The Defence of Guenevere

Modern Critical Views

From Carole Silver, The Romance of William Morris, Ohio University Press, 1982, pp. 40-42, 45-46.

[on poems in the volume which "inhabit the realms of folklore and fairy tale," that is, other than those based on Arthurian sources and Froissart's Chronicles]:

The third division of The Defence of Guenevere consists of such poems as ("Rapunzel," "The Sailing of the Sword," "Golden Wings," "Spell-Bound," "The Wind," "Father John's War-Song," "Two Red Roses Across the Moon," "The Gilliflower of Gold," "The Blue Closet," "The Tune of Seven Towers," and "Welland River." All take place within the indeterminate medievalized world of fairyland; many lack clear explanations of causes and events. Some are in ballad form, but even those that are not suggest ballad qualities: they pose questions they do not answer or pass over certain incidents to concentrate on others. The light of dream shines over them all. Closest in spirit to Morris's early prose tales, they have the precise detail and conceptual ambiguity of stories like "The Hollow Land."

While the fairy tale poems derive minor motifs and details from such sources as the Grimms' Märchen and Benjamin Thorpe's Yule-Tales, Morris merely alludes to these works. Except for "Rapunzel," the narratives and important episodes are his own; in all cases his interpretations of events have little to do with their originals.

Only within the fairy tale world of pure imagination success in love seen as possible. Five poems within the division illustrate the triumph of passion over threats of imprisonment, war, or death. The promise of wedded bliss rings through a pair of brief ballads, "Two Red Roses Across the Moon" and "The Gilliflower of Gold." The two ballads are the joyous lyrics of triumphant lovers who will gain their ladies after they have won their battles. "The Little Tower" promises the same reward, though their brief narrative of love's battle with and escape from a society opposed to it, ends before the ordeal of the siege begins. However, despite the narrator's confidence, the reader does not know with certainty if the couple will be happily united, or if, instead, their fates will be similar to those of Robert and Jehane or of Lionel and Alys in the tale, "Golden Wings." An uncertain outcome mitigates the joy of "Father John's War-Song," a poem particularly interesting for the connections it makes between the harvest of corn and sexual union. Father John will clearly gain the son he desires through the union of Maiden Mary and her knight, Roland, but the battle for home and harvest yet to be waged.

Again, two poems derived from the Grimms' Märchen slightly undercut their themes of success in love. Morris's "Welland River," based in part on the Grimms' tale, "Roland," uses the riddle and recognition motifs common to folklore. But the emphasis falls equally on the plight of the faithful woman, pregnant and deserted by her lover, and on their happy reunion. The same is true of Morris's fascinating version of the Grimms' "Rapunzel." In Morris's rendition of the tale, external action is avoided and the psychological development of the hero is stressed. Morris makes his poem a bridequest, following the pattern he had first utilized in "The Hollow Land." The poem is an unusual account of the search for the beloved who is the rightful anima. In a work that looks forward to Morris's later bridequests, Sebald, the hero, responds to a vision of his beloved, must seek her through the wastelands and forests of the world, and must free her from imprisonment and slavery before he may wed her. As Robert Stallman notes, the poem clearly centers on a rite of initiation, but the despair of the young man "riding out to look for love" (1:65) and the condition of his beloved, indicate Morris's preoccupation with the possibilities of frustration and failure. Sebald, scorned and mocked by a people who accuse him of evading reality, must undergo a year of blindness and passivity before he truly begins the process of maturation. Rapunzel must suffer a total deprivation of love, the sight of brother slaying brother, and the violations of the witches before she can be freed. The implication with which the poem ends is that Rapunzel's experience cannot be totally erased. "Even now," says she, happily wedded to Sebald, "a harsh voice seems / To hang about my hair" (1:74). The last words of the poem are those of the witch; they are a reminder of what Rapunzel has escaped, but they inject a note of menace into an otherwise joyous conclusion.

Even in the fairy tale world, however, tragedy outweighs joy. Morris envisions mysterious wizards, unknown invaders, anonymous imprisoners who hold their victims in bondage or death. The sympathetic figures in the poems are spellbound captives, separated from those they love or doomed to violent death. The forces that destroy them are externalized as fate. Separated from his beloved on the night before his wedding, enchanted by a mysterious wizard and transported to a supernatural land, the knight in "Spell-Bound" wears out his days musing on his beloved. His first hope, that she will quest for and free him, yields to his despair as well as to his recognition of impending death. The same theme of mysterious imprisonment and impending death is echoed in "In Prison," the poem, originally part of "Frank's Sealed Letter," which Morris reutilizes to end the Defence volume.

Two paired poems, both related to Rossetti watercolors which Morris purchased in 1857, again suggest the mysterious power of fate. "The Tune of Seven Towers" is the song Morris writes for the painting's lady--a red-robed beauty who holds a musical instrument, while a young man in a green doublet stands watching her. Morris names the figures Yoland and Oliver and captures some of the tense, mysterious nature of the painting in his poem. Like Ella in "A Dream," Morris's Yoland is about to send her lover on a fatal quest to a haunted castle. She cannot tell him either why she is unhappy or why he must fetch her coif and kirtle from the towers that day. Her actions remain unmotivated and her behavior is a curious blend of love and cajolery. But, offering him a kiss as his guerdon, she sends him to his death. Simply fated to be fatal, she is as much a victim as her lover.

"The Blue Closet," another comment on a painting, tells the tale of a dead lover who comes to claim his lady. Rossetti's painting is of four ladies, similar in appearance, playing and singing. Its claustrophobic quality finds its equivalent in the poem. The song the ladies appear to be singing in Rossetti's painting and are singing in the poem, a Te Deum appropriate to Christmas Eve, is not the important musical theme of "The Blue Closet." Instead, the theme is the Liebestod as Queen Louise, the imprisoned lady, expresses her desire for union with Arthur, her dead lover. The poem partially inverts the situation of Rossetti's "Blessed Damozel," and Louise's wish for union through death granted.

While the bells toll their premonitions of her passing, and the red lily from the underworld springs up through the floor of the chamber, the dead lover comes for his bride. In a somewhat ghastly reunion (the lover too has been held captive by a myterious sorceress), Arthur leads Louise and her companions off to the land of death. Though his source may well be the demon-lover figure, and the corpse-like quality of his face is fully described, he is neither evil nor malicious. Again, it is the mysterious force of fate which is responsible for the events of the poem. The deaths of Jehane in "Golden Wings" and Margaret in "The Wind" are likewise treated as acts of fate. The reader never knows with certainty what irrational or impersonal force causes the women's destruction.

In all, the most powerful poems of the fairy tale division show the downward turn of the wheel of fortune and the tragic love and death connected with it. What is true of the division is equally valid as a description of the entire Defence volume. Despite the varied sources, forms, and styles within it, the volume is almost obsessive in its repetition of themes.

Morris, in so inisistently repeating these themes, reveals much about himself. The poet who sees love as capable of being either a creative or destrutive force is a psychological realist, but the one who intensely identifies with the agonies of Palomydes and Launcelot expects to suffer and derives emotional satisfaction from his pain. The poet who paints women as formidable as Guenevere and Jehane, as helpless and enslaved as Rapunzel and Queen Louise, fears and worships strangely. Indeed, the nervousness and ambivalence of Morris's sexual desire is reflected in the agonized sensuousness of the poetry. The split between Morris' fear of love and his ardent yearning for it explains, in part, the Defence volume's intensity.

More significantly, Morris does not understand the anima for what she is, a force within the self. His fatal women and fairy princesses--clearly malign and benign animas--are not fully recognized by him as externalizations of his divided self. Communions and reunions between the male and female aspects of the self do not last or are not complete in most of the poems, simply because Morris is unable to integrate his personality. What Barbara Gelpi says of Rossetti's poetry is true of the Morris volume written so heavily under his master's influence: because Morris cannot bring his divided self into unity, his poems are full of internal drama and well-created tensions. The Defence volume is, as Dixon Scott suggests, a precocious one, full of the angst of youth. Its violence is the fantasy violence of the young and its passion is the heightened fever of a vigorous man. Superimposed upon these youthful emotions are the insights of maturity, and the balance is exciting but precarious.

As Morris's chronological and emotional growth continued, his poetry naturally changed. Morris's problems were complicated rather than resolved in the nine year interval between The Defence and The Life and Death of Jason, his next published work. But by the end of this interval he had assumed the appearance of stability and control; he had modulated and repressed the more obvious manifestations of his split self. Poetically, his mask was more firmly in place, his expression of emotion more controlled and subdued. He moved, as well, from essentially dramatic modes to narrative episodes, from the intense to the more diffuse, from, as Pater called the journey, "dreamlight to daylight."

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