Paris has deserted his wife Œnone for Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Troy, and his affair with Helen has precipitated the Trojan War. Years later Œnone, a skilled physician, nurses her seriously wounded husband and offers to heal him if he still loves her. Wracked by guilt, Paris refuses the offer, and calls out Helen's name as he dies.
Morris's classical predecessors--the Iliad, the Aeneid, Ovid's Heroides, Apollodorus's Biblioteca (III, xii) and Quintus of Smyrna's The Fall of Troy--condemned Paris's adultery as a betrayal of patriarchal authority. His principal modern antecedent--Tennyson's "Œnone" (1842)--devoted most of its attention to Œnone's marriage and pain as a deserted wife.
Morris, by contrast, accorded Œnone the sympathy and dignity she deserved, but ignored questions of matrimonial legitimacy, and focused primarily on Paris's ambivalent 'fidelity' to Helen. In the process, he modulated his forerunners' moralistic accounts of the evils of akratic eros into a harrowing description of guilt-ridden consistency and anguished fate.
Morris finished this autumn tale of lost love at Bad Ems in the first half of August 1869, during a recapitulation of his wedding trip ten years earlier. Shortly afterwards, he wrote Philip Webb that "I . . . brought Paris' death to an end roughly; again I'm not very sanguine about the merit of it; but I shall get through the work I set myself to do here in some way ...."
Morris's misgivings may have reflected a divided identification with the tale's protagonists, as well as an oppressive sense that its authenticity afforded no more consolation in art than in life. He was no friend to established conventions, after all, and his complex rendering of the tale's internecine conflicts may have reflected a partial identification with Paris's situation--as the ill-fated lover of a woman renowned for her beauty--as well as that of the cruelly spurned Œnone.
Be that as it may, Morris's principal aim in this account of acute inward conflict, ambivalence and self-destruction was to find a stable equilibrium for his reader's sympathies. Œnone, neither vengeful nor self-sacrificially loving, is understandably embittered by Paris's abandonment and stoic indifference. Paris, in turn, achieves a kind of stubborn clarity and bleak integrity of purpose when he cries "Helen, Helen, Helen!" with his last breath. Like Alcestis, in a sense, Paris remains 'faithful' unto death. Unlike Alcestis, however, he cannot help the object(s) of his love, and his desolate integrity earns no earthly or heavenly reward.
Morris's painstaking equilibration of long-stifled emotional attachments also placed him among the more humane "liberals" in mid-Victorian debates about sexuality and fidelity. Tennyson or Arnold would certainly have judged Paris more severely, and Rossetti and Swinburne would probably have endorsed without reservation the force of Paris's 'passion.'
In any event, Morris's preoccupation with passionate love in extremis and attempts to balance intricate emotional claims in realistic ways took precedence in this tale over abstract pronouncements about the nature of 'ideal love.' The conflicts of thwarted eros were more difficult to sustain in September than in June, and they offered little consolation or assurance of success, in life or in death.
See also Boos, 111-116; Calhoun, 183-85; Kirchhoff, 179-80; and Oberg, 58-59.
An early draft exists in B. L. Add. M. S. 45,299.