illiam Morris's "Shameful Death" displays elements of hard and soft primitivism in a medieval setting, using both realism and heroism to create an intensely emotional dramatic monologue about a long dead knight. The speaker, the dead Sir Hugh's brother, describes the distinctly unglamorous death of Sir Hugh:
There were four of us about that bed;
The mass-priest knelt at the side,
I and his mother stood at the head,
Over his feet lay the bride;
We were quite sure that he was dead,
Though his eyes were open wide.
He did not die in the night,
He did not die in the day
But in the morning of twilight
His spirit pass'd away
When neither sun nor moon was bright,
And the trees were merely gray. [ll. 1-12]
To die in bed, surrounded by a priest and close family, is not exactly heroic, and less than acceptable for any self-respecting knight not in old age. Even the time of day of his death is ignoble, for it is an intermediary time between night and day, neither here nor there, when the world outside is colorless. The phrase "in the morning of twilight" makes it ambiguous as to whether the sun was rising or setting; his situation was that obscure. Of course the crowning act of shamefulness is the manner in which he was fatally wounded: defenseless, he was ambushed by seventy-something knights on a solitary, overgrown path. However, in its ignobility, this scenario is also quite realistic. It is not at all improbable that knights in actuality ambushed and mortally wounded by their enemies. In fact, this type of case was in all likelihood much more frequent than that of ideal chivalric warrior who effortlessly slays villain after villain through the power of his goodness. In the real world, virtue does not provide invincibility.
The speaker adds a component of heroic retribution to the tale by telling how he avenged his brother's death by murdering the assassins. This gallantry is of the sort a good knight should display; to avenge the wrong of a loved one is part of the code of chivalry, and is an example of the sort of idealized violence one tends to find in the romanticized stories of the middle ages, a kind of the previously mentioned soft primitivism. Yet the brother even subverts his own heroism by focusing not on the valor of his actions but on the reason behind them and the melancholy that still pervades his life, in that he mentions how his "hair is all turn'd gray" (l. 32) and his "strength is mostly pass'd" (l. 38). The poem ends by bringing the focus back to the ultimate humanity of the situation:
And now, knights all of you,
I pray you pray for Sir Hugh,
A good knight and a true,
And for Alice, his wife, pray too. [ll. 43-46]
Again, the emphasis here is not on high tragedy, but a more mundane misery: the untimely death of a decent human being who has left behind friends and family.
1. Why does Morris mention by name Sir Hugh's wife in the last stanza of the poem?
2. Compared to the length of some of Morris's other narrative poems, this one is relatively short. Why keep its length to a minimum?
3. We talked in class about Morris's emphasis on a realistic medievalism, one that lauds the era for its societal simplicity. Does this poem draw a contrast between the simpler medieval society and (in Morris's view) corrupt modern society, or does it draw a comparison between the more deeply set human values of peoples then and in modern times?
4. Does the speaker truly believe that Sir Hugh's death was shameful? Does Morris?
- Tragedy and Vengeance in William Morris's "Shameful Death"
- Simplicity and the Unsentimental in "Shameful Death"
- Vengeance's Shades of Grey in "Shameful Death"
Last modified 9 November 2004