The Defence of Guenevere

The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems

Edited by Margaret Lourie

[p. xiii]


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 Dixon's response typifies the warmth and admiration that Morris' yet unpublished poetry inspired first among his undergraduate circle, then during 1857 among the Rossetti group in London.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.

[p. 1]

Critical Introduction

Make-strong old dreams lest this our world lose heart.
--epigraph to Pound's Personae (1909)

Much of nineteenth-century British poetry can seem a history of loss and a long looking back. Its authors lamented the last simplicity of pre-industrial society and a coherent system of beliefs. More deeply if less consciously, they mourned the possibility of decisive action, objective perception, and human communication which had passed from the modern world. Seeking comfort in this cataclysm, many poets combed through history for soil in which their thwarted imaginations could take root. They returned now with Arnold to the Greeks "who saw life steadily and saw it whole," now with Pater and Browning to the Renaissance, but most often to the Middle Ages with poets like Scott, Keats, Tennyson, Morris, and Rossetti. For similar reasons Yeats would later look back to Irish legend, Joyce to the Odyssey, and Pound to Provence.

Other poets recalled private rather than public history and found their consolation in memories of childhood. Wordsworth perhaps inaugurated this line of thinking in his Intimations ode. By mid-century Ruskin could, without seeming absurd, identify childhood as the locus of genius. He remembered “the days of childhood as of greatest happiness, because those were the days of greatest wonder, greatest simplicity, and most vigorous imagination.” And the whole difference between a man of genius and other men . . . is that the first remains in great part a child, seeing with the large eyes of children, in perpetual wonder, not conscious of much knowledge."1

As late as 1902 Yeats, still enchanted with the child’s vision, could remember William Morris as "The Happiest of the Poets" and apply his epithet to the poet of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems as well as to the later Morris who celebrated natural abundance. To exemplify his epithet he cited the first three stanzas of "Golden Wings," which he called "the best description of happiness in the world"2--ignoring that [p.2] poem's final suicide, war, and ruin. For to Yeats all that Morris wrote seemed "like the make-believe of a child who is remaking the world" (p. 60), and even the violence, the fearful incarcerations, the unrealized loves of the Guenevere volume retain all the heightened immediacy of childhood. These early poems exhibit no philosophy, no network of image or symbol to complicate the expression of pure feeling--whether love-longing, paralyzing loneliness, lust for violence, or struggle for chastity. Morris so effortlessly animated medieval dreams that all his work recalled to Yeats an enviable innocence which usually vanishes with adulthood and industrialization but which in Morris oddly survived both. The younger poet looked back to Morris in troubled wisdom and saw an ease and assurance forever denied his own more complicated sensibility.

Hugh Kenner precisely captures the childlike charm of Morris for his successors in his cameo of Ezra Pound with H. D.: "a crow's nest high in the Doolittles' maple tree had been one of their adolescent trysting-places, and the little apple orchard in the Pounds' back garden at Wyncote another. He had brought her . . . William Morris ("The Gilliflower of Gold" and "The Haystack in the Floods"), and under the apple trees read to her . . ."3 Kenner's sketch and Yeats' essay suggest a view of Morris which closely parallels Matthew Arnold's exhausting effort to cope with Wordsworth. In fact, some of Arnold's "Memorial Verses" to Wordsworth could double as Yeats' tribute to Morris:

He laid us as we lay at birth
On the cool flowery lap of earth,
Smiles broke from us and we had ease;
The hills were round us, and the breeze
Went o'er the sun-lit fields again;
Our foreheads felt the wind and rain.
Our youth return'd; for there was shed
On spirits that had long been dead,
Spirits dried up and closely furl'd,
The freshness of the early world.

One "early world" Morris revived in this volume was the private world of childhood emotion: its purity of color, magic, and helplessness, of dread, destruction, and desire--a world often relived in dreams and folk tales. Moreover, he revived that world through a remarkably sophisticated adaptation of just those nineteenth-century poetic techniques which could best serve to restore basic modes of feeling and perceiving--the directness of Browning's dramatic monologue without its casuistry, the richness of a Keats or Tennyson fairyland without its fragility. These techniques, explored below in "The Nineteenth-Century Poetic Heritage," formed his legacy to poets of the [p.3] following generation. The other "early world" that Morris recovered was the early history of modern Europe as recorded in medieval chronicles, legends, and fairy tales, ballads, hymns, and carols. Here again, as indicated in "Morris and Medievalism," he worked with his sources to bring back only those forms .mud characters from medieval literature which convey continuing human emotion. These two early worlds are ultimately inseparable as they inform the poems of the Guenevere volume: an elemental period of history serves Morris as the prism through which he can project his spectrum of elemental emotions.

The accuracy of detail and close psychic inspection, the wealth of medieval allusion and facility with medieval verse forms in the present volume may suggest that Morris conveys a vision of the Middle Ages miraculously unmediated by the five centuries that separated him from Froissart's Chronicles. And to some extent he does. Yet he also grew up and wrote these poems in full sympathy with a medieval revival that had been influencing public taste for nearly a hundred years.

Morris and Medievalism

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.

The Nineteenth-Century Poetic Heritage

Except in the handful of poems discussed above--and there only with considerable modification--Morris does not in The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems attempt to imitate the literature of the Middle Ages. Rather, he brings to bear his sympathy with the fourteenth century on the writing of a poetry entirely modern. The special quality and achievement of that poetry depend largely on Morris' relationship to other nineteenth-century poets.

Apparently, Morris' remarkably catholic taste in medieval literature narrowed to a crotchety selectivity toward the poetry of his own century. Among the Romantics he openly despised Wordsworth (Mackail I, p. 219) and seldom mentioned Blake or Byron. Shelley, Coleridge, and Keats he admired enough to issue Kelmscott editions of their works in the 1890's. Yet he described Coleridge as "a muddle-brained metaphysician, who by some strange freak of fortune turned out a few real poems amongst the dreary flood of inanity which was his wont" (Mackail II, p. 310) and he accused Shelley of having "no eyes" (Mackail I, p. 178). Keats alone of these poets earned his unqualified veneration and discipleship.

From among his contemporaries, Morris in the 1850's was still reading avidly in the poetry of Tennyson and Browning, both of whom he later rejected. Most other Victorian poets seemingly escaped his notice. Keats, Tennyson, and Browning, then, lie behind much of this volume's poetic technique.

Browning's method in the dramatic monologues obviously influenced those Guenevere poems more or less based on Froissart's chronicles: "Sir Peter Harpdon's End," "Concerning Geffray Teste Noire," "Old Love," "The Gilliflower of Gold," "The Eve of Crecy," "The Judgment of God," "The Little Tower," "The Hay-stack in the Floods," and "Sir Giles' War-song." The debt was one which Morris himself acknowledged with respect to the title poem and which Mackail, along with nearly every other Morris scholar, readily extends to the Froissartian poems (I, p. 132). As further evidence of the debt, Morris had demonstrated his youthful enthusiasm, if not his critical acuity, for Browning's [p. 12] monologues in one of his few published comments on other poets--a review of Men and Women for the March 1856 number of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. In that review he ranked Browning "high among the poets of all time, and I scarcely know whether first, or second, in our own" (CW I, p. 347).

At least superficially, the similarities between Browning's dramatic monologues and Morris' Froissartian poems are striking. "Concerning Geffray Teste Noire" even replicates almost all the technical features of a Browning monologue: the speaker's real-world occasion for uttering the poem, the specified auditor, the self-revelation in excess of the occasion. Morris also borrows Browning's abrupt, conversational language. Compare Morris' Castel Neuf, improving his acquaintance with Allayne, and Browning's Fra Lippi Lippi, establishing contact with the watchman:

Your brother was slain there? I mind me now
A right, good man-at-arms, God pardon him!

("Concerning Geffray Teste Noire," lines 20-22)

What, brother Lippo's doings, up and down,
You know them and they take you? like enough! I saw the proper twinkle in your eye--
("Fra Lippo Lippi," lines 40-42)

Browning's ear for the halting or headlong progress of actual speech served as Morris' model in other poems as well: the title poem, "King Arthur's Tomb," "Sir Peter Harpdon's End," "The Judgment of God," and "The Haystack in the Floods."

Yet Morris learned more than the technical aspects of the dramatic monologue from Browning. He also discovered from monologues like "Andrea del Sarto" how to employ minute particulars and obscure characters from history in order to present an inside view of a sympathetic, if morally dubious, personality. Thus, Sir Peter Harpdon lives in the accurate historical context  of fourteenth-century France, justifies his own view of the hostilities between French and English, but also somewhat ignominiously severs his cousin's ears. Similarly, Roger in "The Judgment of God" readies himself for a believable fourteenth-century trial by combat, rallies sympathy for his underdog status, but also implies his probable guilt.

Morris did not, however, accomplish in his Froissartian poems exactly what Browning did in his dramatic monologues. In the monologues Browning's crucial balance between sympathy and judgment allows his reader a simultaneous subjective and objective view of his characters. But Morris omits the information that would permit objective judgment. While Browning in "Andrea del Sarto," for instance, explains his notion of artistic merit [p. 13] so that readers can judge Andrea's shortcomings, Morris in "The Judgment of God" never supplies enough information about the merits of the opposing factions to allow a confident judgment of Roger. Nor is it possible to pass informed moral judgments on Peter Harpdon or John of Newcastle. Morris' characters can only be viewed from within.

For Browning's balance between sympathy and judgment, Morris substitutes an entirely subjective tension between an aggressive, often violent public life and a passive private life of unfulfilled love. Peter Harpdon, for example, bravely defends his crumbling castle but sustains himself with a love fantasy which he is helpless to realize. And just as sympathy and judgment ultimately fuse in the reading of a Browning monologue, so public violence and private eroticism often intermingle in Morris' Froissartian poems. As Dianne Sadoff points out, the murder in "The Haystack in the Floods" replaces eroticism and even becomes erotic.5 Similarly, Castel Neuf's intensely private erotic fantasy centers on murdered lovers and a lady with lips like a "curved sword" (line 173). Thus, the Froissartian poems, unlike Browning monologues, portray and require no subtle intellection. Instead, they unfold a particular intrapsychic tension built on such amoral primitive instincts as aggression and sexuality.

The poems based on Malory's Morte d'Arthur in Morris' first volume show much of the same heritage as the Froissartian ones. Like Browning, Morris focuses on details of dress and expression to lend immediacy to characters who would otherwise seem remote. As Browning does in "Bishop Blougram's Apology," Morris has his speaker argue a position in "The Defence of Guenevere." Similarly, "King Arthur's Tomb" dramatizes two points of view in conflict, the strivings of human against religious devotion. Yet using the materials of received literary tradition automatically creates a different artistic situation from that posed by reviving empty personalities from history. Unlike the neutral citizens of past ages, the legendary figures of Guenevere, Launcelot, and Galahad come trailing clouds of glory. They immediately arouse certain associations in any literate audience, and their mythic stature puts them beyond the common life of humanity.

One effect of this legendary subject matter on the Malorian poems is that they portray passions larger than life--whether the passion be human love as in the first two poems or divine love as in the second two. Where the challenge of the history poems had been to invest Froissart's paper soldiers with human instincts, the method of the Malory poems is to take the recognizable human emotions of love, anxiety, impatience, piety, and charity to their utter limits. Hence, no mundane love but the consuming fire between a Launcelot and Guenevere; no ordinary [p. 14] piety but the pristine faith of a Galahad.

Another result of engaging Malory's major characters is that any situation the poet puts them in is bound to recall a moral or religious crux from Le Morte d'Arthur. Although Morris could easily avoid tangling with such problems in the Froissart poems, the question of, for instance, Guenevere's guilt or the dedication of Arthur's knights inevitably clings to any retelling of these tales. Thus, "The Defence of Guenevere" may appear to be a poem about the moral status of the Queen's crime and the two Galahad poems about the power of religious purity. But Morris takes certain steps in the Arthurian poems to evoke an emotional resonance rather than a moral or religious viewpoint.

Several tactics confound the moral issue of adultery in "The Defence of Guenevere." First, Guenevere maintains that her accuser Gauwaine is lying, yet the reader knows--and she tacitly admits--that she has indeed committed adultery. Thus, Guenevere effectively removes her defense from the sphere of logic since Gauwaine cannot logically be both lying and telling the truth. Only in the sphere of private emotion, not of public morality, does it make sense that anyone who wants her burned for loving Launcelot must somehow be mistaken. Alternating between confession and defiance, Guenevere also undercuts the moral issue by adopting no consistent line of argument. She urges first her helpless ignorance and the inevitability of her decline into sin, then her pitiable condition, then the justice of Launcelot's trial by combat against Mellyagraunce, and finally the inherent purity of beauty and the honor due a queen. All her arguments reveal more emotion--helplessness, love-longing, weeping, supplication, disgust at Mellyagraunce, and enchantment with her own beauty--than deliberate rhetoric.

Finally, Morris makes "The Defence of Guenevere" a poem about raging passion rather than moral judgment by emphasizing the Queen's erotic rather than her moral stature. All of the narrative sections of the poem dwell on her contorted sensuality or her tearful shame. Even when she speaks out bravely, she suffers from "passionate twisting" of her body; she is in short, a creature of sense and feeling, not of thought and judgment. Here, as elsewhere in the Guenevere volume, Morris avoids thought and grounds his action in an emotional state, even if the Queen's frenzy is wilder than any merely human one could be.

In "The Chapel in Lyoness the poet works in subtler ways to mitigate, if not dispel, religious meaning. Curtis Dahl in "Morris's 'The Chapel in Lyoness': An Interpretation" expounds  the poem as religious allegory.6 Yet what Dahl does not notice  is that an undercurrent of sensory experience and human love nearly washes out religious significance. Ozana initially describes [p. 15] himself in terms which are clearly sensual--from the colored samite to the naked chest. His paralysis is entirely physical: he cannot eat, speak, sleep, or even bleed. His invisible wound suspiciously resembles those inflicted by Cupid, and presses to his breast not the expected cross but a lock of a lady's hair. Even after Galahad's kiss of absolution, Ozona longs for sleep and love, not divine grace. Galahad, too, seems oddly sensual for a virgin knight. Like a would-be lover, he sings, suffers a heated heart, cools his face in a stream, and  plucks a rose. And in his culminating vision, Galahad sees the lovers reunited in a heaven consisting only of a distinctly non-spiritual jasper sea. Once again, Morris undercuts moral and religious significance, documenting instead human perception and erotic love.

Erotic and sensory though "The Chapel in Lyoness" may be, it certainly registers no everyday experience. Ozana likens his situation to a dream, and indeed all the characters in this poem seem to occupy a space beyond the ordinary world--one in which colors shine brighter, motives are murkier, and actions less certain. "Spell-bound," "The Wind," "The Blue Closet," "The Tune of Seven Towers," and "Golden Wings" also partake of  this atmosphere. Nothing could seem farther than the netherworld of "The Blue Closet" from the "truth to nature" espoused by the first Pre-Raphaelites in painting and by Browning in poetry.

In fact, the Morris poems in this group derive in large  part from Keats and Tennyson. According to Mackail, Morris ranked Keats first among modern English poets (I, p. 219) and claimed him as one of his few poetic masters (I, p. 200). As for Tennyson, no Oxford undergraduate in the early 1850's could have escaped his influence, and in Morris' circle the Poet Laureate was a constant object of adulation (Mackail I, p. 46). 

The younger poet inherited from Keats and Tennyson a fascination with the colors and strangely static passions of medievalism. These Keats had explored in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," "Isabella," "The Eve of St. Mark," and "The Eve of St. Agnes." Before 1858 Tennyson had likewise contributed "Oriana" and several poems on Arthurian themes: "The Lady of Shalott," "Galahad," "Morte d'Arthur," and "Sir Launcelot and Queen Guinevere."

Unlike Browning, Keats and Tennyson had no intention of  transforming remote past into immediate present. Rather, each of them saw acts of the creative imagination as possible only in a world outside "The weariness, the fever, and the fret / Here, where men sit and hear each other groan"--whether that world be the "forest dim" of Keats' nightingale or Tennyson's Palace of Art. Both poets often constructed these imaginative realms out of medieval materials. For the dark centuries of [p. 16] the Middle Ages seemed distant enough to be viewed through a veil of romance, and both poets thought of them as a time more congenial than the present to visions, dreams, and magic. Aided by their medieval settings, Keats' knight-at-arms could be visited by a nearly palpable Belle Dame, and Tennyson's Lady of Shalott could be credibly spellbound within her four gray walls. For both poets the Middle Ages served as a kind of halfway house between a quotidian existence and fairyland.

To both Keats and Tennyson the experience of these imagined lands was an intensely sensuous one. In that beautiful mingling of dream and medieval reality which forms the center of "The Eve of St. Agnes," Keats sees the colors of moonlight filtered through stained glass, feels Madeline's "warmed jewels," smells "her fragrant bodice," tastes the fruit Porphyry brings, and hears the lute. Tennyson, too, anchors his poetic world to concrete sense impressions described in meticulous detail, although for him more than for Keats visual and aural perceptions pre-dominate over the other senses.

Morris continues this tradition of sensory immediacy in a imaginative realm, relying heavily on the techniques of Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott" and "Mariana." Like Tennyson's, Morris sensory appeals are nearly all visual, punctuated only occasionally by a tolling bell or an inserted song. Where Keats chose to evoke shape and texture as much as color, Morris--learning instead from Rossetti's paintings--nearly ignores matters of shadow, touch, or solidarity, often for an intensity of pure color that takes his images out of any recognizable world. From the wealth of detail and primary colors in the opening stanzas of "Golden Wings," for example, the ancient castle could undoubtedly be painted, but it has never been seen in the shadow three-dimensional daytime world.

Morris' sharp, flat, Pre-Raphaelite colors help define the world of fantasy he projects. Each character in his enchanted realm, like Tennyson's Lady of Shalott, suffers from unfulfilled desire in a place locked away from the real world. The speaker in "Spell-bound" has been mysteriously separated from his betrothed by a wizard. The dames in "The Blue Closet" have waited what seems an eternity for Arthur's return, and Jeanne in "Golden Wings" vainly expects her lover. In the opening scenes of "Rapunzel" the Prince is separated from his beloved by a kind of enchantment: "And still God ties me down to the green sward (line 154). Galahad in "Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery" falls into the thralldom of half-sleep, suffering from the absence of love until the Lord awakens him to proper piety. And before he can rejoin his lover in heaven, a spell binds Ozana speechless and tearless to the chapel floor in "The Chapel in Lyoness."

But more than Tennyson does even in "Mariana," Morris projects through his captured personages only the world they can [p. 17] see. And that world has the stasis of their own involuted passions. Its fitting counterparts are the still pictures in "The Sailing of the Sword," "Near Avalon," and the opening stanzas of "Golden Wings"--word groupings which rely for their unity only on contrasted colors and juxtaposed figures. Compared with the intensified naturalism of "Mariana," the unnatural colors of "The Blue Closet" and "Golden Wings" seem to emerge from a mind even more closed off from the real world. The psychic energy normally directed outward toward the phenomenal world has been in the Morris poems entirely redirected inward by emotional frustration. The resulting hallucinations reflect only that inner psychic tension, not external reality.

Moreover, it is for the sake merely of realizing this hallucinated dreamscape and the emotion that attaches to it that Morris multiplies the details of his descriptions in these poems. The details mean nothing other than what they are--the concretizing of an overwrought condition of mind. Morris even calls attention to the color and disposition of these details simply because they are there to be apprehended:

Across the moat the fresh west wind
In very little ripples went;
The way the heavy aspens bent
Towards it, was a thing to mind.
("Golden Wings," lines 21-24)

In all his poems of fevered fancy, details work to keep the eyes trained directly on the world before them. "The Wind" brings one close enough to the dream-remembered lady to see that "Margaret as she walk'd held a painted book in her hand; / Her finger kept the place" (lines 34-35). In "The Blue Closet" and "The Tune of Seven Towers" Morris gives corporal substance even to the shadows of death. Nearly every time his fairyland threatens; to escape ordinary waking experience entirely, the poet brings his vision back to sensory detail. Thus, Arthur's tears are hidden in a "gold and blue casket" ("The Blue Closet," line 45, and the wizard in "Spell-bound" has bound the knight "with silken chains" (line 73). The power of these poems of another world resides in their tension between an impossible setting or situation and a convincing probability of detail.

This visual insistence is not the only peculiarity of Morris’ interior fantasy land. Life there does not progress logically in time toward an unwanted death. Instead, his fairy people hover gladly on death's brink. The ladies in "The Blue Closet" may be already dead when the poem opens and are certainly both dead and happy by the end. Yoland in "The Tune of Seven Towers" sends Oliver to his death with apparent relish, as if the mission she proposes could be at once life-sustaining and death-provoking. The knights and ladies of "Near Avalon" [p. 18] occupy a similar space between life and death. And Jehane in "Golden Wings" is cheerful only in death.

These existences outside biological time also lack human motivation and activity. The Prince in "Rapunzel" is translated into the tower without any activity of his own. In "The Blue Closet" the ladies have been incarcerated mysteriously, and Arthur appears for seemingly no reason. The woman in "The Wind" dies from no apparent cause and for no apparent reason. One cannot tell why the knight in "Spell-bound" has been tied up with silken chains nor why Oliver would consider riding toward the Seven Towers. The enchantment of these creatures seems to allow neither life nor action.

In his fantasy poems, then, Morris creates a world which does not operate by the laws of time or cause and effect. It is, moreover, almost entirely a visual world, improbably hued and weirdly flat. Not surprisingly, it is a world which corresponds remarkably well to the one Freud describes in The Interpretation of Dreams. Freud maintains that all logical representations decay in dreams or hallucinations, and considerations of visual representation become primary. He even suggest that these visual images are the earliest, most primitive forms of human thought and that dreams are therefore a regression to the infancy both of the child and of the race. Perhaps these dream mechanisms are what Morris unconsciously bodied forth in his poems of fairyland. This notion seems all the more likely in view of Morris' life-long attraction to folk literature, which for the Freudian encodes racial dreams.

Thus, in the entire Guenevere volume Morris looks through various lenses to explore the details of primitive emotion. He goes back in time to wrest from oblivion a more primitive state of society, imaging through his medieval knights the persistence of primal instincts. Or he goes back into the human mind to retrieve its most primitive process in dream images. His return to legend and folk tale for much of his material reinforces his resolve to strip the human soul of ephemera. His practice in this book has been to portray the private human essentials of seeing, feeling, and dreaming.

After bringing out The Defence of Guenevere in 1858, Morris stopped publishing poetry for nearly a decade and turned instead to the decorative arts. In 1861 he and his friends founded Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company in an effort to elevate decoration to a new artistic plane. Eventually controlled solely by Morris, the firm manufactured furnishings, stained glass, wallpaper, and textiles which considerably influenced public taste. A man of inexhaustible energy and a celebrated diversity of talents, Morris also started the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, lectured frequently on art and society beginning in the late 1870's, helped to establish the [p. 19] Socialist League in 1884, and edited its organ Commonweal until 1890. In 1890 he launched his final business venture, the Kelmscott Press, which extended to printing the careful craftsmanship and intentional archaism he had already brought to decoration.

In literature Morris' equally prodigious achievement runs to twenty-four volumes in The Collected Works. Due primarily to The Life and Death of Jason (1867), The Earthly Paradise (1868-1870), and The Story of Sigurd the Volsung (1877), he ranked among the most famous poets of his generation. Later, he tried prose genres as well, producing essays, lectures, socialist romances, and fantasies.

Yet during the nine-year hiatus between The Defence Guenevere and The Life and Death of Jason, Morris radically altered his poetics. In writing the Guenevere poems, he had drawn ideas, subjects, and techniques from the mainstream of nineteenth-century historicism. But when he returned to poetry, he began taking medieval storytellers themselves for models--Chaucer in The Earthly Paradise, the saga writers in Sigurd. The resulting narratives, though often striking, thus constitute only a curious byway off the high road of nineteenth-century English Romanticism. When he completely rejected his immediate precursors Browning and Tennyson, Morris also rejected for his later poetry the secure place within the Romantic tradition that he had earned with the Guenevere volume.

The Legacy of Guenevere

The full measure of Morris' achievement in The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems can only be taken against the yardstick of poetics and poetic practice in the last half of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. To determine the place of this volume in literary history, it is necessary to know not only where it came from but also what it changed and where it led. Recent revaluations of modern poetry by such critics as Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, and Robert Langbaum have emphasized the staying power of the Romantic tradition in English poetry. As a result, strong links are being descried between the first and latest generation of Romantics.

Yet much remains to be discovered about the contribution of that middle generation, the Pre-Raphaelites, who kept the Romantic spirit alive through the inhospitable years of the mid-nineteeuth century. Some brief suggestions about the effect of Morris on his own and the succeeding generation may illuminate Pre-Raphaelitism in general and point directions for future studies.

As the first and in many ways the most representative volume of Pre-Raphaelite verse, Guenevere departed notably from [p. 20] most Victorian thinking about poetry. In an age dominated by Utilitarianism, most critics required poetry to serve a social function. Since the crisis of faith and rapid industrialization had brought with them a confusion in morals, philosophy, and values, a suitable function for poetry was not far to seek. The typical Victorian urgently needed to know how to live humanely in an increasingly ugly and impersonal world. For an answer he looked to poetry. With this pressing social need in mind, Arthur Hugh Clough, for instance, asked of poetry in a review of some poems by Alexander Smith and Matthew Arnold (North American Review, July 1853):

Could it not attempt to convert into beauty and thankfulness, or at least into some form and shape, some feeling, at any rate, of content--the actual, palpable things with which our every-day life is concerned; introduce into business and weary task-work a character and a soul of purpose and reality; intimate to us relations which, in our unchosen, peremptorily-appointed posts, in our grievously narrow and limited spheres of action, we still, in and through all, retain to some central, celestial fact?

Critics of Clough's persuasion often went so far as to revile any poetic subject other than the strictly contemporary since historic subjects confronted nineteenth-century problems only analogically, if at all. For such an audience poems that took up current social issues like Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "The Cry of the Children" were more satisfactory than a mood piece set in ancient Greece like Tennyson's "Oenone."

Matthew Arnold insisted in 1880 that in a troubled time poetry needed "high seriousness" and ought to be a "criticism of life." And all the major Victorian poets had concurred. Arnold himself, unable to construct the poetry of social responsibility, dutifully turned to shoring up his society through criticism. Tennyson, who began as a Keatsian Romantic, was soon in "The Palace of Art" suffering guilt for refusing to assume the burden of social responsibility. By 1850 with "In Memoriam" he had fully shouldered that burden by resolving the Victorian religious crisis, at least for those willing to "faintly trust the larger hope." Browning turned from the self-indulgence of his early poetry to an earnest sense of his obligation to make his readers see the complexity of moral and intellectual issues in the dramatic monologues.

Even in their masterpieces, Tennyson and Browning succumbed to the Victorian demand for showing people how to live. Both risked public censure by selecting historical subjects, Tennyson the Arthurian matter and Browning Renaissance Italy. Yet each amply compensated for this distance in time by staying close to [p. 21] Victorian moral questions. Tennyson's Idylls of the King can easily be read as a tract on the glories of imperialism, the sanctity of the home, and the dangers of sexuality in Victorian England. Browning, the more modern poet and the better thinker of the two, offers no solution to the moral dilemmas posed in The Ring and the Book but tries instead to educate his readers into informed and subtle moral judgments of their own.

To a literary world pleading for answers to the great welter of Victorian questions and confusions, Morris introduced his Guenevere poems. They nowhere mentioned Victorian England, nowhere dealt with its problems even by analogy. What is more, they refused to confront a single moral or intellectual question of their own age or any other. So far from displaying "the powerful application of ideas to life" later recommended by Arnold, they displayed no ideas at all. Hence, a decade later when in The Earthly Paradise Morris declared himself "the idle singer of an empty day," the Victorian readership eagerly agreed to label him a mere escapist, weaving decorative but inessential tapestries in rhyme. Lacking this convenient handle for his first poems, both press and public ignored them.

As the century wore on, however, the mist which had obscured Morris' kind of poetry gradually began to dissipate. A growing group of poets and critics began to sense that, if Morris had abandoned contemporary England, it was to return to the roots of human feeling. If he ignored morals and ideas, it was because dreams and emotions were more universal, more primitive. If he painted only with primary colors, intruded visual close-ups into his histories, and minimized cause and effect, it was because the most basic human mental process is visual and pre-logical, because seeing precedes even the organization of events into a plot and certainly precedes analysis. The other Pre-Raphaelites, especially Swinburne and Rossetti, would engage a similar technique in later volumes. The Aesthetes of the 1880's and the Decadents of the 1890's would carry it to its extreme. But to the early W. B. Yeats and, to a lesser extent, the early Ezra Pound would belong the elaboration and perfection of the versecraft introduced in the Guenevere volume.

On Yeats the impact of William Morris was direct and compelling. He announced in the Autobiography that as a young man he had been "in all things pre-Raphaelite,"8 and Morris alone of the Pre-Raphaelites affected him personally. During the late 1880's Yeats had frequented the Sunday evening meetings of the Socialist League, held at Morris' house in Hammersmith, and had goon become one of the select group to sup with Morris afterwards. Yeats remembered those evenings and his host reverently even after Morris' poetry no longer satisfied him: "To-day I do not set his poetry very high, but for an odd altogether wonderful line, or thought; and yet, if some angel offered me [p. 22] the choice, I would choose to live his life, poetry and all, rather than my own or any other man's (Autobiography, pp. 86-87). Almost all his other remarks on Morris similarly attest a passion for the personality rather than the poetry. Yet toward the very end of his life Yeats wrote of the shaping influence that English poetry had exerted on him in these words: "I owe my soul to Shakespeare, to Spenser and to Blake, perhaps to William Morris, and to the English language."9 And indeed, Yeats as a poet learned more from William Morris than has been commonly supposed.

What Morris had achieved instinctively in the Guenevere poems, as well as in later writing, Yeats carefully formulated and performed self-consciously. Morris naturally painted pictures free of all abstraction and generalization, but Yeats spent the whole decade of the 1890's trying (unsuccessfully) to purify his poetry of ideas or what he sometimes called "rhetoric." He saw "that Swinburne in one way, Browning in another, and Tennyson in a third, had filled their work with what I called 'impurities,' curiosities about politics, about science, about history, about religion; and that we must create once more the pure work" (Autobiography, p. 102). The "pure work" would use images or symbols to shadow the subjective life, not rhetoric to theorize about the objective world. Like Morris, Yeats refused to compose the Victorian poetry of social responsibility and maintained that people would "more and more reject the opinion that poetry is a 'criticism of life' and be more and more convinced that it is a revelation of a hidden life."10

Symbols were one way back to this "hidden life." For Yeats as for Morris, another way--one which cut through the political, moral, and intellectual tangles of any given age--lay through myth and legend. According to Yeats, "legends are the magical beryls in which we see life, not as it is, but as the heroic part of us, the part which desires always dreams and emotions greater than any in the world, and loves beauty and does not hate sorrow, hopes in secret that it may become."11 Morris, a distinctly English poet during the Guenevere period, turned to the Arthurian matter while Yeats, committed to revitalizing his native Ireland, chose Irish legend.12 Both reworked the traditional ballad. Their goals--to adumbrate timeless hopes and fears--were identical.

The tone as well as the goal of Yeats' early poetry resembled Morris'. In The Wanderings of Oisin (1889) the hero passes his "three centuries . . . / Of dalliance with a demon thing" in a Morris fairyland, which charms its captives out of time and change. Returning aged and helpless to an Ireland whose heroes have long been dead, Oisin brings to mind superannuated Morris soldiers like John of Newcastle and the knights in "Old Love" and "The Wind." In the end, Oisin's miserable, [p. 23] mutable life without heroism recalls the grey, declining season of "The Haystack in the Floods”—an association Yeats fixes by comparing Oisin’s dissipation to “a haycock out on the flood.”

The prevailing mood in The Rose (1893) and The Wind Among Reeds (1899) also conjures up the Guenevere poems, particularly the "Blue Closet" group. In all these poems love is most oIten thwarted and celibate. Characters speak with the impersonality of folklore rather than the individuality of modern psychology. Both poets haunt worlds out of nature, congenial with death, and beset by a vague fear of uncontrollable powers or emotions and a consequent paralysis of action. Poems like "The Man who Dreamed of Faeryland," "The Hosting of the Sidhe," "The Everlasting Voices," and "The Unappeasable Host" thus seem to echo Morris' "Spell-bound," "Golden Wings," "Rapunzel," "The Tune of Seven Towers," "The Wind," and "The Blue Closet." Words like "dim," "pale," and "dream" deepen the shadowy atmosphere for both poets.

Yeats surely shared Morris' dark, enchanted tone, his concern to purify poetry of rhetoric, and his interest in folk literature, but he need not have inherited these notions directly from Morris. He could as well have taken them from elsewhere in the Romantic tradition. Yet one important technical aspect of Yeats' early poetry stems only from the Pre-Raphaelites and most especially from Morris. What Yeats learned from Morris was a particular interior landscape and a concrete way of visualizing it."You write my sort of poetry," Morris remarked to Yeats after reading The Wanderings of Oisin (Autobiography, p. 89), and it was truer then than it ever would be again. In Yeats' first long poem the images as well as the method of concretizing them come straight from Morris. The poet's island places are landscaped like Morris' many earthly paradises. The Island of Dancing in particular suggests the setting of a magical Morris isle:

And on the shores were many boats
With bending sterns and bending bows,
And carven figures on their prows
Of bitterns, and fish-eating stoats,

‘And swans with their exultant throats:
(I, lines 188-192)

Carven boat, swans, and stoats also surround the island in "Golden Wings." The same natural fauna--field mice, owls, flies, kingfishers—inhabit Yeats' supernatural places as inhabit Morris’ in the Guenevere poems. And they serve the same purpose: to give to airy nothing a local habitation, and a name. More than any other poet Yeats learned from, Morris knew how to make his fairylands livable to elemental men.

[p. 24] Colors work the same way. The otherworldly creatures of Yeats' dream islands are specified through costume and color:

Their brows were white as fragrant milk,
Their cloaks made out of yellow silk,
And trimmed with many a crimson feather
(I, lines 204-206)

Such a description anchors the imaginary in the perceptible by the very means Morris used most often in the Guenevere poems. Insubstantial creatures like the damsels of "The Blue Closet" wear gowns substantiated by their purple and green colors. The effect in both Yeats and Morris is as if their dreams were painted on a Pre-Raphaelite canvas.

Like Oisin, Yeats' poems during the 1890's still took many of their images from the Pre-Raphaelite storehouse. There were still Morris' ladies--mournful, elusive, long-fingered, heavy-haired, with red or parted lips. There were still the roses, lilies, dews, winds, and fairylands of the Guenevere poems. It is probably no coincidence that rose and wind, Yeats' central symbols in The Rose and The Wind Among the Reeds, correspond to two titles from the Guenevere volume, "Two Red Roses across the Moon" and "The Wind."

Yeats, then, remained within the imaginary gardens of the Pre-Raphaelites during the 1890's. But he temporarily abandoned Morris' habit of sitting Marianne Moore's real toads there. Occasionally, he would still follow Morris' method of reducing abstractions to visibility: "The Rose of Peace" mentions "Heaven's door-post" and "God's great town" just as Lady Alice in "Sir Peter Harpdon's End" envisions Christ with "solemn face / And long hair even-flowing on each side" (lines 674-675). Yet most of his poems of the 1890's worked quite differently with Morris' imaginative counters--his roses, winds, and colors--than The Wanderings of Oisin had. Now when they appeared at all, they usually stood for a cluster of ideas, as gold and siilver stood for the state of blessedness.

Furthermore, although Yeats' symbolism derived mainly from, Blake, Shelley, and French poetry, it was not unrelated to the Guenevere poems. If Yeats' symbols were exterior signs of interior states, then Morris had used them in the "Blue Closet" group. Yet where Morris had been satisfied with emotional symbols, Yeats freighted his with intellectual content as well. An illustration may clarify the difference between the two techniques. In "The Sailing of the Sword" Morris dresses his bereft heroine in white and gives her a peeled white wand to hold. The coloration serves not only to make the lady's image perceptible to the senses but also to evoke a certain emotion which combines emptiness, passionlessness, and purity but is finally ineffable. In a sense the whiteness symbolizes the emotion it [p. 25] calls forth.

In "The White Birds" Yeats also sparks these emotions, though with more positive connotations, in the color of his birds. But Yeats insists on going beyond the inexpressible feeling to the expressible idea. Sometimes, as with "The White Birds," he resorts to a prose note to help express this idea: "I have read somewhere that the birds of faeryland are white as snow." By banding his white birds with a somewhat arcane tradition, Yeats turns their whiteness into an intellectual symbol. The reader is asked not just to experience an emotion but to contemplate its relation to an idea of fairyland. For Morris, evoking the emotion had been enough.

Prose notes were not the only taxes levied against Yeats' more complicated kind of symbolism. At least in the 1890's, fidelity to natural detail suffered as well. In the Guenevere volume roses, though usually associated with romantic love, passion, or holiness, had always been primarily flowers, sometimes red and petalled. In Yeats roses were not just associated with these emotions but stood for them and for other more complex feelings and ideas too. The result was a symbolic cargo so weighty that Yeats' roses, as Richard Ellmann quite properly observes, were "often described with horticultural indifference as footed and skirted."13 The idea had overwhelmed the image.

Only after 1900 would Yeats learn to fuse his symbols with the faithful and immediate representation of the image he learned in Morris. If he had lapsed into describing the lily and the rose as dreamers in the 1890's, by the 1920's Leda in "Leda and the Swan" would be visited by a symbolic annunciator of Greek civilization which was also a palpable swan, feathered and webfooted. Natural detail had re-established its primacy for Yeats. But by that time he had deserted the Pre-Raphaelite garden for woods and towers of his own.

The flora and fauna of Yeats' wood beyond the world could be traced to his friends in the Rhymers' Club, or behind them to Swinburne, or behind him to Rossetti. But it had been William Morris who in 1858 first brought that fertile landscape, at once fantastic and precise, before the public in The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems. What he had bequeathed to Yeats was a stock of images suitable for conveying primal dreams (Yeats called them "moods") and a method of detailing those images which appealed to the waking eye as well.

Like Yeats, the young Ezra Pound in his Romantic phase wrote poetry which traced its ancestry to the Pre-Raphaelites. But the influence of Morris was less immediate to Pound than it had been to Yeats. In fact, the most important Pre-Raphaelite influence on Pound and the one he himself acknowledged was Rossetti’s. What affected Pound was not so much the direct influence of Morris as a line of influence which Morris inaugurated.

[p. 26] T. S. Eliot understood this in his introduction to a 1928 selection of Pound's poetry: "The earliest of the poems in the present volume show that the first strong influences upon Pound, at the moment when his verse was taking direction, were those of Browning and Yeats. In the background are the Nineties in general, and behind the Nineties, of course, Swinburne and William Morris."

To put it briefly, Pound learned from Yeats most of what Yeats had learned from Morris. In more fiery language than Yeats had used, Pound condemned the poetry of social responsibility: "[Arnold's] definition of literature as 'criticism of life' is the one notable blasphemy that was born of his mind's frigidity. . . . Poetry is about as much a 'criticism of life' as red-hot iron is a criticism of fire."14 Predictably, he lauded Yeats for relieving poetry of its Arnoldian baggage: "Mr. Yeats has once and for all stripped English poetry of its perdamnable rhetoric."15 And he agreed with Yeats, as Yeats had with Morris, that myths are "explications of mood" (Spirit, p. 92), a way of turning the subjective emotion into its objective equivalent.

Like Yeats, Pound wrote early poetry in the Pre-Raphaelite manner although, unlike Yeats, he suppressed most of it when he rejected Romanticism.16 "Rosalind" in A Lume Spento recalls a Morris ballad, and "The House of Splendour" in Personae pictures a house "beyond the worldly ways" built on a Pre-Raphaelite foundation. The poems in Canzoni are "full of faces / with gold glories behind them" ("Epigrams," II, lines 5-6), Pre-Raphaelite ladies like Morris' golden-haired and golden-garbed Marguerite. Winds, dreams, and roses weave through the early Pound just as they did through Yeats and Morris.

Pound, however, carried on one interest of the early Morris that Yeats had muted: his fascination with Browning. One of the most provocative aspects of the Guenevere volume is that it contains both poems like "The Blue Closet" which foreshadow Yeatsian symbolism and poems like "The Haystack in the Floods" which recall Browning and predict Pound. The Froissartian poems in the Guenevere volume embody all the stark medievalism, violence, directness of language, and psychic realism that Pound would build into his portraits of Betrans de Born and Arnaut of Marvoil. It appears that Morris in 1858 was engaged in imaginative acts remarkably parallel to those the young Pound would perform half a century later as a prelude to modern poetry. Both poets manifested the essentials of the inner life in misty medieval dreams and artificial paradises. But both also followed Browning in resuscitating individual personalities from history in an effort to reach through time and grasp enduring moods and feelings.

Even as Pound groped out of Romanticism and toward modernism, [p. 27] he took something of Morris with him into his Imagist phase. For Pound the image had to be unadorned, precisely defined, and typically taken from nature. He railed against artificial descriptive language like "dove-grey" and "pearl-pale." If the Pre-Raphaelites had tried to purge painting of artifice, Pound meant to do the same for modern poetry.

Yet an image for Pound was not simply a photographic description. Optimally it also created without authorial comment an objective correlative for an emotion. Morris had worked in just this way with images in "Golden Wings:"

Thereby the apple hangs,
And the wasp, caught by the fangs,
Dies in the autumn night. (lines 139-141)

The language here is unadorned, the image drawn from nature and accurately perceived. Moreover, it stands without comment from Morris as a precise parallel to the plight of Jehane, caught dying in a place of sensory glut. Pound would also create descriptive equivalents from nature for eternal human emotions, as in "Alba:"

As cool as the pale wet leaves of lily-of-the-valley
She lay beside me in the dawn.

But Imagists were sometimes willing to forego the emotion evoked for the object described. In fact, Imagism differs from symbolism in valuing accurate perception above the mental acts which that perception is supposed to trigger. If Yeats could write in the 1890's about imaginary fires and flowers no human eye ever beheld, Pound two decades later would sooner sacrifice the imagination than the image. Indeed, the virtue of some Imagist poems consists primarily in the delicacy of the perceiving mechanism they register. In "Les Millwin," for instance, the little Millwins gaze at art students from the Slade and the mere pattern of what they see "seems to us worthy of record." Similarly, "Image from D'Orleans" details an image of "Young men riding in the street" and does so for sheer joy of the perception. As already noted, Morris delighted in the simple interaction of eye and object throughout the Guenevere volume. He and all the other Pre-Raphaelites subscribed wholeheartedly to what Ruskin proclaimed in Modern Painters: "the greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way."17 Sixty years later Imagists were issuing identical manifestos.

In their early writings, W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound, the two poets who most determined the course of modern poetry, were both latter-day Pre-Raphaelites with roots reaching back to William Morris. For both of them Pre-Raphaelitism was in one sense [p. 28] the demon that needed to be exorcised before a twentieth-century aesthetic could be born. But in another sense it was what they brought to the birthing, for each of them made Pre-Raphaelite notions like devotion to detail fundamental to his later poetics. That is why historians of modern as well as Victorian literature need to know more about the nature of Pre-Raphaelite poetry.

And The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems is a logical starting point. In some ways the volume was a quintessential product of its times, epitomizing the Gothic Revival, extending Keats and Tennyson fairylands, and adapting Browning's rugged monologues. But in another way, by refusing social relevance, the Guenevere volume heralded the rebellion against Victorian poetics which the other Pre-Raphaelites, then Yeats and Pound, would eventually win. It was the part of Morris which exalted sight and unrefined emotion above rhetoric and refined sentiment that turned the poetic tide of the nineteenth century toward the twentieth. This is not to say that Morris was writing modern poetry in 1858. The language and subject matter of the twentieth century were still far off. But, quite apart from its considerable significance as a nineteenth-century document, the Guenevere volume illuminates modern poetry by presenting some crucial modern concerns in bold and simple outline, uncomplicated by the difficult turnings of the intellect or the intricate patterns of the imagination. To the critic of modern poetry its interest, like the interest of the child's mind to the adult, is partly to distinguish the pure elements before they fuse into the later alloy but partly also to recapture with Wordsworth "the glory and the freshness of a dream."



  1. "Roman Renaissance," Stones of Venice, III, in The Complete Works of John Ruskin, XI, ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander  Wedderburn, Library Edition (London: George Allen, 1903), p. 66.

  2. Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan Company, 1961), p. 60.

  3. The Pound Era (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971), p. 174.

  4. A Note by William Morris on His Aims in Founding the Kelmscott Press: Together with a Short Description of the Press by S. C. Cockerell, & an Annotated List of the Books Printed Thereat (Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1898), p. 3.

  5. Erotic Murders: Structural and Rhetorical Irony in William Morris' Froissart Poems," Victorian Poetry, 3-4 (1975), 17-19.

  6. Dahl, Curtis. "Morris's 'The Chapel in Lyoness': An Interpretation," Studies in Philology, 51 (1954), 482-491.
  7. E. D. H. Johnson in The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry: Sources of Poetic Imagination in Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1952) provides the classic statement of this assumption of social responsibility.

  8. The Autobiography of William Butler Yeats (New York: Macmillan Company, 1953), p. 70.

  9. Essays and Introductions, p. 519.

  10. W. B. Yeats, John Eglinton, AE, and W. Larminie, Literary Ideals in Ireland (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1899), p. 36.

  11. "Mr. Rhys' Welsh Ballads," Bookman, 14 (August 27, 1899), 14-15.

  12. See Dorothy M. Hoare's The Works of Morris and Yeats in Relation to Early Saga Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Toronto: Macmillan, 1937) for a detailed comparison of Yeats and Morris' treatment of legend.

  13. The Identity of Yeats (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p. 72.

  14. The Spirit of Romance (New York: New Directions, 1953), p. 222.

  15. Literary Essays of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions, 1954, p. 12.

  16. N. Christoph de Nagy's The Poetry of Ezra Pound: The Pre-Imagist Stage, Cooper Monographs on English and American Language and Literature (Bern: Francke, 1960) specifies which early Pound poems hark back to Morris.

  17. "Of Modern Landscape" in The Complete Works of John Ruskin, V, p. 333.

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