Morris despised Victorian society and, like his Pre-Raphaelite friends, idealized the medieval past, finding in it values that his age seemed to lack. His poem 'Shameful Death' seems peculiar then in that its subject is the unheroic, unromantic death of a knight as narrated by his brother through the use of a formally unequivocal dramatic monologue. The 'shameful death', re-counted in a most detached manner, describes the death in entirely negative terms

He did not die in the night,
     He did not die in the day
But in the morniing of twilight
     His spirit pass'd away                              10
When neither sun nor moon was bright,
     And the trees were merely grey.

He was not slain with the sword,
     Knight's axe, or the knightly spear,
Yet spoke he never a word
     After he came in here . . .
He did not strike one blow.

These lines leave no doubt as to how short his death falls short of its ideal counterpart — 'He did not' die a heroic death in battle and pass away with memorable last words. The death of the knight is itself underscored by treacherous foul-play as he is attacked from behind in ostensibly safe surroundings:

He did not strike one blow,
     For the recreants came behind,                20
In a place where the hornbeams grow,
     A path right hard to find,
For the hornbeam boughs swing so,
     That the twilight makes it blind.

The question naturally arises then of why Morris would so consciously choose to create a story which seems to bring shame upon his medieval ideals. To answer this we must interrogate the poem more closely, to discover what hides behind its thematic and narrative simplicity. First we should note that the poem begins and ends on a religious tone with clear emphasis on the communal nature of the death. It opens with the image of the knight's death bed and the positions taken around it by the narrator, the knight's bride, his mother and a priest

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.

So before the knight is surrounded by his enemies the narrator begins the story with the image of the knight's consortium as he lays to rest, blanketed on all sides by their filial reverence. The detail of the knight seeming to be alive bolsters his involvement in the ritual mourning of his death. At the close of the poem, after narrator has only expressed emotion in his gladness to have avenged his brother by slaying two of the murderers, he ends his story by urging his fellow knights to pray

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.

This is a call for unity and solidarity in the face of their loss, and a reminder of the chivalry that must be displayed to Sir Hugh's wife.

Despite the knight's tragically unheroic death the story allows him to be rightfully avenged by a fellow knight and the poet uses the story to explore the medieval sense of filial piety and communal rituals: ideals which were seen to be lacking in the poet's own Victorian society. 'Shameful death' also allows the storyteller to diversify his repertoire by subverting a standardized narrative while yet keeping the same prized values intact. And, at the very least, binary opposition, as used here to subvert the ideal standard of a romantic death, is always an opportunity to create an imagined longing for an ideal by which it is arguably substantiated even further.

Questions

1. In her essay on William Morris's News From Nowhere Tamara S. Wagner finds what she characterizes as 'subversive nostalgia'. Does this phrase describe the effect or tone of this poem? Does Morris use a similar subversive logic in any of his other poems?

2.

They lighted a great torch then,
     When his arms were pinion'd fast,
Sir John the knight of the Fen,
     Sir Guy of the Dolorous Blast,
With knights threescore and ten,
     Hung brave Lord Hugh at last.                30

'Threescore and ten' resonates the poem as it is twice mentioned after this verse that Sir Hugh's brother is 'threescore and ten' years of age at the time that he is narrating the story. What sort of tension is there then between the subject of story as a positively unheroic death on the one hand and the narrator's addition of details which make the knight seem larger than life on the other?

3. If we examine the beginnings of the verses, structurally the poem seems to first identify its objects as 'Us', 'He', 'They' and 'I'. What effect do these divisions have on the 'shameful death' that is the underlying subject of the poem? Furthermore the title of the poem nuances the 'shameful death' as archetypal rather than particular (it is not 'a shameful death'). Is the emphasis here on the tragic?

4. Noting that Morris also wrote poems to tell the story of Perseus, a mythological figure, does the unidealized death in this poem seem to be realism bent?

5. The poem ends with a call for the knights to pray for Alice. By mentioning the detail of her name Morris privileges her with representational space. Is the poet recognizing the bride's loss or does he simply use her to insert chivalry into the poem?

Related Materials


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

Last modified 15 November 2006