William Morris’s ‘The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems’: a neglected classic?

William Morris in his early 20s, photographed by Walker & Boutall, 1855-7. Source: National Portrait Gallery.
William Morris in his early 20s, photographed by Walker & Boutall, 1855-7. Source: National Portrait Gallery.

Victorian poetry is still widely studied in schools and universities in the UK. Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy and Lewis Carroll usually crop up somewhere, and particular poems, such as Tennyson’s ‘Lady of Shalott’, Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, Robert Browning’s ‘My Last Duchess’ and Hardy’s ‘The Darkling Thrush’, have entered the public imagination. But where, I tentatively ask, is William Morris? Certainly his visual art gets recognised — I remember a friend at undergrad telling me she studied Morris patterns in school art lessons — and more recently his wide-reaching political ideals were the subject of the National Portrait Gallery’s Anarchy and Beauty exhibition. The poetry for which he was equally well-known in his lifetime apparently never made the same leap into twenty-first century recognition and understanding. Today it seems many people are unaware that Morris wrote and published a prodigious amount for most of his life — so much so that after Tennyson’s death in 1892 he was offered the title of Poet Laureate, but declined. If he had accepted, perhaps things would’ve gone differently for his poetry. However, I may be completely wrong in assuming that the only people who still read Morris’s poetry today are the keen scholars and enthusiasts of Victorian, Pre-Raphaelite culture (there are a lot of us!).

Title-page of Morris's first published book of poems. Source: William Morris Archive.
Title-page of the first edition of Morris’s first published book of poems, 1858. Source: William Morris Archive.

Morris’s first collection, The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, has fast become one of my favourite books of poems by a single writer. He was only 24 years old when it was published in 1858, and had written many of the poems while an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford from 1852-6, and while he assisted Rossetti with the Oxford Union murals in 1857. On first entering Oxford, as is well-known, he instantly found a lifelong friend in the young Edward Burne-Jones. The two deepened their shared love of the history, architecture, art and literature of the Middle Ages, and devoured Robert Southey’s 1817 reprint of Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century collection of Arthurian legends, Morte d’Arthur. In 1855, while visiting the house of Thomas Combe at Oxford, the young men saw their first Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Hunt, Millais and Rossetti — but it was the latter’s watercolour Dante drawing an Angel on the First Anniversary of Beatrice’s Death (1853) which enthralled them most. Burne-Jones was able to meet the artist in 1856, and Rossetti recruited him and Morris to paint the Arthurian murals the following year (Morris chose to depict Sir Palomides’s Jealousy of Sir Tristram and La Belle Iseult). Under these very specific conditions, in this rarefied atmosphere of high-spirited medievalism particular to Oxford in which, Georgiana Burne-Jones later recalled, ‘Edward and Morris were alone and communed with each other in their own world of imagination,’ Morris began to write poems glimmering with strange, vivid impressions of medieval life. The tendency had clearly started young: as a child, apparently, he took to dressing in replica armour and riding through Epping Forest on a small pony to admire the faded tapestries in Queen Elizabeth’s Hunting Lodge.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'The Blue Closet', 1856-7. Watercolour on paper, 35.4 x 26 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Blue Closet, 1856-7. Watercolour on paper, 35.4 x 26 cm. Tate.

For some reason I find the poem titles as beautiful as the poems themselves, establishing an alliterative, sing-song, fairy tale quality from the outset: ‘Sir Galahad: A Christmas Mystery’, ‘Rapunzel’, ‘The Gilliflower of Gold’, ‘The Eve of Crecy’, ‘The Little Tower’, ‘The Blue Closet’, ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’, ‘Golden Wings’, ‘Two Red Roses Across the Moon’, and so on. Already an enigmatic, dreamlike atmosphere suggests itself — for we wonder what on earth is a gilliflower of gold, or a blue closet, or a tune of seven towers? What would the tune of seven towers sound like? Perhaps the word ‘suggests’ is the most important here: these poems rarely reveal everything at once, but often remain tantalisingly elusive, withholding solutions, even at their end. They are more like mood-pieces than articulations of particular narratives — as if, instead of simply retelling the types of chivalric stories Morris found in Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, he was keen to evoke the colours, sounds and emotions one might experience inside a medieval romance. Indeed, his characters are often entrapped or enclosed in mysterious, isolated locations — an castle on the sea, a tower in a thick wood, a ruined chapel at night — and the reader is drawn momentarily in with them. The general tone, then, is akin to Pre-Raphaelite visual art of the mid-to-late 1850s, especially the watercolours and drawings of Rossetti and Burne-Jones which also act as windows onto imagined medieval worlds populated with melancholy knights, damozels and courtiers. The Rossetti watercolour above, The Blue Closet, directly inspired the Morris poem of the same name, and Morris actually dedicated The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems to Rossetti.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Knight's Farewell, 1858. Pen and ink on vellum. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Edward Burne-Jones, The Knight’s Farewell, 1858. Pen and ink on vellum, 17.6 x 24.2 cm.. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.

Another Rossetti painting which intrigued Morris enough to write a poem is the watercolour The Tune of Seven Towers (below). We must be cautious, however, about attempting to understand the picture through the poem, and vice versa; each is a separate imaginative work in its own right, and apart from sharing the same title the two actually bear little resemblance to one another. Many years later, in 1872, Rossetti himself famously wrote of Morris’s work: ‘the poems were the result of the pictures, but do not at all tally to my purpose with them, although beautiful in themselves.’ Morris’s ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ is a perfect example of the kind of lyrical mysteriousness (excuse that vague phrase) outlined in the previous paragraph — very little actually happens in it, but there is much dreamlike, even gothic imagery as well as (like Rossetti’s watercolour, actually) an air of sadness, isolation and entrapment. The best way to explain it is to show it:

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Tune of the Seven Towers, 1857. Watercolour on paper, 31.4 x 36.5 cm. Tate.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, The Tune of the Seven Towers, 1857. Watercolour on paper, 31.4 x 36.5 cm. Tate.

No one goes there now:
For what is left to fetch away
From the desolate battlements all arow,
And the lead roof heavy and grey?
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

No one walks there now;
Except in the white moonlight
The white ghosts walk in a row;
If one could see it, an awful sight,–
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

But none can see them now,
Though they sit by the side of the moat,
Feet half in the water, there in a row,
Long hair in the wind afloat.
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

If he will go to it now,
He must go to it all alone,
Its gates will not open to any row
Of glittering spears — will you go alone?
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

By my love go there now,
To fetch me my coif away,
My coif and my kirtle with pearls arow,
Oliver, go to-day!
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

I am unhappy now,
I cannot tell you why;
If you go, the priests and I in a row
Will pray that you may not die.
‘Listen!’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

If you will go for me now,
I will kiss your mouth at last;
[She sayeth inwardly]
(The graves stand grey in a row.)
Oliver, hold me fast!
‘Therefore,’ said Fair Yoland of the flowers,
‘This is the tune of Seven Towers.’

What, then, can we be certain of in this poem? Already the opening images of ‘desolate battlements’, ‘the lead roof heavy and grey’ and ‘white moonlight’ in which ‘white ghosts walk in a row’ do not fit with the rich, glowing colours of Rossetti’s watercolour. In stanza 4 there is a subtle shift from a third-person to a first-person narrator, though their speech is not in speech marks: ‘If he will go to it now, / He must go to it all alone, / […] Will you go alone?’ The remaining stanzas are apparently spoken by this unnamed woman, whom we might take to be the lady in red sitting in the peculiar chair in Rossetti’s Seven Towers; while Oliver, the man she addresses, is surely the figure dressed in green and gold sitting mournfully beside her. Again, we can’t be certain of this. In stanza 5 the lady engages Oliver on some sort of quest to retrieve her coif and her kirtle ‘with pearls arow’; if he does go, she says in the next stanza, she and the priests will pray he may not die. In the final stanza she promises to kiss him if he returns — but he apparently does not, and after a rather cinematic cutaway shot in parentheses of ‘(The graves stand grey in a row)’ she cries ‘Oliver, hold me fast!’ and the poem ends. Has he died? Has she died? Have they now become the white ghosts mentioned at the start, sitting by the edge of the moat with ‘long hair in the wind afloat’? Or were they always ghosts, doomed forever to enact the same empty ritual? The refrain at the end of each stanza (a common feature of Morris’s poems), ‘ “Therefore/Listen!” said Fair Yoland of the flowers, / This is the tune of Seven Towers.”‘ gives no clues.

William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1857-8. Oil on canvas, 71.8 50.2 cm. Tate.
William Morris, La Belle Iseult, 1857-8. Oil on canvas, 71.8 50.2 cm. Tate.

In today’s age of clear-cut answers and thirsted-for fact, ‘The Tune of Seven Towers’ and the other poems in Morris’s Defence of Guenevere are self-contained mysteries which repay quiet, contemplative readings and re-readings. Some do have more of a narrative focus: the title poem, ‘The Defence of Guenevere’, was inspired by Robert Browning’s psychological dramatic monologues and is told from the perspective of Queen Guenevere as she recounts her affair with Sir Launcelot in a long speech of self-vindication. Its prominence within the collection led to Morris’s only surviving easel painting, La Belle Iseult (above) being frequently mis-titled as Queen Guenevere over the years. Admittedly I’m a fan of literary works with ambiguities and open-endings — the two examples I always use are Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and Joan Lindsay’s novel/Peter Weir’s film Picnic at Hanging Rock, both of which resist the traditional tell-all ending and are all the more memorable for it (people still speculate what ‘went on’ with the governess; people will always be wondering what on earth happened to the three schoolgirls and their teacher on Hanging Rock).

Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris, photographed by Frederick Hollyer in 1874. Platinum print. National Portrait Gallery.
Edward Burne-Jones (left) and William Morris, photographed by Frederick Hollyer in 1874. Platinum print. National Portrait Gallery.

Victorian critics were mostly baffled by, and disparaging of Morris’s book. In April 1858 the Athenaeum rejected Morris’s ‘book of Pre-Raphaelite minstrelsy as a curiosity which shows how far affectation may mislead an earnest man towards the fog-land of Art.’ To add to this, the work was not a commercial success — although, as Dinah Roe points out, contemporary observers did identify it as the first book of Pre-Raphaelite poetry. In 1933 Laurence Houseman (brother of A. E.) published a lecture he had given in 1929, titled ‘Pre-Raphaelitism in Art and Poetry’. Describing a passage from Morris’s ‘Sir Peter Harpdon’s End’, he declares: ‘This is your Pre-Raphaelite picture, with its strange blend of detailed externality and intense inwardness of feeling.’ Near the end he singles out The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, ‘partly because I think its beauty is insufficiently recognised, partly because in no other does the spirit of the Pre-Raphaelite movement so clearly declare itself.’ The book therefore stands as an important landmark in English poetry as the first cohesive literary product of an art movement whose influence is still felt today.

Although the book itself is now out of print, a generous selection was included in the Penguin Classics anthology The Pre-Raphaelites: From Rossetti to Ruskin, edited by Dinah Roe. A particularly good edition to get is Volume 1 of The Collected Works of William Morris, edited by William’s daughter May and first published in 1910. It includes not only The Defence of Guenevere in its entirety, but also Morris’s equally haunting, dreamlike early short stories, such as ‘The Story of the Unknown Church’, ‘Lindenborg Pool’ and ‘The Hollow Land’, from The Hollow Land and Other Contributions to the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine. A reprinted facsimile of this edition is available on Amazon through print-on-demand. I’ll leave you with this beautifully simple passage from ‘Rapunzel’, of course based upon the fairy tale and which inspired Morris to decorate a medieval-style chair with a now-faded image of ‘Glorious Guendolen’s golden hair’ (below):

THE PRINCE
For leagues and leagues I rode,
Till hot my armour grew,
Till underneath the leaves
I felt the evening dew.

THE WITCH
Rapunzel, Rapunzel,
Weep through your hair!

RAPUNZEL
And yet — but I am growing old,
For want of love my heart is cold,
Years pass, the while I loose and fold
The fathoms of my hair.

William Morris and D. G. Rossetti, Glorious Guendolen's Golden Hair, c. 1856-7. Painted chair. Delaware Art Museum.
William Morris and D. G. Rossetti, Glorious Guendolen’s Golden Hair, c. 1856-7. Painted chair. Delaware Art Museum.
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