Friday, May 21, 2010

You know that I should strangle you - vivid William Morris

I could try to write about William Morris’s Arthurian poems – “The Defence of Guenevere” or “King Arthur’s Tomb,” for example.  The treatment of Guenevere is unusual, quite different than Tennyson’s.  Or maybe I should look at the poems from Froissart’s Chronicles.  “Sir Peter Harpdon’s End” or “Concerning Geffray Teste Noire.”  I think I prefer those to the King Arthur stuff, though I’m not sure why.

Morris wanted to reinvigorate medieval forms and subjects.  His poems are either clipped epics – “The Defence of Guinevere” plunges right into her trial – or ballads, with refrains like “Two red roses across the moon” or “When the Sword went out to sea.”  They convince me, meaning they feel authentically medieval yet simultaneously modern, contemporary with Robert Browning, for example.  I could try to figure out how Morris does that.

The prose stories have their own mysterious pull.  “The Hollow Land” iIs especially strange.  A bloody tale of revenge and counter-revenge somehow pushes one of the characters into a fairy world that is alternately paradisiacal and nightmarish.  Here’s the very end:

And then we walked together toward the golden gates, and opened them, and no man gainsaid us.

And before us lay a great space of flowers. (271)

I say: ???. While I’m spoiling endings, here are the last two lines of “Golden Wings”:

Then one thrust me through the breast with a spear, and another with his sword, which was three inches broad, gave me a stroke across the thighs that hit to the bone; and as I fell forward one cleft me to the teeth with his axe.

And then I heard my darling shriek. (287)

So these are very much the kind of thing you’ll like if you like this kind of thing.  Dickens, Thackeray, Gaskell, Trollope, etc., certainly weren’t writing anything like them.  George MacDonald was – I wonder if he knew them?

The best known early Morris poem, I think, is “The Haystack in the Floods.” It’s easy to see how that one works:

Had she come all the way for this,
To part at last without a kiss?
Yea, had she born the dirt and rain
That her own eyes might see him slain
Beside the haystack in the floods?

I don’t know who the characters are or what troubles they face, but my attention is caught.  In the next 150 lines, we get the names and allegiances (we’re in Froissart again, it seems), a betrayal, a heroic sacrifice or two, and this vision of coerced marriage:

                                A wicked smile
Wrinkled her face, her lips grew thin,
A long way out she thrust her chin:
“You know that I should strangle you
While you were sleeping; or bite through
Your throat, by God’s help – ah!” she said,
“Lord Jesus, pity your poor maid!”

Vivid, no? So this, I suppose, is why I want to read more William Morris.

I found the early Morris works in Early Romance in Prose and Verse, ed. Peter Faulkner, J.M. Dent & Sons, 1973.  Almost everything in the book was originally published in the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, founded and edited by Morris, in 1856. The poems are also in The Defence of Guinevere, and Other Poems, 1858.

The William Morris image – a stained glass cartoon titled “Guinevere and Iseult” – is owned by the Tate.


  1. Eeek! Why were the man and woman who went through the gates cut to pieces? The poems you give examples of are rather violent in a way that is sort of fun because of the surprise of it, but disturbing at the same time.

  2. No one dies of old age in a King Arthur story, I guess. Morris likes to move on on just those intense moments. He does have a few early poems where someone is rescued at the last minute, so they don't always end the same way.