illiam Morris sketches a somber, gray picture of vengeance in "Shameful Death." The speaker, now an older man, begins by describing the moment around which his brother's death and the speaker's revolve to have vengeance. This haunting scene in the opening stanza freezes in time the family's grim acceptance, the bride's anguish, and the open eyes of the dead man, all results of a cowardly murder and causes of the speaker's later actions. From here, Morris builds snapshot upon snapshot of the events that end in his brother's death. Morris systematically answers when, how, where, and who with each succeeding stanza, culminating in "Hung brave Lord Hugh at last." Morris defines Sir Hugh's death by what it is not, disappointing any expectations for a glorious and heroic death:
He did not die in the night,
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.
The attackers outnumber Sir Hugh and they sneak up behind him, robbing him of any defense or chance for an honorable fight. The description of the scene reflects the snuffing out of Sir Hugh's life. The murderers hide in the hazy light between night and day, among the grey trees, allowing them to kill the unsuspecting knight. His death fades into a grey background, with no clear time or place, for they do not even afford him a definitive blow, just a passive, helpless death in his hanging. The grayness of this in-between time and place leaves Sir Hugh with no final action or word to show himself a "good knight and true."
Morris connects the imagery and details of the speaker's vengeance with those of Sir Hugh's death, lending the speaker's actions poetic justice. Threescore and ten knights overtake Sir Hugh, and though he dies, his brother kills Sir John and Guy of the Dolorous Blast, and he lives to be threescore and ten. Even these stanzas are predominantly gray; the speaker's hair is grey, the sky was overcast, and there is smoke over the fen. In this parallelism, Morris shows that the speaker has evened the score.
1. What is the tone of the poem? Does the tone change when relating the deaths of Sir John and Guy?
2. The title is "Shameful Death," not "A Shameful Death." What implications, if any, does this have on Morris's portrayal of Sir Hugh's death and the deaths of his murderers? Could there be more than one shameful death, and if so, how does Morris suggest it in the poem?
3. What effect does the final stanza, shorter and with a different rhyming scheme, have on the poem and our perception of the speaker?
4. What does Morris reveal about the medieval past through this poem?
- Tragedy and Vengeance in William Morris's "Shameful Death"
- Simplicity and the Unsentimental in "Shameful Death"
Last modified 9 November 2004