- Wandering between Ten Worlds: Morris’s Guenevere Poems and the Failure of Discourse
In “The Defence of Guenevere” and “King Arthur’s Tomb,” the opening poems of William Morris’s 1858 volume The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems, Morris shows through the tragic relationship of Guenevere and Launcelot how discourse systems limit the ways we can experience our lives. By representing the conceptual struggles of Guenevere and Launcelot, whose needs, natures, and experiences greatly exceed their systems’ ability to define and categorize, Morris critiques not only the conceptual systems available during his own time but the very possibility of achieving satisfying truth or transcendence. In these early poems, conflicting conceptual systems, each of which claims full interpretive authority, plague the lovers with irreconcilable contradictions and create a kind of cognitive dissonance that threatens their self-understanding and even their sanity. Launcelot and Guenevere attempt several strategies for bridging the gap between language and reality, but ultimately both succumb to the unyielding constraints of language and convention.
Morris wrote these poems during his heady years at Oxford, under the powerful influence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the coterie of artists he had assembled, some of whom constituted the poems’ first audience. Morris himself certainly felt the tangle of conflicting systems during this time; in Carole Silver’s words, Morris had “a mind itself divided.”1 New associations and ideas led Morris to shift his long-term life plans several times between 1852 and 1857 as he threw himself wholeheartedly into one conceptual stream after another. His evangelical family intended him for the Anglican priesthood. Under the influence of Oxford Anglo-Catholics, Morris seriously considered converting to Catholicism. He and his new bosom friend, Edward Burne-Jones, briefly planned to found a religious order through which they could practice their spiritual ideals (including celibacy) while serving the poor in London slums. [End Page 517] In 1855, while touring northern France with Burne-Jones, Morris abandoned his interest in religion as a profession and committed himself to art, beginning with architecture and later, under Rossetti’s influence, switching to painting. He also met Jane Burden, whom he married in 1859. Morris dabbled in Christian socialism, was dazzled by a wide variety of books (including Malory’s Le Morte Darthur), and wrote stories and poems for The Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, which he financed and edited.2 Like many of his contemporaries, Morris heard a cacophony of conceptual sirens and had not yet decided which seductive voice to follow. Unsurprisingly, the stories and poems he wrote at this time reflect his rapidly shifting and sometimes inconsistent perspectives regarding such issues as religion, beauty, art, love, sexuality, marriage, and loyalty.
The conceptual richness of Morris’s Guenevere poems leaves plenty of room for critical disagreement. Modern critics have offered interesting and insightful perspectives every bit as contradictory as those of Guenevere and Launcelot. Most of the discussion has concerned “The Defence of Guenevere,” with “King Arthur’s Tomb” sometimes added as a working out of ideas begun in the first poem. Virtually everyone admires the queen’s spunk in “The Defence,” though for different reasons. Much of the conflict concerns which, if any, of Guenevere’s sometimes contradictory and apparently self-undermining justifications represents her—and Morris’s—real beliefs.
Some critics focus on Guenevere’s apparent inconsistencies—including her paradoxical attempt to prove her innocence by all but admitting adultery with Launcelot—as the unselfconscious gushing of a passionate woman in a desperate situation.3 Others debate Guenevere’s guilt or innocence and to what extent Morris approved her self-justifications.4 Some see Guenevere’s entire speech as an insincere rhetorical performance, intended either to convince her judges by whatever means she can invent or simply to keep them from executing her before Launcelot can rescue her.5 Launcelot in “King Arthur’s Tomb” also receives diverse critical readings, ranging from straight-out admiration to Robert L. Stallman’s assertion that he is simply “thick-headed.”6
Many critics have taken one of Guenevere’s lines of argument—Stallman identifies seven—and simply privileged it. For example, Virginia S. Hale and Catherine Barnes Stevenson use Malory to assert...