A ship with shields before the sun,
Six maidens round the mast,
A red-gold crown on every one,
A green gown on the last.
The fluttering green banners there
Are wrought with ladies’ heads most fair,
And a portraiture of Guenevere
The middle of each sail doth bear.
A ship with sails before the wind,
And round the helm six knights,
Their heaumes are on, whereby, half blind,
They pass by many sights.
The tattered scarlet banners there
Right soon will leave the spear-heads bare,
Those six knights sorrowfully bear
In all their heaumes some yellow hair.
— William Morris (1834–1896)
If we have ever known defeat, we should come to know this beautifully sad and beautifully mysterious poem, for it speaks of both deep loss and deep hope.
The poem begins with a host of curious details that draw us into a strange and magical world. As if in long shot, we first see a “ship with shields before the sun.” Our impression is one of pride, strength, and majesty. Then we zoom in to see “six maidens round the mast.” Who or what they are, we have no idea.
Only the reference to “Guenevere” starts to make sense of the scene, for she was the wife of the legendary hero King Arthur. Yet where is Arthur? As if answering our question, the poem shifts our focus to a sister ship, travelling “before the wind,” as if blown by the power of destiny.
We see “six knights” at the helm, forming an eerie symmetry with the six maidens. Here we no doubt stumble over the entirely unfamiliar term, “heaumes.” Inspired by such poets as Edmund Spencer and Thomas Chatterton, Morris and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites used archaic or even made-up words to evoke a mood of otherworldliness, like magicians casting spells. “Heaumes” (pronounced “homes”) refers, in fact, to the knights’ helmets.
“Half-blind,” the knights hover between the outer and the inner realms. They ignore the many “sights” around them, fixated on their destination, the misty isle of Avalon. They are taking with them the body of King Arthur, who has fallen into an enchanted sleep after his final battle with his deadly foe Mordred.
We feel the heaviness of that sleep when we say the poem aloud. The long open vowels of “there,” “fair,” “Guenevere,” “bear” and “hair” trail off into the air, slowing the lines down to a crawl. Time itself seems to become still when we repeat the lines over and over again.
Morris’s poem is as richly colored as a stained-glass window. The “red-gold” of the maidens’ crowns forms a striking contrast with their ship’s “green” banners. Gold evokes wealth—even spiritual knowledge—yet does the red also bring to mind rust and the decline of political authority? Green suggests life, growth, vitality, and the feminine. The “tattered scarlet banners” evoke blood, war, sacrifice, and the masculine. The final image of “yellow hair” echoes the crowns, yet with a touch of pathos. The knights’ youthful idealism has been shattered.
Avalon is an image of paradise. It is a version of Valhalla, Shambala, Arcadia. It is a state of being beyond words, so Morris takes us to the threshold, leaving us squinting for a brief glimpse of this miraculous place. The poem concludes with a sense of sadness and silence, vanishing into light.
In the Idylls of the King, Tennyson wrote of Arthur: “He passes to be King among the dead/ And after healing of his grievous wound/ He comes again.” Our hope, too, after any defeat is that we too can rise to the next challenge.
William Morris (1834–1896) was an English textile designer, artist, and writer associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement.
Christopher Nield is a poet living in London.
The Epoch Times publishes in 35 countries and in 19 languages. Subscribe to our e-newsletter.