Like other Victorian poets, William Morris is best understood in relationship to the Romantic poets whose work preceded his. Like Tennyson and Browning, he sought an alternative to the Romantic preoccupation with self by writing in literary forms from which the self of the poet was distanced or removed. Unlike Tennyson and Browning, but in part through their example, he had discovered such forms by the time of his first collection of verse. Excluding himself from his poetry, however, was not enough; Morris went on to find and test ways of replacing the self with a collective consciousness. It is this effort that gives shape and purpose to his literary career.
The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems
Tennyson and Browning had found congenial settings for many of their important poems in classical Greece or Rome, Arthurian England, or the Italian Renaissance. Morris set his earliest poems in the Middle Ages, and this setting freed him, at least partially, from the restraints of his times and allowed him to express emotional and intellectual states for which there were no Victorian equivalents. The violence and sexuality of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems would have been difficult or impossible to treat in poems dealing with contemporary England. Moreover, the poems are spoken either by dramatized personas or by the anonymous voice of the traditional song or ballad. Thus, the contemporary poet is excluded from the text and thereby relieved of the need to moralize or interpret its subject by Victorian standards.
The contents of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems fall into three categories: poems based on Arthurian materials, poems based on Jean Froissart’s Chroniques de France, d’Engleterre, d’Éscose, de Bretaigne, d’Espaigne, d’Italie, de Flandres et d’Alemaigne (1373-1410; The Chronycles of Englande, Fraunce, Spayne . . . , 1523-1525; better known as Chronicles) describing the Anglo-French wars of the fourteenth century, and poems linked not by their common source but by their strong, often hallucinatory symbolism.
The title poem exemplifies the first group. In it, Guenevere uses an extended autobiographical apology to forestall the knights who are about to execute her as an adulteress. Because it is a dramatic monologue, the central ambiguity of the poem remains unresolved: Is Guenevere really a repentant victim of circumstances, or is her speech simply a ploy to gain time? It is, of course, both. If she is a victim—if she allowed herself to be led into marriage with a man she did not love—then her victimization signals the same weakness, the same passive sensuality, that precipitated her infidelity. However, her confession of weakness is itself a seduction of her accusers. In a world determined by sexual desire, her passivity becomes a form of strength. By absenting himself from the poem, Morris allows these contradictory interpretations to interact and thus, in effect, to complicate its meaning. The Guinevere of Idylls of the King (1859-1885) is an expression of Tennyson’s need to confirm Victorian sexual morality. Morris’s Guenevere, in contrast, calls the relevance of moral order itself into question. Ultimately, Lancelot will come to her rescue, and that, in the end, is all that matters.
The Froissartian poems dramatize characters with a real, although usually minor, place in history. They give the lie to the accusation that Morris sentimentalized the Middle Ages. In poems such as “The Haystack in the Floods,” “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End,” and “Concerning Geoffrey Teste Noire,” the slow English defeat in the last years of the Hundred Years’ War is portrayed with grim realism. In the first and shortest of the three poems, the lovers Jehane and Robert have been taken in ambush and Jehane offered the choice of becoming the lover of an enemy and so saving Robert’s life—or at least postponing his death—or refusing and thus bringing about Robert’s immediate murder and her own trial by water as a witch. Instead of brooding over her dilemma, she falls asleep, leaning against the wet haystack beside which they had been ambushed. After an hour, she awakens, speaks a quiet “I will not,” and sees her lover decapitated and his head beaten to pieces. Again, the power of the poem lies in the absence of authorial comment. Nothing stands between the reader and Jehane’s purely instinctual response. Overwhelmed by circumstances, her consciousness is reduced to a sequence of images, culminating in “the long bright blade without a flaw” with which Robert is executed; and the poem is all the more intense for this refusal to verbalize her emotional state.
In the third group of poems, Morris’s concentration on imagery results in a poetry comparable to that of the French Symbolists. (Like the Symbolists, Morris at this point in his career was strongly influenced by Edgar Allan Poe.) Poems such as “The Wind” and “The Blue Closet” are richly evocative but elude precise decipherment. The first depicts a speaker who is psychotic; the second, based on a painting by Rossetti, uses deliberate inconclusiveness to suggest a deteriorating consciousness. The longest of the fantasy poems, “Rapunzel,” offers a more positive account of the psychosexual development of its protagonist prince from youth to maturity and seems to foreshadow Morris’s later concern for the relationship between art and the erotic drives; any interpretation of the poem, however, is bound to be tenuous.
The Life and Death of Jason and The Earthly Paradise
The success of these early poems in confronting the reader with states of passionate intensity has made it difficult for some critics to understand Morris’s decision to write in a very different style in the narrative poetry of the 1860’s. If the immediacy of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems is missing in The Life and Death of Jason and The Earthly Paradise, though, the shift in style is in no sense a falling off. The manner of the earlier poems would not have worked in a longer narrative. Intensity can be sustained only so long; in time, it becomes unbearable or ludicrous. Moreover, the dramatic monologues and dialogues of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems, rich in psychological complexity, limit the role of the reader to that of an observer. The poems that followed reflect Morris’s growing concern with the full nature of the experience of art; hence, the storyteller, since his role is now a matter of consequence, must be restored to a position of importance.
The storytellers of The Life and Death of Jason and The Earthly Paradise are not, however, merely extensions of Morris. Storytelling in The Earthly Paradise is complex; the basic assumption of the two works is clear in the simpler narrative of The Life and Death of Jason. Morris’s subject is classical; his models, however, are not the primary Homeric epic but the imitative secondary epic of Apollonius of Rhodes, his chief source for the materials of the poem, and, explicitly in the invocation to book 17, the medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer. Thus, The Life and Death of Jason is not a direct imitation of a classical narrative, but the imitation of an imitation. The chief result of this device is to distance the storyteller from his story. It is no longer his story; rather, it belongs to tradition. It is his task in the present to retell the tale, not to use it as a mode of self-expression, and given the emphasized distance from the original narrative, the possibility of self-expression is limited. It is the story itself that dictates narrative structure and determines closure—not the narrator’s sense that he has had his say. “Another story now my tongue must tell,” the poet announces as, having completed his narrative of “the Winning of the Golden Fleece,” he undertakes his account of the events that occurred to Jason ten years after his return to Argos. Similarly, when this final episode is completed and capped with the death of Jason, the poem concludes with the assurance that “now is all that ancient story told.”
In its original form, The Life and Death of Jason was to have been a much shorter poem, “The Deeds of Jason,” within the narrative frame of The Earthly Paradise. Despite its independent publication, the poem is best understood in that context. The Earthly Paradise is an enormous work—more than four times the length of Idylls of the King and almost twice as long as Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868-1869). The poem consists of a prologue (“The Wanderers”) and a related series of narrative interludes framing twenty-four stories drawn from classical and Germanic sources and arranged according to the cycle of the year, from March to February, with two stories for each month. In addition to this narrative frame, the poem begins with an apology and ends with an epilogue, and prefaces each month’s storytelling with a twenty-one-line lyric appropriate to the season, all in a first-person voice that may be identified with Morris. If the poet is present in these occasional verses, it is only as an accretion; and this deliberately adventitious role emphasizes his dissociation from the narratives themselves.
The Wanderers are fourteenth century Vikings who flee a plague-stricken Norway in search of a fabled Earthly Paradise—a land of immortal life and happiness—across the Atlantic. After a lifetime of disappointed expectations, they reach an island “midmost the beating of the steely sea,” to which long ago Grecian colonists had been sent and where, cut off from the outside world, classical civilization has flourished long into the Christian era. The Wanderers, now old men, decide to remain here and, along with the Greek elders, agree to pass the time telling stories drawn from their two traditions. The obvious lesson of this narrative frame is that the quest for a geographical earthly paradise is vain, and that timelessness and beauty, if they exist at all, are to be found in art. However, the art available to the storytellers, like that of The Life and Death of Jason, is carefully limited in its effects. It is not directly self-expressive. It is, at best, a temporary illusion. For the space of the storytelling, its auditors may forget their cares, but the sequence of stories itself—from spring to winter—reminds the reader that they are only a respite, never a real escape from the relentless movement of time and decay. Thus, The Earthly Paradise is less a celebration of the power of art than a study of the limits of artistic experience. Its most telling literary analogues are not the medieval frame narratives from which it takes its general structure, but John Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”—Romantic poems in which the nature of art is probed and tested.
The Wanderers’ quest suggests a model of the artist’s career. Like the protagonist of another Romantic poem about art, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Alastor: Or, The Spirit of Solitude, and Other Poems (1816), they seek a real equivalent to the figments of their imagination—and, since their quest is in part motivated by artistic accounts of an earthly paradise, by the imaginative vision embodied in traditional art and oral storytelling, the failure of this quest teaches them the fundamental irreconcilability of the imagination and the natural world. It is therefore a necessary...
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