William Morris was a 19th-century poet. And architect. And printer. And novelist, essayist, historian, socialist, artist, textile designer ... phew! Let's just say that this guy was interested in everything. He was loosely associated with a literary, artistic, and cultural movement called the "Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood," which was a group of like-minded folks who thought that art and poetry really took a nosedive in quality after the Renaissance painter Raphael. They thought that after Raphael and Michelangelo (the artists, not the Ninja Turtles), art became too mechanistic and conventional. Art, they argued, should be natural and original.
The Pre-Raphaelites weren't only interested in the visual arts; many of them were poets and essayists too. They believed a true artist could produce good work in any medium – paint, sculpture, poetry, etc. Of course, in practice, most of them were only really good at one or two media – Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, was a good poet and a good painter, but not so handy with sculpture, while William Holman Hunt was a good painter and sculptor, but not such a great poet.
And then along came William Morris, who was good at everything. He was younger than Rossetti, Hunt, and the other original members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and he didn't get to know them until after he had left Oxford. He knew their work, though, and really admired it. He and his college buddies at Oxford used to get together to read poetry by the 19th-century poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson and medieval poets like Sir Thomas Malory and debate about poetry and art. They basically lived in a fantasy medieval world in which King Arthur and his knights seemed as real and as present as Queen Victoria and the British Parliament. If The Lord of the Rings had been around, they probably would have loved that too.
Like many other 19th-century writers, Morris was disillusioned with modern industrial life and felt a kind of nostalgia for a time before factories and mills and trains and smoke. The Pre-Raphaelites all believed that art was overly mechanized, but William Morris took it a step further and argued that all of modern life was overly mechanized. He thought that in an ideal world nothing would be made in factories – everything you owned would be original and unique. Nothing would look like it came out of a cookie-cutter mold in a factory, and every individual would be capable of making or fixing everything that he owned. Sounds pretty idealistic, doesn't it? But Morris practiced what he preached – he learned all kinds of different trades and became an excellent book printer, architect, and designer as well as a poet, essayist, public speaker, novelist, and artist.
"The Defence of Guenevere," one of Morris's most famous works, was the first poem he ever published, in a collection of poetry called "The Defence of Guenevere" and Other Poems. This volume wasn't very well received when it first appeared – critics thought Morris lived too much in the past and didn't address modern social problems enough in his poetry. Later on, though, readers began to appreciate "The Defence of Guenevere" as one of the best poems of the 19th century.
Have you ever felt misunderstood? Ever felt like you couldn't get a fair trial or an unbiased audience for your point of view? Ever felt like the whole world was judging you without listening to your side of the story? Well, William Morris feels your pain.
"The Defence of Guenevere" explores the impossibility of getting at the truth, even if there are lots of witnesses to it. Because, after all, most people don't tend to draw their conclusions based on logic or even on evidence, but on their emotions. People generally aren't fair. And poor Guenevere, who is on trial for cheating on her husband, King Arthur, with the knight Launcelot (Lancelot), finds this out the hard way.
University of Iowa Library
The University of Iowa's library has a great annotated version of "The Defence of Guenevere" online, with a preface and notes by Margaret Lourie.
The Victorian Web
The Victorian Web is a handy website for anyone interested in the Victorian period. It has biographical information about writers and other public figures, summaries of important social movements and historical events, and even a few critical essays you can check out about the different texts. (Be careful, though – some of those essays are better than others.)
The Morris Society
The William Morris Society has a lot of good resources linked on its website.
William Morris's textiles and wallpaper designs
Morris was a designer of textiles and wallpapers as well as a printer, politician, essayist, novelist, and poet. Busy guy! This is a video of some of his designs. Take a look at it and you'll start to get a sense of the breadth of his interests and talents.
Barbara Castle visits Kelmscott and scenes from Morris's News from Nowhere
This video shows Morris's home and printing press at Kelmscott and explores the real-life scenes from his utopian novel News from Nowhere.
A Librivox recording of "The Defence of Guenevere."
First page of "The Defence of Guenevere"
William Morris was a printer and designer as well as a poet – he owned and operated the Kelmscott Press. This is the first page of "The Defence of Guenevere," which he printed himself. We think it looks almost like a medieval illuminated manuscript.
Portrait of William Morris from 1857
William Morris was fairly young when this portrait was made – about the same age, in fact, as when he wrote "The Defence of Guenevere."
Portrait of an older William Morris
He's got a much cooler beard when he's older. Those Victorian guys sure knew how to do facial hair right. They were the original hipsters.
"La Belle Iseult" by William Morris
William Morris was a painter as well as a poet, novelist, socialist, printer, designer, and architect. And he was actually good at all those things. Check out this painting from 1858. The model was Jane Burden, who would later become Jane Morris, William Morris's wife. Still later, she would model for Morris's friend and fellow poet and painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Eventually the two had a love affair. Even without all that juicy gossip, it's a cool painting.
A Wood Thrush
Here's a photo of a wood thrush – the kind of bird Guenevere describes as a "yellow spotted singer" (line 126).
Le Morte D'Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory
This is the medieval poem William Morris used as his primary source for Arthurian legend in all of his poems about King Arthur, Guenevere, Launcelot, etc.
"Morris' Treatment of his Medieval Sources in The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems," by David Staines
This is a good article to look at if you're interested in the way Morris used historical and literary sources when he wrote "The Defence of Guenevere." It's accessible online through JSTOR, so you'll either need to access it from a library with a JSTOR subscription or ask a librarian to help you find a copy.
"A Defense of Guenevere" by Ralph Berry
This article discusses Morris's poetic technique in "The Defence of Guenevere." It's accessible through JSTOR online, so you'll either need to access it through a school or library subscription, or ask a librarian to help you find a copy.