William Morris' poem "The Haystack in the Floods" is set shortly after the battle of Poitiers during the Hundred Years' War. Although the odds favored the French, this particular battle was actually won by the English. In the following passage from Morris' poem, Godmar and his soldiers have captured Robert and his French lover, Jehane. Forced to choose between sleeping with Godmar or bearing witness to her lover's death, Jehane chooses to face Godmar's wrath and watches as he slays her English knight:
. . .with empty hands
Held out, she stood and gazed, and saw
The long bright blade without a flaw
Glide 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 moan'd as dogs do, being half dead . . .
She shook her head and gazed awhile
At her cold hands with a rueful smile,
As though this thing had made her mad. [ll.139-158]
This passage is clearly much more graphic than most of the literature of the Victorian period. Morris refused to confine himself to the polite, discrete etiquette that was so common in many Victorian writers, and he chills the reader to the bone with his uninhibited description of Robert's violent death. He uses techniques such as personification ("the blow told well") and similes ("moaned as dogs do"), which help the reader to visualize the true horror of the scene.
Perhaps Morris' unusually candid writing was simply his preferred style or perhaps it was a reflection of the fact that he cared little for the values of Victorian society (David Cody, "Morris's Mediaevalism"). In either case, he is sending a clear message that we live in a bloody, violent world that shows mercy for no one. Yet he is also attempting to illustrate the emotional turmoil that occurs when a woman is forced to bear witness to the pain of a man she loves. This same theme comes up in Trollope's The Warden when Eleanor is confronted with her father's suffering:
The father kissed his daughter, and pressed her to his heart; but still he said nothing. It was so hard to him to speak of his own sorrows; he was so shy a man even with his own child!
"Oh, papa, do tell me what it is. I know it is about the hospital, and what they are doing up there in London, and what that cruel newspaper has said; but if there be such cause for sorrow, let us be sorrowful together; we are all in all to each other now. Dear, dear papa, do speak to me.'
Mr. Harding could not well speak now, for the warm tears were running down his cheeks like rain in May, but he held his child close to his heart, and squeezed her hand as a lover might, and she kissed his forehead and his wet cheeks, and lay upon his bosom, and comforted him as a woman only can. [pp.133-14]
Clearly, Robert is facing death while Mr. Harding is simply dealing with humiliation and shame. Nevertheless, Eleanor seems to feel her father's pain just as much as Jehane suffers from watching her lover being slaughtered. Eleanor even says that if her father continues to hear the accusations against him, "he will die" (p.147). Thus, in a sense, she was indeed witnessing the slow deterioration of the most important man in her life.
Trollope uses many of the same techniques that characterize Morris's writing. For example, he employs a number of similes to sharpen the imagery of the bond between father and daughter. He compares Mr. Harding's tears to the rain in May, and he describes how the Warden squeezed his daughter's hand "as a lover might." The two authors also utilize the same mode in that both of their writings are characterized by a high degree of realism. Indeed, each author masterfully makes use of realistic physical description in order to convey emotion. However, while Morris has accomplished this through violence, Trollope's approach focuses more on the tender physical affections that take place between Mr. Harding and his daughter. Thus, although these two authors have their differences, both in terms of their writing and in terms of their views of society, there nevertheless exists a common ground between them.
Buckley, Jerome H. The Pre-Raphaelites. Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1968.
The Victorian Web. www.victorianweb.org
Trollope, Anthony. The Warden. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1952.
Last modified: 12 May 2003