[Chorley, H. F.] "The Defence of Guenevere, and other Poems. By William Morris. (Bell & Daldy)." Athenaeum 1588 (3 Apr. 1858), 428-428.

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Disposed, as we are, to recognize all who cultivate poetry honestly, whatever be the style;–and admitting that Mr. Morris may be counted among that choir,–we must call attention to his book of Pre-Raphaelite minstrelsy as to a curiosity which shows how far affectation may mislead an earnest man towards the fog-land of Art. Of course, in rejoinder, we may be reminded how Wordsworth was misunderstood, how Keats was misprized, when they set forth on their original paths. We shall once more be invited to accept, wrapped round with some delicate roseleaf of sophistry, or locked up in some casket of curious device, the fallacy that–

Naught is everything, and everything is naught.

–What matter? Truth is the same, poetry undying, from all time and in all ages;–but masquing is not truth, and the galvanism of old legend is not poetry. The justice of what has been said could be proved from every page of this provoking volume, to the satisfaction of the most enthusiastic lover of our Laureate’s ‘Lady of Shalott.’ That strange dream, which, however beautiful, quaint, and touching it be, quivers on the furthest verge of Dream-land to which sane Fancy can penetrate, has been "the point of departure" for Mr. Morris. While we were looking, a day or two since, at Mr. Egley’s skilful, minute, yet barely intelligible, presentment of that magical ballad–something of sympathy, something of sadness, something of wonder, came over us, in consideration of time wasted and effort ill bestowed. This, however, the Pre-Raphaelite poets, apparently, do not perceive; otherwise, we should never have been bidden to look on so astounding a picture as Mr. Morris’s ‘Rapunzel.’ How to express or make the subject of this clear, is not an easy task. The tale is one of enchantment. There is a Prince who is haunted by some mysterious desire. There is an enchanted damsel, whose "web" (those familiar with ‘The Lady of Shalott’ will understand us) is her head of hair. This "fair one of the golden locks" is under the power of wicked creatures. So much explained, let the Prince speak:–

Beneath the beeches, as I lay a-dreaming,

I tried so hard to read this riddle through,

To catch some golden cord that I saw gleaming

Like gossamer against the autumn blue.

But while I ponder’d these things, from the wood

There came a black hair’d woman tall and bold,

Who strode straight up to where the tower stood,

And cried out shrilly words, whereon behold–

THE WITCH, from the tower.

Rapunzel, Rapunzel,

Let down your hair!

THE PRINCE

Ah Christ! It was no dream then, but there stood

(She comes again) a maiden passing fair,

Against the roof, with face turn’d to the wood,

Bearing within her arms waves of her yellow hair.

I read my riddle when I saw her stand.

Poor love! her face quite pale against her hair,

Praying to all the leagues of empty land

To save her from the woe she suffer’d there.

To think! they trod upon her golden hair

In the witches’ sabbaths; it was a delight

For these foul things, while she, with thin feet bare

Stood on the roof upon the winter night,

To plait her dear hair into many plaits,

And then, while God’s eye look’d upon the thing,

In the very likeness of Devil’s bats,

Upon the ends of her long hair to swing.

And now she stood above the parapet,

And, spreading out her arms, let her hair flow,

Beneath that veil her smooth white forehead set

Upon the marble, more I do not know;

Because before my eyes a film of gold

Floated, as now it floats. O, unknown love,

Would that I could thy yellow stair behold,

If still thou standest with lead roof above!

THE WITCH, as she passes.

Is there any who will dare

To climb up the yellow stair

Glorious Rapunzel’s golden hair?

THE PRINCE.

If it would please God make you sing again,

I think that I might very sweetly die,

My soul somehow reach heaven in joyous pain,

My heavy body on the beech-nuts lie.

Now I remember; what a most strange year,

Most strange and awful, in the beechen wood

I have pass’d now; I still have a faint fear

It is a kind of dream not understood.

I have seen no one in this wood except

The witch and her; have heard no human tones,

But when the witches’ revelry has crept

Between the very jointing of my bones.

Ah! I know now: I could not go away,

But needs must stop to hear her sing that song

She always sings at dawning of the day.

I am not happy here, for I am strong,

And every morning do I whet my sword,

Yet Rapunzel still weeps within the tower,

And still God ties me down to the green sward

Because I cannot see the gold stair floating lower.

The italics are ours.–Were we to continue the legend, stranger mixtures of fantasy on stilts and common-place lying flat than even the above could be shown; but such show would become painful, not profitable. Let us only repeat that the "Lady of Shalott’s" loom was not a Jacquard machine, into which, by cost and patience, a few more perforated cards could be introduced, and her web, and its patterns and devices be thereby complicated. Mr. Morris gives us a Manchester mystery; not a real vision–stark, staring nonsense; not inspiration.

Has enough been shown concerning this volume–or are we still open to the charge of having made extracts in an ex parte spirit,–of having worried the author on some weak point, the defence of which he would give up when in a lucid interval? To anticipate such objection, let us offer a complete ballad; and one of the best, to our thinking, in the book:–

THE SAILING OF THE SWORD.

Across the empty garden-beds,

When the Sword went out to sea,

I scarcely saw my sisters’ heads

Bowed each beside a tree.

I could not see the castle-leads,

When the Sword went out to sea.

Alicia wore a scarlet gown,

When the Sword went out to sea,

But Ursula’s was russet brown:

For the mist we could not see

The scarlet roofs of the good town,

When the Sword went out to sea.

Green holly in Alicia’s hand,

When the Sword went out to sea;

With sere oak-leaves did Ursula stand;

O! yet alas for me!

I did but bear a peel’d white wand,

When the Sword went out to sea.

O, russet brown and scarlet bright,

When the Sword went out to sea,

My sisters wore; I wore but white:

Red, brown, and white, are three;

Three damozels; each had a knight,

When the Sword went out to sea.

Sir Robert shouted loud, and said,

When the Sword went out to sea,

"Alicia, while I see thy head,

What shall I bring for thee?"

"O, my sweet lord, a ruby red:"

The Sword went out to sea.

Sir Miles said, while the sails hung down,

When the Sword went out to sea,

"Oh, Ursula! while I see the town,

What shall I bring for thee?"

"Dear knight, bring back a falcon brown:"

The Sword went out to sea.

But my Boland, no word he said

When the Sword went out to sea:

But only turn’d away his head,

A quick shriek came from me:

"Come back, dear lord, to your white maid;"–

The Sword went out to sea.

The hot sun bit the garden-beds,

When the Sword came back from sea;

Beneath an apple-tree our heads

Stretched out toward the sea;

Grey gleam’d the thirsty castle-leads,

When the Sword came back from sea.

Lord Robert brought a ruby red,

When the Sword came back from sea;

He kissed Alicia on the head:

"I am come back to thee;

‘Tis time, sweet love, that we were wed,

Now the Sword is back from sea!"

Sir Miles he bore a falcon brown,

When the Sword came back from sea;

His arms went round tall Ursula’s gown,

"What joy, O love, but thee?

Let us be wed in the good town,

Now the Sword is back from sea!"

My heart grew sick, no more afraid,

When the Sword came back from sea;

Upon the deck a tall white maid

Sat on Lord Boland’s knee

His chin was press’d upon her head,

When the Sword came back from sea!

Mystical and pathetic the above looks, no doubt, as every picture quaint in detail but possessing no real meaning, may be made to look. But it is virtually as thin and theatrical as the veriest Arcadian or Della-Cruscan idyl, in which "Cynthia wept by the urn which enclosed the ashes of her Adonis"–the Cynthia dressed in the impracticable Greek tunic, the urn well chiselled by sculptor,–neither Cynthia, nor Adonis, nor tunic, nor urn, having one touch of nature. Greek academical platitude is weak–Gothic traditional platitude is stiff: both untrue–neither strong. The Gothic is now in the ascendant. Shall we shortly arrive at Chinese mysteries?–at the legend of the Willow Pattern?–at the principle of the Pagoda?–at the "nay," which shall protest against barbarism, obesity, and cowardice being attributed to Yeh? Such things may be; but the sooner that such possibility is made clear to those who meditate verses, the better will it be for poetry; which belongs neither to Basilica, Cathedral, Mosque, Italian dome, nor Indian wigwam, but to air and sunshine, and hope and grief, shed down alike on the just and the unjust–on Raphael and on the Pre-Raphaelites.


This document was scanned/transcribed from the original source.

Copyright © 1999 Thomas J. Tobin.

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