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.
(The entire section is 1347 words.)