The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems, the first collection of poems published by William Morris, is one of the three or four principal expressions of Pre-Raphaelitism in poetry. Although Morris had only just turned twenty-four when the volume appeared, it epitomizes his poetic qualities and foreshadows his artistic attainment. Algernon Charles Swinburne, his contemporary, wrote concerning it: “Such things as are in this book are taught and learned in no school but that of instinct.” It was Swinburne’s opinion that no other literary work had ever shown more distinctly the mark of native character and that the poetry was entirely original. He saw Morris as “not yet a master,” but “assuredly no longer a pupil.” Not unmindful of certain technical faults and an occasional hint of confusion in the work, Swinburne nevertheless went on to say that Morris’s volume was incomparable in its time for “perception and experience of tragic truth” and that no other contemporary poet had a “touch of passion at once so broad and so sure.”

Swinburne may have overstated the case for the originality of the poems; Morris shows strong influences of Sir Thomas Malory and Jean Froissart, though more in regard to selection of subject matter than in its presentation. His Arthurian poems reveal a genuine passion and exceptional beauty, especially in passages such as the vibrant, breathtaking narrative description that opens the title poem. Despite their freshness and strong feeling, these poems are in what may be designated the tapestry tradition—there is a hint of the decorative about them. Those poems derived more clearly from Froissart than from Malory, however (among them “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End,” “Concerning Geoffrey Teste Noir,” and the grim “Haystack in the Floods”) attest Morris’s realization that, even in the Middle Ages, the tourney was not the only aspect of war.

Although Morris had a lifelong passion for beauty, he also had a need for certain harsh or stark elements, and these are present in these poems. The touches of this power are evident in this first volume of his poems. An example of such stark description may be found in these lines from “Concerning Geoffrey Teste Noire”:

I think ’twas Geoffrey smote him on the browWith some spiked axe; and while he totter’d, dimAbout the eyes, the spear of Alleyne RouxSlipped through his camaille and his throat; well, well!

When Sir Peter Harpdon’s wife Alice, upon hearing of her husband’s death, cries: “I am much too young to live,/ Fair God, so let me die,” readers recognize in the cry a kind of Shakespearean poignancy. Among the many other qualities of this first book of poems is the apparent simplicity of a lyric such as “Golden Wings,” which attains deep sincerity as it smoothly reflects early memories in a manner distinctly Morris’s own. There is also the plain perfection of the little poem, “Summer Dawn,” in which, departing momentarily from the dreams and histories of long-past lives and battles, Morris speaks simply in his own voice of his desire for communion.

Morris, while...

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The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Further Reading

Clutton-Brock, Arthur. William Morris. New York: Parkstone Press, 2007. Biography chronicling Morris’s multifaceted career, including his work as a poet and prose writer.

Helsinger, Elizabeth K. Poetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008. Examines the works of the two poet-artists in order to describe the aesthetics of the Pre-Raphaelite movement and its expression in both literature and art. Chapter 3, “Lyric Color and The Defence of Guenevere,” focuses on this work.

Kirchhoff, Frederick. William Morris. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Literary biography of Morris. Places The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems within the larger context of Morris’s life and creative accomplishments, especially his writings.

Le Bourgeois, John Y. Art and Forbidden Fruit: Hidden Passion in the Life of William Morris. Cambridge, England: Lutterworth Press, 2006. An analysis of Morris’s life and poetry, describing his attachment to his sister Emma, who was a source of inspiration for his work.

Morris, William. The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems. Edited by Margaret A. Lourie. New York: Garland, 1981. A scholarly edition of the poems with extensive notes that explain passages in the poetry. A critical introduction with a full bibliography places this work in its setting of Victorian poetry.

Oberg, Charlotte. A Pagan Prophet, William Morris. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1978. A study of Morris’s writings as the sum of a “living unity” of his creative vision. The poems in The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems are discussed last, out of chronological order, to demonstrate their relationship to the themes of Morris’s other work.

Silver, Carole. The Romance of William Morris. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1982. Examines the idea of romance, in its broadest literary and artistic sense, as revealed in Morris’s works. A chapter is devoted to how The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems exemplifies Morris’s concept of the genre of romance.

Tompkins, J. M. S. William Morris: An Approach to the Poetry. London: Cecil Woolf, 1988. A study of Morris’s poetry, which is defined not only as verse but also as prose romances. The opening chapter analyzes the poems in The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems with particular emphasis on explaining the sources in medieval literature that inspired Morris to compose these works.