Morris writes that when he started his journey towards socialism, there was a broad consensus that Victorian Britain was the pinnacle of social achievement, the minority who disagreed with that view kept their mouths shut, and the only ones who voiced their dissatisfaction were Carlyle and Ruskin. Ruskin was really Morris’s guru before he discovered socialism and he exclaims “how deadly dull the world would have been twenty years ago but for Ruskin!” Ruskin taught him how to give form to his discontent.
Morris defines the two leading passions of his life as “the desire to produce beautiful things” and “hatred of modern civilization”. He hated it for its inequality, its “eyeless vulgarity”, its “waste of mechanical power”. He saw no hope for this world and thought that it was going to end up as “a counting-house on the top of a cinder-heap”, environmental catastrophe where the world was going to be driven by its pursuit of economic gains. In that world there was no place for beauty or art, and Huxley (T.H., obviously), was going to replace Homer. Then he discovered socialism and with it a new hope, which again interestingly corresponds with religious conversion narratives.
So summing up, Morris’s love of history and art made him hate contemporary civilization, which had no use for such things. But then socialism saved him from becoming, like many other artists, just somebody who keeps on railing against “progress”, or wastes his time “in any of the numerous schemes by which the quasi-artistic of the middle classes hope to make art grow when it has no longer any root”. He ends with the caveat about the role of art: many people perceive socialism as solely the way to bring economic equality. He doesn’t use Engelsian vocabulary about “base” and “superstructure”, but that’s what he means. Sure, you need economic safety before you can enjoy art. But the economic exploitation of the working class so stunted not only their bodies, but also their imagination, that they cannot actually imagine a much better life than their present one. And the role of art is to awake their imagination, to show them the world can be a beautiful place.
This is an essay Morris wrote towards the end of his life for a socialist magazine. I find it interesting that Morris moved from medievalism to socialism, while many Victorians I read about who were fascinated by the Middle Ages were led in the direction of Toryism and High Anglicanism, or even Roman Catholicism. Which leads me to the religious angle – Morris uses the word “conversion” to describe his process and I am pretty sure there are some papers comparing this narrative with religious conversion narratives (or if there aren’t, there should be. Morris scholars, get your shoes on).
Morris begins, very properly for a leftie, by defining socialism, because as he puts it, he is told that the word already means something else than ten years ago. For him socialism is the world in which there are neither rich nor poor, there is equality, the spirit of feeling responsible for all the members of society, in short “the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.” Morris said he didn’t have any kind of transitional period, not counting a short period when he had a clear view of what his political ideals were, but had no hope of putting them in practice, before he discovered the Democratic Federation (the first socialist organization in London). He admits he arrived at his views mostly independently, since before his conversion he had never read Adam Smith, David Ricardo, or Karl Marx. Whatever he learnt about socialist theories came actually from its detractors: he read some posthumous essays of James Mill (J.S.’s father) who criticised Fourierist (utopian) socialists, but presented their views honestly enough for Morris to realize that he actually agrees with them. And from discussions with his anarchist friends, he realized that he actually doesn’t agree with them. So he actually learnt to appreciate socialism thanks to its critics on both sides. The rest of his political education came from his attempts at reading The Capital, although he admits that he liked its historical chapters, but was very confused by its economic parts. The rest of his education came from his conversations with the leaders of early English socialist movement like Bax, Hyndman, and Scheu (I cannot but notice they were all younger than Morris, in Bax’s case a generation younger).
But, Morris says, he actually started this narrative a bit in the middle, while he should start at the beginning: how did he, a wealthy middle-class man, come to be interested in practical socialism? It must have been because he always had a kind of political ideal in mind. He never had much interest in politics for its own sake, and he never believed in partial solutions, or the idea that poor people can be happy and “respectable” (I think he refers to various charitable schemes, labouring under the idea that they could make them so, if only they could satisfy their most basic needs.) Before the rise of modern socialism the predominant idea about the people of his social class was the Whig belief that Victorian Britain is the pinnacle of social achievement, and if only we cleared away these pesky remnants of the dark ages, we would be perfect.
The only thing left after Mellygraunce is “a spout of blood on the hot land”, because the duel took place in summer, and Guinevere recollects how she mused about how the flames would be quivering over her head. She uses Mellygraunce as a warning to the lords who are judging her, suggesting they may come to a similarly sticky end. She also argues that she is too beautiful to be bad, which may sound ridiculous when she puts it in words, but don’t we have a plethora of studies proving that attractive people have it easy in life, including getting lower sentences? (Viz. Jon Hamm on 30 Rock). She describes her own beauty at length in the language which carries with it connotations of an approaching storm or some other natural disaster coming to destroy them. Can you look at my face and argue that I am bad? she asks. And as regards Lancelot in her bedroom, she asked him to spend some nice time together, and being the paragon of chivalry, he agreed, to help her to chase away melancholy that is threatening to overcome her, when she thinks about her lost youth and how alone she feels. They had some innocent time together until they heard the noise outside. Both Guinevere and Lancelot were petrified, and then she fell down to the floor. (I am not sure why she talks about “the stones they threw up rattled o’er my head” if she and Launcelot are in her chamber, behind the locked door.) Then, she remembers, her maids came and Lancelot soothed her while her head was on his breast, white and with chattering teeth, until Lancelot said – then she breaks off abruptly with “By God! I will not tell you more today”. You know the rest of the story, she says, and she ends with her refrain: “Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,/Whatever may have happened these long years,/God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie!”. She starts listening intently, like somebody waiting to be rescued, and indeed, Launcelot arrives.
Is Guinevere truthful in her defence and should we believe her? Some interpretations say that Guinevere doesn’t deny her love for Lancelot, but argues that it was within the code of courtly love and the sin she denies being guilty of is treason. I am not quite sold on that, since there is much awareness in medieval literature of how untenable the idea of purely platonic courtly love was. I find the ironic reading of the defence more convincing: Guinevere interprets Gawain’s charge literally, as her words “whatever may have happened these long years” show: she and Lancelot didn’t have sex on that night when they were caught, but she doesn’t say it had not happened before. Defending herself, she implicates herself as well.
Around the time when Morris was writing this poem he also painted his wife-to-be, Jane Burden, as the queen tormented by her sinful love (his only completed oil painting). This painting used to be known as “Queen Guenevere”, but Tate Gallery, which is its owner, has recently retitled it “La Belle Iseult”. They are experts and I am sure they had many very good reasons for it, but their website only indicates the presence of the small greyhound on the bed as the allusion to the story of Iseult (the dog was a gift from Tristan). If the dog is meant to be the argument for identifying the woman as Iseult, what about her hair – wasn’t iseult blonde, at least in the most famous versions?
Whoever this lady may be, the painting and the poem proved to be oddly prescient. Burden married Morris mostly for the social and economic advantages, and a few years into their marriage she started an intimate relationship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although it remains a matter of some dispute (not unlike with Lancelot and Guinevere) whether they actually ever had sex (Rossetti at that time may have been too ill to consummate their relationship); after Rossetti’s death, she had another, shorter and this time certainly physical relationship with Wilfred Blunt, a Victorian aristocratic playboy, poet, and horse-breeder.
On a side note, much has been said about the Pre-Raphaelite idealized notion of female beauty, but the longer I look at these pictures, the more I realize that they are not the 21st c. ideal of female beauty – they are not the faces used e.g. in contemporary commercials. Jane Burden with her strong jaw and tendencies for a unibrow looks in many photographs (for instance the ones in which she was posed by Rossetti) a lot like Blanca Flores in Orange is the New Black. Rossetti did seem to have a thing for women with strong jaws, because his other favourite models – Alexa Wilding, Fanny Cornforth – seem to share this trait as well. Elizabeth Siddal didn’t have it, but she was considered generally plain in her lifetime – too red-haired and too thin for Victorians. The Pre-Raphaelite beauty is not actually the photoshopped standard of beauty of our times, and that is what makes it so fascinating
Guinevere really again lays into Gauwaine saying again that he lies, and her tears of outrage are the best proof of that; if she had committed that sin (I shall discuss late what sin she means), she would have lost all conscience and become a murderess, incapable of any regrets. Then she tries to soften him up, which is perhaps not a great strategy if she has just called him repeatedly a liar. She asks him to remember his own mother, who was killed by his brother when he caught her in adultery, and implies that if he supports her execution, she is going to haunt him. But Gauwaine turns away and Guinevere realizes she has to fight on her own. She goes back to an earlier episode when she was imprisoned by a knight called Mellyagraunce and locked up in one room with a young knight who had been wounded in the skirmish. Mellyagraunce saw blood on her bed covers and asked Guinevere to explain herself, to which she reacted with outrage. Is there any law in the land that makes the queen explain herself? Are you going to make me pull up my sleeve and show a fresh knife wound on my arm? (I can think of another perfectly innocent explanation why there might be blood on the bed-clothes in a woman’s bed.) But, Guinevere says, she is not going to defend her honour in this way, because she has other defenders. She reminds everyone how white with fear Mellyagraunce was when Lancelot challenged him to a duel in contemptuous words. He got so mad with M that he struck him to the ground with his bare hands, and Mellyagraunce was lying on the ground, complaining about having to die so young. Lancelot says he is going to give him a chance and he is going to fight him with the left side of his body unprotected by armour. Mellyagraunce sees his chance, but of course he is no match for Lancelot, who is first careful to keep him on his right side, and then unexpectedly flings his sword to his left hand and kills M., while Guinevere, chained to the stake (where she would have been burnt if the result of this trial by combat had been unfavourable to her), looks on admiringly.
Picking up from the time when Lancelot arrived. The year goes by, seasons change, and the way Guenevere describes them reflects her growing consciousness of her love for Lancelot: April brings with it storm clouds, in summer she grows “white with flame”, and in autumn she realizes things will never be the same. She hides her love, but it is eating her up on the inside and this is the moment to which she dates her wrong decision, like the one about choosing the wrong cloth. She never loved Arthur but was bought by his “great name, and his little love”, and now she argues she shouldn’t be forbidden to love forever just because of “a little word” she once said (by which I assume she means her marriage vows). God wants all people to be happy and good, and if she loses Lancelot, she is going to hate the world. So she let her love grow, and she compares this process to somebody slipping down a bank until they finally reach the water and feel the relief when they stop fighting. The turning point in her relationship with Lancelot was one spring day when she went out by herself to the garden. She is overcome by the beauty of the day, and by the garden, which is made all the more beautiful by the fact that it is enclosed and contained within its walls. She feels herself almost dissolving in nature, holding her hand against the sun and looking how the light seeps through the edges of her fingers. Then Lancelot comes and they kiss – their first moment of physical intimacy.
Moving on to another Pre-Raphaelite poet, artist and socialist William Morris. This poem is loosely inspired by Le Morte d’Arthur, imagining what would happen if Guinevere had been given some time to speak before being sentenced. The poem is written in terza rima, possibly alluding to Dante, but also conveying the flow of Guinevere’s speech, during which apparently nobody dares to interrupt her. It also makes it really difficult for me to chop it up into portions and I feel I am seriously harming the poem by doing so, but I’ll do my best.
May Morris, William’s daughter and editor claimed that the poem in its first version had a long introductory section explaining how Guinevere came to be in this position, but Morris decided to cut it. It was probably a good call, because we are thrown immediately in medias res, but it also shows that Morris could safely assume his readers had at least a rudimentary knowledge of Guinevere’s story. As the poem begins, Guinevere is allowed to speak. She has just stopped crying and she is holding her hand next to her cheek, as if she had been slapped and still smarting from the blow. She begins in an apologetic manner – what’s the point of talking of the past? I have done a bad thing and I beg your forgiveness (although there is a touch of irony in her “because you must be right, such great lords”). But, she continues, imagine you are on your death-bed, and an angel shows to you two pieces of cloth, a long blue one and a short red one, saying that one stands for heaven, the other for hell, and your salvation depends on which one you choose. So you choose blue, because you think it’s logical, and the angel says it’s hell, and you moan “‘Ah Christ! if only I had known, known, known'”. And this was the case with me, only after Lancelot went away I realised what happened and regretted it. (I’ve always had a bit of a problem with this justification, since Guinevere tries to portray her love for Lancelot as a random accident, like drawing the bad lot, while surely she must have known that adultery was frowned upon in her day and age.) With her voice rising, she accuses Sir Gauwaine of lying. Then her eyes again fill with tears, but she holds up her head high. She starts reminiscing about the time when Lancelot first came to Camelot at Christmas, already preceded by his fame.
Finally, some poems from the later phase of Rossetti’s work, about which some scholars get a bit sniffy, arguing that they are too conventionally pious, but the ones selected here are still pretty good. “A Life’s Parallels” is an intriguing poem because, as W. David Shaw points out, it is incomplete grammatically. It’s written as a series of nominal sentences (or gerund clauses? depends how you look it it), but without any main clause. It is clearly about death, but the incomplete sentence structure suggests that death is not the end. Even though we may never be on the same side of the river or of the granary, time goes on and life goes on, symbolized by the heavy heads of corn. We move with the river of time, often “faint yet pursuing”, and never looking back.
Sonnet 17 from the sequence Later Life is a record of a particular mood on a particular day, which “is neither of the fog nor of today”: it makes the speaker think of a certain beach which is “so out of reach while quite within my reach”. Maybe it was a local English beach, but Rossetti felt too ill to travel even such a short distance? or maybe it’s the memories of the time she spent at that place and which cannot be regained, even though the physical place stayed the same. In a sestet with an interestingly complicated rhyme pattern (abbabc, so a bit like a cross between the Italian and the English sonnet) the speaker expresses her general boredom with life and ends unexpectedly with a conversational “how fares it, Friends, with you?”
Rossetti as a pious Tractarian Anglican must have felt very hurt by Newman’s conversion to Catholicism and yet she was able to write this farewell sonnet after his death. Rossetti compares his character to a spring-tide, which is bigger than any other tide, implying that a nature like his could not be contained by the ordinary religious practices of a regular Anglican parishioner. Now he is laid to sleep, and even though Rossetti remains ambiguous about the final verdict on his life, she thinks that God is the one to decide which side of Newman’s life is going to outweigh the other: “Thy best has done its best, thy worst its worst:/Thy best its best, Please God, thy best its best.”
And we end this selection with “Sleeping at Last”, which reads a bit like Rossetti’s “Crossing the Bar”, even though the dead woman she describes in the poem is not identified with the speaker (let alone Rossetti herself). She is “sleeping at last” (the phrase that is going to reverberate through the poem), and Rossetti may be alluding to her belief in Soul’s Sleep, but she also emphasizes that the dead woman is now free from any kind of emotional turmoil. The description of her grave (“the purple thyme and the purple clover”) suggest some kind of pastoral setting, emphasizing the peace the dead woman was not granted in her lifetime.
Thus ends my reading of the Rossettis, and because they sometimes seem a bit po-faced. I finish with enclosing a link to the story of their wombat obsession. O uomibatto!
“No, Thank You, John”, is a delightful poem showing the more playful side of Rossetti. It’s about the speaker rejecting a suitor, as its very first line indicates. Why do you keep on bugging me? I never loved you or encouraged you, so why do you go about with this face “as wan/as shows an hour-old ghost”, implying that John’s suffering, while very ostentatious, may be perhaps somewhat superficial. There are plenty of girls who would take you, so don’t feel obliged to remain single. You say I have no heart? Perhaps you are right, but then be logical and don’t be angry with me for not giving you what I don’t have. I never made you any promises, so don’t call me false. Anyway, time flies past so quickly, so let us not argue. Let me put you firmly in the friendzone, as long as you realize that you don’t stand a chance for anything more.
“Promises Like Pie-Crust” is a bit similar thematically, but more sober. The title refers to a saying attributed to Jonathan Swift “Promises and pie-crust are made to be broken”. The poem begins with “Promise me no promises”, but I don’t know whether it was the customary back then to follow this phrase with ‘tell me no lies”. Instead Rossetti swerves into “so will I not promise you”, and the poem goes in the direction which, but for some vocabulary, sounds very contemporary – let us avoid commitments, because they inevitably lead to cheating. If we don’t cast the die, if we keep it casual, we can spare each other some heartache (naturally Rossetti didn’t have in mind a “friends with benefits” kind of relationship, but this poem could be used in such a situation as well). You don’t know my past and I don’t know yours. You seem so warm, but maybe you used to be even warmer with somebody else. I may seem cold, but maybe I felt more sun with somebody else in my past? If we make vows of love, we will inevitably start to feel sorry for the lost liberty, so… let’s be just friends, like we used to be. “Many thrive on frugal fare/Who would perish of excess”, and it seems that it’s best for our peace of minds to be on a kind of emotional diet as well.
Titling her sonnet “In Progress” Rossetti prophetically threw a wrench into the Google mechanism and created a set of expectations for its readers which she then subverts. The first phrase that comes to my mind is “work in progress”, but as the first two lines make clear, the poem is not about a thing, but about a woman. It seems that she’s been through some kind of personal trauma, because “Ten years ago it seemed impossible/That she should ever grow so calm as this”. But what she describes is not a happy woman, but rather somebody broken by life: she speaks slowly, is often silent, her “dried eyes” are “like an exhausted well” and she is “gravely monotonous” like the tolling of a death bell. The sestet describes her as drowning her sorrows in daily chores, ever patient and rather unexpectedly imagines that one day she might turn into an angel. So in fact, the woman described in the poem is a “work in progress” in the hands of God, and her progress is like Pilgrim’s Progress to Heaven. And yet I wonder, is it possible to read that ironically? The image of the woman turning into an angel is so on-the-nose, like from a bad Victorian chromolithography. But on the other hand, maybe it’s me looking at Rossetti from the distance of a century and a half, during which much has been done to debunk the myth of “the angel in the house”. But in fact, the figures like the one described in the poem – women heroically hiding their personal grief and burying themselves in the work for their families, church, or charity, are the staple characters of Charlotte Mary Yonge and many other Tractarian women writers (and not only them, but they seem most relevant here, given Rossetti’s religious proclivities).
Laura after having tasted the juices covering her sister’s body falls down in a swoon. Was Rossetti thinking about homeopathy, in which a small dose is a cure and a big dose is poison? Lizzie spends the whole night in one of those Victorian sick-bed scenes, anxiously tending her, and in the morning Laura wakes up healthy and rejuvenated. They both lived on, and had families of their own, although Rossetti’s description of this phase of their lives is interestingly melancholy: they are mothers, so their hearts are “beset with tears”, and they like to tell their children about their youth, which is described as “pleasant days long gone”. Then Laura would gather her and her sister’s children together and tell them about Lizzie’s bravery, which leads to the ostensible moral of the story: “there is no friend like a sister”. But is this the moral, though? Is it a poem about suppressed lesbian sexuality, displaced onto fruit? Or is Lizzie’s sacrifice a Christian allegory? When Rossetti was writing this poem, was she thinking about her biological sister Francesca or her would-be sister-in-law Elizabeth Siddal, who was commonly known by her friends and family as Lizzie? Siddal died in February 1862 and Goblin Market was published shortly before her death in January, even though it was written a few years earlier. If the poem is about the dangers of addiction, I wonder how far gone was Siddal’s opium addiction (which eventually killed her) at the time of Rossetti’s writing this poem. At the beginning of the poem it seems Laura is the reasonable one, and I wonder if Rossetti had not made a last-minute switch to spare her brother’s feelings.
LIzzie is standing unmoved, like a Christian martyr, although that is the one simile that Rossetti doesn’t use in her customary series of similes – instead she is compared to a lily in the flood, a rock lashed by the waves, or a “royal virgin town” attacked by the enemy. “One may lead a horse to water/Twenty cannot make him drink”, and despite the goblins’ attack Lizzie’s lips remain tightly shut, but deep in her heart she rejoices as her body is covered by the pulp of the addictive fruit. Finally the goblins get tired, fling her penny back and go or swim or fly away. Lizzie, despite her aching body, runs with joy in her heart (and the silver penny in her purse) back home, and exclaims to Laura “hug me, kiss me, suck my juices… /eat me, drink me, love me”. That’s an incredible load of both sensual and religious imagery squeezed (no pun intended) into these lines. Laura is aghast because she thinks that Lizzie, like her, tasted the goblins’ fruit and is now doomed. But as she kisses Lizzie all over and tastes the juice of the magic fruit, she find the juice now like wormwood and she hates its taste. She has a kind of fit, rending her clothes and beating her breast, while her hair in a truly Pre-Raphaelite manner flies around, again described in a series of similes.
Many other fine artists were drawn to Goblin Market, and here is another – Arthur Rackham, here depicting the scene of Lizzie fighting the goblins (Public Domain, via British Library).