illiam Morris's "The Defence of Guenevere" both reproduces and transforms its medieval sources. The poem depicts a scene from medieval Arthurian romance: Sir Gauwaine has just accused Arthur's queen, Guenevere of adultery with Sir Launcelot, and she makes a speech in her defense as she waits for Launcelot to rescue her. This episode appears to derive from Sir Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, although Morris omits essential details of the situation, such as Gauwaine's specific accusation and the events following Launcelot's appearance, which would allow us to determine his precise source. However, by referring to other episodes such as Guenevere's imprisonment by Sir Mellyagraunce and the death of Gawain's mother, Morris clearly situates the poem within Malory's world of medieval chivalry. The poem's medievalism appears in its form as well as in its content. Guenevere speaks in archaic language which somewhat resembles that of Malory, using archaic terms and sentence constructions:
And afterwards she liveth hatefully,
Slaying and poisoning, certes never weeps, —
Gauwaine be friends now, speak me lovingly.
Similarly, Morris employs the terza rima scheme of three-line stanzas with a rhyme scheme of ABA, BCB, CDC, and so on, a stanza form most commonly associated with the Divine Comedy of the medieval poet Dante.
However, a closer analysis reveals the essential modernity of this poem. "The Defence of Guenevere" resembles a dramatic monologue, a form invented in the Victorian era, but also makes innovations on that form. Unlike Browning's archetypal dramatic monologues, "The Defence of Guenevere" does not consist entirely of words spoken by its protagonist. It also features a second speaker (in lines 1-10, 49-60 and 287-295) who provides the context for Guenevere's speech:
"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. . . "
This additional speaker provides an external and seemingly objective perspective on the monologue, describing Guenevere's appearance as she begins to speak and conjecturing as to her state of mind. Thus the reader has more to go on than Guenevere's presumably biased views. Furthermore, Morris's psychological insights display none of the naivete of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's early medievalist works. Passages such as Guenevere's metaphor of the two cloths provide highly sophisticated insights into the narrator's psyche.
1. Does either the medieval or the modern outlook dominate this poem? In other words, can we categorize it as either a medieval or a modern poem, or is it both in equal parts?
2. Does this poem represent a step forward or a regression in the development of the dramatic monologue? How does the addition of a second speaker alter the intended aesthetic effect of the dramatic monologue?
3. Morris alters his source material at least once during the poem, when Guenevere mentions Agravaine's killing of his and Gawain's mutual mother: "her head sever'd in that awful drouth / Of pity that drew Agravaine's fell blow." Malory states that another of Gawaine's brothers, Gaheris, committed this murder, not Agravaine himself. Similarly, Morris states in "King Arthur's Tomb" that Launcelot killed the Roman Emperor Lucius, whereas Malory credits Arthur himself with this feat. Do these alterations merely represent carelessness on Morris's part, or do they have a deeper significance? Does Morris depart from his medieval sources in larger ways?
Last modified 9 November 2004