William Morris Archive

Margaret Lourie

During the last half of the eighteenth century England enjoyed a Gothic revival which affected both architecture and literature. By the time William Morris (1834-1896) came to write The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems in the 1850's, nearly every English village had demonstrated its Gothic enthusiasm in edifices as widely disparate as cathedral and public house. The new Houses of Parliament, built to the Gothic specifications of Sir Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin, were almost complete. And Alfred Tennyson, the Poet Laureate, had validated medieval subjects for poetry in such works as "The Lady of Shalott."

In its early stages this revival had been part of a larger revolt against the Neoclassical principles of simplicity, harmony, and universal law. The newer taste called for complexity, irregularity, and individuality. As it happened, all of these new principles characterized the Gothic architecture which still dotted the English countryside in spite of attempted Neoclassical face-lifts. Jagged Gothic ruins also touched off the long-suppressed superstitions that gave rise to the Gothic novel of authors like Horace Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, and one of Morris' favorites, Clara Reeve.

As interest in and knowledge about the Middle Ages increased, novelists began to buttress their medieval stories with historical details. Most prominent among the practitioners of the medieval historical novel was Sir Walter Scott, who did more than any other English author to secure the role of the Middle Ages in nineteenth-century literature. As Ivanhoe [p. 4] (1819) attests, Scott valued the Middle Ages partly for the pomp and color of their ceremony, partly for their harmonious social hierarchy. Perhaps most importantly, the Middle Ages also represented to Scott a period during which individual deeds of heroism could significantly affect a larger social fabric, during which poignancy could be easily wrung from a single act of valor.

If Scott had revived the Middle Ages in search of romance, Thomas Carlyle found in the same era a social and religious object lesson. In Past and Present (1842) Carlyle made explicit the contrast between modern and medieval society that Scott had only implied. Accurately recreating characters from the Chronica Jocelini de Brakelonda, Carlyle, like Scott, located in the Middle Ages what he missed in his own: an unquestioning devotion between leaders and followers and a faith in the wholeness and significance of life. Without these Carlyle could envision no heroic action.

In his chapter "The Nature of Gothic" from The Stones of Venice (1851-1853), John Ruskin interpreted Gothic cathedrals in much the same way that Scott and Carlyle had read history. To Ruskin Gothic architecture manifested a stable and fulfilling hierarchy among workman, master, and God and signaled a healthy state of public morality.

Thus, Scott, Carlyle, and Ruskin all sought to reweave the tattered fabric of social obligation, and all three looked to the Middle Ages as a model. Due to the prestige of these medievalist precursors, the young William Morris could dispense with overt comparisons between Victorian and medieval England in his first volume of poetry. He could assume rather than assert that the Middle Ages provided the only setting congenial to the expression of intense passion, heroic action, mystery, and beauty.

Biographical sources verify Morris' debt to these three famous champions of the Gothic revival. According to Mackail (I, p. 8), Morris had read all of Scott's Waverley novels by the age of seven. Hence, Scott's was the earliest if not the greatest influence on the poet of Guenevere. Much of Morris' early childhood experience, especially his voracious reading of romance, seems to have pointed the passions and supplied the trappings, if not the entire substance, for his life's work. He never lost touch with that first fresh wonder at the giant figures of romance, the haunting creatures of fairyland. Accordingly, Morris takes from Scott the rush and color of the tournament in a poem like "The Gilliflower of Gold," the border ballad brutality of "Shameful Death," the women's names in "The Sailing of the Sword." But his stories, his stanzas, his descriptions and narrative techniques he owes to later, if less basic, influences than Scott.

By 1853 Morris had read both Carlyle and Ruskin, and [p.5] Mackail discloses that "'Past and Present' stood alongside of 'Modern Painters' as inspired and absolute truth" (I, p. 38). As Morris' life-long hero, Ruskin undoubtedly inspired his disciple to study architecture with the Gothic revivalist G. E. Street in 1856 and certainly stands behind all Morris' later ideas about art and socialism. Perhaps significantly, Morris printed "The Nature of Gothic" at the Kelmscott Press the same year (1892) he issued the Kelmscott Guenevere. What Morris wrote in his preface to the Ruskin essay signals the strength and endurance of his admiration for that work: "in future days ["The Nature of Gothic"] will be considered as one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century. To some of us when we first read it, now many years ago, it seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel" (AWS I, p. 292).

Not surprisingly, Morris incorporated in the characters and techniques of his first poems most of the elements which, according to "The Nature of Gothic," define the Gothic mind: "Savageness, or Rudeness" in the Peter Harpdon who cuts off his cousin's ears; "Love of Change" in the volume's rich variety of verse forms; "Love of Nature" in such details as the shining dragon-flies of "Concerning Geffray Teste Noire" (lines 59-61); "Disturbed Imagination" in the nearly surrealistic "Blue Closet;" "Obstinacy" in such characters as the knight of "The Little Tower" or Roger in "The Judgment of God;" "Generosity" in Clisson's offer to ransom the life of his enemy Peter Harpdon. Although Morris can scarcely have set out to illustrate each of Ruskin's Gothic characteristics in this volume, his medievalism does have a distinctly Ruskinian flavor. The critic helped to pinpoint a bygone mentality which the artist was uniquely qualified to animate.

Ruskin also laid the theoretical groundwork for a group of painters whose particular brand of medievalism profoundly affected Morris' Guenevere poems. In 1848 the three young painters William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti revolted against the artistic dictates of the Royal Academy. Partly from ignorance, they decided that since the Renaissance painting had so far succumbed to the influence of Raphael as to imitate him rather than copy nature--which, as Ruskin never tired of repeating, should be the artist's only model. For freshness of vision and truth to nature they turned to artists before Raphael and hence styled themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Along with other Victorian medievalists, the Pre-Raphaelites thus sought in the Middle Ages the authority for their own ideas. Yet their paintings actually owe more to nineteenth-century natural science and historiography than they do to such late medieval painters as Fra Angelico. Like careful scientists [p. 6] the Brotherhood accurately rendered each detail of vegetation, drapery, or architecture for its own sake without regard to compositional focus or chiaroscuro. Morris was to import this treatment of detail into the poetry of his Guenevere volume. To cite one instance among many, "Take note his goodly Collayne sword / Smote the spur upon his heel" ("Welland River," lines 39-40) simply adds a minutely observed detail to the portrait of Sir Robert without either advancing narrative or focusing theme.

A similar respect for detail and an enthusiasm for archeology led nineteenth-century historians to depict the trappings of past eras with unprecedented accuracy. And in their frequent Biblical, literary, or historical settings the Pre-Raphaelite painters strove for just such faithful representations. Accordingly, Rossetti set his famous Ecce Ancilla Domini in an authentically spare Middle Eastern room, and Hunt used archeological data to ensure the historicity of A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian from the Persecution of the Druids. Although Morris in the Guenevere poems would not inherit the religious and moral concerns of these early Pre-Raphaelites, he clearly shared their commitment to historical accuracy, dressing his medieval knights in exact replicas of fourteenth-century armor and locating them in the actual historical events of Froissart's Chronicles.

By 1851 the original Pre-Raphaelites had dispersed both spiritually and geographically. But Rossetti's magnetic personality soon attracted younger men, including Morris and his friend Edward Burne-Jones, and the movement came to life again, this time on principles reflecting Rossetti's changed aesthetics. In the mid-1850's Rossetti turned from Biblical themes to paint medieval romantic and mystical subjects often drawn from Malory, Dante, or folk literature. The chief monument to this period of Pre-Raphaelitism was the fresco project for the Oxford Union: in 1857 Morris and others joined Rossetti in decorating--more enthusiastically than carefully--the walls of the new Union library with seven scenes out of Malory. It was thus Rossetti's direct personal impact, more than the indirect influence of Tennyson, that authenticated for Morris the use of Arthurian as well as border ballad and folk tale subjects in the Guenevere volume.

Besides turning to medieval subjects, Rossetti had importantly changed his method by the mid-1850's. Earlier, many of the objects in his paintings had served not only as minutely observed details but also as common religious symbols. Even in 1855, when he painted King Arthur's Tomb, he symbolized Launcelot's unregenerate sin in a nearby serpent and stationed the holy Glastonbury thorn next to the repentant Guenevere. Yet in his watercolors "The Blue Closet" and "The Tune of Seven Towers" he completely abandoned conventional symbolism. In these two [p. 7] paintings from 1857, primary colors, claustrophobic interiors, .and the introspective expressions of his figures evoke an intense, otherworldly, nearly hallucinatory emotional state entirely unrelated to any religious or intellectual tradition. It is this vivid and haunting dreamscape that Morris perfectly captures in his poems with corresponding titles. In acknowledgment of his enormous debt to his Pre-Raphaelite mentor, Morris appropriately dedicated the Guenevere poems "To my friend, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Painter."

For Morris, however, Ruskin and Rossetti could only add the man's conviction to the child's predilection. From earliest boyhood the poet had inhabited a world of romance, enhanced by his reading but not entirely dependent upon it. His life began on the edge of Epping Forest, where primeval thickets and hornbeams suggested the life of a far older England. According to Mackail, Woodford Hall, where Morris spent his boyhood, also preserved links with medieval England:

Woodford Hall brewed its own beer, and made its own butter, as much as a matter of course as it baked its own bread. Just as in the fourteenth century, there was a meal at high prime, midway between breakfast and dinner . . . Many of the old festivals were observed; Twelfth Night especially was one of the great days of the year, and the Masque of St. George was always then presented with considerable elaboration. Among Morris's toys curiously enough was a little suit of armour, in which he rode on his pony in the park. (I, p. 9)

At the age of eight Morris was awed by the Gothic architecture of Canterbury Cathedral, which his father took him to see. Later, in his adolescence at Marlborough College, the boy "poured forth endless stories, vaguely described as 'about knights and fairies'" (Mackail I, p. 17). In 1848, after the death of his father, the Morris family moved to Water House in nearby Walthamstow. And there, too, the landscape conformed to what by what must have been Morris' medieval expectation. Behind the house was an island planted with an aspen grove and surrounded by a moat. The boy and his brothers played there constantly. It is easy enough to see in this moated island the setting for “Golden Wings" or the haunted castle in "The Tune of Seven Towers.”

In 1853 Morris went up to an Oxford still largely medieval in buildings and in customs. Influenced by the Gothic and High Church tendencies of the recent Oxford Movement, he and most of his Oxford friends planned to enter the Church. Morris even seriously considered devoting the whole of his considerable fortune to the establishment of a monastery. Edward Burne-Jones, [p. 8] co-author of Morris' scheme, wrote to a friend: "We must enlist you in this Crusade and Holy Warfare against the age." According to Mackail, the crusade at this point called for both celibacy and conventual life (I, p. 63). As so often in his childhood, Morris seemed to be playing out a vision of the Middle Ages in his own life.

Biographically, Morris' monastic fire during the Oxford period dwindled into The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine (1856). But it rekindled briefly in "Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery," which articulates what must have been Morris' own feelings about the erotic deprivations as well as the religious rewards of monastic devotion to one cause. Morris takes his stainless knight from Malory, yet the curiously medieval course of his own young life allowed him, perhaps better than any of his medievalist contemporaries, to project his own nearly Gothic experience and outlook into a character culled from a medieval storybook.

Even more arrestingly, "Praise of My Lady" expresses Morris' fusion of life experience with medieval world view. The poet chooses a Middle English hymn to the Virgin as the vehicle of his admiration for Jane Burden, whom he met in 1857 and married in 1859. Like the medieval court poet, the speaker of this poem assumes a supplicating and reverential posture toward a quasi-divine mistress, persistently urges his own unworthiness, and seems to expect disappointment. Remarkably, this cluster of courtly attitudes precisely parallels Morris' lasting self-abasement in relation to his wife, who apparently preferred the company of Rossetti both before and after her wedding. The poet seems to have been so wholly immersed in his medieval notions of chivalry, generosity, and self-sacrifice that he arranged his marriage to require them.

Both "Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery" and "Praise of My Lady" gain their power from Morris' injection of profound personal emotion. In the first poem he reveals his own monastic struggle through the medieval hero who perhaps inspired it. In the second he expresses his dawning love through the attitude and even the stanza of a popular kind of medieval lyric.

In the Guenevere volume Morris also explores medieval forms less laden with personal significance. Most notable of these is the folk ballad. Like the Waverley novels, border ballads, particularly those in Scott's Minstrelsy, had provided some of Morris' earliest sources for romance. "Welland River" draws more heavily on the traditional ballad than any other poem in this book, yet Morris has forged its parts into an unmistakably latter-day whole. He achieves this synthesis of old and new by relying on the border ballads "Fair Annie" and "Child Waters" for situation, mood, and heroine's name but supplying his own plot details.

[p. 9] On a more technical level, he creates this effect not by slavishly imitating every detail of language, pace, or narrative technique but by adopting several general ballad strategies instead. For instance, "Welland River," like old ballads, makes use of a narrative style marked by abrupt transitions, intensifying repetition, and a neutral, impersonal narrator. And, following ballad convention, the narrative unfolds through dialogue that is framed by the balladeer.

"Welland River" suggests without fully embracing one other ballad convention. In this formula, a lady typically fends off amorous advances by requiring that her suitor answer a series of difficult questions before she yields to him. Only the right suitor can answer her riddles. Morris echoes this formula in Ellayne's riddle of the two hounds. But, of course, the point of her catechism is that the answer is obvious. The riddle itself is calculated not to put her suitor off but to win him back. Morris plays with the ballad reader's expectation, yet the outcome is the usual one: the lovers are united because of a rightly answered riddle.

Lastly, Morris imports much of the language of "Welland River" from traditional ballads. He reproduces the ballad stanza with its Saxon vocabulary and occasional slant rhyme. Words such as "bonny" and "burd" recall the northern dialect of border ballads. Yet in general Morris relies less on the archaic language of the folk ballad than on its conventional furnishings: fair Ellens, clothes of fine red gold, Collayne swords, traps of steel, lily lees, yellow hair, maidenheads, gold girdles (especially if too small for pregnant women), rubies, summer-tides, and hounds. For the substance and tone of early ballads and for some of their subtler techniques his sense is unerring. Here, as in "Praise of My Lady," he seems to prune traditions and shape sources to suit modern taste, leaving the essentials of the older form intact.

There are other ballads in the Guenevere volume, though none so firmly rooted in the border minstrelsy as "Welland River." For example, the opening stanzas of "Two Red Roses across the Moon" directly echo earlier ballads; the action progresses just as rapidly as in the older poems; and the refrain, as in a number of old ballads, centers on a flower. Yet traditionally the refrain was a decorative nonsense line unrelated to the narrative whereas here Morris subsumes all elements of the poem to the fixed refrain--which becomes the lady's song and the knight's coat-of-arms and battle cry. "Two Red Roses across the Moon" thus represents a distinct artistic departure from ballad tradition.

A decidedly literary ballad like "The Sailing of the Sword” takes this artistic departure even farther. In that poem the essential ballad requirements of rapid dramatic action and [p. 10] impersonal narration are set aside in favor of figure groupings and color parallels. Visually, the poem could be quite adequately represented as a Pre-Raphaelite diptych--the red, brown, and white maidens, each with appropriate vegetation, waving to their departing lovers on the first panel and the lovers returning, each with his appropriate offering, on the second. The refrain line, which changes from "When the Sword went out to sea" to "When the Sword came back from sea," fixes in one phrase the situation of each panel. Clearly, in poems like this, Morris scarcely relies on the ballad tradition at all--except as a vague authority for archaic setting and refrain line. His artistic ends are altogether different.

Morris' use of the ballad tradition points to the range and ease of his medievalism in the whole Guenevere volume. "Welland River" demonstrates his familiarity with the folk ballad but never lapses into pastiche. And Morris felt comfortable enough with the form to experiment with it in literary ballads like "Two Red Roses across the Moon" and "The Sailing of the Sword." In "The Gilliflower of Gold," "The Eve of Crecy," and "The Tune of Seven Towers" Morris treats medieval prosody with the same easy freedom. The French refrains of the first two and the French name Yoland in the third make clear Morris' knowledge of medieval French chansons de toile or sewing songs, several of which have such refrains or heroines named Yoland. Early English carols derive from these French songs and often have the stanza of "The Eve of Crecy" and "The Gilliflower of Gold." In their vigorous action, however, the two poems more resemble border ballads. The poet brought to bear his whole feeling for medieval prosody in writing these poems. As a result, several medieval lyric and narrative forms harmonize in a new whole which is both dependent upon and distinct from any of its medieval ancestors.

Years later Morris summarized his method of working with medieval sources to develop a Roman type for the Kelmscott Press. His model had been a fifteenth-century Venetian printer named Nicholas Jenson whose "type I studied with much care, getting it photographed to a big scale, and drawing it over many times before I began designing my own letter; so that though I think I mastered the essence of it, I did not copy it servilely."4 His method had been the same with the first poems of his youth: he first pored over his models, assimilating their every detail, then put the models aside and made something of his own.

By the time William Morris reached adolescence, some of England's most influential writers had long been advocating a retreat to the Middle Ages as a remedy for the squalor and fragmentation of a rapidly industrializing society. In painting the Pre-Raphaelites had introduced what they considered a [p. 11] pre-Renaissance technique. Morris fell heir to this Gothic enthusiasm almost from infancy. His omnivorous reading of medieval tales and romances, his intimacy with Ruskin and Rossetti, and the curiously medieval circumstances of his boyhood combined to produce a sensibility perhaps as genuinely medieval as any in his century. Constructing poems from medieval attitudes,  characters, or forms was for Morris almost like writing an autobiography of his earliest dreams and deepest recollections.

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