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"Well-known things": experience, distance, and perspective in William Morris's "The Defence of Guenevere".

An early reviewer of William Morris's first volume of poetry voiced a complaint that was to be echoed by many later critics: whereas "a poet's work is with the living world of men,... all that [Morris's poetry] produces are pictures." (1) At first glance, the poems do appear curiously circumscribed by restrictions imposed by their content and style; The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems (1858) never strays from its dream world of Arthurian and medieval picture making. The volume is concerned with very specific aesthetic effects that are contingent on the description of surfaces and visual tableaux in alternately Froissartian and mythically Arthurian versions of the medieval past. Thus, Morris's poetry risks appearing narrow, overly specific, and perhaps even minor in the context of his overwhelming productivity in areas that fall outside the boundaries of literature.

To Morris, however, poetry was not a side project, to be read and understood as separate from his other creative endeavors such as painting, tapestry making, and interior design or as even quite distinct from his developing political activism. Indeed, Morris--more than any other artist of the loosely connected pre-Raphaelite movement--always explicitly insisted that connections between artistic and social goals, between aesthetics and political principles, were not only always present but also critical to the success of any artistic endeavor. (2) This essay seeks to highlight the tension between a seemingly narrowly defined aesthetics, on the one hand, and capaciously ambitious artistic goals, on the other, in order to suggest that the aesthetically "narrow" qualities of Morris's poetry are intricately connected to Morris's notion of how his reader should relate to the past evoked in his text. I argue that these qualities in Morris's poetry enlist, and make active, the reader's participation in exploring the past. Furthermore, I suggest that there are possibilities inherent in that kind of readerly participation of which the titular poem "The Defence of Guenevere" makes particular use: that of a collective and collaborative engagement with the past.

By treating the text as a call for the reader to participate in a re-creation of past experience, I am departing from a long critical tradition that reads "The Defence of Guenevere" as a story in which the reader is asked to pick a moral stance, choosing between accusing Guenevere and defending her. Instead, I propose that "The Defence" functions not as a story about the past but as an experience of the past. (3) I will endeavor to explain what I mean by this by highlighting two features of Morris's poetry that are particularly prominent in "The Defence": first, I discuss the sense of historical distance, which paradoxically serves as a way for the reader to connect with the past; second, I point to how, for Morris, the perspectiveless medieval images evoked in the text function to encourage a particular kind of nonindividuated collaborative engagement between the reader and the text.

"The Defence of Guenevere" sets up a series of visual tableaux, the first of which, in a startling in medias res opening, leads us in only four short stanzas through to Guenevere launching her defense:
   But, knowing now that they would have her speak,
   She threw her wet hair backward from her brow,
   Her hand close to her mouth touching her cheek,

   As though she had had there a shameful blow,
   And feeling it shameful to feel ought but shame
   All through her heart, yet felt her cheek burned so,

   She must a little touch it; like one lame
   She walked away from Gauwaine, with her head
   Still lifted up; and on her cheek of flame

   The tears dried quick; she stopped at last and said:
   "O knights and lords, it seems but little skill
   To talk of well-known things past now and dead." (11. 1-12) (4)

Morris had of course read Thomas Malory closely. But here we are thrown, to great dramatic effect and with forceful immediacy, into a scene in the Arthurian cycle that Malory omits. Guenevere and Launcelot have been caught together, and Guenevere is now on trial for treason. The poem takes place during that trial; here Guenevere is surrounded by the knights of the Round Table, attempting to defend herself against their accusations. After a palpable buildup of narrative tension, Guenevere begins, "O knights and lords, it seems but little skill / To talk of well-known things past now and dead." (5) These two lines call attention to how deeply familiar the past of the Arthur story is to Guenevere's audience--as well as, of course, to Morris's readers. The whole sentence speaks in redundancies: she is saying that "it may seem as if it is not difficult to talk about the past that has now become the past." We may think we know exactly how we should approach the past, because we think we already know everything that happened in the past. But perhaps, this speech implies, asking "what happened in the past" merely leads us toward a dead-end line of inquiry. In fact, the entirety of Guenevere's defense--the seeming raison d'etre of the poem--has puzzled many readers because of its unashamed redundancy. Why do we need to hear a speech from Guenevere at this juncture of the Arthur story? Why should Guenevere warn us to be suspicious of any confident accounts of the past? One could argue that Morris imagines the reason Guenevere speaks is merely to stall, until Launcelot can arrive to save her from burning at the stake. If this is the case, then what she does say in her defense cannot be considered an important contribution to a revision of the myth. And it follows that Morris's task must then be entirely superfluous: to invent a scene of Guenevere's defense from a charge of which all readers must know she is guilty, because the plot she is participating in requires it to be so. Thus, in twelve lines, the poem effectively does away with the question "what happened in the past" as not only irrelevant to its purpose but also, essentially, futile.

So in order to understand what happened in the past, we must first accept the past as inaccessible or at least at a great remove from the present: these are "well-known things" that are "past now and dead" (my italics). Constance W. Hassett writes of the volume that "the statements that [its] poems appear to make are provisional, not permanent." She goes on to argue that because the poems seek to "prevent settled meanings," they also work against "a poetry of ethical statement." (6) I agree that the "statements," if we take that term to mean declarations about what has happened, in this book are provisional, at best. But what may seem to be a task that calls for an ethical "statement" of some kind--a confession or the discovery or revelation of a past action presented for present judgment--may in fact require ethical attention of a different kind. If we are to connect to the past, we need to understand and really appreciate that there is a gap, a historical distance, that separates us from it. Historical distance functions as a kind of tightrope between the reader and the text, where both ends need to be taut: in order to establish a link, or a mode of relation, we need constantly to remind ourselves of the distance or gap between us and what is described. The tension that holds that tightrope taut is one of uncertainty. We have thus been thoroughly warned off asking "what happened in the past," as Guenevere continues on to explain her past actions.

Guenevere's first tactic of defense is to ask her audience to draw a strange analogy to her past: to imagine themselves visited on their deathbed by a "great God's angel," who asks the dying "you" to choose between two colored cloths:
   "One of these cloths is heaven, and one is hell,
   Now choose one cloth for ever, which they be,
   I will not tell you, you must somehow tell" (11. 22-24)

Guenevere urges her listeners to compare this imagined situation, in which one is asked to choose between two differently colored cloths without being offered any way to tell what their colors signify, to the impossible situation she faced in having to choose between her husband and Launcelot.
   "And one of these strange choosing cloths was blue,
   Wavy and long, and one cut short and red;
   No man could tell the better of the two.

   "After a shiver half-hour you said:
   'God help! heaven's colour, the blue;' and he said, 'hell'
   Perhaps you then would roll upon your bed. (11. 34-39)

Karen Herbert reads the angel's refusal to guide his "reader's" choice as symptomatic of Guenevere's defense. The wider society may consider the association between blueness and heaven to equate to moral right and that between redness and hell to equate to moral wrong. But in Herbert's reading, Guenevere inverts these previously ironclad categories, in order to show her accusers that "because society's allocation of right and wrong is incompatible with private (and natural) desire, true and false become relative and historical." (7) Guenevere thus reshapes her past choices into an allegory to be comprehensible to herself, rather than defensible to her audience. Herbert is here arguing against the numerous interpreters who consider the allegory of the choosing cloths to be both Guenevere's most vigorously expressed profession of innocence against charges of infidelity and simultaneously the most damning evidence of her guilt. (8) However, though Herbert reconstructs the choosing cloths as a question of relative moral values, rather than of proof, she nevertheless still places Guenevere in a symbolic, or analogical, relationship to the red and blue cloths. In Herbert's reading, the cloths help Guenevere to illustrate her possible liberation from suffocating linguistic and moral codes. But Ellen W. Sternberg has pointed out that Guenevere's analogy to her own life, however compelling in its presentation, can also be taken as a dramatic feint: "The choice of cloth is a blind one, an elaborate game. The consequences of that decision might be hellish, but they cannot be known or foreseen. The choice of mate or lover, on the other hand, is conscious and considered, and, in Guenevere's case, hardly depends on luck. And both the responsibilities of her marriage to Arthur and the consequences of her liaison with Launcelot--an act tantamount to inviting disaster--would have been clearly known to the Queen." (9) Expressed this way, it certainly seems disingenuous to compare the choice of adultery over fidelity to the angel's blunt "No man could tell the better of the two." Guenevere responds, "Ah Christ! if only I had known, known, known" (11. 36, 41). But a decision as arbitrary as that between red and blue, leading to a choice of heaven or hell--which could certainly provoke a dying soul's anguished call for foreknowledge--has no bearing on the Queen's situation and is thus, at best, a weak defense and, at worst, a renunciation of moral responsibility.

So are we to take it, then, that the choosing of the cloths is not only devoid of evidentiary value but also empty of any moral weight? Again, I think the question of "what happened?" is misleading, and we would do better to ask, "can we experience what she is describing?" In the angel, Guenevere evokes a familiar type of medieval image, perhaps from a church altar or a stained-glass window. Morris was of course was an avid student of medieval allegorical art, and this image seems to have been composed according to those rules, in which details such as color are to be read as coded signs of some deeper meaning. Here, though, there seems no obvious way to interpret the allegory in advance--the angel tells us that the blue cloth means "hell" but offers no explanation as to why or to how one might interpret such details in the future. (10) Guenevere is asking us, her audience, if it were possible for her--or for anyone--to have understood and known without the advantage of hindsight what the right answer would be.

I suggest that the failure here is thus not Guenevere's erroneous choice but is on a larger scale: it is a failure of aesthetic, rather than causal, explanation. Megan Ward notes that "the central paradox of the poem, then, is not Guenevere's assertions of guilt and innocence, but the poem's related insistence on the primacy of the present moment and its concurrent pastness." (11) This is a paradox that, I argue, the reader is called in to help solve. The ethical value of the allegory resides not in its successful decoding but in the potential for "blueness" and "redness" to mean more. The reader is asked to utilize an aesthetic perception of the past. In other words, the text is asking us to experience, rather than to establish, verify, or uncover.

If we accept that distinction, then what sort of meaning is produced by that experience? Here, I want to briefly return to Morris's extratextual artworks and his insistence that his prolific artistic production, spanning nonliterary media such as glass, cloth, and paper textiles, always possesses broad political and social implications. Consider the resistance, throughout Morris's career-spanning work in textiles, patterns, and visual art, to three-dimensional representation. In "Some Hints on Pattern-Designing" (1881), Morris describes the "satisfying mystery" he sees as the goal of a successful pattern: the idea is "to prevent people from counting the repeats of our pattern, while we manage to lull their curiosity to trace it out." Pattern designing itself is defined as "the ornamentation of a surface by work that is not imitative nor historical," which has resulted in the name "ornamental art" (though Morris cannot resist adding that "indeed all real art is ornamental"). (12) It is important to Morris that the ornamental surface of a pattern design does not operate as a mimetic artwork, because the "mystery" lies in the appearance of infinity within the pattern, rather than in any references to an indeterminate reality beyond it.

Certain passages of "The Defence of Guenevere" function much like one of Morris's wallpaper designs, in that they suggest an image that is all continuous surface, thus directing the reader's attention away from the corners and edges of the pattern, away from counting the repeats of the figure, and asking us instead to follow where the pattern leads. In other words, the text directs the reader's attention away from how the symbol is duplicated to form a pattern, away from the edges where work's status as a representation, or imitation, of the world outside the pattern can be detected. If we instead let our eyes follow where the pattern appears to lead, we soon discover that it is not possible to comprehend any conventional sort of sequential, or diachronic, meaning from such an invariant surface. The idea of the continuous surface-and its consequent rejection of three-dimensional representation--is crucial to a reading of Morris's poetry, as it suggests the possibility of a space in which no lines of perspective between the artist, the artwork, and the reader/viewer can be drawn. Take again the example of the allegory of the cloths. The angel asks us to pick out and highlight one cloth, or one color, over the other. The angel, then, is asking us to turn a flat image into a three-dimensional image that relies on a post-Renaissance idea of perspective to make sense. That three-dimensional image relies, just as the interpretation of an allegory, on a tension between surface and depth meaning. The riddle of the cloth has no satisfying answer, because the color word "blue," which constitutes the poem's surface, cannot be peeled back to "reveal" the reason why it means "hell." When read as an allegory that relies on a tension between surface and depth, event and meaning, the parable of the choosing cloths is thus unintelligible: the color blue, inexplicably, turns out to mean "hell." (15) Meaning, as so many aspects of Guenevere's experience, is presented as incomprehensible, because we move from moment to moment without any real sense of why one thing may happen after the next or indeed if anything has happened at all. In Morris's poetic universe, as soon as our perspective is fixed, so that we can read the scene as a three-dimensional image--an image that requires a determination of ground and foreground--the consequence is failed aesthetic perception and comprehension.

In order to make the idea of a fixed perspective more evident, I will discuss the passage of the poem in which Guenevere comes closest to describing the past as a comprehensible experience. This is the description that actually matters to her immediate audience: the "day in Spring" on which Guenevere and Launcelot (perhaps) consummated their forbidden love. "Do I not know now of a day in Spring?" she asks, before assuring us, "No minute of that wild day ever slips / From out my memory" (11. 104-106). Even if the question is rhetorical, it is an odd one. She is asking if she knows now what happened back then, on the fateful Spring day, as if it would only have been possible for her to know after the event what her experience was--"do I not know now?" Guenevere presents what may or may not have happened as a conditional or a rhetorical structure rather than as a past event. It seems we are again back in the trap set by the allegory of the choosing cloths, where meaning is the answer to a riddle that is only found in a visual experience that is absent from the text. As in the analogy of the cloths, Guenevere is still insisting that her life is incomprehensible when experienced moment to moment and that it is only now, in the retelling, that she can actually understand what did occur. The hypothetical structure of Guenevere's retelling alerts us to the crucial role we have to play in that experience as a reader and coconstructor of the past. Here, then, is where the poem asks the reader to consider what the text evokes and to view it as a visual object in and of itself. And the following lines show us, I believe, that it is a very particular kind of visual object that we are asked to consider:
   "A little thing just then had made me mad;
   I dared not think, as I was wont to do,
   Sometimes, upon my beauty; if I had

   "Held out my long hand up against the blue,
   And, looking on the tenderly darken'd fingers,
   Thought that by rights one ought to see quite through,

   "There, see you, where the soft still light yet lingers,
   Round by the edges; what should I have done,
   If this had joined with yellow spotted singers,

   "And startling green drawn upward by the sun?
   But shouting, loosed out, see now! all my hair,
   And trancedly stood watching the west wind run

   "With faintest half-heard breathing sound--why there
   I lose my head e'en now in doing this;
   But shortly listen--In that garden fair

   "Came Launcelot walking; this is true, the kiss
   Wherewith we kissed in meeting that spring day,
   I scarce dare talk of the remember'd bliss,

   "When both our mouths went wandering in one way,
   And aching sorely, met among the leaves;
   Our hands being left behind strained far away.

   "Never within a yard of my bright sleeves
   Had Launcelot come before--and now so nigh!
   After that day why is it Guenevere grieves?" (11. 118-141)

It is important that this is the passage where Guenevere comes closest to describing the past as a comprehensible experience--an observation I will return to in a moment. However, noticeably, the dreamy strangeness of her earlier attempts at explication remains in the first half of the passage and here seems to turn into rather unabashed self-absorption. "If," she speculates, she had "dared to think" on her own beauty, then a whole sequence of emotions, thoughts, and events would have ensued. She would have looked up at her own hand against the sky and expected to be able to see through it up to the infinite blue, as blue as the angel's cloth, of the sky--but of course she does not see through her hand; instead, she looks right at it and sees a flat tableau of colors: she watches its darkened edges against the blue of the sky, next to the "yellow spotted singer" bird and the greenery of the garden around her, and even against the gold of her own hair. At this point in the description, Guenevere even demonstrates to her audience in the present what her hair would look like loose, which she says makes her "lose [her] head" even now to think of.

What are we to make of this passage and its somewhat absurd mode of lyrical narcissism? This, I believe, is where we do well to consider again the difference between, on the one hand, a three-dimensional, post-Renaissance image, relying on a fixed perspective, and on the other, a flat-plane, medieval picture in which the perspectival relationship between the image and the viewer remains undefined. In this passage, I argue, Guenevere is describing herself very much as part of the latter. The image she evokes is a composite image, like a stained-glass window or medieval tapestry, with neither foreground nor background. Rather than looking through her hand up into the sky, she imagines what would have happened if she had gazed at the outlines of the hand as it would look--"There, see you"--"round by the edges" against, or next to, the blue of the sky. The view of the hand and the sky would have been "joined" with the yellow and green of the bird "drawn upward by the sun," there finally seen with "loosed out, see now! all [her] hair." "Why there," Guenevere concludes, "I lose my head e'en now in doing this."

Guenevere thus positions herself, her body and her hair, to juxtapose, to "slot in" if you like, with the picture of the garden. It is a remarkably detailed image of an event that presumably did not happen, at least according to her initial assurance that she "dared not think" upon her beauty at all that day. It is also a picture that--if it takes place at all--happens both in the present of the Queen's defense and in the past of the "Spring day," as is evident from her demand that those who are watching inspect the image more closely ("There, see you") and her subsequent comment to her audience that she "e'en now" loses her head "doing this." She seamlessly moves from the past to the present, via the beauty of the image: her hair, had she set it loose to blow against the blue sky and the green and yellow birds of the garden. The picture, like the image of the red and blue choosing cloths, is hypothetical, but unlike the earlier image, it provides a starting point from which to describe something that actually did happen: "Came Launcelot walking; this is true, the kiss/Wherewith we kissed in meeting that spring day" (my italics). What is stopping her from continuing to give a more detailed account is no longer confusion and uncertainty but something closer to modesty: "I scarce dare talk of the remember'd bliss."

So what has changed--why can Guenevere now, with the help of a hypothetical image of herself and the garden, attempt to answer her questioners? What at first seems to be a moment of (even for Guenevere) excessive self-absorption is in fact a passage in which she urges her audience to consider her, even at her most intimate and introspective, as just one element of an image, rather than as a self-sufficient object of beauty on her own. The result is an image that consists of both viewer and viewed. (14) Guenevere even asks her audience/reader/viewer to "see you" and "see now" for ourselves, thereby enjoining us to form a part of the composite picture she creates. Past and present, foreground and background, the self and its surroundings (including its observers), have been slotted, like panes of glass, to fit alongside each other in a flat image. There has been a leveling of perspectives, where the past and the present, and the individual and the community, are proximate, rather than at fixed perspectival distances from each other. Rather than letting the past contrast with the present--to make a teaching lesson of history, for use in the present--Morris's impulse is to create a flat image, an example of what Norman Kelvin describes as "patterns in which time functions as simultaneity only": "Like Ruskin's, [Morris's] vision is moral-aesthetic. The aesthetic gives rise to the moral and governs it: the centrality of the aesthetic, finally, makes history for Morris a dialogue between the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century and causes the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century in his characteristic reference to be juxtaposed. They are cemented together like two forms in a mosaic, or like leaded panes in a medieval--or Morris & Co.-stained-glass window." (15) Examples of these sorts of patterns would be the sort of medievalist images of endlessly repeatable sequences of heraldic symbols that Morris went on to create, but a case can also be made to include the image that Guenevere evokes here, which is a composite evocation of beauty, refusing to privilege one object over another and consequently letting layers of time and vision be seen simultaneously. Here is a sharp contrast to the image the angel held out of the cloths toward the person on the deathbed, where the color blue was revealed to mean "Hell." The angel has been described as having "hands, / Held out two ways, light from the inner skies/Showing him well," which implies that his hands holding the wands are seen as foreground, silhouetted against the background of light from the "inner" skies (11. 29-31). Not only are we told what is foreground and what is background in the image, but the observer's point of view--in the bed--is clearly outlined, thereby fixing the perspectival distance between all actors of the image evoked. But in the garden vision, all is absorbed into one image, with no revelations of meaning hiding underneath a surface. Instead, all is surface.

To experience the self and the world--which must include the viewer of the image--as one composite picture is, as Isobel Armstrong points out, a Ruskinian notion of the artwork as a vehicle through which we can perceive our own relation to the past. According to Armstrong, "The Defence" is "an attempt to be the form in which modern consciousness shaped by work and labour sees, experiences and desires.... Its assumption is that a modern consciousness needs to imagine the past in this way, not that the past will be a tool for analysis." (16) Like Kelvin, Armstrong reads "The Defence" as a model of not only how to view the past but how to actually construct the reader's own relationship to the past. Asking the reader to imagine a composite image allows for Guenevere's past and present to exist simultaneously without being blurred or confused for each other--instead they exist alongside each other. At this stage of the poem, after Guenevere declares "this is true" of her kiss with Launcelot, she is more than capable of coherently distinguishing events from nonevents and the past from the present: "Never" had Launcelot been so close to her "before," and "now, so nigh!" Morris by no means wishes the historical distance between past and present to be erased, but his text does attempt to evoke an image of the past as it looks without a fixed line of perspective between the viewer and the viewed.

Frederick Kirchhoff argues that Morris's discomfort with three-dimensional representation, and his preference for medieval artwork that tends to present a level, composite image, is due to an abhorrence of investing any single image with "excessive personal significance." Kirchhoff suggests that Morris, for political and aesthetic reasons (which, to Morris, of course were indistinguishable), considers a focus on one aspect of an image, or even just one single image, to be an unhealthy worship of an individual entity, a "fixation" that "withdraws [one] from participation in history." However, the evocation of a flat plane image where the lines of perspectives between the creator, the artwork, and the viewer are not fixed can also lead to a rather inhuman, or machine-like, position for both the creator and the viewer to inhabit. Morris's solution, according to Kirchhoff, is a "process of socialization." (17) Morris's reader is thus called on to evoke not just an image of the past but a highly particular form of image--a composite, perspectiveless picture--in order that a process of "socialization" or, perhaps rather, a shared aesthetic experience be made possible. I would argue that Morris's early poetry goes even further than this: more than making possible a process of "socialization," Morris consistently evokes images that allow for no individual "viewpoint" at all. The reader must participate not just as a coconstructor of the past but also as a composite part of that image of the past, thereby participating also in re-creating the collaborative and nonindividuated medieval mind-set that Morris's poetry seeks to evoke. The leveling between past and present, and between viewer and viewed, is thus ethical as well as aesthetic.

The last stanzas of "The Defence of Guenevere" continue to struggle with, and echo, the polarity that the two scenes--the scene of the choosing cloths and the scene of the Queen and the garden--have set up: the polarity between a lone viewer stuck in a fixed perspectival relationship to the past and a viewer newly capable of viewing him- or herself as part of a larger tapestry of past and present, in which both viewer and viewed exist together on the same plane, in a leveled relationship. Just after Guenevere's confession of the kiss in the garden comes--famously and puzzlingly--the second of her three assertions that "Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie" (11. 46, 142, 283), continuing, "Whatever may have happened through these years,/God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie" (11. 47-48). In between the latter two identical stanzas, Guenevere recalls a formidable catalogue of brave deeds by Gauwaine and the other knights that differ either partly or significantly from Malory and other medieval source texts; she recalls several times in the past in which she was falsely accused and several ways in which her audience should consider her innocent in her relation to Launcelot. She reminds Gauwaine sternly of his mother's death by his brother's hand and then abruptly recalls that there was a time when she had to defend the appearance of blood on her bedsheets:
   This Mellyagraunce saw blood upon my bed--
   Whose blood then pray you? is there any law

   "To make a queen say why some spots of red
   Lie on her coverlet? or will you say,
   'Your hands are white, lady, as when you wed,

   "'Where did you bleed?' and I must stammer out--'Nay,
   I blush indeed, fair lord, only to rend
   My sleeve up to my shoulder, where there lay

   "'A knife-point last night:' so must I defend
   The honour of the lady Guenevere?" (11. 173-182)

In Malory's version, the blood is Launcelot's, but since the accusation against Guenevere involves her with sleeping with another whole set of wounded knights who attended her in her chamber, she remains innocent of the specifics of the charge. As with the choosing cloths, here Guenevere presents a contrast between two colors, red and white, as the measure by which we are to obtain truth about what happened in the past. But, for the second time, it becomes clear that the naming of the colors cannot help to determine the truth of the situation (though this time they would appear to be of much stronger evidentiary value). Rightly or wrongly, Guenevere again insists that the ethical dilemma does not reside in the difficulty of determining "what really happened"; the dilemma is not whether she is guilty or innocent. It is clear enough that she is innocent of the charge at hand but--if we believe in Malory's and most other versions--is guilty of receiving Launcelot in her chamber. Instead, the familiar connotations of the contrast between red and white--lust versus chastity, guilt versus innocence-direct her audience away from asking "what happened?" and toward asking something along the lines of "what was the experience?" In the same breath, Guenevere asks her accusers, "What will you do with my experience?"

Not long after, there is an answer, of sorts. Guenevere goes on to recall how Launcelot fought with the knight Mellyagraunce to free her from captivity and death by bonfire and conquered him. She suggests that Launcelot's victory then was a sign from God:
   "Therefore, my lords, take heed lest you be blent

   "With all this wickedness; say no rash word
   Against me, being so beautiful; my eyes,
   Wept all away to grey, may bring some sword

   "To drown you in your blood; see my breast rise,
   Like waves of purple sea, as here I stand;
   And how my arms are moved in wonderful wise,

   "Yea also at my full heart's strong command,
   See through my long throat how the words go up
   In ripples to my mouth; how in my hand

   "The shadow lies like wine within a cup
   Of marvellously colour'd gold; yea now
   This little wind is rising, look you up,

   "And wonder how the light is falling so
   Within my moving tresses: will you dare,
   When you have looked a little on my brow,

   "To say this thing is vile?" (11. 222-238)

As in the hypothetical scene of the garden, Guenevere seems to fall into a narcissistic meditation on her own beauty, describing at length the visual tableau she is currently presenting to her observers. Margaret A. Lourie reads the passage as Morris's celebration of the medieval idea that "beauty manifests the mind of God and is hence intrinsically virtuous" (Morris, Defence, p. 186n241). Though the text certainly allows for that reading, I would suggest that the attention to Guenevere's beauty is of such a particular kind that we would also do well to remember--and contrast this with--the earlier scene in which Guenevere portrays herself as one part of a larger image. In the garden scene, she urges those who are looking at her to see what she is/was seeing, to look at how the beauties of the colors of nature intersect with the gold of her hair and the outlines of her hand, to form a picture so moving that it makes Guenevere herself tremble. The current image also describes each part of her appearance, one by one, but the stanzas resonate in a very different register. All Guenevere's calls to "look" are drawing attention to action and movement of some kind: her gray eyes threaten to become a sea of blood once they attract a sword to slay the erring knights; from that "purple sea," which is also Guenevere's breast, she rises and watches her arms move, also in a wave motion--a motion that continues upward through her "long throat," where finally even Guenevere's words are visible to the eye as corporeal manifestations. What is normally invisible can suddenly be seen: words traveling inside her throat, the wind, shadows. Her hands are not just part of the sea but are also a cup "Of marvellously colour'd gold," which must of course remind this audience of the Grail. The movement continues upward, a "little wind rising" that brings us back to her hair, which this time is moving to mingle with light to make an image for the audience.

Here is another evocation of perspectiveless medieval art to echo the crucial scene in the garden--though the tone, through its urgency, is different. Just as the blood-red and white of Guenevere's bed recalls the earlier passage of the choosing cloths, these stanzas reverberate with the possibilities the poem has set up in the image of Guenevere in the garden. The scope here is more ambitious--the image of Guenevere transforms to become part not just of a garden scene but of the entire world, which in turn transforms into parts of her body--but the purpose, I suggest, is the same. At one level, we are presented with an image of extraordinary--indeed supernatural--specificity and detail: Guenevere insists that we see the words she forms "through" her throat and observe the light as it falls within her "moving tresses." At the same time, the movements are broad, like the sea and winds, implying that the image of Guenevere's body can be a larger, overwhelming presence almost "filling up" the world. Again, as the reader is called on to evoke the scene as an image, we are left without a fixed perspective, moving within one thought from very near to very far. If the image, the visual experience that the reader is asked to imagine and respond to, tries to evoke a flat surface, without a fixed perspective, it becomes more difficult for the viewer to imagine where we are in relation to it. We can thus get a sense of historical distance, of the time passed between past and present, from the image without locating ourselves at a fixed spatial remove from the image.

Though temporally we sense the distance, the spatial distance is indeterminable: we can move our eyes over the whole image, unsure of where it ends and begins; and depending on what the image is, we get a different sense of historical distance, but still we cannot fix a spatial, or visual, distance. Because the pattern-style image, without perspective, does not determine its edges, it is possible to imagine an image that is everywhere, thus allowing us to feel as if the experience is around us, right next to us or even inside us--but the experience still depends on maintaining the sense of the past that the tightrope of historical distance sets up. Once more, the effect Morris creates is that of a nonindividuated picture, with no clear borders or spatial distances between the viewer and the viewed.

The poem returns, in its last but four stanzas, to echo ironically Guenevere's initial caution that "it seems but little skill/To talk of well-known things past now and dead."
   "My maids were all about me, and my head
   On Launcelot's breast was being soothed away
   From its white chattering, until Launcelot said--

   "By God! I will not tell you more to-day,
   Judge any way you will--what matters it?
   You know quite well the story of that fray,

   "How Launcelot still'd their bawling, the mad fit
   That caught up Gauwaine--all, all, verily,
   But just that which would save me; these things flit." (11.

What matters is not what happened or how we judge the past, "these things" that only "flit." The effect is to push the reader out, to remind us that we are at a historical remove from whatever happened, a past that can never regain its immediacy and therefore its evidentiary value. Through the remainder of the poem, the reader is again relegated to the outside: we are told that Guenevere refuses to speak any more and that probably she is silent because she can hear Launcelot riding in to save her:
   Her cheek grew crimson, as the headlong speed
   Of the roan charger drew all men to see,
   The knight who came was Launcelot at good need. (11. 293-295)

Those readers who find this ending surprisingly sudden are not alone. Reinforcing the redundancy of Guenevere's elaborately structured defense as simple prevarication, the final stanza appears to leave the readers, who have already been rejected from the past by Guenevere's dismissal of the things that flit ("what matters it?"), at a loss and abruptly alone. We, as readers, end as we began, by peering at the mystery of Guenevere and her past from the outside, mediated only in the first and last few stanzas through an unknown observer, or narrator, of the Queen's trial. It may feel like a rude awakening, but I suggest that the effect is crucial to a reading of the poem that is to introduce a reader to Morris's sense of the past in The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems. The text's incompleteness as it stands on its own must be filled in with visual detail supplied by the reader's ability to help, and participate, in evoking images of the past.

This essay has highlighted two aspects of William Morris's poetry that are particularly prominent in "The Defence of Guenevere." First, I have pointed to Morris's constant reminders of the fact of historical distance, a historical distance that paradoxically serves as a way for the reader to relate to, and connect with, the past of the text. Second, I have pointed to the ethical value of a perspectiveless, continuous surface as a way of encouraging a particular kind of collaborative engagement between the reader and the text. When understood together, I argue that these features show that Morris's early poetry makes use of its seemingly narrow range of images and scenes in order to offer to the reader an experience of a broadly collaborative and even collective engagement with the past. "The Defence of Guenevere" shows us that when the poem is read as an image, it has the potential to become a collaboration between the reader and the text, wherein the past is not used to mirror, or make sense of, the present but is in itself created as a decorative surface, outlining the ethical stakes of Morris's insistence of the value of arts such as tapestry making and wallpaper design. The model presented in the symbolic allegories of red and blue and of red and white is rejected, in favor of an image in which historical distance is crucial, but perspective remains unfixed and undetermined.


(1) "Unsigned Review, Saturday Review" (November 20, 1858), in William Morris: The Critical Heritage, ed. Peter Faulkner (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973), p. 45.

(2) Drawing, at least initially, heavily on John Ruskin's work, Morris explicitly describes a crucial relationship between art and political action in his prose works. See, for example, the essays "Art and Socialism" (1884) and "The Lesser Arts" (1877) in The Collected Works of William Morris, 1st ed., vol. 23. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), pp. 192-214, Cambridge Library Collection, /10.1017/CB09781139343152.013; and vol. 22, pp. 3-27, /CB09781139343145.003. As a nineteenth-century socialist, his continuing emphasis on the arts as a tool--and even a goal--of political, revolutionary change was unusual, perhaps even unique. For a clear discussion of the differences between Morris and the burgeoning British socialist movement in this regard, see Norman Kelvin, introduction to William Morris on Art and Socialism (New York: Dover, 1999), pp. xiii--xvi.

(3) See, for instance, Isobel Armstrong, "Meter and Meaning," in Meter Matters: Verse Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century, ed. Jason David Hall (Athens: Ohio Univ. Press, 2011), pp. 26-52. Though the focus of my essay is very different, I am joining recent efforts in poetry criticism and poetics in drawing attention to the workings of a poem as a "process" or "experience" that requires a collaboration between the poem and the reader, thus speculating as to what actually happens in the "real time" of reading.

(4) References to William Morris's poetry are drawn from The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems, ed. Margaret A. Lourie (New York: Garland, 1981).

(5) I am grateful to Susan Crane for pointing out to me that the Middle English use of the word skill typically denotes a "reason" or "power of discrimination" as a "faculty of the mind," which adds an interesting resonance to the phrase. See the OED, s.v. "skill," from which I have quoted the medieval definition, for a full etymology of the word.

(6) Constance W. Hassett, "The Style of Evasion: William Morris's The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems," VP 29, no. 2 (1991): 107.

(7) Karen Herbert, "Dissident Language in The Defence of Guenevere," VP 34, no. 3 (1996): 317.

(8) See, for example, James Carley, '"Heaven's Colour, the Blue': Guenevere and the Choosing Cloths Re-read," Journal of William Morris Studies 9, no. 1 (1990): 20-22; and Hassett, "Style of Evasion," pp. 99-114, particularly pp. 104-105. There appeared a (surprisingly large) number of articles in Victorian Poetry throughout the 1970s that used the parable of the choosing cloths as a site at which to debate the question of Guenevere's guilt or innocence, the most frequently cited being Dennis R. Balch, "Guenevere's Fidelity to Arthur in 'The Defence of Guenevere' and 'King Arthur's Tomb,"' VP 13, nos. 3-4 (1975): 61-70; and Jonathan F. S. Post, "Guenevere's Critical Performance," VP 17, no. 4 (1979): 317-327. Though these articles vary in their verdict, they all consider the question of Guinevere's guilt or innocence to be central to the poem's concerns and also view the choosing cloths as the central expression of that concern.

(9) Ellen W. Sternberg, "Verbal and Visual Seduction in 'The Defence of Guenevere,"' Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 6, no. 2 (1986): 46.

(10) Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Poetry and the Pre-Raphaelite Arts: Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2008). Many critics, most recently Helsinger, have remarked on the extraordinary use of color words in Morris's poetry. She notes that it is the relationship between colors, rather than the significance of individual colors, that may be of most use to Morris, particularly in his early poetry: she emphasizes "color's conceptual possibilities, where patterns of color ... suggest the possibility of an analogous method of encoding and ordering conceptual content (particularly that of spatial and temporal relationships)" (p. 37). Helsinger does not comment on the status of color words as particularly problematic language constructs, but her emphasis on "patterns" and color relationships that can form new ways of encoding meaning certainly suggests how difficult it is to extract meaning from any single instance of color. Her concept of "lyric color" in "The Defence" in particular hinges on the poem's temporal evocation of the present through the past: "[Lyric color] evokes aesthetic completion while suggesting, criticizing and suffering the incompleteness of modern life" (p. 80). Though 1 do not have space here to develop a more complete response to this idea, I would suggest that the incompleteness of the poetry is not that of "modern life" in general; rather, it is in and of the poems themselves. The poems develop an aesthetic of incompleteness as a way to engage the reader in acting as a viewer, thereby helping the text construct its images of the past. Also see Walter Pater, "Poems by William Morris (1868)," in Pre-Raphaelitism: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. James Sambrook (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1974), pp. 105-117. Of Morris's contemporaries, Pater defines a crucial aspect of the kind of visual experience that color words provide in Morris's poetry: "A passion of which the outlets are sealed, begets a tension of nerve, in which the sensible world comes to one with a reinforced brilliance and relief--all redness is turned into blood, all water into tears" (p. 108). The "passion" of the past is helplessly self-contained and thus "sealed" off, but that inaccessibility in itself produces a "tension" in our imaginative scope that makes the world and our senses--described by Pater as indistinguishable from each other, sim ply as "the sensible world"--come to us with "reinforced brilliance and relief." The image, when it returns, has more light, as well as sharper outlines. The result is that the "redness" is turned to a physical, possibly frightening, substance, and "water" transforms into a liquid with equally strong emotional connotations. It does not seem a big step from Pater's account to the red and blue of the choosing cloths. Pater is here describing the "delirium" of the "Blue Closet," the beauty of which he sees as "reserved perhaps for the enjoyment of the few" (p. 107).

(11) Megan Ward, "William Morris's Conditional Moment," Romanticism and Victorianism on the Net, no. 53 (February 2009), doi:10.7202/029900ar.

(12) William Morris, "Some Hints on Pattern-Designing," in News from Nowhere and Other Writings, ed. Clive Wilmer (London: Penguin Books, 1993), pp. 271, 257.

(13) Josephine Koster Tarvers, " 'The Deep Still Land of Colours': Color Imagery in The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems," Studies in Philology 84, no. 2 (1987): 180-193. In Tarvers's article on the use of color in The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, she considers the heraldic, as well as liturgical, medieval languages of color that Morris was well versed in by the time that he published his first book of poems. Her discussion shows that in both symbolic "alphabets," the colors red and blue are attached to so many and contradictory meanings that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine a single connotation such as "Heaven" or "Hell" for either color without immediately coming across an example of the opposite connotation.

(14) In the influential Dreaming by the Book (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999), Elaine Scarry outlines a similar idea of how text evokes the visual in the reader's mind: she describes a superposition of sorts, where one flat plane moves over or across the other (see in particular "Part One: Making Pictures"). While this is a fascinating and fruitful idea for a more general study of image-text relations, I do not think it applies to Morris's highly specific medieval aesthetic of juxtaposition. In this regard, "The Defence of Guenevere" provides an interesting comparison to D. G. Rossetti's "The Blessed Damozel" (1847), a poem that is often referred to as a strong influence on Morris's volume as a whole. Though the two poems are similar in that they are interested in evoking a medieval image, where there is an absence of fixed perspective, "The Blessed Damozel" never takes the potentially radical step of allowing what the Damozel views and herself as viewed to come together as one image--a step only possible when the images are juxtaposed, rather than superimposed on top of each other. See Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "The Blessed Damozel" in Collected Poetry and Prose, ed. Jerome McGann (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 3-6.

(15) Norman Kelvin, "Patterns in Time: The Decorative and the Narrative in the Work of William Morris," in Nineteenth-Century Lives: Essays Presented to Jerome Hamilton Buckley, ed. Laurence S. Lockridge, John Maynard, and Donald D. Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), pp. 143, 161-162.

(16) Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 236.

(17) Frederick Kirchhoff, "Terrors of the Third Dimension: William Morris and the Limits of Representation," Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies 1, no. 1 (1987): 80. See also Andrea Wolk Rager, " 'Smite This Sleeping World Awake': Edward Burne-Jones and The Legend of the Briar Rose," Victorian Studies 51, no. 3 (2009): 438-450, for examples of Burne-Jones's medievalist art composed the same year as "The Defence" was published. Rager makes a similar point about the art of the pre-Raphaelites in general and about the influence of Morris's insistence on the social dimension of their art in particular, as she analyses Edward Burne-Jones's 1880s series of paintings commonly referred to as the Briar Rose panels: "The paintings take on the quality of a tapestry, tied together ... by the minute realization of each equally privileged fictive material ... rendering its very surface a declaration of egalitarianism and fellowship" (p. 448). Rager argues that Morris through his poetry inspired his closest friend, Burne-Jones (even though they differed on political methods), not only to infuse his decorative art with social import but even to treat the creation of decorative art itself as a politically significant act.
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Author:Lindskog, Katja
Publication:Victorian Poetry
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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