Morris's cryptic tendcies run strong in his poetry; the locations blur into dream-worlds, the speakers fade into multiple persons or collapse into one, time reorders itself to suit conceptions nearly opaque in their complexity. "The Tune of Seven Towers" (text) plays dangerously along the edge between confusion and befuddlement, keeping its secrets close and dear.

Seven towers, seven stanzas, seven refrains in two varieties, and an ambiguous connection to the story of the poem proper. The two speakers — a calculating lady and a gentleman of questionable relation and period — have a remarkable ability to avoid shedding light on the other's lines. Thankfully, the poem draws from a painting of the same name by Rossetti that allows for some solid conclusions to be drawn.

In Rossetti's painting, a woman with an unkind face sits and plays a zither, very closely watched by a young man in fancy attire and shadowed by a servile figure. A sort of pitiable supplicant suitor pokes his head through a window to catcha glimpse and leave a bough on the lady's bed. With the picture handy, a working understanding of Morris's poem hammers itself out: the gist of the first few stanzas, with choice cheery lines such "No one walks there now", "if one could see it, an awful sight", establish an abandoned castle in the Gothic tradition; the "Therefore"s and "Listen"s of fair Toland resolve themselves into instructions of the zither-watching lad; this makes Oliver the window-dwelling suitor, and brings out the real conflict of the poem which makes it all quite tidy once explained in the last verse:

If you will go for me now,
     I will kiss your mouth at last;
          [She sayeth inwardly.]
(The graves stand grey in a row,)
     Oliver, hold me fast!                               40
'Therefore,' said fair Toland of the flowers,
'This is the tune of Seven Towers.'

In a nutshell, cruel Zitherina sends Oliver off to a place where he can't bother her, and he can enjoy himself socializing with the other suitors — six feet under.

Questions

Morris has a rather nasty take on love here; while his focus is very different from his contemporaries, how does his view on the whole compare to the Rossettis, Swinburne, and the rest? Who's the biggest pessimist?

Is there a good reason for seven as opposed to five, nine, or twenty-three?

How does Morris's use of the supernatural — in this case, menacing but impotent spirits of the unlucky — compare to that of D. G. Rossetti's and Swinburne's?

Morris's refrain obviously draws on Rossetti's patterns in poems like "Troy Town"; while the form is the same, how is he using it differently here?


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

Last modified 3 April 2008