In his poem "The Blue Closet" William Morris complexly blends dialogue with separate narrative-songs to confront the divides between interior worlds and exterior worlds. While the verbal exchange and repeating refrains of the first two stanzas immediately emphasize nuanced patterns of vocal sounds, they moreover foil each other for symbolic development. By interspersing slightly altered versions of the same refrain throughout the entire poem, Morris creates an antiphony wherein the symbolism of nonhuman voices-the bells, the wind, the sea-extracts itself only out of the human voices of the four women.

Through the floor shot up a lily red,
With a patch of earth from the land of the dead;
For he was strong in the land of the dead . . .

And ever the great bell overhead,
And the tumbling seas mourn'd for the dead;
For their song ceased, and they were dead.

The first refrain above, a direct response to Lady Louise's prayers, shows the evolution of an overarching consciousness wherein neither group of voices is fully independent but rather semi-dependent upon one another; this evolution between these two choirs, both interacting with the other's action or stasis, proves crucial for Morris in dramatizing the confined, conditional human psyche within an open universe. Beyond signifying her beloved's death, the lily, a common burial-flower representing resurrection and life, along with the color red, representing blood and love, here acts both violently and climatically for Lady Louise, who is saved not because she will enter heaven but because she returns to the natural world again. Yet the second refrain above, also the final stanza of the poem, synthesizes a paradoxical envoi of all the repeated images that, however final, continues echoing ("And ever") even after this apparently happy ending to an apparently happy song.

Lady Alice.

Alice the Queen, and Louise the Queen,
Two damozels wearing purple and green,
Four lone ladies dwelling here
From day to day and year to year;
And there is none to let us go;
To break the locks of the doors below,
Or shovel away the heaped-up snow;
And when we die no man will know
That we are dead; but they give us leave,
Once every year on Christmas-eve,
To sing in the Closet Blue one song;
And we should be so long, so long,
If we dared, in singing; for dream on dream.
They float on in a happy stream;
Float from the gold strings, float from the keys,
Float from the open'd lips of Louise;
But, alas! the sea-salt oozes through
The chinks of the tiles of the Closet Blue;
And ever the great bell overhead
Booms in the wind a knell for the dead,
The wind plays on it a knell for the dead.

[They sing all together.]

Although the poem begins dialogically with its first two stanzas, Lady Alice's entrance completely changes what we thought to be the poet's intentions: We find here that the dialogue, rather than being actual conversation between individual characters, most likely represents different personas of one woman alone, for Lady Alice's words resemble much more a monologue and hardly a reaction to Lady Louise or to the damozels. Before the monologue can actually lend reality to the given circumstance, Morris needed to realistically set the stage: Not only do these multiple voices heighten the claustrophobia of the space and, therefore, help externalize the parallels between the blue closet and the sea, they also add a greater human factor (as each woman is evidence for the other: "Four lone ladies dwelling here," "And when we die no man will know / That we are dead," and "And we should be so long, so long, / If we dared, in singing") to an otherwise flat psychological expression.

Questions

1. As in "Two Red Roses Across the Moon" this poem often uses color in its detailed descriptions ("Two damozels wearing purple and green," "White shoulders and bare," "The long scarlet scarf," and "The happy golden land"). To what effect does Morris place such value on sight ("O, sisters, cross the bridge with me, / My eyes are full of sand. / What matter that I cannot see, / If ye take me by the hand")? Compare his focus here on visual qualities like color with his textile work.

2. A year before "The Blue Closet" was published, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's completed a watercolor of the same name, which depicts images very similar to those in the poem With this specific parallel in mind, and knowing that Morris begins the poem in medias res, what conclusions can we make about the varying levels through which Time can or must be negotiated depending on the medium (poetry versus visual art)?

3. Was the employment of dialogue the best technique for conveying the dynamics, the interplay of meanings, and the unitary perspectives of this story? After all, the couplets narrate a very detailed story between a woman and her lover from a very intimate perspective. What would the poem have lacked or gained if Morris presented this poem much more directly as a monologue, like Robert Browning's "Porphyria's Lover" or "My Last Duchess"?

4. Is the constantly changing stanzaic structure of the poem extremely important in helping Morris say what he's trying to say? Besides signifying the end of one chapter or period in time and the beginning of another, in what ways does the structure mirror the poem's action? Are the specifics sometimes more arbitrary?

5. To what effect does Morris have Lady Alice speak aloud the refrain at the end of her monologue?


Victorian Web Overview Visual Arts William Morris Discussion questions for William Morris

Last modified 1 April 2008