Before The Defence of Guenevere


The Early Poems of William Morris is a revised and expanded version of The Juvenilia of William Morris, published by the William Morris Society (New York and London) in 1983 in hardcover and paperback form. I would like to thank the Society of Antiquaries of London, which has generously granted permission for the publication of the Morris letter and hitherto unpublished juvenile poems, the University of Iowa Libraries for their skillful technical assistance, and the William Morris Societies of the United States and Great Britain for their sponsorship. I am also grateful to Rosie Miles of the University of the University of Wolverhampton for prompting me to begin preparing Morris's poems in electronic form, and to my husband William Boos for his helpful editorial suggestions for this project.

Florence S. Boos
Iowa City, Iowa, December, 2007

The Defence of Guenevere and Morris' contributions to The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine are published in Volume I of The Collected Works of William Morris. All references to pages in that volume are given without the volume number, e.g., (123). References to pages in other volumes of The Collected Works are accompanied by the volume number: (IV, 123). References to pages in May Morris, William Morris, Artist, Writer, Socialist are preceded by AWS: (AWS, I, 123).

William Morris' Earliest Poems: Preparation for The Defence of Guenevere

Hagiography is a dangerous art, and myths originally intended to flatter may damage. Such a myth was the early belief that William Morris' The Defence of Guenevere arose by spontaneous generation--that Morris wrote his first poem "The Willow and the Red Cliff" in 1855 at twenty-two, and composed thereafter with incredible speed and little need of revision, though overwhelmed by garrulity from time to time and forced to begin anew. One can sense breathless reverence for such automatism in Richard Watson Dixon's memories of his remarkable Oxford friend:

We sat down and heard Morris read his own poem, the first that he had ever written in his life. It was called 'The Willow and the Red Cliff.' As he read it, I felt that it was something the like of which had never been heard before. It was a thing entirely new; founded on nothing previous: perfectly original whatever its value, and sounding truly striking and beautiful, extremely decisive and powerful in execution. It must be remembered particularly that it was the first piece of verse that he had ever written; and then it will be acknowledged that this was an unprecedented thing. He reached his perfection at once; nothing could have been altered in 'The Willow and the Red Cliff'.... I remember his remark, 'Well, if this is poetry, it is very easy to write.' From that time onward, for a term or two, he came up to my room almost every day with a new poem. i

Alas for Morris, whose quizzical remark has been repeated as damning evidence of glibness and facility. The sentence was wryly phrased as an implication, and Morris may well have decided "The Willow" was not 'poetry,' for he apparently destroyed it when he burned unused Defence poems in 1858. Only copies kept by his admiring friends and his sister Emma survived for May Morris to print in 1914 (XXI, xxx-xxxv).

Burne-Jones' memories likewise stress the Urwuchsigkeit of "The Willow"; he describes the lodgings he and Morris shared, and adds:

Here one morning, just after breakfast, he brought me in the first poem he ever made. After that, no week went by without some poem.ii

Morris' friends seem to have focused upon him their ideal of the original romantic genius, whose words surge forth under the influence of artless inspiration; perhaps, like the magi, their chosen roles reinforced their beliefs in the primal significance of whatever they beheld.

Morris' official biographer, J. W. Mackail, apparently failed to ask Morris' friends and family about surviving early drafts, and seems to have been unaware that several Oxford autographs and a sheaf of seventeen poems which Morris had sent to his sister Emma Morris Oldham from Oxford (and perhaps Marlborough College) survived. May Morris perpetuated this error when she used Mackail as a source for The Collected Works, and printed "The Willow" in 1914 as Morris' first poetic attempt. When Emma died in 1921 at the age of ninety-one, her grand-niece Effie Morris discovered a collection of Morris' poems in a bureau drawer,iii and recalled her great-aunt's remark that William had sent her some early poems. Four are copied in Emma's compact and angular script, and another thirteen in what may have been Morris' early fair hand. May Morris presumably recognized one of the seventeen poems, "The Midnight Tilt," as an early version of "Winter Weather," which Morris omitted from The Defence of Guenevere after he had published it in The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. The other sixteen poems were unfamiliar to her, and she passed over more sophisticated later poems to include full drafts of eight and substantial portions of others in the 1936 supplement to The Collected Works, entitled William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist.

Late in life Morris wrote Andreas Scheu: "While I was still an undergraduate, I discovered that I could write poetry, much to my own amazement...."iv It is possible that all the seventeen poems sent to Emma Oldham were written during his first two years at Oxford, but only "The Willow and the Red Cliff," "Dear Friends, I Lay Awake in the Night," and "The Mosque Rising in the Place of the Temple of Solomon" (formerly known as "The Dedication of the Temple") can be dated with some certainty. A few simple poems in loose ballad quatrains may antedate "The Willow" or be forgotten Marlborough College efforts.v Compare, for example, the simplistic representation of nature in "The Blackbird" with the careful use of desolate landscape in "The Willow":

"The Blackbird"
Listen to the blackbird singing
To the red flush in the west
Of all that sing the spring in
The blackbird singeth

"The Willow"
That cliff it rises steep from the sea
On its top a thorn tree stands,
With its branches blown away from the sea,
As if praying with outstretched hands,

To be saved from the wind, from the merciless west,
That moaneth through it always
And very seldom giveth it rest
When the dark is falling pallwise.
(XXI, xxxi)

The Willow" reflects a knowledge of modern poetry--Wordsworth's "The Thorn," Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and perhaps Browning's Dramatic Lyrics (1846) or the work of many minor poets of the 1830's and 1840's. The Spasmodics had the technique of using short, discrete images to express charged intensity, and emphatic pauses at line-ends were fashionable attempts at a sort of Germanic primitivism.

Whatever the exact sequence, these earliest poems were printed last. May Morris was forced to issue volumes of The Collected Works one at a time between 1910 and 1915 by subscription, and unable to estimate accurately how much of the material she had collected would fill the promised twenty volumes. Every aspect of her father's work and mental history interested her, but she was eager to give precedence to his important works over early drafts and juvenile poems; friends had severely warned her against the harm to his reputation that might arise if she printed too much. She had printed The Defence of Guenevere and Morris' contributions to The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine as volume one, and added an introduction in which she described unused Defence fragments. When The Collected Works later expanded to twenty-four volumes, she included an incongruously long discussion of several discarded ballads in her introduction to volume twenty-one, The Sundering Flood, then added a description of discarded Defence fragments to volume twenty-four, "Scenes From the Fall of Troy and Other Poems." For the Artist, Writer, Socialist volumes of 1936 she wrote essays on Morris' habits of composition in which she interspersed quotations from unpublished works.

One consequence of her cautious relegation of early poetry to introductions is that the passages cited are not listed in any table of contents,vii nor are sources or dates indicated for the drafts she did use. This intricate dialectic of purpose and accident, random negligence and meticulous preservation has made it difficult for readers to sort out what is known about Morris' early work. At the end of this Introduction is a checklist of more than fifty early Morris poems and fragments not used in The Defence of Guenevere, of which nineteen remained partly or wholly unpublished.

What is interesting about these early efforts? One answer is that they witness the striking extent to which William Morris emerged very early in life as an independent and self-directed personality. Asked once if the love of artistic things was an acquired taste, he stated that it had been a passion with him from earliest childhood, and none of his family had shared it.viii At the age of seventeen he refused to visit the Great Exhibition of 1851--perhaps an early sign of his lifelong resistance to "civilized" art. There are not many such glimpses, and it is still critically acceptable to disparage Morris' poetry as a dilettantish accident; perhaps evidence of gradually acquired, consciously developed skill in his earliest work will deepen respect for his consistency and artistry.

The early work presents a Romantic "nature," which opens for Morris into the past as well as future; it is not emblematic or decorative but personal; even flowers and leaves are active agents of a kind of pan-psychic love. The poems' distressed protagonists are often women humiliated by men, and comfort is achieved only in death--patterns present in muted form in Morris' later work. Likewise an intense desire to escape his own historical period was a stable psychological motivation in Morris' long and varied intellectual life.

"Fame" is the longest of the early poems which May Morris published in 1936; in it Fame (here masculine) weeps extravagantly for his irrecoverable past and lost love. The Victorian commonplace of a nobly chaste, active life inspired by unattainable love had appeared in one of Morris' favorite Oxford books, Friedrich de la Motte-Fouque's Sintram, and in modified form in the Brotherhood's favorite novel, The Heir of Redclyffe by Charlotte M. Yonge.x

'And yet I know my name is sung
Among the banners; it is rung
Among the nations; hearts have clung

‘Around it, and it giveth birth
By its upspringing to the worth
That else were hidden in the earth.
(AWS, I, 521)

In Morris' poem Fame's beloved and an unidentified man--perhaps her lover--lie dead. Fame soliloquizes in forty-seven stanzas of passive self-pity before confessing that he is their murderer, and his own death, just retribution, concludes the poem.

'I pray thee let love come again
The love I spurned; O! I am fain
To weep, that love may come again.'
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
So weepeth he--so dieth he.
(AWS, I, 523)

Morris gives Fame contradictory characterizations--one as a deserted, repining male lover, and as a man who has deserted love for honor and activity, both types which reappear in Morris' later work. Here they are inconsistently mingled, and he seems unwilling to choose one or the other. Other aspects of "Fame" survive in the Defence--elements of nature tremble, and buildings are imposing features of landscape:

From off the clear sky overhead
Which waiteth, trembling, for the red,
(AWS, I, 520)

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
…solemnly the moon looked down
Upon the many-spired town.
(AWS, I, 522)

What sort of woman was the object of Fame's regret? When alive she grieved from deep empathy for others' sorrow, and thought of her evokes reverie in the speaker. Her appearance is left undescribed, and we are not told that she is beautiful, in pointed contrast to Morris' elaborate descriptions of another pensive woman in "In Praise of My Lady," written in 1857. Morris once commented that his adolescent poems were imitations of Elizabeth Barrett Browning; it is difficult to see much else in common with her early poetic narratives, so perhaps he had in mind the use of mournful, rejected, expressive heroines.xii

Even in these earliest works Morris' persona feels a devout love for the historically and geographically remote.

O! love was round him like a sea;
The love of all fair things that be,
The love of every beauteous tree;
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The love of men that never die;
In many lands their bodies lie,

Their music, and their truth are nigh.
The love of those that come and go
About him, O! they loved him so,
And he loved them--but long ago.
(AWS, I, 519-20)

This anticipates the spiritual communion of fellowship and unselfish love of all humankind which Morris envisioned in A Dream of John Ball.

Another quality which reverberates in Morris' later work is the ambiguous nature of Fame's grief. Has Fame loved both of his unfortunate victims or only the woman? Does he express a belated sympathetic vibration with all of human sexuality? The hero of "The Story of the Unknown Church" begins what seems an account of love for his sister Margaret, then shifts to express his feeling for her fiance Amyot, and finally his grief that he must bury them together. The speaker of "Concerning Geffray Teste Noire" fervently addresses the bones of a woman killed with her lover; it is hardly the skeleton to which he is attracted, or even the memory of the woman as she was when alive, nor does he wish to have been her lover.

Beyond general heterosexual yearning, he seems to feel a kinship with the couple in death and reverence their physical passion. This emotion of troubled detachment was already latent in "Fame," though the increase in sophistication is immense. It seems clear that the young Morris felt strongly drawn to the theme of sexual love, but felt himself for the most past an outsider. Passionate sensuality, compassion, and detachment--what more plausible mixture of sensibilities for a future poet?

Other poems discovered by Effie Morris reveal similar motifs. In "The Abbey and the Palace," an abbey, knight, and palace are all ruined by time; monks, warriors, and lovers have been reduced alike to dust and stone--worship, struggle, passion, all forms of human endeavor have ceased. Typically Morris does not memorialize an individual "stone-carved Knight" but a group of anchorites and comrades-in-arms. The dilapidated building immures them all in the fellowship of death, in a passage which suggests later arguments that buildings express shared values and that a society's finest architectural structures should be communal dwellings and meeting halls, not private residences. For almost any other poet, architectural ruins are a subsidiary image or transient symbol of more important human loss; to Morris the poem's emotional climax is the pathos of the decayed, deserted building itself:

He will see it all roofless,
All ruined and roofless
With the marble on the ground.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And the wind blows wearily
Round the palace, drearily
Standing, walls without a floor.
(AWS, I, 524)

The last stanza suggests Tennyson's "Mariana"--without Mariana. Buildings have become objects, even embodiments of emotion. A remarkable passage in "The Churches of North France: Shadows of Amiens," written for The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, expresses Morris' sense that buildings convey love:

For I will say here that I think those same churches of North France the grandest, the most beautiful, the kindest and most loving of all the buildings the earth has ever borne; and thinking of their passed-away builders I can see through them very faintly, dimly, some little of the medieval times, else dead and gone from me for ever; voiceless for ever. And those same builders, still surely living, still real now and capable of receiving love, I love no less than the great men, poets and painters and such like, who are on earth now; no less than my breathing friends whom I can see looking kindly on me now. Ah, do I not love them with just cause who certainly loved me, thinking of me sometimes between the strokes of the chisels. (349)

The love of past craftsmen is more secure than that of the poet for the Beata mea Domina. A man who felt rejected in love much of his life sought deeper embodiments of love in past and future societies. In light of Morris' later social engagement it is not surprising that this love is a comradeship of work and shared skills and that the desire to love surpasses the yearning to be loved. The ethic of Ruskin's Seven Lamps of Architecture has been rendered affectionate and personal and the beloved past more acutely perceived and concrete.

Again one is impressed by the stubborn consistency of these youthful efforts, which persisted throughout Morris' complexly idealistic life, and his rare alignment of un-self-consciousness and self-direction. It seems congruent that the author of "The Abbey and the Palace" and "The Churches of North France" decorated and renovated old dwellings for his family; that his life business became decorating houses, churches, and public buildings for others; that he devoted many years to the activities of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings; or that he spent his last years seeking to effect for all the canons of social equity and fraternal love which as a young man he felt latent in ancient buildings. It is also consistent that his early choices of profession were the church and architecture, discarded when it became clear that his fierce reverence for medieval workmanship, architectural freedom, and social harmony were not easily reconciled with contemporary proprieties and institutions.

"The Banners" seems a companion piece to "The Abbey and the Palace." The tapestries of a ruined house have yielded to creeping ivy, and no "banners" remain to "tell stories about the grave." The narrator grieves for the lost history woven in the banners, but rejoices in intimations of the future:

Many tales the banners told
Of the gallant deeds of old;
But that wind within the tree
Wondrous stories telleth he:
O! the banners told of love,
Now the wind is light above,
And he cometh from the Sea
Singing well of what shall be.
But the banners rot below
And the story of the banners no man shall ever know.
(AWS, I, 531)

Love is associated not with the present but with the past and future, and the poem's final lines return to bleak images of decrement and the night in which none can work.

"The Night-Walk" is somewhat after the manner of "The Willow and the Red Cliff" or Wordsworth's "The Thorn" in its presentation of a passionately suffering, deserted woman. In contrast to the heroine of "The Willow," the woman in "The Night-Walk" is a verbosely expressive forerunner of Guenevere and Lady Alice. Unlike Wordsworth, Morris is indifferent to questions of legitimacy but interested in his character's social environment. He shows his early distaste for the city:

Night lay upon the city
Dull clouds upon the night
O! London without pity!
O! ghastly flaring light!
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It fell on hungry faces
Thin lips, despairing frown,
Truly a dismal place is
That grim, gold-paved town.
(AWS, I, 525)

Perhaps one cannot draw a conclusion from the economic greed of the "gold-paved" city, but it is worth notice that its inhabitants can only find happiness in remembering a lost past. As in "The Defence of Guenevere," much attention is devoted to concrete manifestations of psychic distress:

Her teeth were clenched together,
Her lips a little apart;
As she went in the doleful weather
Her breath did tear her heart.
(AWS, I, 526)

In authentically wild Romantic fashion her eyes are fearful and she mutters between clenched teeth. Like later Morris personae she shifts into comforting dream visions of the past, in this case a vision of peaceful country home and garden:

She walks on, dreaming, dreaming,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
She thinks not of the hours
The weary hours of woe
But looking at the flowers
She thinks it long ago.

There is an old, old garden,
She cometh to it soon;
An old, old house is its warden
In the sun and in the moon.
(AWS, I, 527-28)

The house stands "very quaintly" surrounded by a flower garden, and (as later at Kelmscott) a river flows by. Like the protagonist of "Fame," "The Willow," "The Ruined Castle," "The Three Flowers," and other early Morris poems, the heroine apparently dies of a broken heart, a common Victorian literary demise whose use here may reflect Elizabeth Barrett Browning or the Spasmodics. The transfiguration of her death will return her "lost love" and enable her to under-stand the love of nature:

The rising sun is bringing
Lost love, and death anear.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I think the leaves will bury her,
The snowy lilies look on her,
They look as if they love her,
The bee will look as he goes by,
The sun will look when he is high;
No sound will ever move her.
(AWS, I, 528-29)

Again death provides peace and fellowship, and relieves the agony of irrevocable loss, and as in "Fame," the plot is inconsistent; the woman hides a gold ring which suggests shame at desertion by a false husband or lover, but later mention of union with a "lost love" seems to suggest he has already died. Eventually the identity of this "lost love" fades before the solace granted to all by elements of nature as active agents of a complex cycle of love. Again the woman is less an object of desire than of sympathy, a pattern which persists in Morris' attitude toward Guenevere. "The Night-Walk" also contains stark flower imagery of the sort much admired in the Defence:

The light shows through the windows
The roses hang across
O! The long deserted window!
Red roses hang across.
(AWS, I, 528)

The last early poem printed by May Morris is in some sense the strangest, "Drowned." A drowning man is trapped under water, yet despite his desire to die ("How sweet it is to be dying!") and horror at entrapment, analyzes with interest and joy the fish, weeds, and water of his environment. The situation may be unique in English poetry:

What is the bottom of the river like?
O! green it is with swinging weeds,
O! yellow with bright gravel,
O! blue with the water overhead,
Through which the pike does travel,
Tenderly poised is the yellow-eyed pike.

I said 'the water overhead'
For I lie here a-dying,
The pike looks down on my weedy bed,
How sweet it is to be dying!
(AWS, I, 531-32)

This sense of being immured or imprisoned occurs throughout Morris' early poetry, and without doubt expressed a significant aspect of his character. Consistently friends and enemies reported Morris' sudden rages, intense distress at his own and others' failures, and wrath and sense of betrayal at the defeat of simple expectations. One senses a similar response in his many landscapes of voyaging and open country-side, and motives of noble conflict and escape. When late in his life Morris told working-class auditors that London was a prison, the metaphor was not idle; to him that "prison" represented the absence of all fellowship and love.

Though "Drowned" does not support pedantic analysis, there may be a parallel between the pike which hovers near the dying man and the kindly flowers and bees which have soothed the deaths of other protagonists. The pike is "tenderly poised," and as the dying man sees it he reflects, "How sweet it is to be dying!" The water, weeds, and fish bring loving comfort in a world which is quaintly anthropomorphic. Morris loved to fish, and the poem's obvious sense of loss and defeat is softened by cheerful delight in minute beauties of water and fish: "O! yellow with bright gravel." Humans suffer pain and agony, but nature brings love and joy; like the deaths of Christ in "Fame" or the heroine of "The Night-Walk," this is a gentle poetic emblem of death soothed by healing powers of sympathetic emotion.

Only seven of Morris' earliest poems were not published in some form by May Morris, and they extend patterns already observed. Among the better are "The Three Flowers" and "The Ruined Castle," both sentimental quatrain narratives in the manner of "Fame" and "The Night-Walk." "The Ruined Castle" conveniently mixes one of Morris' favorite images for contemplation--a building in ruins--with the wandering and distressed woman motif of "The Night-Walk" and "The Willow." Here the ruined castle reflects the ruined hopes of its inhabitants, with emphasis on the horror and loneliness of the woman's life. Natural objects are identified with human emotions, sometimes with a fierce clarity and immediacy that suggests the Defence:

The ancients surely were fools thought I
When they talked of the huntress moon,
I think she screams for she dwells in the sky
Both day and night alone:

Some inanimate objects even maintain love for each other and for human beings:

But the brazen vane on the turreted stair
That faced the steady west wind,
It seemed to love the moon so drear
In the moonlight it looked kind.--
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
For bright by times, and dull by times
Did the yearning moon look on her;

Here the themes of desertion and violation of the marriage oath in "The Night-Walk" and "The Willow" are melodramatized with Gothic trappings after the manner of Reeves or Walpole. The castle lord has murdered his wife and buried her under the stairs, and the properly affronted building oozes blood from its floors and walls one night each year in protest. The relationship between the protagonist's distress and the past murder here is never explained, but the poem's moral, like that of many Gothic tales, is strict and simple-minded. The situation bears some resemblance to that of The Old English Baron, in which the son of the slaughtered woman leaves the castle of the usurper. In one of The Old English Baron's most vivid scenes, a pregnant mother and former lady of the castle learns that her husband has been murdered by its new lord, flees into the winter night, and gives birth to her child by a nearby river in which she later drowns. Morris was very fond of this story in boyhood, and the picture of the horror-stricken young wife fleeing by night may well have remained in his mind.

Other aspects of the poem are familiar. As in "The Night-Walk," the distressed protagonist falls into a protective trance:

Then the dismal tale, and the lady's thought,
In her brain a strange whirl wound,
Owl, vane and wind strange dreaming wrought,
On the leaves she lay in a swound.

In Morris' poems profound distress is often accompanied by the sudden need for deep sleep, especially in women, to whom violent resistance to danger is not permitted. In "The Haystack in the Floods," Jehane sleeps for an hour before she refuses to become Godmar's mistress and precipitates thereby her lover's death. For a time, it seems that as in "Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery," the protagonist's mental anguish will be rewarded by a vision of love:

Through the fall of her golden, shining hair
She could see a face above her;
Two eyes shone moist in the morning air,
Truly they seemed to love her --

Just at this point the motif breaks off, and the vision is undescribed; in "Sir Galahad," the ending is much more polished, but the heavenly vision remains ineffable, beyond human discernment.

"The Three Flowers" has drawn critical attention because of suggestions that its theme of rejection of brother by sister may be autobiographical: Le Bourgeois and Lindsay argue that it expresses the sense of rejection Morris felt when Emma Morris announced her intention to marry Joseph Oldham.xiii This is a tenable hypothesis, but may be an over-elaborate intrusion in the fantasy life of a thoughtful and imaginative adolescent. The poem's main motive is of rejection and loneliness, transformed by self-acceptance into compassion and fatalistic eroticism. Evocations of flowers overwhelm the poem's descriptions of loneliness, love, rejection, and grief for the dead. The smothering presence of flowers in the early poems would suggest that to the young Morris flowers were not marginal decoration but true emblems of significant human experience.

The flowers of the poem's title--two white lilies and a daffodil--express the now-familiar triangle. The narrator is the yellow daffodil, an emblem of solitude:

Tiger lilies, tall white lilies,
In the summer grow together;
Gorgeous golden daffodillies
In the spring grow lonely ever.xiv

The lovers' white lilies have the pallor of death: by contrast the daffodil's hearty yellow at least suggests health. The narrator rejects the temptation to hate or demean his rival: "He was very noble surely / Very much did I love him." His grief is only that he cannot also be included, that he himself is deprived of love (compare Morris' later reaction to the failure of his marriage). The notion of swearing fealty "To a Queen of beauty bright" suggests the chivalric and noble lady motifs which soon became important in Morris' poetry. The woman comforts him with the promise that heavenly reunion will be accompanied by more perfect love. The narrator neither accepts the idea of heavenly compensation nor rejects or contemns it, but the thought remains a sad, pleasing sentiment.

These similarities in the plots of "Fame" and "The Three Flowers" suggest the importance of their themes to Morris. Of course there is an obvious element of revenge in the gratuitous deaths of beloved and rival--as Lindsay comments: "the anger, driven down, comes out in the fantasy that both intruder and girl die...."xv Nevertheless one should not dismiss as absurd Morris' projected wish for phantasmal reconciliation; a fantasy in which the bar is crossed with a rival is different from one which drowns him on it.

"The Blackbird" is a short poem chiefly noticeable for its optimism: some songs will never die, and a better future will come:

To the bees by the blossoms humming
The leaves will tell the tale
In the summer that is coming
As they flutter in the gale

Such cheerfulness is rare in these earlier poems, and it is perhaps indicative that "The Blackbird" is a slight effort, only six stanzas long.

There are two fragments among the juvenilia, neither sufficiently well-developed to indicate its intentions. In "From all other moving shadows," a young knight stands at sunset with his eyes fixed on a letter. He seems a male counterpart to the distressed female night-walkers of the other poems, and the gathering night expresses his gloom and isolation:

And the knight he gazed at the letter still
With his hand on the maple tree,
Till the sun was hidden by the hill
And he scarce could the letter see.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Then the knight from the letter lifted his eyes
And he looked down on the night

As in several other early poems, natural beauty suggests future comfort:

Now the west was all ablaze with the sun,
There were purple clouds in the blaze:
The colours kept changing; the sun going down
And the east was soft with haze.

In "And then as the ship moves over the deep," pleasure in peaceful passage over the water is followed by horror at shipwreck and the oppressive monotony of life on a deserted island:

How many years have I wandered here,
By the purple sea, through the purple air,
In the dreary desert isle?

The distressed solitary hero is a romantic cliche, of course, but Morris' youthful acceptance of this figure as a type of human suffering and contemplation seems worth notice.

The most carefully constructed and elaborate of the early poems is "The Mosque Rising in the Place of the Temple of Solomon," which as William Whitla has demonstrated,xvi was written for the Newdigate Prize competition for 1855. A poem on the successive incarnations of the temple and its successor enabled Morris to describe a building in pristine perfection, later decline and destruction, and to record its narrative history in a sort of expanded version of "The Banners." He wastes few words on the religious significance of the temple, though the literal aspects of supernal events are described with minute attention. The visitant Angel, for example, is an impressive figure, accompanied by strong winds and other special effects.

For ne'er before upon that threshing floor
Had such a wind blown the small straws about
As that, which blowing from the fiery wings,
Raised the curls up upon his snow-white brow
And let them fall again, as the lull came
Which the great wings swept back, or for awhile
Rested, an arch of light above his head
Of light that scorched not;
(AWS, I, 377)

One senses a certain relief as Morris describes Oman's love for King David and David's deep misery. David's grief causes him to think of the flowers of his boyhood:

As he lay praying, thinking of the flowers
That grow about the hills of Bethlehem.
(AWS, I, 378)

The temple's fall inspires a long and careful description of ruin:

The wild winds threshed the charred cedar beams
As erst the tread of oxen threshed the grain.
Where once the incense stirred the purple veil
With its low breathing, now the wind bent down
The green grass waving o'er the Holy place.
(AWS, I, 379)

Christ is obliquely present, always under moonlight: we see the moonlight falling on the manger, three black crosses outlined against the moonlit sky, and the sepulchre beneath the moon, images presumably intended to evoke pale lambent associations of exalted perception and the supernatural. As in the Defence, the twitching hands of women express nervous tension and distress; more bizarrely, grief at Christ's death becomes a desire to die while kissing his grave.xvii

From far off lands both men and women come,
Strong men and weak, and women very weak
That they may lie upon that blessed stone
Where lay the pierced body of the Lord,
That they may die upon it, kissing it; . . . .xviii

Such pointed exaggeration of female debility is uncharacteristic of Morris' later work.

One of the poem's chief interests is the phenomenology of death. The narrator confronts the topic with painfully attentive literalism, and (considering the poem's ostensible theology and Morris' status as a divinity student) pointed resistance to Christian supernaturalism:

The warriors who lay dreaming on the hills
Lie dreaming now within their quiet graves
Or seem to dream, for there the white bones lie
With nothing moving them:

The cadence of Morris' reflections ends in no tonic chord of resurrection, a silence which may well be conspicuous in this context. Even to the nineteen year-old Morris, physical death may have seemed absolute; it certainly did by the writing of The Earthly Paradise.

Considering the omnipresence of war and battle in Morris' early poems, it is significant that their evocations in "The Mosque Rising" are not associated with excitement or a sense of triumph, but with weariness, anxiety and the agony of death. Atrocities are described in precise detail:

Ah me! they slew the woman and the babe
They slew the old man with his hoary hair,
The youth who asked not mercy, and the child
Who prayed sore that he might see the sun
Some few days more--those soldiers of the cross.
Pray Christians for the sins of Christian men.

Morris' youthful sense of historical relativism and accuracy places him in a tradition of revisionist church historiansxix and anticipates unorthodox aspects of his later reconstruction of medieval history.

One of Morris' most significant later interests is amusingly anticipated in a devout hymn to the superior virtues and beauties of the North. The sentiment doubtless reflects Morris' recent reading of Ruskin,xx but the landscape descriptions--hills, flowers, trees, shadows, waves--echo those of the other early poems. The North is the source of loving emotion, fraternal comraderie and benign nature:

I cannot love thee South, for all thy sun,
For all thy scarlet flowers or thy palms;
But in the north for ever dwells my heart.
The north with all its human sympathies,
The glorious North, where all amidst the sleet
Warm hearts do dwell, warm hearts sing out with joy.
The North that ever loves the poet well,
The North where in the spring the primrose lies
So thick amongst the moss and hazel roots;
The North, where all the purple clouds do course
From out the north-west making green the trees;
Shout for the North, O! brothers shout with me,
Pray for the North, O brothers pray with me.
(AWS, I, 381)

It is striking to find such a vigorous, early expression of the attitudes which underlay his later fascination with Icelandic geography and saga literature. The timing of his later embrace of Icelandic literature was certainly influenced by his wife's estrangement, but the matrix for the identification with the North seems to have been present from early manhood. The narrator's relative distaste for the South is all the more idiosyncratic in a poem which described the beauty of Jerusalem's temple, mourns its fall, and laments the bloodthirsty slaughter enacted by just such "warm hearts" from the North. The digression's very irrelevance may underscore its importance to the author, as though its effusive praise needed to burst forth with or without occasion.

The final tone of the poem is elegiac but appreciative of the temple's venerable past:

When will the cross once more
Be lifted high above its central Home?
Never perhaps. Yet many wondrous things
That silent dome has looked on quietly.

This seems a detached expression of doubt that a restoration of Christianity may ever occur, expressed in language as explicit as would be likely in a time when "atheism" was still a formal ground for expulsion; Christianity seems essentially another epoch in the temple's history, not its culmination. The upheaval of human conflict and desire are of primary interest, "wondrous things." The narrator's last regret is for the lost past outside the range of the poem's narration, which preceded Christianity, Judaism, and all other institutional religions:

I wonder what Araunah's floor was like
Before the flood came down upon the Earth--xxi

It has been argued that "The Mosque Rising" expresses Morris' brief affinity with the Oxford Movement during his first year at the university,xxii but the extent to which it bypasses that movement's theology, supernaturalism, and Christian chauvinism is conspicuous. For its subject matter, audience, and author's age and upbringing, this seems a noticeably secular poem, and one which may adumbrate several of Morris' later beliefs about mortality and death.

Also noticeable is the poem's avoidance of chronological detail;xxiii a reader ignorant of Jewish history and the major sieges of the temple would find the poem indecipherable. Morris is more concerned with the suffering wars inflict on human beings; dates and alleged ideologies of combatants fade before cycles of carnage and brutality. This attitude, of course, is consistent with his later opposition to capitalist wars as imperialist and destructive of ordinary people. Reading The Defence of Guenevere one might readily assume that Morris supported "just wars"; the unillusioned attitude expressed here suggests otherwise.

In "The Mosque Rising," for all its occasional jejune formality and stiffness, Morris managed to include an impressive spectrum of convictions and sensibilities which ranged from David's remembrance of Bethlehem flowers to the narrator's yearning to know the histories of an antediluvian age. The poem's lack of unity is partly forced by the deviation of the author's real interests and opinions from the poem's topically prescribed piety. Above all, it is an impressive effort for a nineteen year-old. It does not presage the remarkable improvement in organization and dramatic force which came to him in the next four years, but many images, passages, expressions, and sentiments suggest a true voice and talent.

When noticed at all, Morris' earliest poems have been written off as trivial efforts which randomly indicate traits of the mature poet, chiefly prolixity, in embarrassingly puerile form. Considered in detail, however, the poems possess weight and inner consistency, and the extent to which their attitudes anticipate Morris' later work--not just the poetry of the Defence, but the activities of his later life--is remarkable. The young Morris' responses to sexuality, friendship, death, betrayal, nature, human society, buildings, individuals, groups, dreams, religion, even geography, are set down with stubborn thoroughness and prescience. In late adolescence he had already formed a lifelong preoccupation with the complexities of defeat and failure, and arranged his inner self to respond to loss with protective sensitivity and an insistent projection of faithful love. It is remarkably as though he were preparing himself in spirit for the major fights of his maturity; he wrote to Andreas Scheu, "My life [has] been passed in being defeated; as surely every man's life must be who finds himself forced into a position of being a little ahead of the average in his aspirations." While readying himself as a young man for such "defeats," he coincidentally prepared himself for the task of writing the intensely concentrated poetry of The Defence of Guenevere.


i. J. W. Mackail, The Life of William Morris (London: Longmans, 1899), I, 51, 52. R. W. Dixon deserves some gratitude for his ability and readiness to recognize the gifts of two greater poets--of Morris in his youth, and twenty-three years later of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
To a surprising extent Dixon is a forgotten active participant in the early life of the Brother-hood; according to his biographer, James Sambrook, he first suggested the idea of The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, and for awhile he took up painting and lived with Jones and Morris at Red Lion Square. See James Sambrook, A Poet Hidden: The Life of Richard Watson Dixon 1833-1900 (London: The Athlone Press, 1962), p. 62.

ii. Mackail, I, 51.

iii. She was the daughter of Thomas Rendall Morris, an army officer whose unexpected death in 1884 left eight children, the youngest only two. Their mother had previously deserted them and left the country, and they were raised by their aunt Isabella Morris Gilmore with aid from Emma Morris Oldham. See Janet Grierson, Isabella Gilmore, Sister to William Morris (London: SPCK, 1962), pp. 33-36.

iv. Philip Henderson, The Letters of William Morris to his Family and Friends (London: Longmans, 1950), p. 185.

v. In "The Youth of William Morris, 1834-76: An Interpretation" (Diss., Tulane, 1971), John Le Bourgeois argues that Morris' psychic life was dominated by pain over separation from Emma, and interprets "The Three Flowers" and "The Ruined Castle" as direct responses to Emma's engagement to Joseph Oldham. Since Mr. Oldham courted Emma in 1848-49, this would mean Morris wrote the poems before he was sixteen. A later Morris biographer, Jack Lindsay, accepts this interpretation of "The Three Flowers," and thus the early date for these poems (William Morris: His Life and Work [London: Constable, 1975]), pp. 29-33. While not denying the possibility that these were Marlborough College efforts, I would point out that there is no explicit evidence for this dating, which contradicts Morris' published recollection.

vi. The 1973 reprint of Introductions to the Collected Works of William Morris, with a preface by Joseph R. Dunlap (New York: Oriole Editions) does index May Morris' major references to reprinted fragments. K. L. Goodwin also prepared a very useful and detailed checklist, "A Preliminary Handlist of Manuscripts and Documents of William Morris," (London: William Morris Society, 1983).

vii. See List of "Surviving Early Morris Poems, Fragments of Poems, and Prose Fragments not Published in The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems," no. 14.

viii. Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, My Diaries (New York: Knopf, 1932), p. 229. Of a conversation with Morris, Blunt records, "I took him yesterday to see Shipley Church. . . . We had a long discussion whether the love of beauty was natural or acquired. 'As for me,' he said, 'I have it naturally, for neither my father nor my mother nor any of my relations had the least idea of it. I remember as a boy going into Canterbury Cathedral and thinking that the gates of Heaven had been opened to me--also when I first saw an illuminated manuscript. These first pleasures, which I discovered for myself, were stronger than anything else I have had in life.'"

ix. Sintram is a Gothic tale infused with pious Christian sentiments; Sintram learns to restrain his temper as well as his envy and covetousness of his noble friend's beautiful wife, and with a celibate life of good deeds wins the approbation of friend and wife.

x. Mackail describes its influence, "...another book which exercised an extraordinary fascination over the whole of the group, and in which much of the spiritual history of those years may be found prefigured, 'The Heir of Redclyffe'.... The young hero of the novel, with his overstrained conscientiousness, his chivalrous courtesy, his intense earnestness, his eagerness for all such social reforms as might be effected from above downwards, his high-strung notions of love, friendship, and honour, his premature gravity, his almost deliquescent piety, was adopted by them as a pattern for actual life: and more strongly perhaps by Morris than by the rest, from his own greater wealth and more aristocratic temper" (Mackail, I, 42). Although Morris was not known for his "deliquescent piety" or "premature gravity," certain features of this novel did have obvious appeal for him.

Its theme is the need to channel strong passions into a constructive purpose; the hero learns to control Byronic intensity and melancholy in a life of rectitude and striving for the good of others. As a young man Morris himself struggled with rages and deep frustrations which he must have found difficult to understand, much less control; deprived of its pious individualism, Sir Guy's solution to his problems is not dissimilar to Morris'.

Other aspects of the book were consistent with Morris' tastes. The hero is wealthy, bright but not too fond of Oxford, charitably inclined, and without family; Morris endured official Oxford for the sake of the friendships he made there, and his ties to his mother were so tenuous that he may have felt to some degree that he lacked a family. Like Morris, Sir Guy finds social occasions painful, prefers an out-of-doors life, cathedrals, and reads Sintram, Thalaba, and the Morte d' Arthur. And one of the novel's major images is the resemblance of its hero to Sir Galahad, the knight who renounces earthly for heavenly love and subject of Morris' "Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery."

xi. If Le Bourgeois and Lindsay are correct in assuming that this presents Morris' early love for his sister Emma (see note 5 above), the narrator's emphasis on her kindness and deemphasis of her physical beauty would be expected.

xii. Examples of such heroines appear in "Romaunt of the Page" and "The Romance of the Ganges."

xiii. Le Bourgeois, pp. 15-20; Lindsay, pp. 29-33.

xiv. Lindsay, p. 30. Both Lindsay and Le Bourgeois transcribe this last line as "In the spring grow lovely ever," but the second-to-last word looks as much like "lonely," which in this context would be more pointed (Morris is contrasting the paired lilies with the solitary daffodil).

xv. Lindsay, p. 37.

xvi. Whitla, "William Morris's 'The Mosque Rising in the Place of the Temple of Solomon': A Critical Text," The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies, 9 (Spring 2000), 43 ff.

xvii. Compare the lines from "King Arthur's Tomb":

. . . I shall go mad

Or else die kissing him, he is so pale, . . . .

but here "him seems to refer to the living Launcelot, not the dead Arthur, though Launcelot is weak and about to swoon from shock and grief.

xviii. Also see Edward Gibbon's account of the pilgrims at the Holy Sepulchre in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with notes by the Rev. H. H. Milman, Boston, 1852, p. 533; Gibbon mentions the fervor of both men and women pilgrims, "who professed their contempt of life, so soon as they should have kissed the tomb of their Redeemer."

xix. For example, Morris' response here is reminiscent of the account in Henry Hunt Milman's History of Latin Christianity (London: Murray, 1854), vol. 3, Bk. VII, chap. 6, pp. 238-39, "Incidents of the Crusades," where Milman observes:

No barbarians, no infidel, no Saracen, ever perpetuated such wanton and cold-blooded atrocities of cruelty as the wearers of the Cross of Christ (who, it is said, had fallen on their knees and burst into a pious hymn at the first views of the Holy City), on the capture of that city. Murder was mercy, rape tenderness, simple plunder the mere assertion of the conquerer's right. Children were seized by their legs, some of them plucked from their mother's breasts and dashed against the walls, or whirled from the battlements. Others were obliged to leap from the walls, some tortured, roasted by slow fires. They ripped up prisoners to see if they had swallowed gold. Of 70,000 Saracens there were not left enough to bury the dead: poor Christians were hired to perform the office. Every one surprised in the Temple was slaughtered, till the reek from the dead bodies drove away the slayers. The Jews were burned alive in their synagogue. Even the day after, all who had taken refuge on the roofs . . . were hewn to pieces; still later the few Saracens who had escaped, not excepting babes of a year old, were put to death . .

Mackail claims that Morris read Milman's History while at Oxford (not a light task, since the History is nearly 3000 pages in length) and Milman's account in turn follows that of Gibbon (History of the Decline and Fall of Rome, vol. 5, chap. 53, A.D. 1099). I am indebted to Joseph Dunlap for pointing out the relation between Morris' version of this episode and those of Gibbon and Milman.

xx. The Stones of Venice had just appeared that year (1853). In a passage from Morris' favorite chapter, "The Nature of Gothic," Ruskin compares the characteristics of Northern architecture with those of the architecture of Mediterranean countries:

It is true, greatly and deeply true, that the architecture of the North is rude and wild; but it is not true, that, for this reason, we are to condemn it, or despise. Far otherwise: I believe it is in this very character that it deserves our profoundest reverence.

xxi. This Araunah is identical with the Ornan mentioned above. In two nearly identical Biblical accounts, the angel of the Lord appears with drawn sword over a threshing floor to signify the end of a pestilence; in 2 Samuel 24: 16-24 the Jebusite who owns the threshing floor is called Araunah, and in I Chronicles 21: 15-28 the Jebusite owner is called Ornan. Morris' account seems to begin at about the point described in I Chronicles 21: 20, "And Ornan turned back, and saw the angel; and his four sons with him hid themselves. Now Ornan was threshing wheat." Here Morris abruptly refers to the owner as "Araunah" without explaining the shift in names.

xxii. May Morris, AWS, I, 382.

The poem narrates the building of Solomon's temple, the Babylonian invasion of the fifth century B.C., the building of the second temple, the destruction of this temple in A.D. 70, the Crusades, and a later conquest of Jerusalem by the Turks. The best account of the background of this poem may be found in William Whitla, cited above.

xxiii. Letter to Bruce Glasier, August 15, 1888, Glasier MSS, cited in E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, 2nd ed. (New York: Random, 1977), p. 516.

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