decorated initial 'I' n William Morris's "Shameful Death," a narrator describes the unfortunate occurrence of the death of his good friend, Sir Hugh, and of the revenge that the narrator sought for Sir Hugh's untimely death. As with another Morris poem, "The Haystack in the Floods," rather than setting the entire scene for readers at the start of the poem, Morris gradually reveals the situation at hand.

At the beginning of the poem, the narrator stands with Sir Hugh's mother, his wife, Alice, and a mass-priest, at Sir Hugh's bedside. They all believe Sir Hugh to be dead, "Though his eyes were open wide." Readers know neither the man about which Morris writes, nor the method of his death; however, as the poem progresses, Morris slowly reveals these details. In the second stanza, the narrator merely describes the time of day in which Sir Hugh passed - "in the morning of twilight." The third stanza suggests that an execution took place, for Morris writes, "I cut away the cord / From the neck of my brother dear." Not until the final line of the fifth stanza, however — which asserts that Sir John the knight of the Fen, Sir Guy of the Dolorous Blast knights, and a legion of knights, "Hung brave Lord Hugh at last" — does Morris assert the true cause of Sir Hugh's death.

Morris switches from past tense to present tense in the sixth stanza, relaying the narrator's satisfaction at having murdered Sir John of the Fen and Sir Guy of the Dolorous Blast as vengeance for his friend's execution. He then closes the poem with a request for knights to pray for Sir Hugh and for his wife, Alice.

I am threescore and ten,
     And my hair is all turn'd grey,
But I met Sir John of the Fen
     Long ago on a summer day.
And am glad to think of the moment when
     I took his life away.

I am threescore and ten,
     And my strength is mostly pass'd,
But long ago I and my men,
     When the sky was overcast,                     40
the smoke roll'd over the reeds of the fen,
     Slew Guy of the Dolorous Blast.

And now, knights all of you,
     I pray you pray for Sir Hugh,
A good knight and a true,
     And for Alice, his wife, pray too.

Discussion Questions

1. Why did Morris address readers as "knights" in the final stanza?

2. In "The Haystack in the Floods," Morris uses dramatic language and visual imagery to convey an intense, climactic moment in which a woman observes the murder of her beloved. "Shameful Death" utilizes similar poetic devices and themes, such as death and medieval feuds; however, "Shameful Death" addresses the theme of friendship more than that of romantic love, used in "The Haystack in the Floods." What effect does this difference have on the overall mood of the two poems?

3. The narrator speaks in both present and past tense throughout "Shameful Death." What effect do these tense shifts have on the poem?

4. The issue of time also arises in the second stanza, when Morris specifies the time of day in which Sir Hugh passed:

He did not die in the night,
     He did not die in the day
But in the morniing of twilight
     His spirit pass'd away                              10
When neither sun nor moon was bright,
     And the trees were merely grey.

Why does Morris emphasize the particular time of Sir Hugh's death? Why does he highlight the dullness of the sun, moon, and trees? Do any of Morris's other works possess similar passages?

Last modified 9 November 2004