William Morris' "Golden Wings" begins with the description of idyllic, untarnished life at a medieval castle where fruit ripens on schedule, war rarely darkens people's lives, lovers merrily kiss, swans feast on cakes and happy, lovely young people parade about. Morris evokes the beauty of the kingdom by means of numerous color adjectives, and the occasional mention of something's golden material or color (for example "A red roof gold-spiked over"(line 34) and "Alice of the golden hair"(line 48)). Yet the eternal contentment seems bound to end, and a sharp change in the tone of the poem suggests the subsequent demise of the maiden Jehane du Castel beau, who, agonized by unrequited and unconsummated love, wreaks violent havoc and destroys the paradisiacal innocence of those around her.
Each wore a garland on the head,
At Ladies' Gard the way was so:
Fair Jehane du Castel beau
Wore her wreath till it was dead.
Little joy she had of it,
Of the raiment white and red,
Or the garland on her head,
She had none with whom to sit. [lines 57-64]
The death of the flowers on her wreath signals the parallel death of youthful bliss and beauty, and the transience of young contentment. Yet Morris suggests that perhaps Jehane had not been as joyous as the others: neither her white and red clothing nor the wreath she wore had provided her with any pleasure; instead, she dwelt on her loneliness and lack of love. The drastic shift in the mood of these stanzas compared to those that precede them, then, represents the recognition of her unhappiness. A similar shift occurs in Alfred Lord Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott": the Lady of Shalott knows she is cursed, but carries on with her work, gradually becoming more cognizant of her loneliness and frustration until her world literally shatters. Like the Lady of Shalott, who initially persists despite sensing her impending doom, Jehane at first maintains hope that her beloved will come to her.
In the carven boat at noon;
None the more did Jehane weep,
She would only stand and keep
Saying, 'He will be here soon.'....
'Summer cometh to an end,
Undern cometh after noon;
Golden wings will be here soon,
What if I some token send?' [lines 65-9 and 73-6]
Jehane then runs to her room and, desperately deluding herself that "He will be here soon" (line 104), she undresses eagerly and without fear in preparation for her first sexual encounter. She sings throughout the night — another similarity to "The Lady of Shalott" — until morning dawns. At this point, she realizes that her beloved has not come to her and feels her body lose its vigor, like a dying flower. Once again reminiscent of the Lady of Shalott, Jehane leaves her room, but unlike in Tennyson's poem, Morris' maiden brings a sword with her.
In a shocking reversal from "The Lady of Shalott", however, Jehane does not wither away in boat. Rather, she slaughters the man who did not love her. The uncaring man, not the heartbroken woman, lies dead in a "rotting leaky boat" (line 237); Jehane also seems to have killed herself.
1. What do you think of Morris' use of archaic, or at least antiquated, Middle English words, such as pennon, undern, and dun? Is there something artificial about this method of attempting to capture another era? Or does he render his poem more interesting by necessarily melding the language of two historical periods-that of his own Victorian Britain and of mediaeval England?
2. What is the significance of the repeated mentions of white and red? Might these refer to purity and passion? What is the significance of gold in the poem? Since gold is a pervading image in the poem, what might be the meaning of Morris' decision to describe the hilts of Jehane's sword as silver?
3. Both Morris' "Golden Wings" (1858) and Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" (1830) conclude with scenes of mourners around the body of a woman, and images of death in a boat — in one case, these are two different deaths; in the other, they are one and the same. How does "Golden Wings", and in particular its ending, seem to respond to "The Lady of Shalott" ? What does it say about Morris' views concerning the power of women and the way they respond to passion? Does Morris' poem deal with the issues confronting an artist in the way Tennyson's does, or is the similarity between the two related more closely to plot and temporal setting?
Last modified 7 November 2004