William Morris' "Golden Wings" as a Poetic Response to the "Delicate Sentiment" of Tennyson's "Mariana"

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In a letter dated October 24, 1872 to his affectionate friend Aglaia Coronio, William Morris writes: "I suppose you see that Tennyson is publishing another little lot of Arthurian legend. We all know pretty well what it will be; and I confess I don't look forward to it." (1) Fourteen years earlier, Morris had published The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems. (2) In these poems, he reinvents medieval romance legends and does so far more beautifully, some say, than Tennyson had done in the "pale and anaemic" (3) Idylls of the King, the first installment of which was published only a year after The Defence. (4) Yet, because Tennyson's Idylls earned a far kinder response from the critics than did Morris' Defence, (5) Morris' confession to Coronio may have been nothing more than a moment of bitterness remaining from Tennyson's previous success. In an earlier letter written on August 12, 1869 to Edward Williams Byron Nicholson who, as an undergraduate at Oxford, sought Morris' advice for the creation of a magazine, Morris expresses his specific love for a few of Tennyson's poems:

Don't think it ungracious if I take you to task for falling upon Tennyson, who after all is a great poet ... it is always unfair to judge a man by any but his best works ... I say this is much more like to be the case with a lyrical poet than any other; I allow as a matter of course that Tennyson has little or no dramatic capacity, not enough for him to write even narrative poetry with success But if you think of the finish of In Memoriam, the pathos and feeling of the May Queen the delicate sentiment of Mariana, you must surely allow that he is a great poet. (Collected Letters, l:86)

One poem in The Defence, "Golden Wings," (5) tells the story of "Jehane du Castel beau" who yearns for her "gold wings" in much the same way that Tennyson's Mariana, in his 1830 poem of that name, yearns for her anonymous "he" who has yet to come (Ricks, l:205-209). Both women are lonely and both women live amid similarly constructed landscapes that share, for instance, a moat and some poplars. Yet Mariana's gloomy, naturalistic surroundings starkly contrast with the lovely, brightly colored appearance of Jehane's medieval castle in the opening lines of Morris' poem. Compared to the passive and "aweary" Mariana, Jehane could be considered an "empowered" woman who recognizes her inner sadness despite the joy and beauty of the community around her. The question of empowerment here, however, is just as evasive, ambiguous, and spectral as the poem "Golden Wings" is itself. In a turn away from the traditional readings of the poem, I would like to argue that rather than waiting her entire life for the arrival of her lover as does Mariana, Jehane takes it upon herself to find him, and ultimately--as Morris leads us to believe, though never directly tells us--upon meeting her lover, Jehane stabs him with "the great sword" (l. 183), which breaks and remains in her victim, leaving him "stiffen'd" in the "rotting leaky boat" where lovers are supposed to kiss. She then uses the remaining part of the broken sword to end herself, leaving her body on the "hard yellow sand" (l. 208). Despite the argument frequently made by his contemporary critics that his poetry is too far removed from Victorian culture, (7) I would like to use this short article to propose that Morris' poem, if read as a response to "Mariana," advances his own imagination of a Victorian woman who no longer remains patiently submissive to her male counterpart, but who instead proactively and dangerously seeks him out-even at the expense of the ostensible happiness of the community at large. "Golden Wings" therefore modifies and reshapes Tennyson's earlier conception of a Victorian woman trapped by her longing. More importantly, the poem anticipates and possibly even participates in the development of the frightening images of the "Odd Woman" and "New Woman," as represented by the femmes fatales characters that become popular at the fin de siecle, even though Morris had written the poem nearly half a century before those depictions entered the popular imagination. …

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