William Morris Archive

Margaret Lourie

During the winter of 1855 William Morris, not yet twenty-one years old, began reading some of his first poems to his undergraduate friends at Oxford. In the course of the next hundred-odd years some of the best critics would delight in the purity of passion, energy, color, and enchantment they discovered in these any poems. William Fredeman would call them "the most Pre-Raphaelite volume of poetry which the movement produced."1 But on winter evenings in 1855 only a handful of young men at Oxford could testify to the fresh talent unfolding before them. One of them was R.W. Dixon, who intuited the stature of these poems after a single recitation: "[Morris] reached his perfection at once ... and in my judgment, he can scarcely be said to have much exceeded it afterwards in anything that he did. I cannot recollect what took place afterwards, but I expressed my admiration in some way, as we all did.... From that time onward, for a term or two, he came to my rooms almost every day with a new poem" (Mackail I, p. 52). Dixon's response typifies the warmth and admiration that Morris' yet unpublished poetry inspired first among his undergraduate circle, then during 1857 among the Rossetti group in London. In this congenial environment and for close friends Morris wrote all thirty of the poems which he then published in 1858 under the title The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems.

In writing only for these ardent supporters, Morris could take for granted a certain mutual dedication and background. Members of his closely-knit Oxford coterie called themselves "The Brotherhood," a complex allusion to the ideological debt they owed the earlier Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, to their abandoned dream of founding a monastery, and to their own sense of harboring [p. xiv] esoteric interests alien to the dominant Victorian culture. These interests they championed during 1856 in their poetry, tales, and essays for The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, which they originally thought of calling The Brotherhood. In a sense, the Guenevere volume, which includes five poems from the Magazine, illustrates the same esoteric interests but with a power and unity of vision that the earlier literary undertaking lacked.

Although unappreciated and largely misunderstood by the Victorian public, the preferences which these young men so zealously avowed were neither original nor abstruse. As objects of their quasi-religious adoration, they took art and literature, following Ruskin's penchant for medieval art and architecture and exalting Tennyson's wistful, distanced version of medieval romance. Thus, Morris could count on his small audience of initiates to expect and applaud medieval settings. Even more specifically, since the friends habitually read to each other, he could count on their intimacy with particular medieval texts and legends and with certain nineteenth-century poets. His closest friend, Edward Burne-Jones, arrived at Oxford already deep in Benjamin Thorpe's Northern Mythology and the poetry of Keats; both enthusiasms were soon communicated to Morris. Worshipfully, the undergraduate set read aloud from Tennyson, and Dixon remembers "that we all had the feeling that after [Tennyson] no farther development was possible: that we were at the end of all things in poetry" (Mackail I, p. 46). It was not until the autumn of 1855 that Morris and Burne-Jones discovered Malory, but thereafter the adventures of the Round Table utterly absorbed them. When they learned that Rossetti ranked Le Morte d'Arthur with the Bible, the two younger men began tutoring their other friends in the delights of the Arthurian matter. Rossetti also confirmed Morris' predilection for border ballads and for Browning. And finally, Morris repeatedly regaled his cohorts with readings from the medieval chronicles of Froissart and Monstrelet. Constant discussions of poetry augmented the shared readings during these years. To young men so steeped in medieval history, legend, and romance, and in their nineteenth-century revivals, characters like Froissart's Geffray Teste Noire or Malory's Palomydes must have seemed like daily companions, the landscapes of Avalon and fairyland like neighborhood haunts.

[p. xv]

But publication meant that the volume would come before other audiences as well. And the majority of Morris' contemporaries found their companions and took their pleasures quite unencumbered by any concern with the Middle Ages. One reviewer complained in the Saturday Review that Morris wrote The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems on a false artistic principle, "because a poet's work is with the living world of men. Mr. Morris never thinks of depicting man or life later than the Crusades." As a result, "each poem is as hard to decipher as though it were written in black letter. It is crabbed, and involved, and stiff, and broken-backed in metre.... You cannot quite make out what it means, or whether it means anything taken altogether" (20 November 1858, pp. 506-7). The twentieth-century critic, trained to enlighten and appreciate obscurity, will find these poems rather more direct and immediate than crabbed and involved. Yet the modern reader is no more likely than his Victorian predecessor to meet familiarly with such names as John Bonne Lance (in "Concerning Geffray Teste Noire") or Ozana le cure Hardy (in "The Chapel in Lyoness"). Nor is he likely to recall crucial details about Tennyson's Galahad as he reads Morris' answering poem, "Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery." Because all the Guenevere poems are so saturated in the materials of the Middle Ages and the poetry of the nineteenth century, the explanatory notes appended to the present edition aim chiefly at restoring to the poems their medieval and nineteenth-century contexts so that a wide audience may enjoy what was instantly apprehended by members of the Oxford Brotherhood.

Read in conjunction with the edited text, these notes also help clarify how Morris worked with his sources, whether medieval or modern, toward a new kind of poetry—one that spurns intellectual complication, that pretends to no moral or spiritual message, and that unravels the intricate weave of human experience down to a common thread of basic emotion. By ignoring the claims of intellect and morality, by elevating human passion and perception, Morris in the Guenevere volume denied certain fundamental assumptions of Victorian poetics and thereby reconnoitered a new poetic territory for such twentieth-century explorers as Yeats and Pound. The critical introduction which follows pursues this line of argument.

  1. Pre-Raphaelitism: A Bibliocritical Study (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), p. 162.

Source Notes ♦ Continue to 'Critical Introduction to The Defence of Guenevere'