n William Morris' "Shameful Death", the narrator recalls the death of his brother. Common to many poems of Morris, including his "Haystack in the Floods," the details of the narrative emerge slowly over several stanzas; the first stanza here only reveals that he and his three companions bury a man. He then tells that the man died in the twilight, a grey time with a minimum of color and light. The reader then understands that the narrator speaks of his brother who has been hanged with the lines "I cut away the cord/From the neck of my brother dear" (17-18), and that his death was not a noble one by way of the sword or other appropriate means. His enemies Sir John and Sir Guy came from behind him by way of a hidden path and captured him before he had the chance to "strike one blow" (19). Once he relates the tale, the narrator returns to the present to mark the lengthy passage of time since his brother's death. He goes on to say that he avenged his brother's death by killing his brother's murderers. The narrator closes the poem with a plea to his fellow knights to pray for his brother and his brother's widow.
Morris' narrator here takes a noticeably removed position as he does not convey a large amount of emotion. In the relation of his brother's demise, he takes a relatively objective view. He in fact does not reveal any feeling on the subject until he says he is "glad to think of the moment when/I look his life away" (35-6). Other than this single line, he limits his feeling for his brother to a few adjectives, calling him "brother dear" (18), "brave Lord Hugh" (30), and "a good knight and true" (45). He includes no further description of his brother or his feelings of loss. The reader can assume that the knightly status of the characters places the poem in the Middle Ages, but the narrator does not include the romanticized sentimentality often associated with the time period. It instead imparts a sense of brutality and revenge seemingly based more on duty than on filial love. The title itself constitutes one of the few clues as to why the narrator needed to avenge his brother's death at all. The narrator seems to react more strongly to the disrespect of his brother's killers, seen in their failure to meet him face to face in battle and inappropriate means of killing him. The emotional removal of the narrator and his matter of fact recollection of his brother's death convey an unusual reaction to death and its significance in the Middle Ages.
1. How does the death in this poem relate to the murder in Morris' "Haystack in the Floods"? How do the reactions of the surviving characters differ?
2. Why did Morris choose for the knight to reminisce about his brother's death instead of having the event take place in the present? Does this change the meaning of the poem in any way?
3. In the last stanza with the line "And now, knights all of you" (43), Morris makes it clear that the narrator addresses an audience of knights. How does this change the position of the reader since he is outside the realm of the narrator's intended audience?
4. The narrator asks his audience to pray for his brother and his brother's widow in the final stanza of the poem, which suggests some belief in religion. Does this appear in any other aspect of the poem? If not, why include the religious reference in the final stanza?
5. Compare this poem with other Pre-Raphaelite poems focused on death, such as D.G. Rossetti's "My Sister's Sleep" and Christina Rossetti's "After Death." How do the portrayals of death and mortality differ in these poems, and to what purpose?
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Last modified 7 November 2004