Arthurian Legend in Victorian Poetry: Tennyson and Morris

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Amy Robinson, 6/2/07, Tennyson, “The Lady of Shalott” and Morris, “The Defense of Guenevere”

Arthurian Legend in Victorian Poetry: Tennyson and Morris

    1. King Arthur

  • Ask you students what they know about Arthurian legend; perhaps they’ve read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in high school.

  • Have they seen the film First Knight (1995) with Sean Connery as Arthur, or King Arthur (2004) with Clive Owen as Arthur? There’s also an interesting and informative documentary called Quest for King Arthur (2004).

  • Do an Internet search about King Arthur and share some tidbits with your students.

The biggest debate about Arthur is whether he was real or mythical. The earliest accounts of him come from Wales. Many accounts suggest that after the Romans left Britain there was a power vacuum, and Arthur fought the invading Anglo Saxons. There is a tendency to set Arthurian romances in the medieval era. Only later versions of the story added things like the knights and the Round Table.

  1. Additional Reading (besides “The Lady of Shalott” and “The Defense of Guenevere”)

  • Tennyson’s Idylls of the King: The Coming of Arthur (includes the marriage of Arthur and Guinevere), Guinevere (who is in a nunnery), and The Passing of Arthur (Arthur is in France fighting Lancelot, who has fled with Guinevere).

  • Also compare “The Lady of Shalott” to Tennyson’s Lancelot and Elaine

  1. Tennyson (1809-1892)

Tennyson composed 12 books of his epic Idylls over the course of 53 years (1833-1885). Carlyle criticized the first four books, calling them “lollipops.” Tennyson seems to have intended parallels between Camelot and Victorian Britain.

    1. The Lady of Shalott”

  • Discuss with your students William Holman Hunt’s The Lady of Shalott (1857) and John Williams Waterhouses’s The Lady of Shalott (1888) – these can be found in the Longman Anthology.

  • Describe the poem’s setting. Where is Camelot in relation to the Lady’s island, for example?

  • What (if anything) do the people of Camelot know about the Lady?

  • In what ways is she an artist? According to the poem, what challenges do (female) artists face?

  • What, specifically, does she weave?
    What is the importance of color in relation to Lancelot?

  • What is the Lady’s curse?

  • What is the river a symbol of?

  • What is the significance of Lancelot’s words at the end of the poem? Given what we know about his character, why are his words not surprising?

    1. William Morris

Morris was a Renaissance man: writer, artist, designer, craftsman, printer, and political reformer. He became the central figure in the British “Arts and Crafts” movement, designing furniture, stained glass, tapestries, wallpapers, and textiles. (It might be fun to pull up online pictures of some of his designs for students.) It was Morris who said, “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
Morris personified Victorian fascination with medievalism. He was influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Morris’ wife, Jane Burden, modeled for Dante Gabriel Rossetti and also had an affair with him. Burden posed for Morris’ portrait of Queen Guenevere (see Longman, Color Plate 16).

    1. The Defense of Guenevere”

  • The Longman states that Guenevere uses a range of tactics to defend herself: analogy, autobiography, counter-accusation, appeals for sympathy, sophistry, and physical gestures. Ask students to discuss these tactics, their effectiveness, and any others they were able to detect.

  • How would we characterize the poem’s genre?

  • Discuss the importance of the color red (the blush, blood, etc.).

  • Why does Guenevere mention her hair so frequently?

  • How does she characterize her marriage to Arthur?

  • Does she regret her affair with Lancelot, or glorify it?

  • How does she use her body/sexuality to defend herself?

  • Is there any evidence that her defense is working?

  • What are your feelings toward Guenevere after reading this poem?

  • All stanzas except for the last have three lines; what is the effect of there being four lines in the last stanza?

  • Does Morris seem to condemn Guenevere or sympathize with her?

    1. Additional Reading

  • Joseph, Gerhard. “Victorian Weaving: The Alienation of Work into Text in ‘The Lady of Shalott.’” Tennyson. Ed. Rebecca Stott. London: Longman, 1996

  • Boos, Florence. “Justice and Vindication in William Morris’s ‘The Defense of Guenevere.’” King Arthur Through the Ages, II. Ed. Valerie Lagorio. New York: Garland, 1990.

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