Garden by the Sea," by William Morris, opens with a quaint stanza describing a lovely garden on which the speaker reflects throughout the whole poem. "Set thick with lily and red rose," the garden begins as a simple subject for the poem, but takes on more meaning as the verses progress. At the end of the first stanza another character is introduced — the speaker desires to wander about the garden all day long with someone else, presumably a lover.
Morris continues, describing the garden as lacking singing birds, a house, and bare branches. Suddenly the garden becomes emptier; the ideal setting imagined from the first stanza is transforming. Like the first stanza, the second stanza finishes with a prayer that the lover would return to walk in the green grass "as before." As the setting and narrative are constructed, the reader is now informed that there are important memories in this garden. The garden takes on meaning beyond a beautiful setting. The natural landscape now represents memories and emotions that are further elucidated as the poem continues.
A dramatic shift in mood and style occurs in the third stanza. The setting described is "dark" and "tormented". The picture of the "little garden-close" painted in the first stanza is interrupted by visions of "Dark hills whose heath-bloom feeds no bee," and a ship-less shore "Whose murmur comes unceasingly/ Unto the place for which I cry." The poem turns increasingly melancholy and even tortured as the narrator describes losing sense of time, losing sight and sound, and letting "slip all delight." An intense longing for this place, the garden, that exists in memory and in a certain time with a certain person is palpable.
The final stanza describes the speaker, not the natural setting:
Yet tottering as I am and weak,
Still have I left a little breath
To seek within the jaws of death
An entrance to that happy place,
To seek the unforgotten face,
Once seen, once kissed, once reft from me,
Anight the murmuring of the sea.
As his own life is nearing end, the speaker feverishly harkens back to an idealized setting and the romantic love that took place there, but was also lost. The natural surrounding provides a backdrop for the actual subject of the poem; his inner turmoil and intense desire for another time and place and a specific love and lover that define that place for him.
1. David Cody suggests that Morris returned to poetry after ten years of focusing on his business and design, "perhaps as a means of coming to terms with emotional problems." In what ways does Morris describe an emotional journey in this poem? What poetic techniques does he use to do this? Do you think this poem supports or refutes Cody's statement?
2. The "murmur" from the sea is an idea that's repeated several times in the poem. What does this murmur represent to the natural setting and to the psychological struggle of the narrator?
3. "A Garden by the Sea" was published as part of Poems by the Way in 1891. Compare this poem with other love poems that also deal with the theme of death that we've discussed like "The Blessed Damozel" (first version 1846) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, "After Death" (first version 1849) by Christina Rossetti and "The Triumph of Time" (1866) by A.C. Swinburne. What makes Morris's treatment of these common themes different from his precursors or his contemporaries?
4. What shift is apparent in this poem stylistically and thematically from Morris's earlier works like The Defense of Guenevere?
Last modified 9 November 2004