William Morris Archive

Peter Wright

‘The road not taken’, when a writer effects a substantial alteration in his style, can often give rise to tantalising speculation. If Morris had continued with the more vivid early manner in which he composed much of the Defence of Guenevere and the Scenes from the Fall of Troy, instead of adopting within a few years the more equable style of Jason and the Earthly Paradise, which (though perhaps more suitable to an extended narrative,) many readers have found overly relaxed and lacking in pressure, he might have been more appreciated today.

Morris probably began working on his Trojan quasi-drama in the late 1850s: the texture of its blank verse though smoother is not unlike that in ‘Sir Peter Harpdon’s End.’ In it, too, Morris is developing a similar method of presenting a story in episodic scenes, without seeking necessarily to provide close connections of plot between all of them. In this use of dramatic form to compose what is essentially a poem, he is something of a pioneer among English authors. Most of the best known Romantic poets, from Wordsworth and Coleridge to Keats and Shelley, had indeed contributed to the species commonly called ‘closet drama,’ Robert Southey produced in his revolutionary youth a verse play on the very Morrisian subject of Wat Tyler, which, after he became a zealous reactionary, his Radical opponents printed to embarrass him. But those poets habitually chose to write their verse plays in the standard Elizabethan five-act form, in principle performable; stage performance was usually at least hoped for, even for Wordsworth’s morally schematic Borderers. In the 1840s, too, some of the plays in that manner by Morris’s favourite Browning were actually staged.

By contrast Morris’s ostensibly dramatic works are composed in a fragmentary form. Thus in ‘Sir Peter Harpdon’s End’, we find what might in a potential play be the closing scenes, in which earlier events in the story (which in an actual drama might have actually been represented) are only gradually revealed to the reader by successive back-references to the characters’ imagined past. (Possibly Morris himself only ‘discovered’ that past as he wrote the poem. Hence, perhaps, the transformation of the Englishly named Sir Peter into a Gascon.)

A closer precedent for the form that Morris used lies in the tradition of the, usually pastoral, idyll, in which characters are presented taking part in unmediated dialogue. Usually, however, such characters are barely individualized shepherds, uttering in a conventional Arcadian setting equally conventional passions of love, jealousy, and despair. The first serious English poet to give such idylls greater narrative and psychological complexity was Landor. In his Hellenics, published in 1847, several Englished from his own Latin originals written many years before, including some in dialogue form, he sometimes uses stories of his own invention in the classical manner, sometimes, like Morris, episodes from pre-existing Greek mythology. Several are drawn, indeed, from the Trojan cycle of legends, though, unlike Morris, he does not seek to link together more than one or two of them. One subject that Landor treated was ‘The Wedding of Polyxena’, covering the luring of Achilles to his doom by a promise of marriage with the Trojan princess. It may be more than coincidence that Morris’s (unwritten) scene, presumably intended to deal with the same events, was also to bear that, not entirely obvious, title.

Another of Landor’s poems, ‘Menelaus and Helen of Troy’, parallels the last Scene that Morris completed. In Landor’s version Helen overcomes Menelaus’s initially murderous hostility, partly by a defiant demand to be slain for her infidelity, partly through an undercurrent of sexual attraction. Morris makes the encounter between them less statuesque; Menelaus is more brutal and Helen much more fearful. Landor, who had also written a few similar poetic dialogues handling medieval and later subjects, such as the killing of William Rufus and Henry VIII’s repudiation of Anne Boleyn, finally designated his last efforts in that manner, on the closing events in the story of Antony and Cleopatra, published in 1856 as ‘Scenes for the Study’, not an inappropriate description for Morris’s similar work.

A more certain influence on the Trojan scenes derives from the early blank-verse monologues in Browning’s Men and Women to which Morris offered enormous admiration when he reviewed it in 1856. Some of the more private Scenes read as though the imaginary audience which is implied in many of Browning’s monologues has been allowed to intervene. By their responses they affect or divert the development of what is often for the original main speaker a train of reflective meditation on their situation rather than a dramatically inter-acting dialogue. In his few battle scenes, however, Morris shows some recollection of the rapidly moving ones that end Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. Though it was not then a very popular play Morris makes the protagonist of "Frank's Sealed Letter," also of 1856, spend an afternoon reading in it of ‘Hector dead; … Troilus and Troy ruined.’

In the movement of the verse, less close to Browning’s manner than it had been in ‘Harpdon’s End’ where the more rough-hewn blank verse suited the vigorous personal passions involved, Morris is developing his individuality; avoiding the occasional awkwardness found in the Defence of Guenevere, he reverts to the lighter flow, (perhaps slightly influenced by Keats), heard in his poem on the ‘Dedication of the Temple’ of about 1853, but without the rhapsodic running on from line to line that had so often occurred there. Though relatively smooth, Morris's verse avoids both the reverberance characteristic of much of Tennyson’s contemporary blank verse and his Miltonic involutioIns of syntax. The rhythm is relatively lightly stressed, often appearing to glide a little above the ostensible metre, occasional inversions helping to make passages more colloquial. An impression of spaciousness is assisted by frequently making the units of meaning correspond with individual lines. Morris also develops a favoured rhetoric, in which he deploys phrases with parallel meanings, sometimes marked out by the repetition of particular words, sometimes antithetically, as in Paris’s first reply to Helen in the first scene, sometimes cumulatively, as in Helen’s reflections at the start of the last scene: 

'that old happiness' twixt mirth and tears,
The fitting on of arms and going forth,
The dreadful quiet sitting while they fought,
The kissing when he came back to my arms,
And all that I remember like a tale.'   

The style can encompass both the more formally elaborate speeches, such as those in the second scene where Priam and the Greek herald defy each other, and others foreshadowing Morris’s later fondness for refrains, as in parts of that in which Hecuba and Paris are plotting Achilles’ death. Occasionally it rises into the ‘magical’ lyric style of some poems in Guenevere, as in Hecuba’s lullaby in the same scene, or the short snatch of song in the ‘Descent from the Wooden Horse’, so oddly given to Sinon, as the signal that the Greek warriors can safely come out.

For his imagery Morris relies relatively little on using metaphor or simile to reflect his characters’ inner lives. He tends rather to suggest their feelings through their picturing past, or potential future, happenings in the fates of themselves or their city. Sometimes he gives us extended pictures exemplifying their situations, as in Priam’s reflections on the dereliction of the Greeks’ homeland while they war against Troy:

          Within the cedar presses the gold fades
Upon the garments they were wont to wear;
Red poppies grow now where their apple-trees
Began to redden in the late summer days;
Wheat grows upon their water-meadows now
And wains run over where the water ran,

Sometimes we are given a brief, but vivid detail foreshadowing expected defeat:

                                    ‘when our comrade’s hand
Laid light upon our shoulder, through the steel,
Feels hot and heavy as we run to meet
The long spears of the Greeks thrust out in Troy’.

Occasionally Morris’s images recall the psychological interest of earlier Romantic poets:

                       ‘some man … that lies and dreams
That he is dead, and turning round to wake
Is slain at once without a cry for help’.

When we first encounter Helen, her attitude to her former Greek kin by marriage is shown through her imagining her capture and forced return to Greece, and near the end she indulges a short and sadly fallacious, moment of happiness, looking forward to an untroubled decline into old age. Some of the images are a little far-fetched: Helen imagines a lion couched at Troy in the streets where its people had once joyfully acclaimed her arrival:

         ‘But on their skulls that lion shall look then’,

Or slightly perverse, as when Polyxena waits to wed Achilles,

                       ‘in Apollo’s temple her white feet
Shall creep and curdle as Achilles’ blood
Across the marble glides to make them red.’

But such visions, though strange, lack the grotesqueness often typical of Browning, and are usually in keeping with the imagined situation.>

For his chosen subject, the tale of Troy, Morris also selected a original, or rather, in harmony with his medievalism, a revived approach to the basic narrative. Since the Renaissance English imaginative writers have tended, under the influence of Homer, to see the Trojan war from the point of view of the besieging Greeks, looking inwards across the walls. The original cause of the war, Paris’s taking of Helen from Menelaus, has become largely a presupposition of the fighting, thrown into the background by the battles on the plain before the city, the wrath and sorrow of Achilles, or the sufferings of the Trojan captives after Troy fell. Morris chose instead to place us within the walls, seeing the war largely from the Trojan viewpoint, and to set the triangular relationship of Helen, Paris, and Menelaus at the centre of his account. Even in the scene where Hector is brought dead to Troy our attention is drawn to the challenge raised by some men, now that Troy is so weakened, to Paris retaining Helen and the temporary madness, invented by Morris, that overcomes him from grief and shame at his brother’s dying in his cause. Also, although Morris makes Troilus, despite his youth, the other great Trojan champion, as in Chaucer and Shakespeare, he omits all direct references to his love for Cressida, though retaining the mutual hostility between Troilus and Diomed that followed Cressida’s desertion of one for the other. It is as though he was taking care not to present more than one great passion within Troy.

That concentration of interest on Helen and her claimants is perhaps partly connected with the fascination which throughout Morris’s life, even before he had any substantial cause in the failure of his own marriage, apparently possessed his imagination, with the rivalry for a woman between two men, one with the better legal claim, the other more ardent and, usually, attractive. It extends from such early stories as ‘Golden Wings’ and, in reverse, ‘Gertha’s Lovers,’ through his choice of Norse sagas to translate and rewrite, and even penetrated into his Socialist poem, The Pilgrims of Hope. When Paris pictures the Greeks asking of Helen, ‘Is there no faggot for her false white feet?’, Morris is clearly recalling Guenevere. Burning faithless queens is an Arthurian, not an ancient Greek, punishment. The Scenes might almost be called, in both senses, the ‘Defence of Helen’.

Morris was also drawn to take the Trojan side by his decision to adapt his story from the medieval, not the classical, version of the tale of Troy. Sir Peter Harpdon notes that ‘all men’ (of his time) side with the Trojans, though the motives of most medieval writers were rather different from his own sympathy with men fighting bravely in a steadily losing cause. For the Middle Ages the example of Virgil, tracing the ancestry of the Romans to the Trojan refugee Aeneas was more influential; and many medieval peoples were proud to claim, as with Brutus for the British, a similar mythical Trojan descent. Accordingly, for the main incidents in his Scenes, before the climactic descent from the Wooden Horse, Morris has discarded both Homer and the Greek tragedians, and chosen events that were prominent in the pseudo-history of Troy current in the Middle Ages; the unchivalrous killing of Hector by Achilles taking him at a disadvantage, and the treacherous killing of Achilles in retaliation by Paris at his intended marriage to Priam’s daughter Polyxena.

Achilles’ love for that princess, which enabled the Trojans to entrap him, appears in no known classical source. But the ancient story that after Troy fell Achilles’ son sacrificed her over his father’s tomb gave rise to stories of that love in two narratives describing the Trojan war, probably compiled in the second century A.D., allegedly based on ‘diaries’ written during the war, one by ‘Dares the Phrygian’ on the Trojan side, the other by ‘Dictys of Crete’ in the Greek camp. Originally in Greek they survive in jejune Latin versions. Such purportedly contemporary records were guilelessly assumed by medieval writers to be more reliable than Homer, who confessedly composed his epic several generations later. They also seemed more realistic, having none of the direct interventions by the gods frequent in Homer.

Hence Morris, here using stories drawn from them, also has none of the open involvement of gods which he was quite happy to include later in Jason and the Earthly Paradise, and even to imitate in Sigurd. In the mid 12th century Dares and Dictys were conflated in a French verse romance by Benoit de St. Maur. It was he who infused, amidst interminable accounts of knightly single combats, chivalrous romance: including the love between Achilles and Polyxena, remodeled, as were other love stories adapted from ancient epic, to suit the then new taste for courtly love. Benoit’s version achieved wider circulation in a dry prose translation by a late 13th-century lawyer Guido de Columnis, which in turn was translated into most European languages, including several English versions in verse and prose. Morris most probably drew on that issued by William Caxton in 1475, based on a recent French compilation. Long after, Morris intended Caxton’s Recuyell of the Historyes of Troy, the first book to be printed in English, to be one of the earliest works reprinted at the Kelmscott Press in 1892, and even named his Troy type after it.

For Hector’s death, however, he apparently followed Shakespeare’s conflation of Achilles’ killing of Hector caught unarmed and of Troilus, overpowered by superior numbers, but the attack on Achilles by Menon immediately afterwards, which he adds, mentioned in ‘Hector brought dead to Troy’, comes directly from the Recuyell, not from Shakespeare. Similarly Achilles’ offer to Queen Hecuba to end the siege in return for Polyxena’s hand is solely from Caxton, though in the medieval version Achilles does not indulge in the predatory threats in case of refusal which Morris ascribes to him.

For the end of the war, however, Morris abandons the Recuyell, in which Helen is tamely surrendered to the Greeks in a peace settlement, which they then break, returning to sack Troy by treachery. Instead he turns to Virgil, who in Aeneid book VI, describes how Helen helped Menelaus to kill her new lover Deiphobus in his sleep. (Virgil, however, made her a willing accomplice in that killing, not Morris’ reluctant fellow-victim of Menelaus’s violence.)

Morris has also lightly, though not quite consistently, medievalised the physical and moral setting within which his characters act. From the walls of Troy, protected by lily-spangled moats, the Trojan ladies watch the battles of their lovers, who have sallied out to tilt past barriers like those in Froissart, some wearing, like medieval knights, those ladies’ favours on their helmets. The customary practices in battle of a heroic society, of mutual challenges and single combat, are fairly similar in Homeric heroes and medieval knights, and Morris need not show in most of his characters more than the feelings conventionally suitable to such a heroic age. Even Hector, who, alike in Homer and in the medieval versions, is really the noblest character, goes to meet his death with relatively uncomplicated emotions of patriotism and defiance. The Greek leaders by contrast are shown as distinctly more brutal.

In Paris and Helen Morris develops with greater complexity the feelings natural under the stress of their position. In Homer Helen is by the tenth year of the war almost weary of Paris, and is only driven to return to his embraces, when he has escaped death at Menelaus’s hands, by the direct threats of Aphrodite. For Morris, however, there survives a deep and long-established affection between them. They can still recall with delight, amidst their foreboding of eventual disaster, their first coming to Troy amidst public rejoicing, and the happiness that followed.

But even though the upshot of the action is bleak, the overall atmosphere is a little less pessimistic than that of the Earthly Paradise, where almost all the stories are darkened by the overarching, or rather undermining, theme of inescapable mortality. For Morris’s Trojans there is some possibility of happiness, as when Paris recalls his first voyage to win Helen,

            ‘The merry sound of trumpets in mine ears
And in my face the sprinkling of the spray’,

and the ‘long dream-like year of peace and love’ that followed. Helen, too, even after she has lost him, and expects that she may forget him, or recall him ‘but as a well-told tale that brings sweet tears’ is still able to welcome the imagined peace that will follow the Greeks’ departure, and herself declining into old age, ‘gathering the warm robe to my puckered throat’. In their world the great obstacle to human happiness is not a fault in the nature of things, but rather the folly and passion, especially the bitterness and anger, of men at war. The difference from Morris’s later attitude appears in his placing of the short lyric sung in ‘Helen’s Chamber’ as an arming song, and later included, in revised form, in ‘Ogier the Dane’. There sung by two anonymous lovers, it exemplifies the traditional ‘Carpe diem’ theme recommending us to seek pleasure in the face of transience. For Paris, for whom it depicts the feelings of a warrior going out to an actual battle in which he may very shortly be slain, its words have no such universal application.

Notes on Text

(references are to page numbers in the Collected Works, vol. 24)

  • p. 5 ‘Good Helenus’: the Trojan prophet Helenus, son of Priam, was in medieval versions of the Trojan story, turned into a priest; cf. below, p. 51.
  • p. 9 ‘a little apart Aeneas and Antenor’: In the medieval version these two heroes, who both escaped when Troy fell, were supposed to have betrayed the city to the Greeks. Morris had clearly changed his mind about this when he seems to show them in his last completed Scene leading the final Trojan resistance.
  • p. 11 ‘Therefore hereafter shall your wives …’: A recollection, like the closing verses of Hecuba’s song (pp. 28-9) of Hector’s anticipation (Iliad, book VI) that his wife Andromache will be enslaved and set to weave and draw water after Troy falls.
  • p. 13 ‘Latmian’, meaning Apollo. There is no recorded classical link between Apollo and the Aegean peninsula of Latmos. Possibly Morris’s train of association derived from Keats’ Endymion which Apollo’s sister Diana or Cynthia loves Endymion, ruler of Latmos.
  • p. 15 ‘that bath of blood/Under the net’. Cassandra is foreseeing how she will be killed with Agamemnon, who will have her as his captive, (below, p. 50) by his queen Clytenmnestra, trapped in a net in his bath.
  • p. 18 ‘Sir Knight, wearing a lady’s glove.’ Morris is probably recalling the sleeve given by Troilus to Cressida which Diomed took from her and wore in battle to provoke her former lover (Troilus and Cressida).
  • p. 19 ‘They’ll burn the ships’: The Trojan attempt to burn the Greek ships is recollected from Homer, not occurring in the Recuyell.
  • p. 21. Morris ignores the Homeric account in which Achilles retains and maltreats Hector’s corpse, only returning it later when implored by Priam, in favour of that in the Recuyell, in which the Trojan warrious bring it back to Troy at once amidst great mourning.
  • p. 24. ‘Menon’ is the medieval version, which Morris has not classicised like other names, of the Aethiopian hero Memnon, (cf. p. 34: ‘Africa where Menon was a king’) who in the Greek epic tradition came after Hector’s death to help Troy and was killed by Achilles.
  • p. 32 ‘Shepherding sheep on Ida’: Because of a prophecy that he would cause the downfall of Troy Paris had in his childhood been exposed on Mount Ida, and grown up among the shepherds there, only later discovering his ancestry ..
  • p. 32. ‘The feat of arms .. in Cythera’: In the Recuyell and other medieval versions Paris does not elope with Helen from her husband’s home at Sparta, but carries her off, initially against her will, from the temple of Venus on the island Cythera. Paris had been sent out to retaliate for the capture, many years before, of a sister of Priam whom the Greeks would not return.
  • p. 34 ‘Syrtes’: the great gulf now within Libya, in the north coast of Africa.
  • p. 50 Morris has invented his own version of the killing of Priam by Achilles’s son Pyrrhus given, with more pathos, in Virgil, Aeneid II.

C 2007 Peter Wright; all rights reserved.