Both Morris's poetry and literature reflect this romantic realism. The Defense of Guenevere and other Poems was vilified by Victorian literary critics precisely because of Morris's connection with the Pre-Raphaelites. The Athenaeum, a contemporary literary quarterly, trumpeted the prevailing sentiment that Morris poems were a collection of "Pre-Raphaelite Minstrelsy" and "A curiosity which shows how far affection may lead an earnest man toward the fog-land of art." (Litzenberg 423). Morris's close connections to Pre-Raphaelitism continued to be hailed or vilified in literary circles as, as The Literary World , another Victorian literary periodical, claimed in 1896, Morris was "the most distinguished figure" of the Pre-Raphaelite school (Litzenberg 422).
The basis for critics of The Defense of Guenevere and other Poems such as The Athenaeum lay in the poetry's pseudo-medieval settings and Arthurian romanticisms. This was seen to be "affection" and too far removed from reality to engage or affect the audience. In fact, the aesthetics sought to engage through alienation. By distancing the audience from conventional reality, truth could be viewed objectively. Moreover, the pseudo-historicity of such fantastic worlds introduced the possibility of symbolism and associations beyond what was immediately apparent — a point illustrated by the archetypal Morrisian utopia introduced in one of the poems in this compilation, "Golden Wings":
Midways of a walled garden,
In the happy poplar land
Did an ancient castle stand,
With an old knight for a warden.
Many scarlet bricks there were
In its walls, and old grey stone;
Over which red apples shone
At the right time of the year.
The simplistic yet vibrant color scheme, red apples, grey stone, deep green water and the scarlet and white garlands of the ladies, evokes the simplicity of Medieval tapestries and names such as Isabeau and Gervaise call to mind the chivalry of Arthurian legend. Finally, the archaic grammar and simplicity of the prose follows in the tradition of medieval ballads. This world is effectively removed from history, one imagines that it is always "the right time of the year."
In The Water of the Wondrous Isles , Morris returns to a utopian un-historical medieval world of beautiful ladies and chivalric knights. Three ladies and their respective knights compose the original fellowship. The entrance of Birdalone introduces a fourth lady with her own set of sexual needs and desires. This curiously echoes the plot of "Golden Wings" in which the fair Jehane du Castel Beau waits with increasing frustration for her absent lover. Ultimately, Jehane's unrequited desires manifest in destruction, Gervaise discovers her dead body outside the castle walls and the land plunges into fear and warfare. Although Birdalone helps the champions rescue the three ladies, her forbidden attraction to Arthur, the Black Square, unleashes destructive force that threatens to tear the fabric of the fellowship and the ideal romanticism of their world apart.
Morris's archaic prose immediately sets the reader in another, more historical and gracious world, a setting made all the more bittersweet with the realization that this is a history-that-could-have-been. The precise setting and description of Utterhay indicates the possibility of such a town, even as the prose speaks to all the impossibilities of such:
Whilom, as tells the tale, was a walled cheaping-town hight Utterhay, which was builded in a bight of the land a little off the great highway which went from over the mountains to the sea. (1)
Richard Mathews notes the quaint awkwardness of the Saxon-based vocabulary to the modern ear and associates this with the communal, nonhierarchical, noncompetitive values and lifestyles associated with the distant "uncivilized" past (46). Moreover, Rabkin points to the utility of this pseudo-medieval prose in noting that language is the defining component of a sense of reality (78). The unfamiliar cadences and rhythm of Morris's English-that-never-was redefines accepted conventions and reality by inviting the reader to enter this purely imaginative space of never-where.
Having stretched and re-established certain linguistic parameters, Morris creates a secondary reality by means of a clear concern for spatial and temporal details that builds upon and extends the audience's concept of the possible. The "seventeen summers" (9) that pass before Birdalone meets Habundia and the Red Knight's curious preoccupation with passing time, "Now thee will I tell that this is Friday, and that ye two first met in the Black Valley on Tuesday" (196) create a credible sense of history that allows the creation of conventional temporal associations within the clearly unhistorical setting of the tale.
Although Habundia and the wood-witch are clearly fantastical non-conventional beings, Birdalone's needs and desires are clearly human. She needs to eat, sleep and be clothed. She prosaically takes up embroidery in order to feed herself and her birthmother, Audrey, during their brief life together in the City of the Five Crafts. Finally however, Birdalone resumes her Quest and returns to Evilshaw where she renews her relationship with Habundia, rescues her true love and reunites with the fellowship. Birdalone's changes of clothing indicate the different stages of her maturation and the relative degree of reality in her surroundings. Birdalone lives in the fantastical realm of Evilshaw in rags and enters the waters of the wondrous isles naked. When Birdalone meets the three ladies and agrees to help free them, she enters into the utopian community of the fellowship through the wearing of the ladies' rich garments. However, during Birdalone's sojourn in the more historically accurate space of the City she wears normal clothing. When Birdalone sets off on her own quest, she first dons masculine armor and then receives Habundia's gift of the faery gown. Birdalone's dress represents her travels from an innocent unworldly space to the high romantic medievalism of the Castle of the Quest and marks her entrance into and exit from the realities of the City. Finally, Birdalone enters into Utterhay dressed in a faery gown. She and her companions have triumphed over inhuman and too-human evils.
Birdalone engages in the fantastic strictly in her interactions with the wood-witch or Habundia. Even in the clearly wondrous wood of Evilshaw and the baldly wonderful waters and isles, certain conventions remain. The wood-witch relies on her cattle and goats and Birdalone's game in order to eat and stay alive. The magic of the Sending Boat which sets Birdalone off on her adventures amongst the wondrous isles and finally brings her to the Mainland works only under specific guidelines. Blood must be shed on both the wooden bow and stern of the boat and then the spell must be invoked word for word:
The red raven wine now
Hast thou drunk, stern and bow;
Then awake and awake
And the wonted way take!
The way of the Wender forth over the flood,
For the will of the Sender is blent with the blood. (38)
Even such a fantastical construct as magic then, must be specifically invoked. Here, the Pre-Raphaelite concern for reality and detail works towards the creation and continuation of the audience's belief in the magic.
The Water of the Wondrous Isles relates Birdalone's maturation from innocent orphan to powerful womanhood. While the most important Quest in this tale of Quests takes place internally, in Birdalone's reconciliation of her sexual selfish desires and the social needs of community, Morris remains very engaged with a symbolic physical reality. Birdalone's different wardrobes represent the different stages of her internal Quest. This also manifests in Morris's Pre-Raphaelite fascination with the beautiful female figure. Habundia describes Birdalone in a thoroughly physical manner, delving on her flesh, arms, legs, breasts, head, shoulders, neck and hair, ankles, legs and feet before returning to her face, eyes, cheeks, and lastly, lips (16-17). Lastly, Habundia mentions her "deep and solemn" thoughts that are "hale and true and sweet" (17). Here, Birdalone appears very much as Hunt's Lady of Shalott , Rossetti's Beata Beatrix or Millais's Ophelia . The Pre-Raphaelite preoccupation with the contemplative woman, her very physical beauty and the anticipation of action, whether it be at the moment that the curse befalls or love or life lost, are all apparent.
Like these ladies, Birdalone's contemplation juxtaposes her sexuality. Morris describes her reaction to the knowledge of passionate sexual love in intensely physical terms: "the colour came and went in her cheeks, her flesh quaked, her heart beat quick, and she was oppressed by the sweetness of longing. More daintily she moved her limbs, and laid foot to foot and felt the sleekness of her sides; and tender she was of her body as of that which should one day be so sorely loved." (63). Again, the Pre-Raphaelites were fascinated with this tension between physicality and the sublime. Birdalone's selfish sexual needs conflict with her true love for Arthur and her loyal companionship to Atra.
In fact, Birdalone's physical beauty and devastating sexuality is a primary attribute of the Pre-Raphaelite femme fatale with her power over men. Birdalone may be innocent of this fact, but "the sight of her cast a hot gleed of love into the hearts of them who beheld her." (99). Thus although Birdalone journeys into the wondrous waters naked, she is not helpless, her beauty overpowers all men. By means of this consuming love for Birdalone, the Castellan, the priest Leonard and even the Black Knight fall fatally under her spell and even pledge to die for her. Indeed, the Black Knight does so.
Birdalone's desire leads to the catastrophe and death that the femme fatale of Pre-Raphaelite paintings alludes to. Birdalone's frustrations and subsequent explorations of the Black Valley of the Greyweathers result from her physical longing for her love, Arthur. This creates the opportunity for the Red Knight to capture Birdalone At this point, the Champions return and ride to her rescue. The kidnapping and rescue of Birdalone causes the death of three men, the Black Knight, the Red Knight and Baoduin, Aurea's lover. While Birdalone's beauty attracts the Red and the Black Knight, her headless entry into the Valley that allows her capture results in the Golden Knight's death.
Birdalone also takes responsibility and action when it comes to her own sexual needs. When she and Arthur finally express their love for each other, Birdalone assumes the more active role. She sends for Arthur and takes him by the hand while "he, all trembling for love and fear of her, might not forbear, but kissed her face and her mouth many times." (231) Arthur is reduced to trembling and even fearfulness whereas Birdalone plays the assertive and traditional masculine role.
Birdalone struggles with her contradicting loyalties to her friend, Atra, and her own physical needs for Arthur. Ultimately, Birdalone claims Arthur for herself, feeling "a secret joy in her soul that she might not master, despite the sorrow of her friends, whatever it might be." (191). In order to reconcile this selfishness, Birdalone departs from the castle and separates from the fellowship. Thus Birdalone reunites the fellowship but only to part the companions again, Baoduin is lost and Arthur forever parted from Atra. Birdalone must do penance for succumbing to her subversive desires so that only after five years have passed is she able to resume her Quest. Finally, Birdalone's rescue of Arthur vindicates her truer love and allows the fellowship to be reunited. Even at this moment, Morris contrasts the joy of the lovers with the bereavement of those who have lost love. Atra accepts Arthur's change of heart, but the joys of their created community never fully softens the pain of his loss. She remains victim to spells of moodiness that she temporarily overcomes by visiting Habundia in Evilshaw.
Love, for Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites, was closely paired to loss and pain. The love that the three damsels and their knights shared was both "perilous unto them and us; so that we lived in doubt and unrest." (64). Moreover, two pairs of lovers remain unable to realize their love together. Aurea loses Baoduin soon after her rescue and Arthur's love for Birdalone overcomes his past love with Atra. Even, or perhaps especially, in the romantic chivalric world, love comes at a personal and social cost.
Indeed, although the tale ends triumphantly with the reunification of the fellowship and the setting up of a new community at Utterhay, Morris reminds the reader of what has been lost even at the moment that the last of the Red Knight's followers are vanquished and the blissful communal future spreads out ahead. Even as Hugh, Arthur and Atra gather together, their laughter verges on tears, "and again they laughed all three; though forsooth they were well-nigh weeping-ripe; one for joy, and that was Hugh; one for memory of the days gone by; and one for the bitterness of love that should never be rewarded." (347). Happiness becomes transcendent and all the more realistic when tempered with this reminder of pain. Using literature and its ability to reach past the symbolic outside, Morris creates a third perspective: the bittersweet bereavement of an unfulfilled love that must accompany fulfilled love.
Although the people, language and objects in this world are tinged with medieval unreality, the waters of the wondrous isles lap the mainland and the shores of Evilshaw, Morris remains faithful to reality in describing nature. Prosaic cattle and goats live in the wood-witch's garden and Birdalone hunts for deer and hare in the woods. Morris's depiction of witch's house in Evilshaw paints a tranquil scene to rival the landscapes of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood:
Now the ending of the wood left a fair green plain betwixt it and the water, whiles more than a furlong across, whiles much less; and whiles the trees came down close to the water-side. But the place whereas they came from out the wood was of the widest, and there is was a broad bight of greensward of the fashion of the moon seven nights old, and a close hedge of thicket there was at the back of it; and the lake lay south, and the wood north. Some deal of this greensward was broken by closes of acreland, and the tall green wheat stood blossoming therein; but the most was sweet meadow, and there as now was a gallant flock of goats feeding down it; five kine withal, and a tethered bull. Through the widest of this meadow ran a clear stream winding down to the lake, and on a little knoll beside a lap of the said stream, two bow-shots from the water, was a knoll, whereon stood, amidst of a potherb garden, a little house strongly framed of timber... (6)
Finally, this highly realistic nature also encompasses the fantastic. Habundia after all, prefers to remain in the woods where she appears fantastically larger-than-life and wiser-than-human-wisdom. However, when Habundia enters Birdalone's small house, she shrinks: "she was scarce three feet high, but as pretty as a picture." (312). The enforced conventions of the four walls strip away the wood-mother's fantasy. In order to regain her normal appearance - and here, it becomes clear how much the illusion has re-set the reader's concept of reality - Habundia calls on Birdalone to "wish strongly, wish strongly! though thou shalt see nothing worse of me than this." (312). Birdalone's faith and imagination essentially create and sustain the audience's image of and faith in Habundia.
Atra's conception of 'prison' for Birdalone also highlights this emphasis on the power of imagination and the manner in which the boundaries of conventional reality can be re-shaped. Here, Morris also raises the importance of language when Birdalone, whom the witch imprisons, asks Atra what a 'prison' is. The word means nothing to her and can therefore represent anything or nothing. Atra first addresses the reality of a conventional prison and then thoroughly deconstructs this convention. She says, "A prison is a grim place where poor folk who have done that which pleaseth not rich folk are shut up, that they may be grieved and tormented by not being able to fare abroad, or go where they would... for thee shall this prison be a place where thou shalt be safe till we may bring thee forth when the night hath worn towards its ending." (57). Here, a prison may constitute one thing or another. Birdalone and Atra's re-interpretation of the situation creates a second reality that extends over and replaces that of the first.
Ultimately, imagination, this license to play with and re-define conventions, allows Morris's characters to re-negotiate the parameters of reality. Birdalone and her companions finally create a separate utopian community in Utterhay. Hugh's journey back to the Green Mountains to bring his children and livelihood with him to his new life at Utterhay illustrates the town's isolation and removal from the world. Moreover, when the company first rides to the walls of Utterhay, they are first mistaken for faery folk. Utterhay exists at the overlap between reality and fantasy. The men of Utterhay are utterly removed from whatever may lurk in the wondrous spaces Evilshaw and the waters beyond. This contrast between the men's skeptical belief in the wondrous and the realized wonders in the woods allows the reader to believe that the latter truly are wonderful. At Utterhay, on the fringes of reality, Birdalone can continue to visit Habundia in the woods but also live with her friends in the city just as Atra can retreat to the woods for solace before returning to the community. A real utopia then, exists only at the fringe of fantasy where "we have no more to tell about this company of friends, the most of whom had once haunted the lands about the Water of the Wondrous Isles, save that their love never sundered, and that they lived without shame and died without fear. So here is an end."
Last modified 23 December 2006