illiam Morris was barely out of his teens when he wrote 'Golden Wings' (it was published in The Defence of Guenevere in 1858 when he was still only twenty-four). Could the things I suggest below have been in the mind of a young Victorian, a fugitive from Evangelical Protestantism? Very unlikely; in fact, almost certainly not. Morris had been fascinated by medievalism since early childhood, he had a painter's eye for colour, a craftsman's feel for the texture of things and, in the last two or three years, he'd discovered he had a gift for words and could write poetry. Put these elements together and you get a 'Golden Wings' and that was probably enough at his age. The question remains — is it legitimate to take away a message from a work which the author never intended?
The story begins in a kind of Eden, a garden of innocence enclosed by a wall. In the garden is a castle. Beyond the garden wall is a 'happy poplar land', suggesting a well-watered, and therefore prosperous, plain. The castle is ancient, the warden is old: war never comes this way. Why? We find out in the end.
Red apples shine against the old grey stone which is itself inset with scarlet bricks.
Deep green water fill'd the moat,
Each side had a red-brick lip,
Green and mossy with the drip
Of dew and rain; there was a boat
Of carven wood, with hangings green
About the stern; it was great bliss
For lovers to sit there and kiss
In the hot summer noons, not seen.
Across the moat the fresh west wind
In very little ripples went;
The way the heavy aspens bent
Towards it, was a thing to mind.
The painted drawbridge over it
Went up and down with gilded chains,
'Twas pleasant in the summer rains
Within the bridge-house there to sit.
There were five swans that ne'er did eat
The water-weeds, for ladies came
Each day, and young knights did the same,
And gave them cakes and bread for meat .
What is captured here, too, is the feel, the touch, the sight and texture of Victorian England outside the great cities. There may have been no such place as he describes, but what he catches is the essence of the rural southern counties, more especially perhaps the Thames valley, which Morris knew well. He hadn't yet leased Kelmscott Manor but while he was writing The Defence of Guenevere he was also apprenticed to the architect G. E. Street in Oxford. More than that, he was studying the vernacular buildings of Oxfordshire with Philip Webb, the practice's chief draughtsman. (The year after his book was published, Morris - who was quite a rich man — commissioned Webb to design the Red House in Kent. Tellingly, Morris designed the grounds — a mixture of Medieval gardens, orchards, and grass paths with rose trellis borders.)
If, however, the garden in the poem is a kind of Eden where is the serpent, the canker in the rose? The knights and ladies are all paired off, only Jehane is alone. (Is there a symbolism here in the five swans? Don't swans mate faithfully for life?) On the surface, she is expecting her lover but what if we are dealing with something more than a man encased in steel? His coming seems to be a necessity, like a law of nature; in the same way that
Summer cometh to an end,
Undern cometh after noon.
Undern? The Oxford English Dictionary says it became a purely dialectic word in the fifteenth century, and since it seems to mean either nine o'clock in the morning, or midday, or afternoon, or evening, or even dinner, it doesn't seem to be of much use unless used locally with a more fixed meaning. It's one of only four archaicisms; shoon for shoes, verily, and carven. Perhaps Morris liked the balance of the vowels and the first and last words beginning and ending in 'n'.
At night, alone in her chamber, seemingly waiting for a 'lover', Jehane sings a song with the repeated phrase "Gold wings across the sea," which could be mean a young man's mane of hair; but what if the wings are sails? With the dawn we learn that the castle can't be far from the sea. It's as if the gardens and buildings have been lifted bodily out of an idyllic rural inland place, buried in the calm of summer, and deposited by the harshness of the sea. Not only that, but the plain, just right for ripeness, growth, and fertility, is replaced by hills. Jehane, too cramped to stand, crawls to the window, looks out and sees:
There is no sail upon the sea,
No pennon on the empty hill.
Those golden wings, it seems, are the sails of a ship that never came and now will never do so. (We think also of the Greek myth of Theseus and Ariadne? Theseus has killed the Minotaur — that perversity of nature — but because he forgets to change the colour of the sails, Ariadne thinks he's failed and throws herself off the cliff into the sea.) Jehane, too, is found dead on the yellow sand of the sea shore. What exactly has happened? We still don't know, but whatever it is brings death and decay, catastrophe and war.
Axes to the apple trees,
Axes to the aspens tall!
Barriers without the wall
May be lightly made of these.
The apples now grow green and sour
Upon the mouldering castle wall,
Before they ripen there they fall:
There are no banners on the tower.
The draggled swans most eagerly eat
The green weeds trailing in the moat;
Inside the rotting leaky boat
You see a slain man's stiffened feet.
All now has become clear: some deep cosmic principle has been violated, the nature of things has been thwarted and the result is predictable and dreadful. For in the boat (once the rendezvous of love) lies - not Jehane's lover - but the death of love. Not the absent lover but the absence of love, and all that it brings.
This poem is not a polished piece of work; there's an awkwardness in the writing which shows the inexperience of the poet. The content shows inexperience, too, except for what is best in it; not the narrative, the medievalism, or any message you can extract, but the one thing Morris knew at first hand - what it's like to be in the lavishly-tended garden of a moated grange in summertime. These garden passages — which are particularly modern because they have no 'thee' or 'thou' in them — owe nothing to the Middle Ages and everything to the fact that Morris was young and seeing things freshly with a painter's eye. The problem is they are inextricably tied in with a narrative too shallow to carry them without a deeper interpretation. Put both together and you have a worthwhile rough-hewn poem, universal in what it tells us.
- Full text of the poem
- From Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" to Morris' "Golden Wings": Similar Mediaeval Tendencies with some Drastic Innovations
Cumming, Elizabeth and Kaplan, Wendy. The Arts and Crafts Movement. Thames and Hudson. London, 1991.
Morris, William. Selected Writings and Designs. Edted by Asa Briggs. Pelican. London, 1962.
Orwell, George. The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, Vol. 3, 1943-1945 . Penguin. London, 1984.
Last modified 27 June 2007