decorated initial 'W'illiam Morris paints a beautiful utopia within the confines of the walls of the Ladie's Gard in the opening of "The Golden Wings." The castle stands within a "happy poplar land" that knows "little war." Morris describes a wonderful idyll in bright colors; the "scarlet bricks", "yellow lichen", "blue-painted boat" and "deep green water" serve as a backdrop for the fair ladies and good knights. Here, even the swans feast not on "water-weeds" but are fed "cakes and bread for meat."

However, in this world of brightness, green and love, there remains yet sadness. Into this peaceful youthful world of lovers comes the intimation of death:

Fair Jehane du Castel beau
Wore her wreath till it was dead.

The source of Jehane's sadness comes from her lack of a lover. Unlike the six other inhabitants of the castle, she has no knight and can only wait for him:

Summer cometh to an end,
Undern cometh after noon;
Golden wings will be here soon,
What if I some token send?

The poem takes a turn when Jehane hears the minstrels sing:

Arthur, who will never die,
In Avallon he groweth old.

Time continues to fly by, even in idylls. After hearing this song, Jehane is seized by impatience, she runs to her room and prepares for her love's arrival but when morning arrives, she remains alone. He has not come. At this point, Jehane has had enough. She sheds the red and white clothing of the ladies in the castle and creeps barefoot out of the castle. In the morning light, she speaks her last:

I have thrown off the white and red,
And pray God it may come to pass.

I meet him; if ten years go by
Before I meet him; if, indeed,
Meanwhile both soul and body bleed,
Yet there is end of misery,

And I have hope. He could not come,
But I can go to him and show
These new things I have got to know,
And make him speak, who has been dumb.

Gervaise later finds Jehane dead on the sand and the idyll of the castle is broken. War breaks out over the land, the trees are cut down, the ladies live in fear and the swans eat "green weeds."

Finally, the last lines the poem reveal a startling fact:

Inside the rotting leaky boat
You see a slain man's stiffen'd feet.

The contrast between the happy laughing lovers who used to share kisses in the blue boat and the stiffening corpse inside the "rotting leaky boat" aptly illustrates the future that has overtaken the castle. The formula of the beautiful damsel living within castle walls waiting for her love and the death that overcomes her appear repeatedly from Medieval tales to the Victorian times. Here, Morris provides another more cynical if realistic view of tragic and elegiac love. Jehane and this dead man, who may be her knight, are both dead, but Morris does not celebrate this kind of death. Indeed, Jehane's death brings chaos and turmoil to the once peaceful land. Moreover, Jehane dies hopeful that she will meet her love, but it is unclear as to whether or not there is life after death and if Jehane actually meets her love. The only mention of Jehane in death lies in the description of the red sun that glows golden on Jehane's "white feet" and "dun" clothing. In dying, Jehane appears golden, she may, it appears, to have met with or gained her "Golden wings." What is clear is that there is a dead man within the boat and he has been there for some time — his body has already "stiffen'd;" he is the fourth man of the poem and in being so is immediately linked with Jehane. In death then, as in life, Jehane remains separated from men, the only certainty is that time continues to pass.

Questions

1. Jehane would appear to be another model of the Pre-Raphaelite woman, she is beautiful, waiting for her love and is ultimately, strong — she takes hold of her situation, resolving that if her love is not to come to her, then she will go to him. Are we, as the reader, supposed to feel sympathy for Jehane, the uncomfortable fourth wheel to the other three happy couples of the castle? Moreover, the theme of the walled in woman is another familiar Pre-Raphaelite conceit. What can be made of the fact that Jehane escapes the confines of the castle walls? Is Jehane perhaps a femme fatale? (At a stretch, the consequences of Jehane's actions for the land seems to parallel that of Helen for Troy)

2. Morris's treatment of time seems to echo that many of Swinburne's beliefs. For both, time is ultimately triumphant over love and humans. Is this a common belief amongst the other Pre-Raphaelites?

3. Morris depicts the castle idyll and its later ravaging in almost painterly terms — he lingeringly describes the colors of the apples, brick, roof, lichen, water and boat. The reds, yellows, green and blues create a natural landscape against which Jehane's longs for "Golden wings." Why this juxtaposition of colors — the gold against the other more simple organic colors? This raises another question: the idea of Golden Wings is most commonly associated with that of angels; why does Jehane conceptualize her love as "Golden wings"?

4. In "The Golden Wings," Morris combines a sing-song narration with elements of dramatic monologue. The simple four line stanzas are interrupted Jehane's own voice. It would appear that by choosing the simpler four-line verses, Morris is able to concentrate on the colors and details of the narration. He also allows for a closer scrutiny of Jehane when she interrupts the sets and sings her song. How is this related to the Pre-Raphaelite project of portraying highly realistic images and attempting to create mood and (or) meaning?

Related Materials


Victorian Web Overview Visual Arts William Morris Discussion questions for William Morris

Last modified 5 July 2007