William Morris Morris, William - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

William Morris 1834-1896

English poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, and translator.

The following entry provides information on Morris's life and career from 1858 through 2000.

Morris was a member of the Pre-Raphaelite circle of artists and poets that included Charles Algernon Swinburne, Edward Burne-Jones, Canon Dixon, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, their inspirational leader. Nineteenth-century English life, radically altered by the rise of industrial capitalism, was intolerable to Morris and his circle. In their rejection of this way of life, the Pre-Raphaelites looked to an era whose values were deeper than profit and production—the age of medievalism with its tradition of romance and craftsmanship. The love of things medieval is apparent in all Morris's works: his architecture, painting, graphics, and furniture design, as well as his literary efforts.

Biographical Information

Morris was born on March 24, 1834 in Walthamstow, Essex, England. He entered Exeter College, Oxford, with the intention of joining the ministry. However, after meeting Burne-Jones and reading the works of John Ruskin, he became interested in the Gothic revival in art and architecture. He began writing romances and poetry and turned his attention to architecture, taking a position with an architectural firm upon his graduation. After meeting Rossetti, however, he abandoned his architectural career for painting. Later, he formed his own design company and pioneered the modern movement toward functional simplicity in furniture and design. Morris's devotion to aesthetics and opposition to machine-aided industry contributed to his interest in socialism. In the 1880s he was an active member of the Democratic Federation and then the Socialist League, editor of the Socialist organ Commonweal, and a tireless lecturer on the relationship of art to society and industry. In 1890, he founded the Kelmscott Press, which published books similar to the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Morris's research into typography and medieval printing techniques spurred a revival of the art of fine book production in England. He was offered the post of poet laureate in 1892, but he refused the invitation and spent his last years writing prose romances. He died on October 3, 1896.

Major Works

Morris's poetry is marked by several distinct influences. The Defence of Guenevere (1858) echoes Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur in its adaptation of medieval material, and borrows many of its images from the paintings of Rossetti. The romantic poetry of the volume revives the splendor of the Middle Ages as well as the haunting qualities of Gothic fantasy. Though at the time of publication reviewers took little notice of the work, several later critics regretted that Morris never returned to the style of the collection with its dramatic narratives and dream poems. Morris's next work, The Life and Death of Jason (1867), is a departure from his earlier style. In Jason as well as in his following work, The Earthly Paradise (1868-70), Morris clearly follows his avowed master, Geoffrey Chaucer. With Jason, Morris was hailed for restoring an art of narrative nearly forgotten since Chaucer's time. In retelling the Greek legend of Jason and his quest for the golden fleece, Morris regarded the heroic age from a medieval viewpoint. Critics liken his scenes of crowds, processions, and battles to tapestries that portray the romance of the human race.

The theme that Morris first treated in Jason—the desire to escape death and celebrate beauty and life—was elaborated in The Earthly Paradise. Critics hailed this work for its execution and masterly poetic design, in which the months of a year provide the framework for the retelling of two tales, one from Greek mythology and one from Norse and medieval sources. The Earthly Paradise signaled a change in Morris's style. Influenced by his visit to Iceland in 1869 and by his experience translating Völsunga Saga, Morris turned from Chaucer to the Norse eddas, and from the narrative to the epic form. His grand epic venture is Sigurd the Volsung (1876), a “magnificent chant” which recounts the story of Sigurd. While some reviewers found the work inordinately long and marred with verbal archaisms, to many it was Morris's most important contribution.

Critical Reception

Morris's narrative and epic poetry no longer command the attention they attracted in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, his poetic works have always drawn mixed reviews. Some commentators feel his works lack action and feeling, and are no more than lovely pictures conveyed in tedious, sterile verse. To others Morris was a master storyteller with a supreme gift of invention, who recreated the worlds of garden, court, and battlefield in a clear, expressive style. He was devoted to the belief that to find meaning one must create beauty and he sought to convey his artistic ideals in all of his work. He is viewed as an important figure in the Pre-Raphaelite movement and a prolific contributor in several genres, including political writing, fantasy, short fiction, furniture design, architecture, and book printing. Several critical studies have investigated his noteworthy role in nineteenth-century literature, politics, and art.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)

The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems 1858

The Life and Death of Jason 1867

The Earthly Paradise [3 vols.] 1868-70

Love Is Enough; or, The Freeing of Pharamond 1873

The Story of Sigurd the Volsung, and the Fall of the Niblungs (poetry and short stories) 1876

Chants for Socialists 1884

The Pilgrims of Hope 1886

Poems by the Way 1891

The Collected Works of William Morris [24 vols.] (poetry and prose) 1910-15

William Morris: Artist, Writer, Socialist [2 vols.] (poetry and prose) 1936

A Dream of John Ball, and A King's Lesson (short stories) 1888

A Tale of the House of the Wolfings and All the Kindreds of the Mark (short stories) 1889

News from Nowhere (novel) 1890

The Story of the Glittering Plain (novel) 1891

The Wood beyond the World (novel) 1894

The Well at the World's End (novel) 1896

The Sundering Flood (novel) 1897

The Water of the Wondrous Isles (novel) 1897

The Letters of William Morris to His Family and Friends (letters) 1950

The Unpublished Lectures of William Morris (lectures) 1969

Richard Garnett (essay date 1858)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Garnett, Richard. Review of The Defence of Guenevere, by William Morris. In William Morris: The Critical Heritage, edited by Peter Faulkner, pp. 32-7. London: Routledge & Kegan Ltd., 1973.

[In the following review, which was originally published in March 1858, Garnett investigates the poetic influences on Morris's The Defence of Guenevere.]

It might not be easy to find a more striking example of the indestructibility of anything truly beautiful, than the literary resurrection of King Arthur and his Knights, after so many centuries' entombment in the Avalon of forgetfulness. The Israfel of this revival was Mr. Tennyson, the first peal of whose awakening trumpet sounded some twenty-six years ago in his marvellous ‘Lady of Shalott,’ followed by utterances of no inferior beauty, some made public for our delight, others, it is whispered, as yet withheld from us. But the movement thus inaugurated has taken a direction which Mr. Tennyson cannot have anticipated. We are not alluding to Sir E. Bulwer's elegant but affected and artificial ‘King Arthur,’ nor to Mr. Arnold's lovely ‘Tristram and Iseult.’ These are remarkable poems, but not startling phenomena. But the pre-Raphaelite poets and painters have made the Arthurian cyclus their own, by a treatment no less strange and original than that which has already thrown such novel light on the conceptions of Shakespeare and the scenery of Palestine. Not long since our columns contained a notice of certain fresco illustrations of Arthurian romance attempted at Oxford by painters of this school, who, being for the most part utterly unknown to fame, may be supposed to have been invented on purpose. One of these gentlemen has now enabled us to form some opinion of his qualifications for his task by the publication of the book before us; and we do not hesitate to pronounce, that if he do but wield the brush to half as much purpose as the pen, his must be pictures well worth a long pilgrimage to see.

In advocating the claims of an unknown poet to public attention, it is before all things necessary to establish his originality—a very easy matter in the present instance. It might almost have seemed impossible for any one to write about Arthur without some trace of Tennysonian influences, yet, for Mr. Morris, the Laureate might never have existed at all. Every one knows Tennyson's ‘Sir Galahad’—Mr. Morris's exquisite poem on the same subject is unfortunately much too long for quotation, but our meaning will be sufficiently illustrated by a few of the initiatory stanzas:

It is the longest night in all the year,
          Near on the day when the Lord Christ was born;
Six hours ago I came and sat down here,
          And ponder'd sadly, wearied and forlorn.
The winter wind that pass'd the chapel-door,
          Sang out a moody tune, that went right well
With mine own thoughts: I look'd down on the floor,
          Between my feet, until I heard a bell
Sound a long way off through the forest deep,
          And toll on steadily; a drowsiness
Came on me, so that I fell half asleep,
          As I sat there not moving: less and less
I saw the melted snow that hung in beads
          Upon my steel-shoes, less and less I saw
Between the tiles the bunches of small weeds:
          Heartless and stupid, with no touch of awe
Upon me, half-shut eyes upon the ground,
          I thought; O! Galahad, the days go by,
Stop and cast up now that which you have found,
          So sorely you have wrought and painfully.

The difference between the two poets obviously is that Tennyson writes of mediæval things like a modern, and Mr. Morris like a contemporary. Tennyson's ‘Sir Galahad’ is Tennyson himself in an enthusiastic and devotional mood; Mr. Morris's is the actual champion, just as he lived and moved and had his being some twelve hundred years ago. Tennyson is the orator who makes a speech for another; Mr. Morris the reporter who writes down what another man says. Whatever mediævalists may assert, poetry flourishes far more in the nineteenth century than it ever did in the seventh; accordingly the Laureate is as superior in brilliance of phrase, finish of style, and magic of versification, as he is inferior in dramatic propriety and couleur locale. We might continue this parallel for ever, but shall bring the matter to a head by observing that Mr. Morris's poems bear exactly the same relation to Tennyson's as Rossetti's illustrations of...

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Walter Pater (essay date 1868)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Pater, Walter. “Poems by William Morris.” In Pre-Raphaelitism: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by James Sambook, pp. 105-17. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974.

[In the following essay, originally published in The Westminster Review in 1868, Pater gives a reading of Morris's oeuvre with an emphasis on the mixture of Hellenic, medieval, and modern influences in the poet's works.]

This poetry is neither a mere reproduction of Greek or mediaeval life or poetry, nor a disguised reflex of modern sentiment. The atmosphere on which its effect depends belongs to no actual form of life or simple form of poetry. Greek poetry, mediaeval or...

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W. J. Courthope (essay date 1872)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Courthope, W. J. “An English View of the Limitations of Morris's Poetry.” In William Morris: The Critical Heritage, edited by Peter Faulkner, pp. 182-88. London: Routledge & Kegan Ltd., 1973.

[In the following essay, which initially appeared in the Quarterly Review in 1872, Courthope delineates the major flaws in Morris's Earthly Paradise.]

Without in any way affecting the character of a mystic, Mr. Morris withdraws himself, perhaps, even farther than Mr. Rossetti from all sympathy with the life and interests of his time:—

Of Heaven and Hell I have no power to sing,
I cannot ease the burden of your fears,
Or make quick-coming...

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Edmund Clarence Stedman (essay date 1887)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stedman, Edmund Clarence. “Latter-Day Singers: Robert Buchanan, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris.” In Victorian Poets, pp. 366-78. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1887.

[In the following excerpt, Stedman provides an overview of Morris's poetic oeuvre.]

It is but natural, then, that we should find in William Morris a poet who may be described, to use the phrase of Hawthorne, as an Artist of the Beautiful. He delights in the manifestation of objective beauty. Byron felt himself one with Nature. Morris is absorbed in the loveliness of his romantic work, and as an artist seems to find enchantment and content.

In this serenity of mood he...

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G. K. Chesterton (essay date 1906)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Chesterton, G. K. “William Morris and His School.” In Varied Types, pp. 15-26. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1906.

[In the following essay, Chesterton views Morris as a prime representative of the Victorian era and outlines the limitations of his verse.]

It is proper enough that the unveiling of the bust of William Morris should approximate to a public festival, for while there have been many men of genius in the Victorian era more despotic than he, there have been none so representative. He represents not only that rapacious hunger for beauty which has now for the first time become a serious problem in the healthy life of humanity, but he represents...

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W. J. Dawson (essay date 1906)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Dawson, W. J. “William Morris.” In The Makers of English Poetry, pp. 368-79. New York: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1906.

[In the following essay, Dawson credits Morris, along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Charles Swinburne, with the revival of Romanticism in English poetry and analyzes Morris's development as a poet.]

William Morris is the third great name connected with the revival of Romanticism in modern poetry. His Defence of Guinevere, published in 1858, and dedicated to Rossetti, is marked by that same return to the mediæval spirit which so strikingly distinguished Rossetti, and which bore partial fruit in the early poems of Swinburne....

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A. Clutton-Brock (essay date 1914)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Clutton-Brock, A. “Morris as a Romantic Poet.” In William Morris: His Work and Influence, pp. 79-96. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1914.

[In the following essay, Clutton-Brock discusses Morris as a Romantic poet, contending that of “all the Romantic poets Morris, in his early poetry was the most romantic; for he was more consciously discontented with the circumstances of his own time than any of them.”]

The word Romantic, as applied to a certain movement in art, has been used vaguely and in different senses. We know better who the Romantic poets are than why we call them Romantic. But if we examine their works, and especially those which any one...

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Karl Litzenberg (essay date May 1936)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Litzenberg, Karl. “Allusions to the Elder Edda in the ‘Non-Norse’ Poems of William Morse.” Scandinavian Studies and Notes 14, no. 2 (May 1936): 17-24.

[In the following essay, Litzenberg traces Morris's allusions to Eddic matters in his pre-1869 verse.]


Although William Morris is noted for the Norse adaptations he made in such poems as “The Lovers of Gudrun” and Sigurd the Volsung, in composing which he drew directly upon the Laxdæla and Völsunga Sagas, his “non-Norse” poems do not contain any large body of Norse allusions. It is a rather curious fact, however, that the poet actually...

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Lawrence Perrine (essay date April 1960)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Perrine, Lawrence. “Morris's Guenevere: An Interpretation.” Philological Quarterly 39, no. 2 (April 1960): 234-41.

[In the following essay, Perrine provides an interpretation of Queen Guenevere's character in “The Defence of Guenevere” and finds her guilty of adultery in the poem.]

“The Defence of Guenevere” is a poem that has been widely admired without being fully understood. An initial difficulty lies in its central situation. The Queen is pleading her innocence of an accusation made by Gauwaine. Whether she is innocent or guilty, however, and, indeed, what exactly the accusation has been—though it includes the charge of adultery—are not...

(The entire section is 3149 words.)

Robert L. Stallman (essay date autumn 1969)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stallman, Robert L. “‘Rapunzel’ Unravelled.” Victorian Poetry 7, no. 3 (autumn 1969): 221-32.

[In the following essay, Stallman perceives Morris's “Rapunzel” as an archetypal Victorian treatment of the mythic quest and a “rite of passage” tale.]

Morris' youthful little drama challenges modern readers of poetry quite as much as it did his Victorian peers. They met the challenge by ignoring the poem, but it hardly seems admirable of us to dismiss it as “bewitching” or as having an inexplicable “dark weirdness” about it.1 If the poem is effective, there must be some rationale to its effect on us as readers, perhaps an effect that...

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Frederick Kirchhoff (essay date winter 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Kirchhoff, Frederick. “Love is Enough: A Crisis in William Morris's Poetic Development.” Victorian Poetry 15, no. 4 (winter 1977): 297-306.

[In the following essay, Kirchhoff views Love is Not Enough to be a transitional work in Morris's poetic development.]

The notion of William Morris' career as a gradual flowering into inevitable Marxism and the very different notion of Morris as a “happy craftsman” have equally obscured the actual shape of his literary development.1 Granted, fully understanding Morris entails fully understanding his work in all three fields. But at this—still relatively innocent—stage in the criticism of...

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Margaret A. Lourie (essay date fall 1977)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Lourie, Margaret A. “The Embodiment of Dreams: William Morris' ‘Blue Closet’ Group.” Victorian Poetry 15, no. 3 (fall 1977): 193-206.

[In the following essay, Lourie examines the seven Morris poems that make up the “The Blue Closet” group, maintaining that by studying these poems “we will perhaps have learned something essential about the Pre-Raphaelite contribution to English poetry.”]

Pre-Raphaelite poetry, that influential resurgence of Romanticism in mid-nineteenth-century England, has been accurately perceived from the beginning to be such stuff as dreams are made on. When in 1858 William Morris published the first Pre-Raphaelite volume...

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Charlotte H. Oberg (essay date 1978)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Oberg, Charlotte H. “The Apology and Prologue as Overture.” In A Pagan Prophet: William Morris, pp. 25-38. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Oberg argues that the “Apology” and the Prologue to The Earthly Paradise function to foreshadow and amplify Morris's central poetic themes.]

The Earthly Paradise begins with “An Apology” in which the narrator, introducing himself as “the idle singer of an empty day,” foreshadows the substance of his theme, at once evoking and disclaiming the epic tradition of Virgil, Dante, and Milton:

          Of Heaven or Hell I have no power to...

(The entire section is 5146 words.)

Thomas T. Barker (essay date November 1981)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Barker, Thomas T. “The Shadow on the Tapestry: Irony in William Morris' The Earthly Paradise.The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 2, no. 1 (November 1981): 111-26.

[In the following essay, Barker compares The Earthly Paradise to Alfred Tennyson's “The Lotos-Eaters” and Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene to show that Morris's poem is more ironic than escapist in nature.]

A review of the critics' reception of The Earthly Paradise shows that they have identified it with the trend toward escapist art which flourished in the late nineteenth century. Oscar Maurer's study of the work's original reviewers confirms this. Critics...

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Josephine Koster Tarvers (essay date spring 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Tarvers, Josephine Koster. “‘The Deep Still Land of Colours’: Color Imagery in The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems.” Studies in Philology 84, no. 2 (spring 1987): 180-93.

[In the following essay, Tarvers contends that Morris utilizes vivid color imagery in The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems to manipulate “readers' emotional responses to the character and situations in his poetry.”]

From the beginning of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, bright and vivid color was a striking feature of the pictures produced by members of the Brotherhood. For example, artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, by the use of a...

(The entire section is 5792 words.)

David Latham (essay date fall 1987)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Latham, David. “Paradise Lost: Morris's Re-writing of The Earthly Paradise.The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic Studies 1, no. 1 (fall 1987): 67-75.

[In the following essay, Latham analyzes Morris's omissions and revisions to The Earthly Paradise and establishes a chronology for the composition of the poem.]

We know that the faculty for speed in his writing allowed Morris to indulge to the full his practice of re-writing, casting aside beginnings that did not work out to his liking. Here is evidence of it in concrete form, in the mass of Earthly Paradise MS.—a collection so important, so unique as showing a...

(The entire section is 5431 words.)

Isolde Karen Herbert (essay date summer 1991)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Herbert, Isolde Karen. “‘A Strange Diagonal’: Ideology and Enclosure in the Framing Sections of The Princess and The Earthly Paradise.Victorian Poetry 29, no. 2 (summer 1991): 145-59.

[In the following essay, Herbert contrasts the function of the frame structures of Alfred Tennyson's The Princess and Morris's The Earthly Paradise.]

After reading the first volume of The Earthly Paradise, Browning complimented Morris on the poem's “continuous key and recurring forms,—the New masked in the Old and perpetually looking out of the eyeholes of its disguise.”1 Recurrence and disguise in the form of framing...

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Virginia S. Hale and Catherine Barnes Stevenson (essay date summer 1992)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Hale, Virginia S., and Catherine Barnes Stevenson. “Morris' Medieval Queen: A Paradox Resolved.” Victorian Poetry 30, no. 2 (summer 1992): 171-78.

[In the following essay, Hale and Stevenson determine Queen Guenevere's guilt in “Defence of Guenevere,” contending that “Morris created a fully sexual woman who makes no apology for her adulterous love but rather celebrates herself and her status as loyal queen.”]

William Morris' “Defence of Guenevere” has perplexed a number of scholars because of a seeming dichotomy between the Queen's apparent denial of the accusation of adultery—“you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie” (l. 46)—and her vivid evocation of...

(The entire section is 3541 words.)

Norman Talbot (essay date spring 1997)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Talbot, Norman. “The ‘Pomona’ Lyric and Female Power.” Victorian Poetry 35, no. 1 (spring 1997): 71-81.

[In the following essay, Talbot offers a feminist perspective on “Pomona” and maintains that Morris was aware and concerned with feminist and ecological issues.]


Admirers of William Morris were (until relatively recently) inclined to assume that his later poetry dispenses with the erotic complexities of the Defence of Guinevere volume and the menacing mortal implications of most of the Earthly Paradise narratives.1 Critics who had not read most of the ten prose romances of his last decade were...

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Florence S. Boos (essay date February 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Boos, Florence S. “‘The Banners of the Spring to Be’: The Dialectical Pattern of Morris's Later Poetry.” English Studies 81, no. 1 (February 2000): 14-40.

[In the following essay, Boos provides an “inclusive and eclectic view” of Morris's poetic development.]

William Morris's contemporaries viewed him primarily as the author of The Earthly Paradise, and to a lesser extent of The Life and Death of Jason and a few later works. Most later critics sharply reversed this judgment, in favor of The Defence of Guenevere, which they interpreted as a youthful proto-modernist text of implosive intensity.1 This profile persists,...

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A. A. Markley (essay date March 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Markley, A. A. “‘Love for the Sake of Love’: William Morris's Debt to Robert Browning in ‘Riding Together.’” English Language Notes 37, no. 3 (March 2000): 47-55.

[In the following essay, Markley determines the influence of Robert Browning on Morris's “Riding Together.”]

Published in 1856 in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, and later in the 1858 collection, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, William Morris's poem “Riding Together,” like other poems among Morris's early works, is an impressive formal experiment in fusing the dramatic monologue and the old English ballad. In this sense, Morris was clearly working in the...

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Catherine Stevenson and Virginia Hale (essay date fall 2000)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: Stevenson, Catherine, and Virginia Hale. “Medieval Drama and Courtly Romance in William Morris' ‘Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery.’” Victorian Poetry 38, no. 3 (fall 2000): 383-91.

[In the following essay, Stevenson and Hale view “Sir Galahad: A Christmas Mystery” as a hybrid of the conventions of medieval religious drama, courtly romance, and medieval mystery play.]

Writing of William Morris' use of medieval sources, David Staines observes that the four poems in The Defence of Guenevere volume based on Malory—“The Defence of Guenevere,” “King Arthur's Tomb,” “Sir Galahad, A Christmas Mystery,” and “A Chapel in...

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Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


McGann, Jerome. “‘A Thing to Mind’: The Materialist Aesthetic of William Morris.” Huntington Library Quarterly 55, no. 1 (winter 1992): 55-74.

Details Morris's involvement with books and printing.

Stansky, Peter. William Morris. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983, 96 p.

Biographical and critical study.


Boos, Florence S. “Ten Journeys to the Venusberg: Morris' Drafts for ‘The Hill of Venus.’” Victorian Poetry 39, no. 4 (winter 2001): 597-615.

Traces the various drafts of “The Hill of Venus.”...

(The entire section is 219 words.)