This article argues that William Morris’s “The Defence of Guenevere” (1858) writes history through a singular unit of the time, the ephemeral moment. The moment is constructed through sensory experience, lodging historical narrative in the body and departing from mainstream Victorian progressive narratives. Morris constructs what I call an historiography of conditionality, an historical consciousness predicated on the immanent self-contradiction of memorializing any particular moment. In doing so, Morris anticipates what Walter Benjamin and others, following Karl Marx, theorized as historical materialism. My reading of “The Defence of Guenevere” departs from critics who have labeled Morris as escapist, nostalgic, or someone who uses the past to critique the present. Instead, Morris creates a poetic historical consciousness that weighs the cost of memorialization for the present day.
Corps de l’article
In an 1872 lecture, William Morris claimed, “Not every day, you may be sure, was a day of slaughter and tumult though the histories read almost as if it were so; but every day the hammer chinked on the anvil, and the chisel played about the oak beam” (“The Art of the People” 58). Morris links the history of work to the more public, familiar history of violence through a singular unit of time. Violence is sporadic but intense and, so, takes up a disproportionate amount of historical recounting. Work is constant, daily, but takes up a proportionally lesser amount of history because it is a kind of bodily experience whose consistency resists memorialization. The temporal unit of history, Morris implies, shapes our understanding of history’s narrative. That temporal unit is measured through the senses: the physical experience of “slaughter and tumult,” the chink of the hammer, or the play of the anvil.
William Morris’s “The Defence of Guenevere” (1858) argues for a conception of time that is, this essay aims to show, momentary, fragmented, and conditional. Invoking “defence” as both Guenevere’s verbal defense and as genealogy, Morris resurrects bloody Arthurian tales to make visceral the modern politics of history. Morris works out a theory of time that is neither nostalgic, escapist, nor one that uses the past to critique the present, as many critics have claimed.  Instead, the poem suggests a temporal rhetoric that can only take place sensuously, one moment at a time, in a manner that is radically corporeal and isolated. For Morris, history is a constellation of moments, grounded in the senses in a way that affronted Victorians’ Whiggish sense of progress. In this understanding of history, Morris anticipates what Walter Benjamin and others, following Karl Marx, term historical materialism.  Morris represents the senses as defining the measure of time by depicting vivid moments from the past. When time can only be experienced sensorily, it is reduced to a series of brief flashes of sensation; when we choose to memorialize, we must choose to live those moments anew.
Morris’s history is the practice of memorializing the momentary, and Morris tries to draw our attention to other moments, other possibilities. In doing so, “The Defence of Guenevere” constructs an historiography of conditionality.  This essay argues that “The Defence of Guenevere” writes the conditional moment, inhabiting the tension between the continuity of work and the sensation of violence. What version of history the author chooses to make sensational and sensible, this poem suggests, has ramifications for any understanding of the relative places of work and violence. But Morris’s poetic historicism also highlights the problems of temporality and memorialization themselves: we must, in reading this poem, read and think through the present in a way that recognizes its momentary, interruptive, and conditional qualities. By demonstrating what is at stake in any project of memorialization, Morris champions the conditional historical project.
The question of Morris’s investment in the past and the relationship of past to present has troubled Morris criticism from the first reviews of The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems. Critics have tended to read Morris’s investment in medieval art and poetics as a critique of the present through a reading of or retreat to the past. In reading Morris’s medievalism as a kind of agenda, whether nostalgic or reactionary, however, we miss his treatment of history as a kind of consciousness. Isobel Armstrong has argued that The Defence of Guenevere is “an attempt to be the form in which modern consciousness shaped by work and labour sees, experiences, and desires” (236, Armstrong’s emphasis). I extend this argument to read the “Defence” as an attempt to be in the form of an historical consciousness shaped by modern “work and labour.” This way of thinking allows us to identify in Morris a poetics informed by a theory of history, a way of thinking through history, not just back upon it. “The Defence of Guenevere” stages a myth that is itself about the complexity of representing or knowing origins. But, paradoxically, Morris idealizes this myth in a temporal form inherently skeptical of pastness or origins: the moment.
The moment was an expression of Morris’s nineteenth-century ideology and his conception of medieval practice. The nineteenth-century Arthurian revival differed from its Romantic antecedents, according to Chris Brooks and Inga Bryden, because its “[i]nsistence on a particular ‘moment’ from a legend, coupled with experimental narrative techniques, allowed psychological analysis of character” (261). For Morris, however, Brooks and Bryden’s “moment” extends beyond individual psychological character analysis to a conception of time that is inevitably influenced by Morris’s idea of labor and the senses. The moment is the crucial unit of physical experience and of literary representation. By establishing the moment as the foundational experiential unit of “The Defence of Guenevere,” Morris in turn asks if the moment might be a unit of historical experience that transcends pastness or presentness. He attempts to offer not just a portrait of past moments, but to ask if we can ever repeat their intensity and ephemerality. By writing the poem in varying layers of the past tense, he creates an historicism of the moment, a meditation on the past as a series of moments—non-progressive, sensuous, and isolated.
Guenevere’s and the narrator’s voices instruct the reader to move between the near and distant pasts in a way that makes the poem as much about these moves as it is about the story that the moves enable. What has been read as the central paradox of the poem, Guenevere’s concurrent assertion of Gauwaine’s lies and her own admission of guilt, is enacted by this rhetorical oscillation between the history of her love affair with Launcelot and the poem’s refrain:
Nevertheless you, O Sir Gauwaine, lie,
Whatever may have happened through these years,
God knows I speak truth, saying that you lie.
The refrain draws attention to a switch in rhetorical modes by returning to Guenevere’s voice, to the sound of the present moment.
The refrain begins and ends with Guenevere’s charge that Gauwaine lies, hinging on a seemingly dismissive statement: “‘Whatever may have happened through these years.’” While it ostensibly disregards what happened in the past, the repetition of this statement paradoxically insists that this dismissed past is actually quite important to the present. Despite our instructions to the contrary, we cannot ignore whatever has happened because Guenevere makes it a central, recurrent part of her defense. This simultaneous rejection of, and emphasis on, what lies outside the present moment defines the constraints of Morris’s poetics of the moment—even while it illustrates how the poem always bristles at those constraints. The central paradox of the poem, then, is not just Guenevere’s assertions of guilt and innocence, but the poem’s related insistence on the primacy of the present moment and its concurrent pastness.
Morris’s historicism of the moment means that each fragmentary moment is experienced through the senses in a flash of time that is discrete from other moments. By writing history in this way, Morris departs from Victorian notions of history as progressive, an idea so pervasive it informed burgeoning Victorian anthropology, science, and imperialism.  Constructing history as a series of fragmented moments, corporeal and isolated, belies the idea that time or cultures have lead us inexorably to the present moment. In this way, Morris locates our memorials of the past in the senses. Critics have debated the implications of Morris’s choice of medieval setting for his understanding of the present. Neither escapist nor nostalgic, Morris’s history, I argue, is a radical reimagining of historical narrative, a way to live the present through an historical understanding of the moment.
We experience the fragmented, moment-by-moment narrative primarily through Guenevere’s body. Walter Pater’s review of Morris’s book, one of the few positive early reviews, notes the somatic quality of the poems: “The poem which gives its name to the volume is a thing tormented and awry with passion, like the body of Guenevere defending herself from the charge of adultery, and the accent falls in strange, unwonted places with the effect of a great cry” (80). To read this poem is to hear that great cry, to see and possibly even feel Guenevere’s contortions. Guenevere ends her recounting of past events by concluding, “‘I will not tell you more to-day,’” an ending extending beyond “to-day,” since this is her only chance at defense (277). Her story stops just short of the battle that followed Launcelot’s coming to her chambers, and she concludes:
You know quite well the story of that fray,
How Launcelot still’d their bawling, the mad fit
That caught up Gauwaine—all, all, verily,
But just that which would save me; these things flit.
They know everything but “that which would save” her, yet she refuses to tell that part. She who was not shameful, yet felt it shameful to feel aught but shame, cannot retell—or relive—the moment that may redeem her to her judges. The bodily register of this inherently contradictory moment transcends a narrative of the past to become a way of living the present.
Pater’s review of the Defence poems became the kernel for his famous conclusion to The Renaissance, which champions the ephemeral sensory experience of the individual, while also lamenting the isolation of that experience, the implacably separate experience of being in a body. Morris’s articulation of the fragmentary moment, the impetus for Pater’s famous polemic, has itself become the source of critical disagreement over Morris’s stance on individualism. Karen Herbert, for instance, sees Morris constructing an utterly individual account: “Through the shaping of her personal and historical memory, Guenevere struggles to extricate herself from the language and consciousness of her era and by so doing attests to the individual’s power and right to contradict the convention of a decaying society” (328). Constance Hassett, however, argues for an “anti-individualism that is remarkably anti-Victorian” (104). The contested status of the individual stems, I believe, from Morris’s fraught construction of the moment. If the moment is fragmentary and ephemeral, yet resolutely sensory and corporeal, then the experience of time takes place bodily, an experience at once universal and isolating. 
Guenevere attempts to convey the conundrum of the moment in her allegory of the colored cloths. “‘Listen, suppose your time were come to die,’” she begins, proposing that heaven or hell might be the result of choosing between two different-colored cloths, the signifier of color divorced from the signified outcome (16). She hopes to illustrate the utter indistinguishability of her choices, how “‘No man could tell the better of the two’” (46). In doing so, she breaks the chain of cause and effect by inserting her own perspectival bewilderment. “‘Perhaps,’” she suggests, after choosing wrongly
you then would roll upon your bed,
And cry to all good men that loved you well,
‘Ah Christ! If only I had known, known, known.’
That repeated keening, “known, known, known,” emphasizes the kind of knowledge that depends on hindsight because there is no way to predict what will happen based on known past events. She chooses “heaven’s colour, the blue” only to find that blue signifies hell—an outcome with no precursor or historical association. But, she concludes, when “‘Launcelot went away, then I could tell’” (42). Only when Launcelot is gone can Guenevere tell—or, as the story implies, could her listeners in her place tell. “Tell” here can mean discern or articulate, and either one is apt. She cannot discern her situation, cannot force herself to turn away from this ruinous attraction. But she also cannot articulate, cannot tell her story, her choices, or her defence, until he is gone. Morris constructs historical poetics here that drum into the listener the isolation of the moment.
Guenevere imputes knowledge to her listeners that is omniscient save for the most important part; they know “‘all, all verily, / But just that which would save me; these things flit’” (281-2). The emphasized repetition and consonance of “all, all, verily” suggests a kind of shared, true understanding of the past that is quickly subtracted by the next line. While we may think we all know what happened, having heard of it or even having been there, the reality is that “these things flit.” The moment cannot be shared, even among people who have knowledge of the same event. Ephemeral, sensational, the moment eludes codification. Guenevere will not share what will save her because she will not, cannot relive it. In The Renaissance Pater describes “that continual vanishing away, that strange, perpetual weaving and unweaving of ourselves” (188). History is comprised of these ephemeral moments, and the individual is made—and unmade—in the experience of moments.
By structuring “The Defence of Guenevere” around the flashes of the moment, Morris proposes a particular poetic historiography. The poem uses tortured, speculative language to suggest the other options that always lie outside any history. Morris’s historical poetics are visceral in order to register their conditionality—committing to one version of events, even while also recording their own resistance to that commitment. What we choose to record as history is always echoed by other possibilities, which are not necessarily insignificant or untrue because they go unrecorded. The poem works over and over the same ground—the necessary premise of a defense—to suggest all the possible moments that exist outside any fixed narrative. Morris writes the sensation of violence, the traditional writing of history, in order to write the moment. But he also questions that writing of history by implying the other moments that always lie outside those moments, the continuity of work, the other physical histories always ongoing.
I call this an historiography of conditionality because the poem mimics the structure of grammatical conditionality, which is defined as the “unreal or unfulfilled conditions of the present [...] or the past” (“verbs, tenses of”). Conditionality is a way of phrasing possibilities in the past tense so as to talk about the present. The poem’s multi-layered temporal structure mixes present-pastness (the trial) with past-pastnesss (Guenevere’s recounting of her relationship with Launcelot). The speaker talks about Guenevere’s trial in the third-person past tense, but Guenevere narrates her first-person account in a still more distant past tense. The first word of the poem—“but”—suggests from the outset that these layers of pastness are in contested relationship to one another, not as stories that compete for truth status, but as individual moments that have meaning regardless of their actuality. Several possible stories exist, told only in momentary flashes. By recording the possibility of these moments, the poem constructs its conditional historiography. What might have happened, from Guenevere’s cheating to Launcelot’s lies, is as important as what did happen.
Morris’s splintered view of the past anticipates Walter Benjamin’s historical materialism. In “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Benjamin distinguishes the historical materialist’s view of history as fragmented from the historicist’s “homogenous, empty” view of time (262). Benjamin concludes his essay with an example: instead of seeing all events as inexorably leading up to the present, Benjamin writes, the Jews understand the present as a time apart, “[f] or every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter” (264). “The Defence of Guenevere” also writes each moment as loaded with possibility, immanently self-contradictory, and predicated on the possibility of salvation—not religious salvation, but Guenevere’s physical rescue from her death sentence by the arrival of Launcelot. The poem cannot tell the story of what has happened without also telling a story of what might have happened. Salvation and damnation are never mutually exclusive, merely an expression of a balance tipped for a moment.
In telling these two stories side by side, the poem incorporates a stream of similes, formalizing the plenitude of conditional moments and mobilizing the sense of contradictory immanence that Benjamin describes. Each moment is ephemeral and replaceable. The poem illustrates each moment’s possible outcomes by defining the moment through its resemblance to something else. The contradictory possibilities of the present moment are registered in and through Guenevere’s sensing body. In the opening lines, Guenevere “threw her wet hair backward from her brow” to reveal herself “touching her cheek, / As though she had had there a shameful blow” (2-3). The repetition of “had had” emphasizes the past conditionality of “As though.” We already know that she had not had there a “shameful blow,” that the touching of her cheek is merely analogous, an action registering a past that did not take place. Nonetheless, the action signifies in the present. The convoluted syntax of Guenevere’s body—still conditional—continues: “feeling it shameful to feel ought but shame / All through her heart” (5-6). She registers sensuously the public censure on her cheek that “burned so.” Her personal knowledge that there was no literal blow cannot counteract the effects of the figurative blow. She displays her sensory reaction as a marker of both her shameful past and her repudiation of that shame. The doubling-back of the narrator’s description registers this repudiation in the way that it encompasses both the present moment and its necessary reference to a disputed past. In the same way, Guenevere “walked away” “like one lame,” with “her head / Still lifted up,” displaying her “cheek of flame” (8-9). The bodily contradictions and sinuous sentences record the essential, coexisting contradiction between what has happened and what may have happened.
By defining a moment in its similarity to what it is not, the poem’s first lines catapult the reader into a world where meaning is unanchored to any certain referent. We are meant to understand something that has happened, Guenevere’s hand touching her cheek, by referring to something that has not happened, a blow to her face. Karen Herbert has argued that Guenevere’s figurative speech works by expressing “the unknown in the context of the known” (316). If we examine the initial event of extended simile, however, we see that the figurative language here actually works in reverse of the way Herbert describes it: the known is expressed in the context of the unknown. By reversing the usual order of a simile, Morris suggests that these events are equally likely, equally knowable or unknowable. Immediately up-ending the structure of figurative language, Morris destabilizes these comparisons’ intended transmission of understanding through parallels. Guenevere displays an image of crippling shame and violence, an image to which she contributes. Yet her story resounds with resilience, a resilience that coexists with the shame and violence from the beginning. It is impossible ever to know what has happened; the defence is left unsaid.
Not just part of the problem of what John Plotz has called Morris’s engagement with language’s “never-fully-shareable meaning” (934), the reversal of simile in “The Defence of Guenevere” impairs the function of any parallel, of understanding the world through similarity. Instead, the poem offers up a pattern of possible moments, each one replaceable, neither random nor progressive. And that pattern is most often repetitive, not progressive, the kind of pattern recognizable in Morris’s later decorative arts.  Morris wrote the Defence poems strongly influenced by John Ruskin, particularly Ruskin’s standard of “fidelity of artists to nature” (114). Indeed, Morris’s daughter May Morris claims “fidelity to nature in the formal arrangements of a pattern” as evidence of her father’s fulfillment of his own artistic goals (31). This standard insists upon an essential, agreed-upon starting point, a material nature to emulate. Fidelity to nature suggests that understanding is not just comparative but referential, able to be traced back to an original. Each poetic moment is a repetition of a past moment, a creation of the past anew.
That repetition of a past moment, however, does not rely on its likeness—indeed, it is contradictory and arbitrary. By linking poetic events through simile and its reversal, Morris creates a pattern of moments, a pattern that does not derive meaning from likeness. Instead, the pattern is faithful to its conditionality, formalizing the moment that is not, as well as the moment that is. The events of this poem are not, in an ironic take on the title’s meaning, sequentially linked, a genealogy of cause-and-effect. Guenevere’s innocence, her defense, relies upon a link that is missing, a moment untold. In the end, this poem is neither genealogy nor defense; it is a fortuitous rescue, a moment of salvation that could equally well be one of damnation, regardless of truth or morality. It is a pattern seemingly random, a constellation of moments, united by their repetition of moments past: the poem’s fidelity to the nature of conditional history.
“The Defence of Guenevere” also forms another kind of pattern, an aural pattern of sound that derives from Morris’s integration of art and labor. “The Defence of Guenevere” participates in the sung ballad tradition, the democratization of poetry for, as Armstrong identifies it, “an imagined peasant class” (241).  The ballad form itself depends on particular combinations of “repetitive patterns that can be identified in the narrative structure of traditional balladry” (21). The poem’s repetitive patterns, juxtaposed with Morris’s own disquisition on textile patterns, begin to outline a method of reading that is both formal and temporal. In an 1893 essay on arts and crafts, Morris wrote that the aim in textile patterns “should be to combine clearness of form and firmness of structure with the mystery which comes with abundance and richness of detail” (“Textiles” 36). That is, repetitive patterns allow a separation of the worker from the repetitive elements of the work—the separation of the listener from the repetitive elements of the poem, for example—in favor of a heightening of the sporadic work of the senses. The “abundance and richness of detail” cannot be experienced without the underlying “form and firmness of structure.” Morris’s poems—repetitive, participating in the working-class ballad tradition—demand what Stephen Arata has termed “somatic attention”: “Poems composed by a body occupied by the rhythms of tapestry-weaving might best be read by a body occupied by rhythms of a similar kind.” They do not repay a “word by word” reading strategy but a “different mode of attention, one that works to integrate body and mind, hand and brain” (203).
However, that workmanlike tapestry is only half of what is at stake in “The Defence of Guenevere.” Carolyn Lesjak notes that labor, for Morris, is “culturally formative,” and she follows the Morris critical tradition in attending to his championing of labor (146).  Morris’s rhythmic continuity, however, also includes sporadic bursts of violence. Rather than belying the pattern, however, I see these eruptions as necessary to the pattern’s structure. The song of the poem, its repetitive cadences and lulling chants, is used to tell a story of fracture and indeterminacy. The tension between the rupture of violence and the perpetuity of work in “The Defence of Guenevere” expresses the historiographical tension between the ephemerality of the moment and the memorialization of history—a tension that signals the cultural stakes in any project of memorialization.
Guenevere’s affair with Launcelot, for example, is a sharp, sporadic departure represented as deceptively interwoven into the fabric of experience, what Guenevere calls a “‘path worn smooth and even’” (94). It is the moment represented as seamlessly integrated into experience, yet, at the same time, set apart. In this way, the poem ultimately inhabits the tension between the sporadic temporal shock of violence and the consistency of work. Guenevere compares her growing involvement with Launcelot
as if one should
Slip slowly down some path worn smooth and even,
Down to a cool sea on a summer day.
The explicit comparison is that falling in love with him is like the all-too-easy experience of being drawn down a path. But the repeated use of “slip” in this part of the poem suggests the multiple meanings of slip, including to steal away and to fall, but also to part or cut. In slipping down this path, Guenevere creates a break-away moment, one that is a dramatic interruption of her life as a chaste queen. She tells her listeners, “‘No minute of that wild day ever slips / From out my memory’” (105-6). Guenevere’s memorialization of this moment means she relives it, she “‘hear[s] thrushes sing,’” and the moment returns “‘with most fresh sting’” (108). This experience is both a departure from her previous, known life, and a slip from her present existence at the trial, a reliving of the past in a way that is vivid and meaningful for the present.
More than any story of guilt or innocence, Guenevere’s defense ultimately rests on the corporeal presence of her beauty: “‘Am I not a gracious proof’”? (241) By presenting her sensory experience in lieu of—or as a slip from—narrative, the sensory experience of the moment pierces the pattern of historical narrative. The language with which she presents her body threatens violence and vengeance:
Wept all away to grey, may bring some sword
To drown you in your blood.
At the same time, it presents that violent physical irruption as a part of the pattern of events usually presented:
will you care
For any plausible lies of cunning woof,
When you can see my face with no lie there
The “‘plausible lies’” offer a pattern through a weaving metaphor, their woof. Guenevere’s only truth, her “‘gentle queenly sound: / O true as steel’” pierces that woof with violent certainty (244-5).
When Morris claims that artists must always be “crying out, ‘Look back! look back!’” he does not urge this without a sense of the cost of this project (“The Exhibition” 227). Benjamin insists that we not discriminate in our memorialization of the past, that no part of the past “should be regarded as lost for history” (254). “The Defence of Guenevere,” however, considers whether or not we can even choose which events to memorialize, or, if that choice is made for us, whether some moments demand a particular kind of memorialization. Guenevere’s recounting of her story exemplifies Benjamin’s definition of what it means to “articulate the past”: “to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger” (255). The danger of Guenevere’s imminent execution is certainly dangerous personally, but her story and its poetic retelling suggest the cultural and historical costs of seizing a memory as it flashes up. To choose to relive these memories is to choose to part from the present, to slip down a path as seductive and consequential as Guenevere’s slipping away with Launcelot. The moment of danger that foments the past is not just a danger of the present, this poem and its multiple layers of pastness intimate, but a danger of memorialization more generally.
We see this danger in moments such as Guenevere’s direct appeal for Gauwaine’s pity. She implores him,
Gauwaine be friends now, speak me lovingly
Do I not see how God’s dear pity creeps
All though your frame, and trembles in your mouth?
She urges him, “‘Remember in what grave your mother sleeps, / Buried in some place far down in the south,’” adding darkly, “‘Men are forgetting as I speak to you’” (153-5). Guenevere invokes Gauwaine’s mother’s own bloody death, so that he might give her the mercy his own mother did not get. In asserting that, even as she speaks, “men are forgetting” Gauwaine’s mother’s death, Guenevere invokes the dual threat of history: that we will not remember, and that we will not forget. Guenevere acknowledges how quickly an “‘awful drouth / of pity’” can be forgotten (156-7). But she also warns him
let me not scream out
For ever after, when the shrill winds blow
Through half your castle-locks! Let me not shout
For ever after in the winter night
When you ride out alone!
Guenevere offers up a spectre of Gauwaine’s guilt that is aurally painful, loud, and shrill, and could even lead to Gauwaine’s own death, if her “‘rusting tears make [his] sword light!’” (163). Yet she also acknowledges that others might soon forget her death. Gauwaine will be alone in forgetting or remembering, either exonerated by others’ amnesia or rendered ever more isolated by it, alone in a cell of windy shrieks. Neither memorialization nor its opposite is offered as comfort; they are moral imperatives, but often bewildering. The story that we tell and live of the past, the poem implies, has weight for the present in ways that are unpredictable.
Morris voices a poetics of conditional historiography that insists on the fragmented moment as a way to count the cost of memorializing the past. By juxtaposing the rupture and violence of the moment with the repetitive aural fabric of work, Morris insists on the necessary place of both elements in any representation of the past. Each of the Defence poems rings with rhythms that can accompany repetitive labor: circling back to refrains, repeating ending lines, and singing iambs. “The Defense of Guenevere” beats out a tattoo of sound: “known, known, known”; “from tile to tile”; “the clock tick, tick” (41, 271, 75). But these ringing rhythms are thrown off-kilter by the uneven stanzas and varied rhyme schemes. Indeed, the poem counter-intuitively insists on the repetitive aural fabric of work by demonstrating the ways in which it is split by the violence of the moment.  In doing so, the poem demonstrates that history is most often a history of violence—“histories read as if it were”—not just because that is the exciting narrative, but because violence so often gives us the single, vivid moment, the one that “flashes up in a moment of danger.” Yet in representing those moments, Morris reminds us, we too often jettison the connections to daily work that bind together these moments, falsely justifying the cost of memorialization by turning the repetitive pattern into a progressive one. Thus the poem does not necessarily resolve but holds in stasis the tension between the moment and the pattern: recognizing the importance of repetition, but nonetheless insisting on the costs incurred by the necessity of memorializing the past.
Each moment in this poem is isolated, but together they form the structure that complements the repetitive weaving of sound. Guenevere asks, “‘Did you see Mellyagraunce / When Launcelot stood by him?’” (186-7), but of course her listeners did not. The inclusive evidence, combined with Guenevere’s evasive rhetoric of possibility, suggest that her own virtue lies in this word flourishing, her creation of a pattern of meaning that distracts us from what she is not telling us—that which would ostensibly exonerate her. Instead she rests only on the truth of a moment she will not fully describe, a moment experienced by none of her judges. By offering us spoken untrue possibilities and unspoken truths, Guenevere’s speech implies a fabric of history that is dense, largely unspoken, and workmanlike, punctuated by her tortured ruptures of violence.
For the Victorians, who were shaping an historical narrative that still frames our understanding of the past (the Dark Ages, the Renaissance), Morris’s poetic historiography puts into stark terms the losses of these progressive narratives. Erasing the possibility of a truthful history and offering instead only a constellation of possible moments, “The Defence of Guenevere” unsettles Victorians’ understanding of what it means to learn from the past. Though Morris was famously involved with the Pre-Raphaelite circle, his own complex take on medievalism suggests not a single, original period of art to emulate, but a guide from which to take and discard. His treatment of the Camelot tale pays homage to the origins of modern England. At the same time, it democratizes those origins and suggests that they are malleable, unknown, and unknowable. The past is a legend that is available to be told to anyone willing to relive the violence of the moment, to encompass the work of the past, to acknowledge the conditionality of history as it is known. By writing the past as an experience of the tension between the fragmentary moment and the continuity of historicism, Morris suggests that the cost for writing a conditional history is uncertainty. There is no progressive narrative to provide reassurance that the past has built up to the present. The past may hold, this poem suggests, a temporal experience as disjointed and fragmentary as the lived present.
It is that cost, however, that ultimately underscores the worth of memorialization. By constructing an historiography of the conditional moment, “The Defence of Guenevere” tells us not only that we can learn from the past or that the past is part of the present, but also insists that there is a cultural urgency and a political effect in what and how we choose to memorialize. William Morris, in undergraduate verse, ignorant of Marx’s ideology, conveys the kernel of an historiography that would come to be articulated in many different ways, by the most radical of thinkers. Morris’s socialism, medievalism, and aestheticism are all nascent here, heard in the ringing rhythms and tortured language, the vivid moments, and the speculative refusal to settle on a definitive version of Guenevere’s history, even at her all-important defense. To exonerate Guenevere is to decide on a single version of history, a causal narrative to link up to the present day. To leave us hanging on the dash of “‘until Launcelot said—’” is to open up an unnarratable moment, a crucial moment memorialized as a jarring silence (276). Guenevere returns from the dash to the pattern of her refrain, insisting once again that the conditional history of the moment exists within repetition, neither complete randomness nor progress.
- For different versions of this vein of criticism, see E. P. Thompson, Karen Herbert, and Ruth Livesey. Regenia Gagnier, however, has claimed “Far from being escapist nostalgia, I take Morris’s medievalism such as it was, as a resistance to turning history into inconsequent nonsense” (24).
- Benjamin and others derived the term “historical materialism” from Marx’s materialist conception of history, as first outlined in his 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: “The mode of production of material life conditions the great process of social, political, and intellectual life” (20-1).
- Florence Boos has also seen historical interpretation at work in Morris’s poetry; she argues that Morris has a “deeply idiosyncratic belief in a poetic version of historical verstehen” (322).
- Virginia Hale and Catherine Barnes Stevenson trace the critical tradition of conceiving Guenevere’s refrain as a paradoxical admission of guilt and charge of Gauwaine’s falsehood. They resolve this paradox by arguing for a reading of Malory that suggests Guenevere was condemned for treason (for the deaths of Mordred and Arthur’s knights) rather than adultery. According to this reading, Guenevere is a “true lover” not an adulterer (175).
- For the seminal account of Victorian fascination with progress, see Jerome Hamilton Buckley, The Triumph of Time: A Study the Victorian Concepts of Time, History, Progress, and Decadence. For more detailed discussions of the Victorians’ literary and cultural investment in progressive narratives, see, for example, James Buzard, Disorienting Fiction: The Autoethnographic Work of Nineteenth-Century British Novels; Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought; and Martin Willis, Mesmerists,Monsters, and Machines: Science Fiction and the Cultures of Science in the Nineteenth Century.
- Ruth Livesey notes that Morris’s engagement with individualism continued to inform his politics and his art. By the 1880s, when Morris had embraced Socialism, he was, Livesey argues, favoring a “somatic inheritance of tradition rather than the momentary inspiration of individual genius” (606).
- Morris’s career suggests a reflexive relationship between patterns and history. Diane Waggoner points out that Morris’s decorative patterns were also invested in a specifically English history: Morris drew British plants and flowers and studied historic textiles at South Kensington Museum (80).
- Morris’s poetry and design are populist in concept, if not in immediate accessibility. See, for instance, Eileen Boris’s Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris, and the Craftsman Ideal in America, where she claims that Morris “democratized Ruskin’s precepts” (7).
- For more discussion of Morris’s aesthetic of labor, see Eileen Boris, Art and Labor: Ruskin, Morris, and the Craftsman Ideal; Ruth Kinna, “William Morris: Art, Work, and Leisure”; Ruth Livesey, “Morris, Carpenter, Wilde, and the Political Aesthetics of Labor”; and Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics.
- In A Dream of John Ball, Morris describes weaving as a forceful parting, intensified by industrialization: “Time was when the shuttle was thrust in and out of all the thousand threads of the warp, and it was long to do; but now the spring-staves go up and down as the man’s feet move, and this and that leap of the warp cometh forward and the shuttle goeth in one shot through all the thousand warps” (279). Guenevere’s sound is that shuttle, piercing the plausible lies and the other sounds “in one shot.”
I am grateful to Anna Kornbluh for reading a draft of this article.
Megan Ward is Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Lawrence University, having recently completed her Ph.D. at Rutgers University. Her current book project is titled Feeling Middle Class: Sensory Training and the Victorian Novel, 1850-1910.
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