I went through a Victorian reading jag a short while ago. That doesn't mean I donned my frock coat and scarf and took to the streets reciting The Bab Ballads; but because of a recent self-medicating dose of Robert Browning's work, I found myself wondering what other writing was out there I had missed (or misunderstood) from that era.
One such overlooked poet is William Morris. Morris was a painter and a Socialist as well. “The Haystack in the Floods” is a surprisingly 'modern' poem, one with an immediate impact that resonates in the mind (and gut) long after it has been read. Unlike Tennyson's idylls, beautifully written yet with their Spielbergized approximation of Arthurian times, Morris' view of the medieval goes beyond castles, heroic quests, and moats, delving into psychologically deeper recesses and addressing, to quote Hannah Arendt on Adolf Eichmann, the banality of evil.
Set in 1356, after the defeat of the French at Poitiers by Edward the Black Prince, an English knight, Sir Robert de Marny is traveling through France with his mistress Jehane, heading for the English-controlled safety of Gascony when they are suddenly surrounded by French enemy, Godmar and his troops. The opening five lines of the poem establish a fatalistic tone:
Had she come all the way for this,
To part at last without a kiss?
Yea, had she borne the dirt and rain
That her own eyes might see him slain
Beside the haystack in the floods?
Morris' poetry sounds like pulp fiction, a hundred years ahead of its time. You can almost imagine a narrator reading those same lines, with minor vernacular changes, in the opening minutes of a poverty row film noir – Jehane the femme fatale, Robert the fall guy, and Godmar the heavy – filmed in stark black and white. All the elements are there: passion, filth, rain, self-pity, existential angst and, of course, murder. The mood continues:
Along the dripping leafless woods,
The stirrup touching either shoe,
She rode astride as troopers do;
With kirtle kilted to her knee,
To which the mud splash'd wretchedly;
And the wet dripp'd from every tree
Upon her head and heavy hair,
And on her eyelids broad and fair;
The tears and rain ran down her face.
This is an incredibly vivid passage, rich with details: the wet, naked trees; muddy ground; Jehane's matted hair and face streaked with rain and tears. Morris writes with terrific restraint and simplicity, creating tension and dread even before Godmar has arrived on the scene. These are desperate people, not even bothering to put up false facades of hope or joviality. The landscape is dark, dreary, and wretched; they are driven by a basic instinct to survive, and little else.
Robert is either headstrong, or stupid, or a fatal combination of both:
By fits and starts they rode apace,
And very often was his place
Far off from her
Answering to “a murmuring from his men,” Robert “turn[s] back with promises” (or is it sudden false bravado?) that they are close to safety at Gascony. Approaching the “old soak'd hay” of the title, “that Judas” Godmar appears, accompanied by thirty of his men. Robert tries to soothe fears among his own ranks by evoking the English victory at Poitiers, even though they are outnumbered nearly two-to-one. His troops are somber and silent, offering no resistance as Robert is pulled from his horse.
Godmar speaks matter-of-factly when Jehane refuses to “yield ... as [his] paramour”:
Jehane, on yonder hill there stands
My castle, guarding well my lands:
What hinders me from taking you,
And doing that I list to do
To your fair willful body, while
Your knight lies dead?
This necrophiliac scenario of rape and murder doesn't quiet Jehane. She threatens to kill Godmar while he sleeps, by strangling him or biting through his throat. Godmar explicates the French peoples' reaction to a returning, treasonous Jehane:
'Jehane the brown! Jehane the brown!
Give us Jehane to burn or drown!' –
Eh – gag me Robert! – sweet my friend,
This were indeed a piteous end
For those long fingers, and long feet,
And long neck, and smooth shoulders sweet;
An end that few men would forget
That saw it – So, an hour yet:
Consider, Jehane, which to take
Of life or death!
Godmar's leering description of Jehane’s “long” fingers, feet and neck, and “smooth” “sweet” shoulders is the speech of a sociopath and sadist. Jehane dismounts, “totter[s] some yards” and “with her face/ Turn'd upward to the sky,” falls into a dreamless sleep (or is it faints?). Awakening, she reiterates, in a “strangely childlike” fashion – or state of shock – that she will not go with Godmar. “With a start” he acts, and she observes
The long bright blade without a flaw
Glide out from Godmar's sheath, his hand
In Robert's hair, she saw him bend
Back Robert's head; she saw him send
The thin steel down; the blow told well,
Right backward the knight Robert fell,
And moaned as dogs do, being half dead,
Unwitting, as I deem: so then
Godmar turn'd grinning to his men,
Who ran, some five or six, and beat
His head to pieces at their feet.
This gruesome climax has been foretold from the beginning. Morris' language is vivid and kinetic – the flawless “long bright blade” coming down to sever Robert's head; Robert moaning “as dogs do,” half-dead; Godmar's men rushing in to smash the head “to pieces at their feet” in a febrile frenzy. Jehane, hands cold, smiling ruefully and perhaps driven mad, is off to prison in Paris to be burned or drowned as a traitor. An incredibly nihilistic conclusion, the hopelessness of which is hammered home with the final two, perversely plainspoken lines:
This was the parting that they had
Beside the haystack in the floods.
Morris casts a cold, clear eye on his characters. He eschews affection toward them, and is not afraid to see them as they are. Even if our sympathies go out instinctively toward Robert and Jehane, the ostensible victims in the poem, that feeling is artificially enhanced when compared to the cruelty and Darwinian drive of Godmar. There are no larger-than-life heroes, no stereotyped villains here. There is no need to look for motivations, hows or whys; things just happen. “Had she come all the way for this?” The answer is yes, in Morris’ pitiless universe of cause and effect.
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