In "Shameful Death," William Morris's uses the speaker's simple language and straightforward imagery to dispel any presumption readers might have had about the medieval death of "A good knight and a true" (line 45). Morris gives us an image of the dead knight that is far from noble or honorable. Instead, he says only "We were quite sure that he was dead, / Though his eyes were open wide" (lines 5-6). The speaker sets the scene with a motionless setting that characterizes "brave Lord Hugh's" death (line 30) as empty of any knightly glory or brilliance.
He did not die in the night,
He did not die in the day
But in the morning of twilight
His spirit pass'd away
When neither sun nor moon was bright,
And the trees were merely grey.[lines 7-12]
By placing his brother's death at twilight, the speaker suggests that the death was somehow unremarkable; he didn't die in the full glory of the sun or under the shining stars. Rather, he died
In a place where the hornbeams grow,
A path right hard to find,
For the hornbeam boughs swing so,
That the twilight makes it blind. [lines 21-24]
They took his brother's life in a dark and shadowy forest corner, rather than any in overt setting where the renown of history or society could have remarked upon its passing. In stark and severe language, the speaker describes how he "cut away the cord / from the neck of my brother dear" (lines 17-18), giving us an image devoid of flowery language and painful in its severity. The speaker repeatedly draws attention to his brother's lack of opportunity for action; his murderers forced him to die obscurely and unremarkably. His brother "spoke he never a word,"(line 15) and "did not strike one blow, /For the recreants came behind" (lines 19-20). The speaker, finding satisfaction in his own actions, contrasts his brother's absent action with his own revengeful deeds towards Sir John the knight of the Fen and Sir Guy of the Dolorous Blast: "And am glad to think of the moment when / I took his life away" (lines 35-36). However, the speaker deglorifies even his own action, remarking twice that he is "threescore and ten" (line 31 and 37), that his "hair is all turn'd grey" (line 32), and that all his "strength is mostly pass'd" (line 38).
The poem ends with a summons to "knights all of you, / I pray you pray for Sir Hugh"(lines 4-5) and almost as an afterthought adds, "And for Alice, his wife, pray too" (line 46). With this last phrase, the speaker briefly alludes to the suffering and grief of Sir Hugh's wife. As in the rest of the poem, he uses only minimalist language to discuss human emotion, avoiding sentimental or romantic impositions on what he takes as a shameful and bleak, and also simplified, theme of untypical and unglorified death.
1. What in the poem sets it in medieval times? Could Morris have made the same point without the historical setting; could he have written "Shameful Death" set in contemporary times?
2. How would you describe the tone of this poem? Sorrowful? Sincere? Sarcastic?
3. Where else have we encountered twilight in PRB paintings or poems? Does the meaning added by the use of twilight hold across these works, or does it change?
4. Do Sir John the knight of the Fen and Sir Guy of the Dolorous Blast appear in medieval legends or did Morris create these characters from his imagination? Does the answer to this question have any bearing on your interpretation of the poem?
Last modified 7 November 2004