The Defence of Guenevere

Modern Critical Views

From Frederick Kirchhoff, William Morris: The Construction of a Male Self, 1856-1872, Ohio University Press, 1990, from chapter 3, "Psycho-Fantasy," 70-81. [on "Golden Wings" and "Rapunzel"]

"Golden Wings" can be read as a parable of the unresolved conflict between life and art; alternately, as I have suggested, Jehane can be seen as a woman seeking to escape the sterility of a sexual stereotype. Her possession of her lover's sword links her to the woman in "Spell-Bound," who, at least in the speaker's fantasy, also tires of waiting and goes in search of the man she loves. Jehane's lover, like so many of the objects of desire in these poems, is nameless; she calls not upon him but upon the "golden wings" that decorate his armor. (One recalls, of course, the hero of the prose tale "Golden Wings," with his gold-winged helm and shield and angel-winged sword hilt.) As in "Spell-Bound," the reason she has his sword is unclear. However her possession of the sword may itself explain why he does not appear: the hero without a sword [70] lacks the power to rescue his lady. The spell of Ladies Gard is a function of Jehane's control of male potency. (Her full name, "Jehane de Castel Beau," identifies her as mistress of the castle.) Yet her effort to return the phallus is only partially successful. Ladies Gard is returned to the world of masculine violence, but her lover's sword is broken in the process. The woman who seeks to rescue her male counterpart by liberating herself from a sexual stereotype is destroyed by the attempt.

The "Blue Closet" poems use courtly love and its variants to represent the dehumanized heterosocial relationships Morris perceived in Victorian society. As yet, he could imagine no workable alternative to the status quo. Moreover, his perceptions are those of an acute adolescent, whose judgment of the "falsity" of adult behavior is more a sign of exclusion than an experience. Nevertheless, in articulating his disquietude--however confusedly--Morris established the terms in which his relationship to Victorian society would be defined.

Among the other fantasies, "Rapunzel" stands in sharp contrast to the five texts I have been discussing. A few other poems in The Defence of Guenevere end on a similar note of happiness-"The Gilliflower of Gold," "Two Red Roses across the Moon," "Welland River"; however, none of them explore in such detail the terms by which the obstacles to passion may be overcome and a satisfactory sexual relationship achieved. And as a result of this detail, the text has proven susceptible to multiple interpretations. The happy ending of "Rapunzel" has been variously characterized as an enactment of the rite that takes the young man from the undifferentiated life of the child, scoffed and mocked, through the difficult trial of attaining adult perception ... love and individuality" (Stallman 226-227); as "a Romantic version of fairy-tale transformation ... achieved through the power of the human imagination to dream its own fulfillment" (Sadoff 164); as an uneasy oedipal fantasy, in which the Prince, as son, overcomes [71] his separation from "Rapunzel (the mother) by the Witch (the father)" without the necessity of physical conflict between father and son (Reed 313); as a successful "bridequest" (Silver 41); and as a Jungian hieros gamos, in which Rapunzel is seen as "the aurum philosophorum, the central goal of the alchemical quest; . . . encased in the tower--the symbolic vessel of transformation--awaiting the galvanizing spiritus mercurius to penetrate the vas and effect the transmutation" (Wyrick 371).

Different as these readings sound, they share the assumption that "Rapunzel" is a poem about the psychological passage from immaturity to adulthood. They do not however, save in the most general terms, connect this theme with Morris' own situation at the time he composed the poem. If "Rapunzel" is a text that, in Robert L. Stallman's words, gives its readers "the uncomfortable feeling of walking over thin ice that hides a vast world beneath its surface glitter" ('''Rapunzel' Unravelled," 221), that world reflects Morris' particular attitudes toward sexuality and the special urgency of a particular time in his life.

The publication history of the text itself, generally ignored by commentators, focuses these problems. At the climax of the poem, when Prince Sebald brings Rapunzel down from her tower, he recollects the minstrel's song that initiated his quest for her, puzzling over the fact that the name of the maiden in the song was not "Rapunzel." She explains that "the witch's name was Rapunzel" and that her true name is unknown (279-80); he responds by singing the song of the "dreamy harper" which will supply her missing name. This song, under the title "Hands," had been published in the July 1856 Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. Since only a month later Burne-Jones wrote of Morris' having read "Rapunzel" to the Brownings and being engaged in "illuminating 'Guendolen' for Georgie" [Georgiana MacDonald, to whom Burne-ones had proposed two months earlier] (Mackail I: 108), we [72] cannot assume a gap in time between the composition of "Hands" and the composition of "Rapunzel." Morrris's decision to print the shorter poem separately does, however, suggest a significance one might pass over, reading the verses in their present context. Not only does "Hands" stand on its own; it also provides a rationale for Rapunzel's much discussed name change.

Here is the text of Sebald's recollected song:

'Twixt the sunlight and the shade
Float up memories of my maid:
       God, remember Guendolen!

Gold or gems she did not wear,
But her yellow rippled hair,
       Like a veil, hid Guendolen!

'Twixt the sunlight and the shade,
My rough hands so strangely made,
       Folded Golden Guendolen;

Hands used to grip the sword-hilt hard,
Framed her face, while on the sward
       Tears fell down from Guendolen.

Guendolen now speaks no word,
Hands fold round about the sword.
       Now no more of Guendolen.

Only 'twixt the light and shade
Floating memories of my maid
       Make me pray for Guendolen. (287-304)

Typically, the imagery of "Hands" is grounded in the dissociation of body parts. It is the speaker's hands, not the speaker as an entity, that grasps, alternately, Guendolen's face and his own sword; and this failure to project a coherent body [73] image is related to his failure to sustain a human relationship.

Like the action of "The Wind," the events of the poem are crucially ambiguous: does "Hands" narrate a parting or a murder? In either case, the speaker has been unable to synthesize phallic potency with a male-female relationship: the hand that holds the sword is too "rough" to touch a female body: the hand defiled by male masturbation is unfit to come in contact with a pure woman. In designating "Hands" as a song by another singer, recollected from a time in the past, Morris implies that the Prince has passed beyond this stage in his sexual development. However it takes Guendolen's response to the song to affirm his adult masculinity:

I kiss thee, new-found name; but I will never go:
       Your hands need never grip the hammer'd sword again,
But all my golden hair shall ever round you flow,
       Between the light and shade from Golden Guendolen. (305-308)

The woman's hair, no longer an isolate body part but an enveloping presence, replaces both male masturbation and, implicitly, male masturbatory violence. The repeated "I," moreover, also confirms the female self as a coherent being.

Earlier in the poem, Rapunzel had longed for "a true knight ... with a steel sword, bright, I Broad, and trenchant; yea, and seven / Spans from hilt to point" (168-171). Leading her from the tower, Sebald invites her to "feel" the sword he had "wrought ... long ago, with golden hair / Flowing about the hilts" in response to "a word sung by a minstrel old" (281-284). Like the fetishistic speaker of "The Wind," Rapunzel's Prince invites her to touch and see, and she responds with the promise of enclosure. He asks, that is, for a version of early adolescent sexuality--a belated version of maternal mirroring; she, after his song is sung, responds with an appropriately adult gesture.

But the transition is the song: the text from Morris' not too distant past that emblemizes his terror or distrust of sexual mutuality. The bridge between fear and fulfillment is the confession of weakness. If there is a personal significance to the poem, then the wish-fulfillment fantasy of "Rapunzel" imagines a woman who will love Morris because he is afraid to love her.

The poem encases this fantasy within a preliminary narrative and a conclusion, in which the prince and his bride are presented as king and queen. Morris' version of the Rapunzel tale is notable for its temporal and causal confusion. Like certain of the other Defence of Guenevere poems, "Rapunzel" might be accurately described, not as a narrative, but as a fantasia on a narrative theme. Taking our familiarity with the story for granted, much as, in "The Blue Closet" and "The Tune of Seven Towers," he takes for granted information present in the watercolors on which the poems are based, the poet elaborates on certain elements without linking them into a consecutive narration.

An effect of this technique is to deny the role of causality in bringing about the resolution of the tale. One moment the prince stands apart, unable to find his way to Rapunzel; the next, he is united with her in the tower. For Dianne Sadoff, this denial affirms the potency of fantasy itself: "wishing suddenly creates fulfillment. ... The dream" both "liberates desires and transforms realities" (158). However, the poem's failure to image the process by which the obstacles to fulfillment are overcome may as readily point to Morris' inability to affirm any such process. The absence of causality would thus argue that sexual fulfillment is only possible through magic--through the fantasized omnipotence of the child. As we shall see, neither explanation is, in fact, correct. The poem evolves through a sequence of redefined perceptions of the world which, while they do not literally lead from one scene to the next, provide a psychological rationale for the growing strength of the Prince.

Even so, the uncertainties of the narrative make it difficult to understand exactly what happens. Its first section begins with the Prince "in the wood near the tower, in the evening"; its second, with the Prince "in the morning." At first, we assume this is the morning after the evening of the opening lines; however, we gradually realize a much longer time has passed and finally discover that it has been a year since he first heard Rapunzel's song:

And every morning do I whet my sword,
       Yet Rapunzel still weeps within the tower,
And still God ties me down to the green sward,
       Because I cannot see the gold stair floating lower. (152-155)

The reader's confusion is, of course, a symptom of the Prince's. We share his steadily sharpening consciousness of time and place and thereby his steadily sharpening consciousness of self. The Prince's evolving self-awareness is represented by his construction of an autobiographical narrative. There remains, however, much he is not yet able to incorporate into his autobiography.

To understand why the Prince "cannot see the gold stair," we must turn to the Grimm folktale that is Morris' source. Here, the Prince, having climbed Rapunzel's hair, is discovered by the witch and cast down upon thorns and blinded, and Rapunzel, banished to a desolate spot, gives birth to twin children. The hint of blindness in line 155 is all that remains of these consequences. Suppressing this material--with which he was certainly familiar--Morris desexualizes the poem, placing the consummation of love at a point beyond the conclusion of the text and identifying sexual guilt with the witch. [76]

He is thus able to avoid confrontation with the sexual nature of the hero and heroine. But this desexualization results both in the Prince's difficulty in constructing an autobiographical narrative and in Morris' difficulty in connecting the episodes of his romance.

Separated from Rapunzel, the prince continues to "whet [his] sword" on a daily basis, reverting to masturbatory sexuality. As we have seen, there is nothing he himself can do to reunite himself to Rapunzel. Instead, the reunion occurs when Rapunzel redefines her own image. In the fifty-line song she sings from the tower, she makes at least two important points: She affirms her need for the phallic sword of the prince and she associates female desire with religious devotion:

                                 Give me a kiss
Dear God, dwelling up in heaven!


Send me a true knight, Lord Christ, with a steel sword, bright,
Broad, and trenchant; yea, and seven
Spans from hilt to point, 0 Lord! . . . .
Lord, give Mary a dear kiss,
And let gold Michael, who looked down,
When I was there, on Rouen town
From the spire, bring me that kiss
On a lily! Lord, do this! (166-181)

The cleavage between male duty and female sexuality central to "A Dream" is here resolved by a radical yoking of the two terms. And the conflation of religion, chivalry, and lust enables Morris to overcome his resistance to the Victorian sexual system. Rapunzel's odd reference to Rouen may, it has been suggested, associate her with the imprisoned Joan of Arc (Demon 406), thus adding to the Christian aura with which she is now surrounded. What may, on first reading, seem an [77] even stranger feature of her song is the undersea imagery she interjects in lines 197-99. 6 However the crayfish that mocks her "with feeler and grim claw" (199) associates the undersea world of female sexuality--encountered earlier in "The Blue Closet"--with a vulnerability that renders it, too, less threatenIng.

One more piece of material must be worked through before the union of Rapunzel and the prince can take place. He asks her if she has ever seen a death, and she replies by telling of two men who fought below the tower, one of whom killed the other. The dead man's crest, "A gold lady fair, / Wrought wonderfully" (243-244), is, in the end, all that is recognizable in his battered form. The prince, in response, explains that the two men were brothers, who "often rode together ... Until they fell in these same evil dreams" (245-47). Gold is Rapunzel's own color; the evil dreams of the brothers are "these same" because they are indeed of a kind with the Prince's own erotic fantasy. The love of women is not only a threat to male bonding, but a threat to the body itself, hacked past recognition in fraternal conflict. Again, what seems to be occurring is not the erasure of a threat, but a new way of perceiving it. Rapunzel's naive account of the two brothers' fight, in which the dying knight's blood is likened to "A line of poppies red / In the golden twilight" (219-220) not only signals her unfamiliarity with the facts of war; it also places fratricide in the context of a military esthetic. I am reminded of the homeric simile comparing a falling warrior to a poppy bending in the spring rain (Iliad 8:306-308). And this reminder forces the recognition that Rapunzel's new way of seeing things--and Sebald's as well--is linked to the glorification of male violence against males.

As they leave the tower, the Prince assumes his rightful name, Sebald, and plucks the crimson banner from its staff (Stallman discusses this imagery in "'Rapunzel' Unravelled") casting it down to lie on the grass below. The gesture, which symbolizes his newfound ability to naturalize the hitherto threatening aspects of the female body, also registers the fall of Rapunzel from her place of power.

Morris has linked Sebald's quest for a bride with his lack of a vocation. (He rides "out to look for love" [75] to escape the scoffs of the court.) Significantly, although he goes forth "an armed knight" (97), when he returns to accept the kingship that has been waiting him, he takes off his armor. Not only will he be a king of peace; he will also be a king content with the outlines of his own vulnerable human body.

Yet this is a sign of power, rather than weakness. Sebald's body is now an index of his ability to dominate adult society, including the bride he has brought to rule by his side. The Prince weds Rapunzel because he has been able to conceptualize her as a creature more vulnerable even than himself. He was able to assume kingship by constructing a male autobiography to which kingship--with all its implications--is appropriate closure. Rescuing Rapunzel, he brings her from her own story into his, thus denying her right to construct an autobiographical narrative of her own; he even changes her name, giving her a past that is, literally, his.

The Prince's sexual fulfillment turns out to be, in many respects, a typical Victorian male fantasy. If it adds anything to the paradigm of rescuing the imprisoned woman and making her over into one's own image, that addition lies in its relatively frank exploration of the young male's embarrassment about masturbation and his fear of female potency.

What is suppressed in Morris' treatment of the Rapunzel story is the prehistory of the maiden's incarceration: the tale of her mother's uncontrollable lust for rampion root (in German, "rapunzel"), which results both in her bondage and her name. That the witch's name is "Rapunzel" suggests a mutual bondage of mother and daughter to a form of desire threatening to the Prince. Symbolically, the witch's climbing Ra[79]punzel's hair is itself a sexual act, which the Prince must imitate if he is to win Rapunzel from female domination. If, as Stallman suggests, the witch climbing Rapunzel's hair in her scarlet cloak is a representation of female menses (225), then female domination is linked to the mysterious nature of female sexuality itself. And if, moreover, the early reference to "faint red stains" "on the marble parapet" of Rapunzel's tower (237) is evidence that she is long past her first experience of menstruation or even, as Reed argues, that sexual intercourse is not new to her" (315), then the sexual maturity of Rapunzel is a given in the narrative. The Prince's fantasy of "foul things" swinging "upon the ends of her long hair" "in the witches' sabbaths" (I 19, 124, 128) seems to confront Rapunzel's prior sexuality. Indeed, it may be precisely her sexual maturity that makes her attractive to him.7 The threat of female desire is lessened by the thought that other men have encountered it and survived; the female body is valorized by being desired by other men. But it is also Rapunzel's sexual maturity--the fact that her erotic drives are more than a passive response to his own desire--that threatens the conventional ending of the poem. And so the Prince erases her prior sexual experience by renaming her Guendolen. Ironically, it is the source of female attractiveness that must be tamed if a marriage is to take place. Even so, in the concluding lines of the poem, the voice of the Witch rises out of hell, reiterating her threat to masculine authority:



6    Stallman discusses this imagery in "'Rapuzel' Unravelled."

7    Reed makes this point in suggesting that Rapunzel performs the role of the mother in an Oedipal triangle, in which the witch is a version of the father (315). Split off from Rapunzel/Guendolen, female desire remains unquenchable. The element of sexuality Morris had attempted to suppress in order to bring the text to closure disrupts the conventional ending of the poem and replaces it with a note of uncertainty, even premonition. His affirmation of male dominance remains fundamentally insecure.

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