In William Morris' narrative poem "Golden Wings," the poet relates the tale of a young woman's torturous impatience in waiting for a lover to finally come to her. Morris deliberately sets this poem in medieval times and paints an almost utopian picture of the young girl, Jehane du Castel beau's, picturesque surroundings in this era. In his effort to convey the almost ideal situation of this young woman's existence, he describes her surroundings:
Midways of a walled garden,
In the happy poplar land,
Did an ancient castle stand
With an old knight for a warden.
Many scarlet bricks there were
In its walls, and old grey stone;
Over which red apples shone
At the right time of the year.
On the bricks the green moss grew,
Yellow lichen on the stone,
Over which red apples shone;
Little war that castle knew. [lines 1-12].
From this, we learn that the character of Jehane du Castel beau and all of her acquaintances within the castle walls live out their lives in safety, comfort, and in the pleasantness of a beautiful environment. The situation should thus prove ideal for a young girl like Jehane, yet Morris makes clear in the course of the remainder of the poem that it does not necessarily do so. In this otherwise happy community, there exists a great deal of despondency due to the absence of a lover for Jehane. Because she witnesses,
Many times in the long day
Miles and Giles and Gervaise past,
Holding each some white hand. [lines 69-71]
She begins to wonder if her lover will ever come and grows impatient. Yet, Morris has her reassure herself with the proclamation that
"Summer cometh to an end,
Undern cometh after noon;
Golden wings will be here soon." [lines 73-75].
Because she has no lover to speak of within her community, she convinces herself that he will come from outside of it if she can only wait patiently. Unfortunately, however, she proves incapable of doing so. Jehane grows restless and full of worry at the very suggestion that she and her possible lover may be running out of the time of their youth when
The minstrels in the gallery
Sung: "Arthur, who will never die,
In Avallon he groweth old." [lines 86-88]
Just as Arthur grows old in the time that she spends inside the castle walls in waiting, so too does her potential lover and so too does she. This reminder upsets her irreparably. Jehane immediately retreats to her room and sings out to her theoretical lover from across the sea, but yet receives no answer. At the realization that a man still does not come, she cries out with the truth of her situation explaining,
There is no sail upon the sea,
No pennon on the empty hill.
"I cannot stay here all alone,
Or meet their happy faces here,
And wretchedly I have no fear;
A little while, and I am gone." [lines, 173-178].
Without the fulfillment of her romantic fantasy, Jehane, in the otherwise ideal setting of her medieval community, cannot fathom living on. She cannot help but wait in hope for this fulfillment, but this waiting simultaneously kills her. In the end, although Morris has Jehane verbally resolves to wait as long as ten years to finally meet the man she longs for, she promptly contradicts this by killing herself by sword. Thus, despite her proclamation and all of her hope and resolve, the waiting appears to have proven too much. The members of her community find her dead and assume she has been slain by a violent hand other than her own. In consequence, these people no longer have the capacity to view themselves as safe and at peace. By her unexplained death Jehane introduces fear, pain, and the concept of danger into the idyllic community. As a result of this, the command that resounds throughout the population becomes,
Whatsoever knights these are,
Man the walls withouten fear!
Axes to the apple-trees,
Axes to the aspens tall! [lines 216-219].
Similarly, Morris emphasizes, with the symbol of the apples, the fall from beauty that Jehane's former environment experiences due to the human response to her death. "The apples now grow green and sour," he writes, "Upon the mouldering castle-wall" (lines, 231-232). The community and its pleasures essentially fall to pieces in this way. Perhaps the most telling evidence of this lies in the final line of Morris' poem. The poet writes that a man lies dead in a boat nearby. Although Morris does not reveal how this death resulted or the identity of the slain man, the suggestion is clear. This man may well have been Jehane's lover come to find her, but she will never know it. Her impatience proved too great and her entire community suffered its very peace and happiness as a result.
1. Do you find any specific moral in the tale of Jehan du Castel beau? Who or what might be to blame in the eyes of Morris for this woman and her community's downfall? Does Morris present us simply with a tragedy of fate rather than one of circumstances within a particular society?
2. How does this poem compare to other poetic narratives such as those of Christina Rossetti in terms of technique and style? Compared to a work like "Goblin Market" in particular, does this poem create a more striking or powerful mood than the other through Morris' style of writing or no?
3. What importance does Morris attribute to the wearing of the colors red and white in the poem? What about the color gold?
4. How does the character of Jehane compare to that of Tennyson's Marianna? What further implications does Morris suggest about the situation of the female pining for her lover that Tennyson does not?
Last modified 9 November 2004