth-century aesthetic could be born. But in another sense it was what they brought to the birthing, for each of them made Pre-Raphaelite notions like devotion to detail fundamental to his later poetics. That is why historians of modern as well as Victorian literature need to know more about the nature of Pre-Raphaelite poetry.

And The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems is a logical starting point. In some ways the volume was a quintessential product of its times, epitomizing the Gothic Revival, extending Keats and Tennyson fairylands, and adapting Browning's rugged monologues. But in another way, by refusing social relevance, the Guenevere volume heralded the rebellion against Victorian poetics which the other Pre-Raphaelites, then Yeats and Pound, would eventually win. It was the part of Morris which exalted sight and unrefined emotion above rhetoric and refined sentiment that turned the poetic tide of the nineteenth century toward the twentieth. This is not to say that Morris was writing modern poetry in 1858. The language and subject matter of the twentieth century were still far off. But, quite apart from its considerable significance as a nineteenth-century document, the Guenevere volume illuminates modern poetry by presenting some crucial modern concerns in bold and simple outline, uncomplicated by the difficult turnings of the intellect or the intricate patterns of the imagination. To the critic of modern poetry its interest, like the interest of the child's mind to the adult, is partly to distinguish the pure elements before they fuse into the later alloy but partly also to recapture with Wordsworth "the glory and the freshness of a dream."


Source Notes