Pre-Raphaelite, poet, manufacturer, designer, decorator, medievalist, socialist, artist, fantasist. William Morris was all of the above and most importantly, to the last, a Pre-Raphaelite. Although Morris only created one painting, Queen Guinevere in 1858, he was closely associated with later Pre-Raphaelitism, espousing Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics and values in his poetry, textile and furniture designs, stained-glass and tapestries. Indeed, Christopher Wood hailed Morris's greatest contribution to Pre-Raphaelitism in the founding and productions of Morris & Co. (Wood 112). Despite the failure of the firm to realize its ideals of bringing beauty into every Victorian household and in spite of the relentless nineteenth-century march towards modernization and Morris's later Marxist socialist sympathies, Morris remained very much a Pre-Raphaelite at heart. Indeed, written at the end of his life and published posthumously, The Water of the Wondrous Isles brims with Pre-Raphaelite associations and ideas.
At the same time, The Water of the Wondrous Isles extends the Pre-Raphaelite project beyond its original focus in painting and poetry and into the realm of literary fantasy. The pseudo-medieval setting and attention to temporal and spatial detail echo the romantic realism of Pre-Raphaelite work. In fact, the narrative framework for The Water of the Wondrous Isles marks Morris's return to revision of "Golden Wings," a poem that appeared in the 1858 The Defense of Guenevere and other Poems. In The Water of the Wondrous Isles, Morris continues the Pre-Raphaelite exploration of the femme fatale and the fated contemplative woman in the body of the female protagonist, Birdalone, who struggles to reconcile her powerful sexuality within the fabric of society and companionship. The triumphant conclusion of Birdalone's Quest and the rest of the fellowship's lives in Utterhay at the border of Faery, deviates finally from the Pre-Raphaelite convention of elegiac love and tragedy. Unlike Jehane or other Pre-Raphaelite medieval ladies, Birdalone reconciles her threatening sexuality by redefining the boundaries of human convention and emerges literally and physically sublime. The Water of the Wondrous Isles transcends both normal social conventions and the bounds of Pre-Raphaelitism to explore and illuminate the divide between truth and fantasy and uncovering truth through fantasy.
Last modified 23 December 2006