Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics

By Isobel Armstrong | Go to book overview

9

A NEW RADICAL AESTHETIC

The Grotesque as cultural critique: Morris

William Morris’s The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, a revolutionary work in Ruskin’s sense and probably in ours, was published in 1858, some years after the innovative periods in the work of Arnold and Clough. Yet Morris belongs here because like them he contends with an individualist and expressive account of poetry and dissents from it. But whereas they orientate themselves through redefining a classical tradition, Morris deliberately aligned himself with what might be called a ‘gothic’ reading of culture. This early volume, with its debts to Froissart and Malory, is often seen as an anticipation of the ‘medievalising’ mode of Pre-Raphaelite poetry which came into prominence in the 1860s; or its Arthurian themes are seen to assimilate it to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King which began to be published in 1859; or it is elided with the relaxed prolixity of Morris’s own later work in The Earthly Paradise (1868-70). This later poem, however, is quite unlike Morris’s first volume. It is a cycle of alternating classical and Teutonic legends, and advises its readers to ‘Forget six counties over-hung with smoke’ and to retreat into the past or to an idealised past. In it Arnold’s poetry of moral composure and consolation seems to have modulated into a source of therapeutic beauty to redress the damage done by work in an industrial society. But The Defence of Guenevere is none of these things. It has no precedent or sequel. Its boldness lies in its seizing of the possibilities of myth and legend which had been theorised through the post-Coleridgean and conservative tradition and redefining them for a radical aesthetics. If Clough is the democratic poet of contemporary realism and Arnold the liberal poet of the history of objectified action, Morris takes myth, the most potent material for conservative poetics, and rethinks it for a different politics. A fresh account of work, gender, consciousness and language shapes this volume. In a deceptively simple language, without density, but with a highly energetic and laconic compactness, it is written with remarkable innovative freedom which extends to both metrical experiment and narrative condensation. Overlaying narrative with drama,

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